Do We Treat Our Soil like Dirt?

Do We Treat Our Soil like Dirt?

Soil quality and maintenance is an often overlooked part of the health of communities, ecosystems, and even civilizations. Crop rotation and urbanization are just some of the problems affecting the sustainability of the land itself.


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Anthropology, Earth Science, Climatology, Social Studies, World History


Dust Bowl Wind Storm

American soil scientist W.C. Lowdermilk studied other countries and ancient civilizations to learn how best to prevent more soil erosion disasters like the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Photograph by the World History Archive
American soil scientist W.C. Lowdermilk studied other countries and ancient civilizations to learn how best to prevent more soil erosion disasters like the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
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The question above was the headline of a National Geographic article about soils in 1984. It suggests how little attention we continue to pay to how we grow what we eat.

We pay a great deal of attention to our food. We want to know where it came from, who grew it and whether it is "conventional" or "organic." But we give hardly a passing thought to the ground our food grows in.

Soil could use some more attention and respect. After all, it is the thin skin of our Earth where we plant and grow crops like wheat, rice, and corn. Soil is the key element that makes it possible to feed Earth's more than seven billion people.

Our Actions Cause Damage

Humanity continues to neglect the land we use for food production. One-third of the world's soil has already been damaged by water and wind erosion. Deforestation, loss of nutrients, and pollution are also doing damage. We also pave over some of the most productive farmland to build our cities.

By our own actions, we are losing soil faster than nature can create it. The United Nations said that unless we protect what remains, the global amount of good land will continue to fall. By 2050, the amount of farmland per person will be only a quarter of what it was in 1960. To change that trend, we must improve how we use and conserve our land.

The future truly rests on the soil beneath our feet. However, history is littered with the remains of civilizations that ignored, exploited, and overused their soil.

In the late 1930s, American soil scientist W.C. Lowdermilk went on a research mission. He traveled across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East to investigate why past civilizations failed or survived. Specifically, he was looking at the effect of agricultural practices over the past 7,000 years. He visited lands that had been cultivated for centuries to understand the link between soil erosion and the fate of civilizations.

Changes Must Happen Soon

Lowdermilk's goal was to help avoid a repeat of the Dust Bowl. The Dust Bowl was a soil erosion disaster that hit the southern Great Plains of the United States in the 1930s. It was caused by the "Great Plow-Up" of removing grasslands to grow wheat every year. The loose earth was turned into dust by a decade-long drought. Then huge dust storms blew the soil as far east as Washington, D.C. Thousands of people in Oklahoma, Kansas, and nearby states were forced from their land.

Lowdermilk's 18-month journey explored toppled empires and vanished civilizations. He found that soil losses from erosion had contributed to their collapse. Other factors included deforestation, overgrazing, and conflicts between crop farmers and herdsmen. In contrast, he also found that careful stewardship of soil has allowed other societies to flourish for centuries. These practices have included land terracing, crop rotation, and tree planting.

A 2015 study called "Soil and Human Security in the 21st Century" was published in the magazine Science. It noted that recent increases in research on soils and soil health are encouraging. However, the report also warned that soil conservation must increase significantly. People need to do more to reduce erosion and improve soil nutrients. These changes must happen soon, the study concludes.

"These are challenging goals that will be difficult to achieve," the study said. It will require global approaches, like those trying to contend with climate change.

Scientists and Farmers Take the Lead

The future of our food is at risk if we don't increase our efforts to conserve our soils. Today's societies could face similar fates as the lost civilizations that Lowdermilk studied more than 75 years ago. The world's population is likely to rise past nine billion by 2050. More food will be needed, requiring even more production from our soils.

Wisely, governments and communities are ramping up education campaigns about the need to care for soil. Environmental scientists and farmers are leading the way. They are urging us all to recognize the vital role that healthy soil plays in growing what we eat.

It's about time. Here's to soil.

Dennis Dimick grew up on a farm in Oregon and studied agriculture in college. He serves as National Geographic's Executive Editor for the Environment.

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Last Updated

May 9, 2024

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