Protecting the health of our soil has never been more important in our society, but just how do we prevent the degradation of this vital, natural resource?
There are many solutions to soil degradation, which include: practicing responsible farming techniques, active forestation, as well as preventing soil erosion and pollution. In addition, soil degradation can be avoided through responsible developments in urban and residential environments.
The prevention of further soil degradation is a focal point of environmental protection, which is why it’s essential that we utilize all of the resources available to us to combat this issue. Unfortunately, there are many factors that contribute to this complex environmental matter and there isn’t just one solution that will resolve it. To effectively deal with soil degradation, we need to first assess all aspects of human behavior and environmental conditions which result in this problem taking place, so that we can find the most effective way to prevent our soil from being damaged. To understand this better, let’s dive into some soil degradation solutions.
Soil degradation is regulated by state and federal government organizations such as the United States Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency. In addition, there are various independent environmental activist organizations and land protection trusts which also regulate soil degradation on private lands.
Solving Soil Degradation
The environmental issue of soil degradation is not a new concept to our planet but it is to humanity. In the past, soil degradation was something that naturally occurred over prolonged periods of time during severe environmental conditions and storms. However, we have been seeing this problem become very apparent within the last century or so.
The biggest impact on soil degradation today comes directly from human action or inaction. The reason for this is that there has been a great shift in how humans live in our society in recent history, which has come with a lot of benefits to our quality of life, but also with a lot of negative environmental repercussions - including soil degradation.
We began to see a lot of these societal changes occur during the industrial revolution, as technology and our economy began to boom. This led to a lot of practical and revolutionary advancements that allowed us to grow our food more efficiently - build larger, more fortified cities - and harvest natural resources. While these are all groundbreaking achievements in human evolution, we approached all of these new luxuries without much - or any regard for how they would affect the environment.
After decades of carelessly approaching our lands, we began to experience the downsides of not taking care of our environment and are now paying the price through soil degradation. Luckily, there are many solutions and approaches for preventing soil degradation and with our current societal shift towards sustainable living, we are taking active measures to protect this essential natural resource. Let’s explore some of the most effective solutions.
There is no solution more important for preventing soil degradation than the practice of responsible farming in our society. The reason for this is that so much of our soil degradation has occurred through unsustainable farming techniques.
During the 20th century, industrial farming became the standard for how we grow food in the United States, which led to a lot of incredible developments that made farming much more efficient. While this was truly groundbreaking at the time, it was also carried out in a way that was catastrophic for the health of our soil.
As we continued to grow our food in this way, we began to see the health of our soil diminish and our ability to grow food on certain lands disappear. The biggest issue that humans are faced with when it comes to soil degradation is that land is no longer suitable for growing food and the process of restoring the soil back to full health is something that can take hundreds if not thousands of years.
The United States Government and our nation’s farmers started to realize the seriousness of this environmental catastrophe and began to take action to prevent further soil degradation by enforcing responsible farming practices and strictly regulating the health of our soil. To understand this better, we are going to take you through some of the farming practices that prevent soil degradation.
As the popularization of industrial farming in the United States gained momentum, farmers began to realize that they could increase their output and efficiency if they focused on just a single crop for their yield.
This approach appeared to be highly effective at first, but then farmers began to notice the adverse impact that single-crop farming had on the health of their soil, as crops began to decline in quality and quantity with each passing harvest. When we grow food in this way, we are exhausting the soil and depleting its vital nutrients.
The reason for this is that each crop tends to prefer a specific nutrient within the soil that its being grow in. As this single crop is grown on farmland over and over again, this nutrient is drained from the ground and the health of all of the soil is then put at risk. To combat this, farmers began to adopt a traditional farming practice known as crop rotation.
Crop rotation essentially just means that a farmer must change the type of crop that they grow on an annual or semi-annual basis. This keeps the soil in a natural cycle, which allows each crop to utilize necessary nutrients without the risk of depletion.
The use of mulch in the food growing process is a very effective solution to soil degradation. This farming technique is practical and easy to implement, which is why it is so widely used in the industry.
Mulch is organic material that usually consists of things like woodchips, sawdust, dried and crushed leaves, or straw. This organic material is then placed on top of the soil in between harvests to encourage the consistent breakdown of nutrients within the dirt.
