What is Soil Erosion and How is it Damaging our Natural World?

Joe Ronan

Joe Ronan

Eroded soil with a dry tree on top
photo credit: Jezael Melgoza / Unsplash

Soil erosion is the deterioration of the most fertile layer of top-soil. Soil is not just ‘dirt’.  It is an essential element of many fragile ecosystems.

We need healthy soil for a healthy planet and soil erosion is (of course, like everything) a product of global warming and environmental degradation.

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Everything you need to know about soil

Muddy knees, a trowel preparing the ground for vegetables, friends sat happily in the park – these might spring to mind when thinking of soil. But soil is more than that: “soil is the earth’s fragile skin that anchors all life on Earth.” Soils help to regulate our land-based ecosystems. They maintain life, whether that be us humans (who rely so heavily on agriculture) or grazing animals, or even the predators that hunt them.  

Soils are natural systems made up of minerals, living organisms, gas and water, existing somewhere between earth, air, water, and life. Soil covers most land on earth, and good soil is absolutely central to maintaining healthy life. It stores water for plants, and regulates the surrounding environment by allowing water and air to move freely. 

Dead and living animals and plants help to make up the composite material that we call ‘soil.’ Bacteria, fungi and insects, known as decomposers, live on dead remains and break them down to chemicals that are released into the soil. As a result, the natural world recycles itself… ashes to ashes, dust to dust… a process that is threatened by climate change.

shoots of plants sprouting from a fertile and nourished soil
photo credit: Roman Synkevych 🇺🇦 / Unsplash

What about soil erosion?

Soil erosion is the degradation of topsoil, the most fertile layer of soil, which increases its vulnerability to gradual erosion by wind and water. Soil erosion is a by-product of unsustainable land use, fire, mining, or intensive agricultural practices. Once more, it is a result of human exploitation of the natural world.  

In Iowa, they call soil “black gold.” Iowa is part of a belt of states that make up America’s famed breadbasket. There, the average topsoil depth decreased from around 35-45cm to 15-20cm throughout the course of the 20th century.

This is a real issue for the global food supply: if Iowa were a country, it would be the fourth largest for the production of soybeans and corn in the world. And this pattern of decline is mirrored on farmland across the globe. 

Soil erosion is happening all over at a frightening pace and on a frightening scale. One-third of the world’s soil is now acutely degraded due to agriculture, with fertile soil being lost at a rate of 24bn tonnes annually. Every five seconds, the size of the land equivalent to a football pitch is lost to soil erosion.  

So how is soil erosion damaging our natural world?

Well, as we have seen, soil erosion is a product of human overexploitation of the land. Soil erosion is tied up with unsustainable agricultural practices. Soil erosion is a real threat to our capacity to feed an ever-growing global population.

Soil erosion matters, and we need to take action.

In 2019, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) released a special report on climate change and land. It concluded that land degradation increases and exacerbates the intensity of climate change itself. This, one would hope, goes a long way towards explaining why soil erosion matters: it is intrinsically connected to climate change. 

There is also the crucial issue of biodiversity. Soil is full of life, in fact, it is home to more than a quarter of our planet’s biodiversity. Protecting soil is to protect the viability of healthy and diverse life on this planet. But soil is not being protected, the soil is being eroded, and so land use has caused global biodiversity to decrease by around 11–14%. 

Soil erosion matters because the health of human society is to connect to it 

Perhaps the bleakest and most obvious threat posed by soil erosion is that of starvation. Within 40 years, it is estimated there will be 2 billion more people on the planet. Food production will have to increase at least 40% to compensate, and most of that will have to be grown on the fertile soils that cover just 11% of the global land surface. We cannot afford to continue losing fertile soil at the rate we currently are.  

Starvation is a potential cause of conflict in the future. As arable land becomes less and less accessible, water scarcity, land availability, and food insecurity all become more and more likely as potential conflict triggers. 

Soil erosion matters because the health of human society is connected to, and dependent on, the health of the planet. The more we degrade soil, the less likely we are to successfully feed the global population, and the more we are going to see starvation and war.   

Close up photograph of soil erosion
photo credit: Joe Dudeck / Unsplash

What can we do to halt soil erosion?

“We’re approaching a critical point at which we need to start acting on soil erosion or we are not going to be able to feed ourselves in the future.” These are the words of Lindsay Stringer, professor at the University of Leeds, and they are ominous, but what would ‘acting on soil erosion’ actually mean?

Well, sustainable soil management is likely to be an essential aspect of halting soil erosion. This means not overexploiting the land for maximum short-term yield, but instead implementing policies such as crop rotation, limited tillage, and terracing to help better protect soil against erosion.   

There are farming methods available that are gentler on the soil. Organic farming can reduce our reliance on pesticide use and artificial fertilizers. Agroforestry, growing trees alongside agriculture to help maintain and protect soil, can help to regenerate the land.

We need an approach to the land which has ecology at its very heart. We need to rethink what it is that agriculture is for-profit has governed our thinking for too long, and it has driven us and our earth’s soil to the brink of collapse.

Woman growing lettuce in sustainable agriculture
photo credit: Zoe Schaeffer / Unsplash

Soil erosion: Awareness is important

Soil erosion is not particularly glamorous (perhaps you could even call it dirty), but it is – as we have already established – hugely topical and massively important. We need a total rethink, we need sustainable soil management. This is the purview of policy-makers and farmers. But we in civil society also have a duty to spread awareness. 

With awareness in mind, the UN has made the 5th of December ‘World Soil Day.’ 

“We are celebrating a treasure beneath our feet which hosts a quarter of the planet’s biodiversity and provides about 95 percent of our food,” said Eduardo Mansur, Director of the Land and Water Division at UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

For Earth Day 2021, the FAO hosted a Global Symposium on Soil Biodiversity, to ‘keep the soil alive, protect soil biodiversity.’ 

Clearly then, there is movement in the right direction. We all have a duty to maintain that momentum.

Buy local, buy sustainable, and support those who take soil erosion seriously.

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