It’s Time to Get Serious about Soil

The U. S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology list of the top scientific challenges facing agriculture includes “the need to manage new pests, pathogens, and invasive plants; increase the efficiency of water use; reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture; adapt to a changing climate; and accommodate demands for bioenergy – all while continuing to produce safe and nutritious food at home and for those in need abroad.” All are challenges that WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources (CSANR) has tackled in its first 20 years.

But David Montgomery, a University of Washington geomorphologist and author of Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, argues that saving our soils is missing from that list. As part the recent 20th anniversary celebration of CSANR, Montgomery told the story of how fundamental soil is for sustaining civilizations and how agricultural practices throughout history have accelerated the loss of this life-sustaining resource.

Severe soil erosion in a wheat field near Washington State University. Photo by Jack Dykinga. USDA ARS Image Gallery.
Severe soil erosion in a wheat field near Washington State University.
Photo by Jack Dykinga. USDA ARS Image Gallery.

Under natural conditions, soil is generally produced as fast as it erodes. But with the introduction of the plow, agricultural soils erode much faster than they are generated. Though the implications are grave, Montgomery contends that society as a whole is not talking about this critical issue. Soil erosion, he argues, occurs at an alarming pace, geologically, but on the human time scale it occurs so slowly that it is difficult for us to observe the loss until hindsight reveals its often devastating impacts. Consider Montgomery’s extreme example where, between 1911 and 1961, soil on the Palouse disappeared at the rate of about an inch per year. What may not seem significant over the course of a single year added up to the loss of about five feet of soil over the course of 50 years.

In 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt said that “a nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.” Without soil we will be unable to feed the world’s burgeoning population. Montgomery stresses that preserving soil resources and rebuilding soil is fundamental to sustaining agriculture and human civilization. He offers the hope that a deeper and more public understanding of soil as an ecological system may foster a new agriculture that feeds the world based on ecological processes such as nutrient cycling.

Montgomery argues us that building a new agriculture based on soil ecosystem dynamics is more important than ever. It turns out that soil does earn a short paragraph in the Presidential Council’s 47-page report. CSANR researchers and their community partners have long understood the implications of soil building and as the Center looks ahead to its next 20 years the research agenda will continue to focus on such critical issues.


For more information… WSU agricultural science writers regularly update readers on soil research via Green Times, WSU’s free, monthly e-newsletter featuring news about organic and sustainable agriculture.

Riding the Nitrogen Cycle – soil scientist Doug Collins is working to develop cheap and easy-to-use tests to help farmers determine when to add fertilizer to soils.

Soil Testing Guide Available – soil scientist Doug Collins recently published a guide on soil testing for vegetable farmers.

Saving African Soils – WSU scientists have an innovative idea about how to preserve ancient, depleted soils called “perenniation.”


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