Peak soil, peak food?

On this page:

  • Industrial farming kills the soil
  • 23 per cent of the land is no longer productive
  • 52% of agricultural land is already degraded and global food could decrease by 12%
  • 60 years left?
  • I hate to say it – but eating less meat might help
  • Feeding cars instead of people?

Industrial farming kills the soil

Industrial farming ploughs through the earth – which itself opens the topsoil to sunlight, killing off micro-fungi like a ‘bushfire in the soil’. Then industrial fertilisers and pesticides kill off the rest of the micro-organisms to basically force food to grow in dead soil. The dirt may as well be cotton wool with chemical additives. The ‘green revolution’ fed us up to a point and stopped hundreds of millions starving, but it is slowly turning fertile farmland into dry deserts that blow away in the wind. As The Guardian (December 2020) puts it:-

The main causes of damage to soils are intensive agriculture, with excessive use of fertilisers, pesticides and antibiotics killing soil organisms and leaving it prone to erosion. The destruction of forests and natural habitats to create farmland also degrades soil, particularly affecting the symbiotic fungi that are important in helping trees and plants grow. Rising global temperatures, with increasing droughts and wildfires, are another factor, but scientists remain uncertain about how all the different drivers interact… 

23% of the land no longer productive

As the United Nations put it:-

How does desertification affect you? No matter where you live, the consequences of desertification and drought concern you. Globally, 23 per cent of the land is no longer productive. 75 per cent has been transformed from its natural state, mostly for agriculture. This transformation in land use is happening at a faster rate than at any other time in human history, and has accelerated over the last 50 years. Scientists say the evolution from one state to the next is so rapid, the process is only observable over very short periods. Everyone needs to know that desertification, land degradation and drought (DLDD) have direct affect on their daily lives, and that everyone’s daily actions can either contribute to, or help fight DLDD.

52% of agricultural land is already degraded and global food could decrease by 12%

In this section, we consider how the intensification of agricultural production is already impacting upon soil capital and its ability to provide ecosystem services for humanity. Indeed, it is estimated that, overall, 33% of soils are presently moderately to highly degraded due to erosion, salinization, acidification, contamination, or compaction (FAO and ITPS, 2015) and that 52% of agricultural land is already moderately or severely affected by soil degradation (ELD, 2015). Indeed, the loss of soil due to degradation is assumed to cost the world US$400 billion per year (ELD, 2015). Accordingly, it is predicted that land degradation over the next 25 y could potentially reduce global food productivity by 12%, increasing food prices by 30% (ELD, 2015).

Peter M. Kopittke, Neal W. Menzies, Peng Wang, Brigid A. McKenna, Enzo Lombi,
Soil and the intensification of agriculture for global food security,
Environment International,
Volume 132,
ISSN 0160-4120,

Abstract: Soils are the most complex and diverse ecosystem in the world. In addition to providing humanity with 98.8% of its food, soils provide a broad range of other services, from carbon storage and greenhouse gas regulation, to flood mitigation and providing support for our sprawling cities. But soil is a finite resource, and rapid human population growth coupled with increasing consumption is placing unprecedented pressure on soils through the intensification of agricultural production – the increasing of crop yield per unit area of soil. Indeed, the human population has increased from ca. 250 million in the year 1000, to 6.1 billion in the year 2000, and is projected to reach 9.8 billion by the year 2050. The current intensification of agricultural practices is already resulting in the unsustainable degradation of soils. Major forms of this degradation include the loss of organic matter and the release of greenhouse gases, the over-application of fertilizers, erosion, contamination, acidification, salinization, and loss of genetic diversity. This ongoing soil degradation is decreasing the long-term ability of soils to provide humans with services, including future food production, and is causing environmental harm. It is imperative that the global society is not shortsighted by focusing solely on the near-immediate benefits of soils, such as food supply. A failure to identify the importance of soil within increasingly intensive agricultural systems will undoubtedly have serious consequences for humanity and represents a failure to consider intergenerational equity. Of utmost importance is the need to unequivocally recognize that the degradation of soils leads to a clear economic cost through the loss of services, with such principles needing to be explicitly considered in economic frameworks and decision-making processes at all levels of governance. We contend that the concept of the Water-Food-Energy nexus must be expanded, forming the Water-Soil-Food-Energy nexus.

Only 60 Years of Farming Left If Soil Degradation Continues

Generating three centimeters of top soil takes 1,000 years, and if current rates of degradation continue all of the world’s top soil could be gone within 60 years, a senior UN official said
Scientific American December 2014

There have been more nuanced studies since that show the situation to not be quite as dire, but even they show strong soil conservation measures must be taken to guarantee longer agricultural lifespans. The fact that Scientific American could even publish the heading above shows that scientific institutions are concerned now.

I hate to say it – but eating less meat might help

Just look at the land use of meat! We’re approaching a world of 10 billion people by 2050 – so food revolutions are inevitable.

While livestock takes up most of the world’s agricultural land it only produces 18% of the world’s calories and 37% of total protein.8

Our World in Data

In the visualization we see the breakdown of global land area today. 10% of the world is covered by glaciers, and a further 19% is barren land – deserts, dry salt flats, beaches, sand dunes, and exposed rocks.6 This leaves what we call ‘habitable land’. Half of all habitable land is used for agriculture.7

This leaves only 37% for forests; 11% as shrubs and grasslands; 1% as freshwater coverage; and the remaining 1% – a much smaller share than many suspect – is built-up urban area which includes cities, towns, villages, roads and other human infrastructure. 

There is also a highly unequal distribution of land use between livestock and crops for human consumption. If we combine pastures used for grazing with land used to grow crops for animal feed, livestock accounts for 77% of global farming land. While livestock takes up most of the world’s agricultural land it only produces 18% of the world’s calories and 37% of total protein.8

The expansion of agriculture has been one of humanity’s largest impacts on the environment. It has transformed habitats and is one of the greatest pressures for biodiversity: of the 28,000 species evaluated to be threatened with extinction on the IUCN Red List, agriculture is listed as a threat for 24,000 of them.9 But we also know that we can reduce these impacts – both through dietary changes, by substituting some meat with plant-based alternatives and through technology advances. Crop yields have increased significantly in recent decades, meaning we have spared a lot of land from agricultural production: globally, to produce the same amount of crops as in 1961, we need only 30% of the farmland.

From Our World in Data

Other References

Wikipedia entries:-
Agriculture’s environmental problems
Slash and burn
Arable land,
Green Revolution
People and planet documents this trend in historical terms.
International Soil Reference and Information Centre (ISRIC)

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