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SUSTAINABLE LIVING- Our Future Is Our Dirt PDF Print E-mail
Written by Shawn Dell Joyce, Creative Syndicate   
Thursday, 12 January 2012 03:10

In our culture, "dirt" is a derogatory term — "dirt-poor," "dirty," "soiled." Yet we need look back only a few years to the 1930s Dust Bowl to see how important dirt really is.

In the 1930s, the prairie grasses were plowed under to grow crops. After several years of intense drought, the soils dried out, and no crops or native grasses survived to hold the topsoil in place. Winds whipped the topsoil into huge dust storms, causing many families to become refugees and the loss of more than 5 inches of topsoil from almost 10 million acres, according to the United Nations.

Five inches may not sound like much, but it takes nature up to 500 years to produce 1 inch of topsoil. We are depleting our topsoil at a rate 10 times greater than nature can replenish it, according to several studies.

Topsoil loss is three times worse in more populated countries like China and Africa. Chinese topsoil can be found in Hawaii during the spring planting season, blown in the wind to the islands from tilling. African topsoil can be found in Brazil and Florida, according to a USDA report. American topsoil often winds up in our rivers and streams as silt. Many rivers are now brown from topsoil erosion; the Hudson River in my region is but one example.

Our diet and farming practices are the main culprits behind topsoil erosion. Corn is one of the most environmentally devastating crops to grow. The soil must be tilled, keeping it loose, dry and vulnerable to erosion. Most of this corn is fed to animals or shipped overseas. For every pound of beef (fed with corn), we lose 5 pounds of fertile topsoil, according to a Harvard School of Public Health study. This adds up to more than 2 million acres of topsoil lost every year. On top of this, we lose another million acres to urban sprawl.

"Land degradation and desertification may be regarded as the silent crisis of the world, a genuine threat to the future of humankind," says Andres Arnalds, assistant director of the Icelandic Soil Conservation Service. "Soil and vegetation is being lost at an alarming rate around the globe, which in turn has devastating effects on food production and accelerates climate change."

A highly effective tool to conserve topsoil is the Conservation Reserve Program, according to Lester Brown of the Earth Policies Institute. Under the program, farmers were paid to plant trees or "cover crops," such as clover, on highly erodible farmland. Reducing tillage was also encouraged. These techniques in combination reduced U.S. topsoil loss from 3.1 billion tons in 1982 to 1.9 billion tons in 1997.

Here are a few things you can do to reduce topsoil loss:

• Compost fall leaves and vegetable trimmings. Use the compost to enrich the soil in your yard or garden.

• Eat only pasture-raised local meats, and avoid corn-fed factory farmed meats.

• Don't buy or support biofuels made from corn.

• Buy directly from small farmers, who are less likely to use large-scale cultivators.

Shawn Dell Joyce is an award-winning columnist and founder of the Wallkill River School in Orange County, N.Y. You can contact her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .