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Growing Pains
"Peak Soil" Is Latest Malthusian Worry

Feeding the world’s billions isn’t easy, but humanity has made an industry out of it. Unfortunately, industrialized agriculture is stripping soil of many necessary nutrients, causing some to worry about “peak soil.” Reuters has more on the problem:

“Under business as usual, the current soils that are in agricultural production will yield about 30 percent less than they would do otherwise by around 2050,” [said John Crawford, Director of the Sustainable Systems Program in Rothamsted Research in England.]

Surging food consumption has led to more intensive production, overgrazing and deforestation, all of which can strip soil of vital nutrients and beneficial micro-organisms, reduce its ability to hold water and make it more vulnerable to erosion.

Those with even a passing familiarity with agriculture will recognize one of the key drivers of this issue: a growing homogeneity of crops. Different crops leach different nutrients out of the soil; crop rotation is an effective, low-tech, and quite old solution to this problem. But as head of Macquarie Agricultural Funds Management Tim Hornibrook told Reuters, “[i]n a lot of agriculture it has become a monoculture, so you just don’t get the diversity of plants that are necessary for healthy soil, and often the agricultural practices are all about mining the soil rather than managing it. […] Farming with monocultures leads to decreased productivity.” We see this move to monoculture all over the world—the US is planting record amounts of corn, in part fueled by an ill-conceived biofuels mandate program; Vietnam has focused on coffee; Brazil plants massive amounts of sugarcane.

This doesn’t mean the sky is falling, because we continue to get better at growing more with less. Efficiency gains, the result of GMOs, better agricultural equipment, and even cyborg plants are all the result of technologically-wrought agricultural innovation. There’s no reason to think scientific progress, paired with an awareness of the issue, can’t help solve this problem. “Technology which can help includes imagery which allows you to do soil mapping of what mineral and nutrients are in the soil and applying fertilizer according to the requirement of each individual area of the farm,” as Hornibrook said.

It’s tempting to predict the future based on the parameters of the present, or to only adjust those variables that fit the conclusion we’d like to see. For greens, that means painting a dystopian future, in which humanity’s teeming billions devour the planet’s resources, dooming itself and the natural world to some out-of-balance apocalyptic hellscape…unless, of course, we craft the right environmental policies. It’s easy to gaze into that crystal ball, because if you end of being wrong, by the time you’re found out, you probably won’t be around. We’d just like to remind Malthusian prognosticators to account for civilization’s remarkable ability to surmount problems, to innovate, to invent, to overcome. Peak soil isn’t trivial, but with smarter management and effective deployment of better technology, it isn’t a death knell, either.

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  • FriendlyGoat

    Well, since we’re fracking, we COULD stop growing corn for cars. right?

  • Rick Johnson

    ‘Peak soil’ has as much credibility as peak oil. Zero. Nitch. None.

    Like all things Green, it’s a crock.

  • Andrew Allison
  • LarryD

    Agriculture was invented how many thousands of years ago? Fertilization technology is how old? (Hint: the low tech version is compost and manure).

    This had to be thought up by a city dweller who has never gardened in their life. We know how to care for the soil, if we can just keep city-bred idiots from mucking up agriculture.

    Maybe we need to interdict cities and make the yuppies grow their own food. And then they can try it using only renewable energy.

  • Loader2000

    The future of farming (if technology and population continue to increase at their current rates) are 100 story hydroponic farms. Actually farming on the ground will be for individual gardens, not mass food production, 100-200 years from now.

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