The Next Dust Bowl? This is What is Destroying the World’s Soils

We didn’t learn a damn thing from our great grandparent’s mistakes. Agriculture is grinding topsoil to dust, compromising our health and food system in the process.

Since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, it has become common knowledge that plows and tillers destroy soil structure. They churn and grind it up, transforming what was once living soil into dead lifeless dirt.

We’re Wrecking Our Foundation

Soil is arguably the reason we exist on Mother Earth. It is, quite literally, the foundation of our lives. And no, I don’t just mean us farmers. I mean everyone and everything!

Soil is the basis of all terrestrial life. Soil is what sets our special blue-green planet apart from all the rest. Ecologists have called soil “the central processing unit of the earth’s environment”.

Why? Well, because without soil, plants would have nowhere to anchor their roots and grow.

Animals (including humans) would have nothing to eat. Poop and dead things would have no means of decomposing.

Water would have no way to be absorbed, filtered or stored. There would be no forests, pastures, gardens, beaches, or farms. Without soil, we’d be dead.

So, What Really is Soil?

Soil is the thin onion-skin-like layer over the surface of every continent on Earth.

It took thousands of years for soils to form because of the slow biological, chemical & geological processes of breaking down rocks & minerals into nutrients that microbes & plants can use.

Healthy soil is basically made up of dissolved rocks, dead & decomposing stuff, and an abundance of living organisms that keep these highly complex ecosystems functioning and feeding us.

Yet industrialization has destroyed many soils in less than a century. Scientists estimate we are losing over 10 million hectares of cropland per year globally to erosion and degradation.

That’s almost 30 million acres, approximately the size of the state of Mississippi. Over 25% of the Earth’s farmable surface has already been degraded.

Photo by Loren King on Unsplash

What is Causing all the Erosion?

Erosion is simply how Earth’s surface gets worn away by natural forces like wind, water, and glaciers.

Over time, erosion can form beautiful arches and grand canyons, however adding the human-mechanical elements of agriculture to the mix upends those slow geological processes.

Tillage is the mechanical act of digging, stirring, mixing, and overturning of soil for agriculture.

Although tillage has technically existed since ancient Egyptian times, it typically included only a small plow and ox. Modern inventions of mass-scale tractors and machinery have allowed humans to disturb soil at an unprecidented intensity and magnitutde.

Photo by John Kakuk on Unsplash

Vulnerable and Exposed

Soil is being lost 10 to 40 times faster than it is being formed.

There is a reason you never see bare naked dirt in healthy wild ecosystems. The Earth puts plants there to protect the sensitive topsoil.

When exposed, soil is vulnerable to rapid erosion via wind or water, typically carrying with it the fertilizers, pesticides, and other toxic junk our agricultural system has become so dependent on.

Soil is Habitat

To understand the gravity of this situation, we have to start viewing soil as habitat and ecosystem, just like a rainforest or grassland.

Soil is like a massive underground city with complex structures and countless numbers of organisms occupying nearly every space.

Just like the microscopic organisms in our guts, there are trillions of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes living below ground, collectively called the soil microbiome.

Clumps of organic matter called soil aggregates hold this habitat together. Microbes make their homes in cracks, crevices, water holes, and air pockets in and among those aggregates.

Fungi, in particular, use fragile, slow-growing strands called fungal hyphae to weave together the city-like matrix and hold onto soil particles so that they don’t blow or wash away.

Photo by Mandy Choi on Unsplash

Bulldozing the City

Keeping this urban analogy in mind, tillage is the equivalent of driving a Godzilla-sized bulldozer through downtown New York City.

All of the apartment buildings, businesses, roads, water pipes, power lines, and infrastructure would be instantly destroyed. Sure, many people would survive, but their homes and livelihood would be gone.

Similarly, a plow or tiller will quickly grind soil aggregates, fungal hyphae, and all of the microbial habitat to dust.

Working Against Ourselves

For many farmers, tillage appears to be a step forward to clear weeds, prepare land, and create “fresh” new ground. But it actually sets them back.

At first, tillage appears to loosen and fluff up the soil by incorporating a lot of oxygen all at once. But in this process, the structure of the soil is ground up and lost, ultimately causing soil particles to settle into hard compaction layers.

Imagine all the airspaces between bowling balls stacked together. Pushing down on them would cause some shifts, but overall they would maintain their structure.

Now, visualize putting those stacked bowling balls in a powerful high-speed blender. They would grind into a million pieces, compacting and settling like dust at the bottom of the blender.

All that crucial habitat is gone. All the pockets of air, water, and nutrients are gone. In the process, the vital microorganisms we need for healthy plants and healthy humans.

Dust Bowl. Dallas, South Dakota 1936. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Tillage Creates Dust Bowls

The 1930s Dust Bowl displaced 3.5 million people and buried over 100 million acres of Midwestern land in black clouds of dust. At the time, nobody knew that the novel tractor and plow machinery could destroy farms, livelihoods, and food systems.

But, now we do know. We are on track to repeat some of the biggest catastrophes in modern history.

Clearly, the “quick fix” mentality of our society has infiltrated agriculture. Machines and equipment get larger and more powerful by the year, making careless destruction easier and easier for those who don’t have future generations in mind.

Tillage seems like a quick and easy way to “wipe the slate clean” and prepare fields for planting. But on a mass scale, it isn’t actually fixing anything. In fact, it could be catapulting us into another “Dust Bowl” era of widespread erosion, food shortage, and economic depression.

Tillage is exacerbating problems of soil degradation, agrichemical use, fertilizer runoff, water pollution, drought, food quality, hunger, and human health as a whole. The good news is that we can reverse the trend.

No-till, organic, and regenerative agriculture offers real solutions. We just have to wake up and Save Our Soils. That’s right- SOS, before it’s too late.

Come along with me as I travel around the country visiting regenerative farms and teaching about agriculture! Follow along on Instagram and the Ramblin Farmers blog.

Vivacious nomad-farmer-writer with a wild spark. Top writer. Regenerative farming, organic food, holistic health, microbiome, personal growth + Mother Earth.

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