Are we losing the fertile soil under our feet?  - Science

Are we losing the fertile soil under our feet? – Science

We usually pay little attention to it and often call it dirt, but the ground beneath our feet is our most precious resource. This fertile soil forms a thin layer that has formed over hundreds to thousands of years.

The slow processes of rock weathering and soil formation under the influence of climate gave each soil type unique characteristics. There are more than ten thousand different types of soil in Europe alone. This diversity constitutes a storage reservoir for biological diversity. Don’t just think of an earthworm or a mole. A teaspoon of soil actually contains billions of microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. The earth contains so many organisms that a quarter of the biodiversity is said to be located below the surface of the earth. This alone makes the land extremely valuable.

In addition, the Earth also builds the above-ground ecosystems through its diversity in thickness and composition, and its richness in water and nutrients. These are the qualities that make us dependent on Earth as human beings. The vast majority of our food (and our livestock food) is grown in soil. The agricultural area in Flanders makes up 46% of the total area, slightly more than the world average.

Are we losing fertile soil under our feet?

However, agricultural areas are often “hot spots” for erosion. The reason is quite simple and can be quickly seen in the fields at this time of year, early spring. Erosion occurs when (violent) rain hits bare land: gullies between crop rows, sediment build-up under slopes and, in the worst case, mudslides. This is not just a local problem. Soil erosion is the main cause of soil degradation. Around the world, we are losing 24 billion tons of fertile soil every year. That is, more than 3 tons per person per year or nearly 10 kg per person per day. That’s a lot. Corrosion is usually tolerated under the banner that this is a natural process, and that there is still a lot of ground under our feet. They say nothing to worry about, our farmers have been cultivating this land for decades, maybe even hundreds of years. In contrast, anxieties claim we only have 60 crops left before the earth is completely eroded.

Both statements require some degree of nuance. Earth erosion is actually a natural process. They themselves have formed very valuable places on our planet, such as the Nile Delta. This is the cradle of civilization and one of the places where agriculture arose through the domestication of crops. A key component of this success story has been soil erosion from the Ethiopian highlands, which ensured a continuous supply of fine sediments across the Nile to ancient Egypt.

However, when corrosion occurs at an accelerated rate, there is a problem. It is generally assumed that land use in our regions is not sustainable once erosion occurs faster than 1 to 5 tons per hectare per year. However, a dive into published scientific data shows that erosion is faster in many places.

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Surely our policymakers are partially aware of this. The focus in Flanders is on imposing preconditions for planting where erosion is most severe. The map of potential soil erosion sensitivity shows that the southern tip of Flanders, where muddy ground occurs on sloping terrain, is particularly sensitive to erosion. Last year numbers were added for the first time. For 380 square kilometers of Flemish land we have an erosion risk of over 10 tons per hectare per year. For an area of ​​50 square kilometers (10,000 soccer fields) the risk of erosion is acute. Here, erosion rates of more than 25 tons per hectare occur annually. Unfortunately, the best farmland is often at risk of being lost. Recent studies indicate that the fertile upper layer of 16% of the traditionally plowed land will disappear within 100 years if we do not change its management. By the way, you can already see it in some places: light-colored shades in the fields indicate that most of the soil has disappeared and that plowing is taking place in the substrate.

Although a little supply of (synthetic) fertilizers can make a look successful, this modus operandi is not very sustainable. Investments in agriculture are increasing higher and higher and all types of ecosystem services are degrading as soil is lost. Two of them are especially important: carbon storage and (in) water filtration. Our Earth contains more carbon than the atmosphere, so erosion is partly taking the climate out of control. On the other hand, carbon accumulation in soil can be an important carbon dioxide link2 Outside our atmosphere.

Earth is also an important link for water. Early spring is also the period when hydraulic engineers, farmers, and nature societies are hoping for a wet summer: groundwater levels are very low again today. However, the first thing I teach geography students is that a healthy Earth acts like a sponge. Thus it can absorb a lot of water and allow it to seep into the deep aquifers. However, we often see that due to long-term land degradation, the surface has completely lost its spongy structure, so that rainwater washed off the fields like over concrete.

So the Earth also has a prime location for our water problems. So we are urging ourselves to use the land reasonably, especially now that climate change is making the weather increasingly erratic and extreme. And those who say extremism say the risk of corrosion increases.

The solutions can be as complex or simple as desired. Precision agriculture and robotics are a way to achieve more sustainable land management. With nearly half of the arable land used for growing fodder, a small change to our diet will also work wonders. Both strategies may be necessary to obtain quick results and to protect our most important resource, the Earth.

