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Richard Mills

Richard Mills

Richard is host of www.aheadoftheherd.com and invests in the junior resource sector. His articles have been published on over 200 websites including: Wall Street Journal,…

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Soil Isn't Sexy

As a general rule, the most successful man in life is the man who has the best information

After watching Interstellar w/Matthew McConaughey I was motivated to update and republish an article, Between Us and Extinction, I wrote a couple of years ago.

"Soil is the earth's fragile skin that anchors all life on Earth. It is comprised of countless species that create a dynamic and complex ecosystem and is among the most precious resources to humans...Half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years." WWF

Desertification is a phenomenon that ranks among the greatest environmental challenges of our time, unfortunately most people haven't heard of it or simply don't understand it.

Desertification and land degradation is a global issue with desertification already affecting one quarter of the total land surface of the globe today

Today the pace of arable land degradation is estimated at 30 to 35 times the historical rate. Land degradation is costing US$490 billion per annum and desertification is degrading more than 12m hectares of arable land every year - the equivalent of losing the total arable area of France every 18 months.

"Every morsel of food we eat . . . our clothes . . . our houses and most everything that's in them...each scrap of paper, from birth certificates to books to dollars...our fuel...even the very oxygen we breath: All of it comes from plants, trees...and topsoil.

When our European ancestors arrived on this continent, our topsoil averaged around 18 inches in depth. With our intensive agricultural practices, we've eroded it to around eight inches...that's all that's left between us and world disaster. When that eight inches goes, you and I go...There are innumerable examples of civilizations which have already traveled this route. Trees were always the first to go. As the local populations grew, timber was needed for warmth, cooking, housing, and lime burning. Solomon cut the famous cedars of Lebanon for his great temples. Rome deforested southern Europe from Spain to Palestine. The whole of North Africa was cleared to plant more wheat for the expanding Roman population...and replanting was unheard of.

When the trees were gone, topsoil loss inevitably followed. Exposed to rain, wind, and sun, it lost its organic matter, its humus, its soil life...the spongy quality that gives the earth its ability to hold water through droughts...The soil dried out and became dead dust. The next wind blew it away, or the next rain washed it down the river...and the earth died." Eddie Albert, actor and amateur ecologist

Dust Bowl 1

According to a study by the United Nations, 20 percent of our farmland, 30 percent of our forest and 10 percent of world's grassland are degrading worldwide. Over the past four decades, 15 percent of the Earth's land area - an area larger than the United States and Mexico combined - have been degraded through human activities.

Severe land degradation is now affecting 168 countries across the world, up from just a 110 a few short years ago.

Dust Bowl 2

Desertification doesn't refer to the advance of deserts which can and do expand naturally. Desertification is a different process where land in arid or semi-dry areas becomes degraded - the soil loses its productivity and the cover vegetation disappears or is degraded to the point where wind and water erosion can carry away the topsoil leaving behind a highly infertile mix of dust and sand.

Land degradation, and the eventual resulting desertification of dry land ecosystems is most often caused by human activities such as:

  • Unsustainable farming - intensive farming depletes the nutrients in the soil
  • Overgrazing - animals eat away grasses and erode topsoil with their hooves
  • Deforestation or clear-cutting of land - the tree and plant cover that binds the soil is removed
  • Misuse of water resources
  • Industrial activities

Climate change can accelerate and intensify the degradation process.

"A rough calculation of current rates of soil degradation suggests we have about 60 years of topsoil left. Some 40% of soil used for agriculture around the world is classed as either degraded or seriously degraded - the latter means that 70% of the topsoil, the layer allowing plants to grow, is gone." 2012 TIME interview with Professor John Crawford of the University of Sydney

The issue of desertification is not new, it has constantly played a significant role in human history, even contributing to the collapse of the world's earliest known empire, the Akkadians of Mesopotamia.

One of the most basic, fundamental problems (other than the rapid depletion of our fresh water resources) we've created for ourselves is the impact of human activities on the land we need to cultivate for our very survival.

"The top 20cm of soil is all that stands between us and extinction." Luc Gnacadja, executive secretary of the UNCCD

It takes 100 years to generate a single millimeter of topsoil and 24 billion tons of fertile soil disappear annually. The United States is losing soil 10 times faster - and China and India are losing soil 30 to 40 times faster - than the natural replenishment rate.


We obviously reached peak soil a long time ago, soil can be considered a non-renewable and rapidly depleting resource.

Given fears over the world's present ability to feed our current population - expected to pass the nine billion mark by 2050 - it's not surprising desertification and land degradation is so absent on most people's radar screens, soil just isn't sexy.

"Globally, it's clear we are eroding soils at a rate much faster than they can form. It's hard to get people to pay much attention to this because, frankly, most of us take soil for granted." John Reganold, a soils scientist at Washington State University

According to the UN, global demand for food is projected to increase by 50 percent by 2030. It is projected there will be nine billion people to feed by 2050, that's an increase of one billion tonnes of cereal and 200 million tonnes of meat.

It's obvious the world needs a new farm - one the size of South Africa.

Unfortunately the UN also says that by 2030 an area twice the size of South Africa will become unproductive due to desertification, land degradation and drought.

Adding to our troubles is production gains from the Green Revolution are diminishing. Is the security of your food supply on your radar screen?

If not, maybe it should be.


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