All the world’s topsoil is set to vanish within the next century if current patterns do not change, according to a study conducted by researchers from the University of Sydney and presented at the Carbon Farming conference.
“It could be as little as 60 years and that is a scary figure because it is not obvious that we have time to reverse decline and still meet future demands for food,” researcher John Crawford said. “It is not an exaggeration to say that soil is the most precious resource we have got, and … [we] are not up to the task of securing it for our children, never mind our grandchildren.”
The soil-depleting effects of chronic mismanagement, including overuse of plowing, overapplication of synthetic fertilizers, poor erosion control and unsustainable farming (such as in former tropical rainforests), are being exacerbated by global warming and development. Coupled with a growing world population, this poses a recipe for food disaster.
The study found that in Australia, soil is being lost five times faster than it is regenerating through natural processes. In the United States, it is being lost 10 times faster. In Europe it is being lost 17 times faster, and in China, an astonishing 57 times faster.
In September, Sydney, Australia experienced its worst dust storm in 70 years.
According to Crawford, restoring soil requires improved management techniques such as minimizing plowing and allowing soil to lie fallow with cover crops. The United Kingdom has introduced an initiative encouraging farmers to protect soil through methods including using less fertilizer.
Yet it may take decades for these efforts to bear fruit, and the rate of soil loss may still outstrip even this accelerated renewal.
Loss of topsoil has significant implications for global food supplies and prices, which are already reeling from rising populations and changing climates. In 2008 and 2009, grain shortages and record high prices led to civil unrest in more than a dozen countries.