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Land Degradation: The History Lesson We Are Still Learning

Soil and Crop Management

Land Degradation: The History Lesson We Are Still Learning

Michael Doane is a guest columnist for Dirt to Dinner and will be sharing a series of articles on how restoring our lands is the best tool for sustainable food systems.

Michael is the Global Managing Director for Sustainable Food and Water for The Nature Conservancy. Michael started farming at a young age and is a partner in his family’s cattle and row crop farming operation located in Kansas. He combines his passion for agriculture with his love for nature in leading one of The Nature Conservancy’s top global priorities to provide food and water sustainably.

A Step Back in Time

After a recent day of working on our family farm in Kansas, I sat down with my grandmother for a visit. I asked her to recount the days of her youth, coming of age in the same rural setting we still call home. She shared several stories, but one included imagery still so clear for her that it brought a history lesson to life for me. She told me of how her mother would hang wet bedsheets up in one room of the house where the family would huddle to protect themselves from the dust storms severe enough to penetrate the dwelling as well as their lungs.

During Grandma’s childhood, farmers and communities across the U.S. plains discovered that just one generation of soil mismanagement could ruin a landscape and destroy livelihoods.

History Repeats Itself

While the Dust Bowl era is often seen as an anomalous, historical and uniquely American experience, the reality is unfortunately different. Agricultural lands around the world continue to slowly degrade. In fact, by the most credible estimates, up to 52% of global agricultural lands are now moderately to severely degraded, with 12 million hectares (30 million acres) per year degrading to the point they are abandoned by the land manager. To put this in context, the global area of abandoned land considered unworthy of the investments required to keep them productive is roughly equivalent to the total cropland under cultivation by farmers in Iowa.

This destruction of productive land is what pushes agriculture to convert additional native habitats at an alarming rate and the pressures are only increasing as we grapple with the task of ensuring ample food supplies for the next generation.

Perhaps the most important factor in biodiversity conservation worldwide is rooted in addressing the land degradation and abandonment problem.

Soil as a Living Ecosystem

This deterioration of previously healthy soils is often subtle and, while the biology can be complex, the concept is simple: soils are living ecosystems and the way we manage the soils can increase or decrease their health and home. For an official definition and glossary of terms on land degradation, read through this helpful Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) website. In short, the most valuable element of land is the topsoil – the top layer of land that supports the growth of biological life – plants, animals, insects and microbes. Land becomes “degraded” when the functional condition of the topsoil is compromised.

This can happen in different ways. The topsoil can erode, which means it is physically removed from the land by wind or water. Just as importantly, the topsoil can die, which implies it was or is alive. It happens somewhat slowly but, as soils lose their health, plant productivity declines and they are considered degraded. Plant growth and vigor is easily observable and hence it can be a good proxy for soil health. As plant biomass declines, especially when droughts or floods occur, the topsoil can spiral down quickly – losing both its structure and life. This rapid deterioration is what resulted in the Dust Bowl history my grandmother recalls so clearly.

Learning from the Past

But it wasn’t always this way. Prior to this trying time in U.S. history, the landscape across Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado and Nebraska had formed rich, biodiverse and healthy grasslands in a semi-arid landscape. Nature worked its magic over thousands of years with diverse plants occupying the land, grazed by enormous bison herds with the intermittent presence of naturally occurring fires and droughts. Despite dry conditions, the continuous plant cover of the grasslands created healthy soils that sustained the landscape during droughts. In fact, the soil became so healthy it soaked up the limited rainfall provided, maintained the grassland and still managed to store the rest deep underground in the immense Ogallala aquifer.

As the United States government sought to expand food production with the onset of World War I, they enticed pioneering farmers to convert the grassland to croplands for the first time in their history, tilling them to produce wheat with initially positive results. The crops were productive, booming demand kept wheat prices high through the 1920s and early success incentivized more entrepreneurial farmers to move west and convert yet more prairie into tilled croplands.

But after several very good years, the yields started to decline. Then an epic drought set in. Farmers tilled and planted as they had before; however, the soils slowly lost their health and biological function. In these dying soils, the wheat followed course, leaving the soil fully exposed with no plant cover to protect it. Year after year, dust storms ravaged the soil, lifting and transporting precious topsoil miles away. Over the course of a decade, a vast landscape became severely degraded, threatening to turn the whole region into a desert.

The U.S. government eventually took decisive action, creating a public agency with a mandate to tackle the problem. But this history lesson is still being learned in regions all over the world where many of the same management practices have continued for a nearly a century, creating mini Dust Bowl experiences along the way.

I am now confident the imagery emblazoned in my grandmother’s memory will not sting the cheeks of future generations as we know the solution: agriculture is its own solution.

Planning the Future with Regenerative Ag

The restoration of degraded lands around the world through regenerative agriculture management practices which prioritize the health of the soil is a solution that not only offers more productivity for our global food system, but also generates innumerable environmental benefits. And the time is now. We have the knowledge to make this transition and are seeing a wide range of new innovations under development that will allow us to accelerate and scale it to benefit those on the land – and ultimately consumers – around the globe.

In the coming articles, I will share examples of how farmers, ranchers and foresters are taking their role as land stewards to the next level by prioritizing the health of their soils.

The next time I visit my Grandma, these are the stories I will share with her, too.

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