Vagrants on the Earth: Implications of Topsoil Loss

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“When you cultivate the ground, it will no longer yield its strength to you; you will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth.” –Genesis 4:12*

In 1970, an agronomist named Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  He advocated hybridization of grains for higher crop yields, ushering in a new era of industrialized agriculture.  The Nobel Committee recognized Borlaug’s work as instrumental in saving a billion people from starvation.  Unfortunately, intensive farming that is part and parcel of the industry may be fostering an acceleration of another big problem. Unsolved it could leave humanity wandering like vagrants on the earth…with very empty bellies.

Topsoil is our problem.  The top 10 to 15 inches of the land is the most productive layer.  Besides minerals and water, topsoil has a high concentration of organic matter and hosts the micro-organisms that jump start biological activity.   Topsoil sustains the plants and animals that are the foundation of the human food chain and plays a role in absorbing carbon and filtering water.  Earth is losing that productive layer at a pace far faster than new topsoil is being created.  In the last 150 years, scientists estimate about half of topsoil has degraded to the point it does not produce food.

The implications of topsoil loss for food production are dire.  The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that about one third of the world’s topsoil has been degraded.  If current rates of loss continue, in about 60 years the world’s topsoil will not support growth of food.  That means a child born in this decade could end up as one of those wandering vagrants.

Topsoil lost in flood of the Guadalupe river,
Topsoil lost in flood of the Guadalupe river, New Braunfels,TX, 1972. Photo by Bill Reaves, EPA

Topsoil losses are not even around the world.  In the United Kingdom, if no changes are made, the pace of topsoil loss means there are about 100 harvests left in the land.    In the United States, there are a few more years of productivity left in our soil.  However, development activity is squelching the life out of about a million acres per year in the North American continent.  In 1980, the U.S. had an average two acres of cropland per person.  By 2010, with a net increase of about 90 million people in our population, the U.S. only had about 1.2 acres in cultivation per person.

Industrial Agriculture

Some might suggest that more food could produced by simply putting additional land to the plow and applying more fertilizer.  Therein lies the rub.  True enough the FAO has determined that deforestation accounts for as much as 30% of soil loss as cleared lands are stripped of top soil by wind and water erosion.  However, the majority of topsoil degradation is the result of industrial farming activities that encourages overgrazing (35%) and relies on chemical fertilizers (27%).   Especially when coupled with irrigation, excessive use of fertilizers leads to leaching of vital nutrients from the soil and increased salinity.  In North America, industrial agricultural practices account for two-thirds of topsoil loss.

Soil Woes

Soil needs to be ‘friable’ for optimum productivity.  Chemical fertilizers that are popular with industrial agriculture are highly soluble and get absorbed into the ground faster than by the crop plant the fertilizer is intended to nurture.  Acids in chemical fertilizers destroy vital components of topsoil called ‘soil crumbs.’  Decomposed organic matter such as dead leaves and plants combined with clay in the topsoil to make these ‘crumbs.’  They play a vital role in soil drainage and air circulation in the soil  –  both critical in plant growth.  Chemical fertilizers destroy the soil crumbs and cause compacting and erosion.

Another problem is the loss of micro-organisms in topsoil. Synthetic chemicals in modern fertilizers impact the soil pH, making it in hospitable to beneficial micro-organisms. For example, there are antibiotic-producing bacterial in soil that help plants ward off disease and natural fungi that help plants defend against pests.  Most importantly, modern fertilizers impact the bacteria that fix the nitrogen balance in soil by converting oxygen to a form of nitrogen that plants can consume.

Debunking of Borlaug’s Hybrid Seeds

Borlaug suggested hybrid seeds could be a salvation for a planet that is experiencing rapid population increases  –  and hungry mouths to feed. Unfortunately, it would seem that the use of hybrid grains could be a bane to agriculture and a threat to human survival.  Some studies have found that modern wheat varieties have half the micro-nutrients of older strains. Likewise some fruits and vegetables have lost as much as half the nutritional value measured in 1950.  The problem is the degradation of topsoil from which crop plants derive micro-nutrients.

It is important to note that there are critics of the analytical approach of the Kushi Institute, which is often the source cited to support the argument that food crop nutritional values have declined.  Mineral Resources International Ltd., a manufacturer of nutritional supplements, has published similar results and is also often criticized for lack of peer review.

The lack of authoritative and respected analysis of food nutritional content is a bit of an obstacle for investors.  However, it also underscores the importance of critical thinking before committing capital to a destructive agricultural practices or poorly crafted solutions.

The nutritional approach may not be the only way to measure the implications of topsoil loss  –  at least as far as the food chain is concerned.  According to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services, in the heart of the nation’s breadbasket, Iowa is losing topsoil at a rate of 5.5 acres per year.  The Iowa Daily Erosion Project observes that there has been a reduction in corn yield that is linked to thinning topsoil.  The loss in yield could be as much as 29 bushels per acre in the most eroded fields with the average of 10 bushels per acre across the state.

Iowa farmers have applied fertilizer in ever increasing amounts and that has served to offset the loss in crop yield.  Nonetheless, the topsoil loss is unsustainable.   For every 5 tons of topsoil lost each year in Iowa only 0.5 acre of topsoil is replenished.  Under these conditions, eventually the 8 to 10 inches of topsoil will be reduced to nothing.

It is not just dirt…

It may just look like dirt, but the topsoil situation cannot be ignored by investors, especially shareholders of companies that are counting on selling products to Iowa farmers.  We begin a new series on the agriculture sector, exploring companies that are likely to benefit the most through fixing the topsoil situation and those that are likely to lose.

*Genesis 4 describes the rise and downfall of Abel and Cain, the sons of Adam and Eve.  Abel is favored by the Lord and out of jealousy Cain strikes him dead.  As a consequence of his treachery, the Lord renders Cain’s hand unproductive and he is forced to wander the earth as a fugitive.  Although apocryphal in nature, the story serves as well today as it did when first told around camp fires  –  destructive behavior can well lead to society’s demise.  

Neither the author of the Small Cap Strategist web log, Crystal Equity Research nor its affiliates have a beneficial interest in the companies mentioned herein.

This article was first published on the Small Cap Strategist weblog on 3/12/19 as “Vagrants on the Earth: Implications of Topsoil Loss.” 

2 COMMENTS

  1. Something that is too easily overlooked in the green/clean energy perspective. As one who lives in rural Iowa, it has been mystifying to me how ethanol and biodiesel can be viewed as clean energy when the underlying price payed is devastation of the soil. The air may become cleaner but human beings may well not be around to appreciate it if they do not wake up to the problems with agricultural in this and other industrialized countries. Organic production does not fully answer these concerns as soil loss is still present. With the current snow melt, rains, and flooding, significant erosion can be seen running through corn and soybean fields due to heavy water runoff. This spring, farmers will go out with there “soil saver” field cultivator which will drag adjacent soil into the eroded areas and it will be out of sight and out of mind for another year. Realize, that loosing 5 tons of soil per acre is soil loss the thickness of a dime over an acre of ground.
    Thank you Debra for addressing this subject as very few people are aware of the severity of the problem

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