By allowing mulch to decompose in the ground, the soil is able to revitalize itself and stay healthy year-round. In addition, the mulch placed on top of the soil prevents further degradation of the land.
When mulch is utilized in this way, it can benefit the soil by regulating the ground temperature. This can be especially useful during the winter months in some areas, as cold climates have been known to damage soil health. Furthermore, soil can also be subject to damage caused by wind erosion, as we saw during the Great Dustbowl. By having mulch on top of the soil, there is a protective layer that can be highly effective at preventing wind erosion from being as damaging.
This farming technique has been utilized throughout history and lost popularity as plowing became popularized for growing our food. However, unlike plowing, no-till farming allows us to farm in a sustainable way that has virtually no negative impact on the health of our soil.
In recent years, we have seen this farming technique become more popular due to its environmentally friendly implementation. This practice involves planting seeds in a way that is location-specific within the crop rows by utilizing plastic tubing.
By planting our seeds in this way, we are able to leave the rest of the soil undisturbed and encourage micro-organisms to continue breaking down the soil in the most natural way possible.
This technique not only encourages soil fertility by leaving it relatively undisturbed, but it also helps with the ground’s ability to retain water.
Throughout many of our nation’s farmlands, we can see large strips of vegetation that divide various crop areas on a farm. These vegetated areas are called buffer strips.
These buffer strips work as barriers that prevent a number of different aspects of soil degradation. Firstly, these vegetated strips help retain the structure of the crop areas, which in turn prevent movement in the soil caused by erosion.
Secondly, buffer strips act as a filtration system for the farm. Given that farms tend to use pesticides and have other harmful pollutants flowing through them, it’s best to mitigate where these toxins end up. Buffer strips greatly prevent the flow of these harmful pollutants and stop them from causing further soil degradation.
When we think of a healthy farm cycle it generally consists of planting in the spring, nurturing in the summer, and harvesting in the fall. However, there is a lot of benefit to having some form of crops growing on your land all year. This farming technique is known as cover crops.
When utilizing cover crops, it’s important to note that these are not the primary crops for a primary harvest and are more or less what you use to encourage an annual cycle of nutrient fertility. Unlike your normal crops, cover crops are what you want to plant for the off-season of your harvest cycles. This means that you want to start planting your cover crops around mid-fall after your primary harvest is complete.
To effectively implement cover crops, you are going to want to choose something that will grow well during the colder months of your region. Given that each land area has a different climate, you should research what will grow best where you live. However, some of the most common cover crops we see being used are ryegrass, radishes, alfalfa, buckwheat, barley, and other various legumes.
Having these cover crops in your annual harvest cycle will help ensure soil fertility and will also encourage healthy soil structure, which makes it a viable farming technique for solving soil degradation.
Throughout the United States, the terrain on which we grow our food changes greatly in its quality and conditions, which requires an adaptive approach for effective farming to prevent soil degradation.
We can commonly see crops being grown in hilled areas that are more complex for farmers. This sort of terrain requires the implementation of strip farming, which is a farming practice where the farmer creates long strips that go along the grade of a hilled area. These strips are then alternated in between harvests to encourage a similar effect as crop rotation.
Strip farming helps the soil retain its structure by preventing erosion from taking place. In addition, strip farming encourages efficient filtration and can actually improve the quality of the water itself.
One of the best ways to solve land degradation in the farming industry is to keep the food growing process as natural as possible through organic farming.
One of the primary reasons we have seen soil degradation become such an issue in our society is that we have abandoned the use of organic farming during the rise of Big Agro. This traditional approach to farming had been a sustainable method for growing our food throughout our entire human history and continues to be so to this day.
We are coming around to organic farming again due to it being an incredibly effective solution to soil degradation. This method involves natural means of growing food without the use of pesticides and other toxic chemicals. While the use of chemicals in our farming does make growing crops easier, the long-term effects it has on the quality of our soil and our own health can be disastrous in the future.
With that being said, organic farming has been revolutionized since its past use, as we are still able to grow food with the modernized farming technology we have today - in a way that does not cause serious soil degradation.
A great solution to soil degradation is to simply establish lands that are protected under conservation guidelines. Throughout the United States, we have millions of acres of land that are protected from industries, privatization, and other types of developments.