Professor Amore Frankl is affiliated with the Department of Geography of the University of Ghent. Erosion research is conducted in Flanders.

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We usually pay little attention to it and often call it dirt, but the ground beneath our feet is our most precious resource. This fertile soil forms a thin layer that has formed over hundreds to thousands of years. The slow processes of rock weathering and soil formation under the influence of climate gave each soil type unique characteristics. There are more than ten thousand different types of soil in Europe alone. This diversity constitutes a storage reservoir for biological diversity. Don’t just think of an earthworm or a mole. A teaspoon of soil actually contains billions of microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. The earth contains so many organisms that a quarter of the biodiversity is said to be located below the surface of the earth. This alone makes the land extremely valuable. In addition, the Earth also builds the aboveground ecosystems through its diversity in thickness, composition, and richness in water and nutrients. These are the qualities that make us dependent on Earth as human beings. The vast majority of our food (and our livestock food) is grown in soil. The agricultural area in Flanders makes up 46% of the total area, slightly more than the world average. However, agricultural areas are often “hot spots” for erosion. The reason is quite simple and can be quickly seen in the fields at this time of year, early spring. Erosion occurs when (violent) rain hits bare land: gullies between crop rows, sediment build-up under slopes and, in the worst case, mudslides. This is not just a local problem. Soil erosion is the main cause of soil degradation. Around the world, we are losing 24 billion tons of fertile soil every year. That is, more than 3 tons per person per year or nearly 10 kg per person per day. That’s a lot. Corrosion is usually tolerated under the banner that this is a natural process, and that there is still a lot of ground under our feet. They say nothing to worry about, our farmers have been cultivating this land for decades, maybe even hundreds of years. In contrast, anxieties argue that we will only have 60 harvests before the earth is completely eroded, and both statements need some nuance. Earth erosion is actually a natural process. They themselves have formed very valuable places on our planet, such as the Nile Delta. This is the cradle of civilization and one of the places where agriculture arose through the domestication of crops. A key component of this success story has been soil erosion from the Ethiopian highlands, which ensured a continuous supply of fine sediments across the Nile to ancient Egypt. However, when corrosion occurs at an accelerated rate, there is a problem. It is generally assumed that land use in our area is not sustainable once erosion occurs faster than 1 to 5 tons per hectare per year. However, a dive into published scientific data shows that erosion is faster in many places. Surely our policymakers are partially aware of this. The focus in Flanders is on imposing preconditions for planting where erosion is most severe. The map of potential soil erosion sensitivity shows that the southern tip of Flanders, where muddy ground occurs on sloping terrain, is particularly sensitive to erosion. Last year numbers were added for the first time. For 380 square kilometers of Flemish land we have an erosion risk of over 10 tons per hectare per year. For an area of ​​50 square kilometers (10,000 soccer fields) the risk of erosion is acute. Here, erosion rates of more than 25 tons per hectare occur annually. Unfortunately, the best farmland is often at risk of being lost. Recent studies indicate that the fertile upper layer of 16% of the traditionally plowed land will disappear within 100 years if we do not change its management. By the way, you can already see it in some places: light-colored shades in the fields indicate that most of the soil has disappeared and that plowing is taking place in the substrate. Although a little supply of (synthetic) fertilizers can make a look successful, this modus operandi is not very sustainable. Investments in agriculture are increasing higher and higher and all types of ecosystem services are degrading as soil is lost. Two of them are especially important: carbon storage and (in) water filtration. Our Earth contains more carbon than the atmosphere, so erosion is partly taking the climate out of control. On the other hand, carbon accumulation in soil can be an important link in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Earth is also an important link for water. Early spring is also the period when hydraulic engineers, farmers, and nature societies are hoping for a humid summer: groundwater levels are again very low today. However, the first thing I teach geography students is that a healthy Earth acts like a sponge. Thus it can absorb a lot of water and allow it to seep into the deep aquifers. However, we often see that due to long-term land degradation, the surface has completely lost its spongy structure, so that rainwater washed off the fields like over concrete. So the Earth also has a prime location for our water problems. So we are urging ourselves to use the land reasonably, especially now that climate change is making the weather increasingly erratic and extreme. And those who say extremism say the risk of corrosion increases. The solutions can be as complex or simple as desired. Precision agriculture and robotics are a way to achieve more sustainable land management. With nearly half of the arable land used for growing fodder, a simple change to our diet will also work miracles. Both strategies may be necessary to achieve quick results and to protect our most valuable resource, the Earth. Professor Amaury Frankel is a member of the Department of Geography of the University of Ghent. Erosion research is conducted in Flanders.

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