Around The Globe, Farmers Losing Ground

Published on countercurrents.org, first on Earthpolicy.org, by Lester R. Brown, 30 June, 2007.

Excerpt: … Now fast forward to a trip in 2002 by a United Nations team to assess the food situation in Lesotho, a small country of 2 million people imbedded within South Africa. Their finding was straightforward: “Agriculture in Lesotho faces a catastrophic future; crop production is declining and could cease altogether over large tracts of the country if steps are not taken to reverse soil erosion, degradation, and the decline in soil fertility.”

Michael Grunwald reports in the Washington Post that nearly half of the children under five in Lesotho are stunted physically. “Many,” he says, “are too weak to walk to school.”

Whether the land is in northern Syria, Lesotho, or elsewhere, the health of the people living on it cannot be separated from the health of the land itself. A large share of the world’s 852 million hungry people live on land with soils worn thin by erosion.

The thin layer of topsoil that covers the planet’s land surface is the foundation of civilisation. This soil, measured in inches over much of the earth, was formed over long stretches of geological time as new soil formation exceeded the natural rate of erosion. As soil accumulated over the eons, it provided a medium in which plants could grow. In turn, plants protect the soil from erosion. Human activity is disrupting this relationship.

Sometime within the last century, soil erosion began to exceed new soil formation in large areas. Perhaps a third or more of all cropland is losing topsoil faster than new soil is forming, thereby reducing the land’s inherent productivity. Today the foundation of civilisation is crumbling. The seeds of collapse of some early civilisations, such as the Mayans, may have originated in soil erosion that undermined the food supply.

The accelerating soil erosion over the last century can be seen in the dust bowls that form as vegetation is destroyed and wind erosion soars out of control. Among those that stand out are the Dust Bowl in the U.S. Great Plains during the 1930s, the dust bowls in the Soviet Virgin Lands in the 1960s, the huge one that is forming today in northwest China, and the one taking shape in the Sahelian region of Africa.

Each of these is associated with a familiar pattern of overgrazing, deforestation, and agricultural expansion onto marginal land, followed by retrenchment as the soil begins to disappear.

Twentieth-century population growth pushed agriculture onto highly vulnerable land in many countries. The overplowing of the U.S. Great Plains during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, led to the 1930s Dust Bowl. This was a tragic era in U.S. history, one that forced hundreds of thousands of farm families to leave the Great Plains. Many migrated to California in search of a new life, a move immortalised in John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath” …

… Ethiopia, a mountainous country with highly erodible soils on steeply sloping land, is losing an estimated 1 billion tons of topsoil a year, washed away by rain. This is one reason Ethiopia always seems to be on the verge of famine, never able to accumulate enough grain reserves to provide a meaningful measure of food security.

Fortunately there are ways to conserve and rebuild soils. These will be discussed in the next Earth Policy Institute Book Byte. (full text).

(Lester Brown is founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute. This article originally appeared on earthpolicy.org).

Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service

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