Are we running out of dirt?

I love National Geographic magazine. Jon is subscribed to it and has a big collection. His oldest issues are from the 1910’s. You can say we are nerds. I read every single article when the new issue arrives and love to spend hours and hours exploring their website.

Nerdiness apart, as a foodie I got excited that this month’s featured article was about food (I am really a nerd!). The cover has a picture of a plant which roots grow deep into the soil with the words Where Food Begins next to it. The article touches a topic that most of us probably never think about because it is not a “hot” topic. Neither the media nor politicians talk about it. This topic doesn’t win elections or gets a spot in the evening news and yet it is something so important that our own existence as a species depends on it. We are running out of arable soil.

Deforestation, compaction, salinization and desertification are only some of the problems that contribute to soil degradation. Experts say that humans have degraded an area of land the size of the US and Canada combined. This process transforms productive zones into wastelands with tragic speed.

With the world’s population booming farmers will need to produce 30% more food by 2030 when 8.3 billion people walk the earth. “Political stability”, says Rattan Lal, a prominent soil scientist at Ohio State University, “environmental quality, hunger, and poverty all have the same root. In the long run, the solution to each is restoring the most basic of all resources, the soil.”

This is true in the most impoverished country in the western hemisphere, Haiti. Since the arrival of Christopher Columbus to Hispaniola island in 1492 the ecosystem has been razed to the point that the country has lost its means to feed itself. Three quarters of its food is imported and prices have skyrocketed making them unaffordable to most inhabitants. In their desperation, many Haitians turn to cakes made of clay, salt and shortening as a substitute for food.

Haiti is not the only place on Earth that is losing its precious soil. From the Midwestern U.S. plains to the Chinese Loess Plateau the soil is being degraded at alarming speed. Only 11% of the earth’s surface sustains the more than 6 billion people alive today, but even less ground (only 3%) offers highly fertile conditions for farming.

However, not everything is lost. Simple and inexpensive low-tech techniques like mixing charcoal with the soil, could offer farmers around the world a low-cost way to improve poor soils. If we want to ensure a future for the future generations we need to start caring for our most important resource, yet often overlooked, soil.

This post was based on Our Good Earth by Charles C. Mann published on the National Geographic magazine issue of September, 2008 . To read the complete article and learn more about this problem and ways to help, please visit the National Geographic Magazine website.


  • Check out Michal Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food”. He writes about a farmer he spent time with who has improved the soil on his land while simultaneously increasing the output. Apparently that’s what everyone used to do before the advent of factory farming. It makes me hopeful that even once we’ve completely ruined things and half the population dies off that those of us left will be able to recover things.

    Gosh, that sounds so optimistic, doesn’t it.

  • Wow, Ben what a topic you’ve chosen. I don’t even want to think about all that’s going on but even Greece is facing major drought problems. Some Lakes do not have water any more and cultivation land is turning into dessert. Local production is not sufficient any more and we are importing more and more vegetables and fruit every day. My son is a National Geographic nerd and we have piles of them.

  • Superb post, Ben. I didn’t know about the charcoal treatment.

  • Does this mean that the price of corn, soybeans, wheat, etc., will now go up again?

  • A great topic to get some of us thinking. I often wonder where it will lead us in the end? I wasn’t aware of the charcoal treatment for soil.

  • Hola Ben! I don’t want to be a pesimist here. I hope that one day we will invent the way to convert all our tones and tones of trash (organic and non organic) in good and healthy soil and combustible for our cars… that would be great, wouldn’t it?

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