Walking on a field or grassy lawn, soil appears to be an abundant resource. But upon closer examination, the world is rapidly running out of arable topsoil due to harmful agricultural practices like till-farming.
In 2012, University of Sydney professor, John Crawford, estimated that 40% of arable soil is degraded and that we only have about 60 years of pristine, arable soil left. If nothing is done, soil degradation will cause food production to drop 30% over the next few decades amidst the backdrop of an expanding world population.
A Clean Solution
Today, farmers and researchers are rapidly innovating modern farming practices in a race to save our soil. For example, no-till farming, a farming method that avoids disturbing topsoil, is gaining both popularity and economic feasibility. As of November 2017, the USDA found that 21 percent of U.S. farmers had adopted no-till methods.
More recently, the growth of modern technology in farming also offers the potential for improving soil conservation. By utilizing IOT technology and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), farmers are able to precisely analyze how much fertilizer, pesticides, or water they need to use and significantly reduce farm inputs.
Sensor data, in particular, has helped farmers detect nitrogen and moisture levels in their soil to better conserve their farmland. As technology continues to improve, soil conservation efforts will also become more effective.
The Small-Scale Alternative
The shift towards more urban and local farming also paves the way for a more sustainable agricultural future. For instance, Cornell Cooperative Extension works to drive the growth behind urban community farms. In New York and Buffalo, specialists from Cornell advise local community members who are interested in growing or selling their own food.
Across the country, fewer and fewer people are considering farming to be their main career, but increasingly, regular citizens are taking up farming as a hobby. Many families who were traditionally farmers by occupation have transitioned into owning smaller plots of land. Additionally, they’re taking on additional careers due to the uncertain profitability of farming.
While a decrease in large farms would decrease overall food production, it’s not all bad news. On the contrary, if urban and community farming gain traction, food production would unequivocally become more sustainable. After all, small and urban farms do not utilize as many soil-harming practices like tillage and heavy fertilizer usage.
Farming, the oldest profession, is rapidly changing as environmental concerns threaten global food stability. Thankfully, growing community engagement and technological innovations are helping to clean up our destructive farming practices and our soil.
Austin is an Editor for the Agribusiness section at The Rising and an Economics student at the University of Chicago.