These protected lands fall under many different types of classifications but they all have a similar goal in mind - to protect the environment. By establishing lands for conservation use, we directly protect not only the wildlife and species that depend on the land but the soil beneath it.
This ensures that our nation has a safety net for any future soil degradation issues. To understand this better, let’s take a look at some of the ways that we prevent soil degradation by creating protected lands.
A major industry within the United States is logging, which creates a big boost for our economy. While logging is a very valuable asset to our nation, when done without consideration for our environment and the health of our soil, it can become very destructive.
We have millions of acres of land that have been set up specifically for protecting our forests. This environmental practice is called forestation and it aims to take a conservative approach towards harvesting our trees in a way that is sustainable - or by simply leaving them untouched altogether.
The degree to which forestation is practiced greatly varies depending on the region, but in essence, any area that has been established for forestation will be regulated in a similar way as a farm would be. This is to ensure that this vital natural resource does not get depleted but also to prevent soil degradation from occurring.
When we remove trees from our forests, we essentially take away the shelter of the entire ecosystem, which then leaves the soil exposed to environmental conditions it once had protection from. This means that the soil that was once protected by forest will now get bombarded by rainfall, which will then loosen the ground and begin the process of soil degradation.
In many cases, where there are severe seasonal rains, deforestation leads to many land areas becoming flooded and washed out. This in turn will sweep the land area of all of its vital topsoil and leave the area unusable for any kind of food growing.
This sort of environmental disaster is often caused directly by farmers who practice deforestation for the purpose of growing food. When farming is approached in this way, it sets us on a vicious cycle of constantly practicing deforestation, which creates a domino effect of soil degradation. Here are some ways to encourage forestation in our society to prevent soil degradation.
- Protected Forests - given that we are one of the leading nations for forestation in the world, we can continue to prevent soil degradation by creating more forested lands that fall under conservation protection.
- Limit Logging - while logging is a huge industry for us, approaching it in a conservative way prevents long-term deforestation and soil degradation. By creating regular environmental impact reports on the logging industry and the effect they have on our soil, we can establish the most sustainable way to approach the industry.
- Support Forestation Organizations - a great solution to soil degradation caused by deforestation is to do your part as an environmental activist by supporting the various forestation organizations that exist in our nation and around the world. Many of these organizations operate by regulating lands that have deforestation taking place or simply prohibit logging as a whole.
An important aspect of solving soil degradation through forestation is to also view this environmental practice as a means of rehabilitating forests that are struggling or have been removed altogether - through a practice called reforestation.
Since we understand how vital forests can be for preventing soil degradation, a great solution to continue this ecological practice is to assess areas that have experienced deforestation and begin restoring the area to its previous condition. This is another great reason to get involved with organizations that combat deforestation.
Public Conservation Lands
As a nation that, in many ways, has ignited the Conservation Movement, we have done a great deal to protect our environment and prevent soil degradation in the process.
Since the early 20th century, we have been actively setting up lands that fall under conservation protection, which limit or prohibit developments and industries from harming the environment. These lands are classified differently and have various levels of environmental protection but the majority of them greatly prevent soil degradation from occurring. Let’s take a look at some public conservation lands.
The United States has an abundance of nature and is one of the leaders for developing parks that are protected under conservation guidelines.
These parks vary in environmental qualities and types of terrain, but they are generally strictly regulated and have zero tolerance for human activity that disrupts the ecology of the area - including soil protection. Here are the various nature parks in the United States which prevent soil degradation:
- National Parks
- State Parks
- Wilderness Preserves
- Wildlife Refuges
While the majority of these nature parks were established for protecting the natural aesthetic of these areas, as well as protecting wildlife and habitat, they inadvertently became one of the solutions to soil degradation.
While not every city or even every state may have a national park or large-scale nature park near it, every city and township will have one or more public parks within reach.
Much like our large nature parks, our public parks were created with the intention of making a natural space for people to relax within urbanized areas. However, the numerous public parks in our nation are also a solution to soil degradation.
The great thing about public parks is that they serve as a protected natural space in an otherwise completely unnatural area, which has been developed by humans. Most urban cities will have completely destroyed their soil through invasive development projects that disregarded the importance of retaining some level of soil health.
Public parks create a space within an urban area that is relatively free of soil degradation. Continuing to create more public parks is a great way to encourage further soil fertility.
Private Conservation Lands
The way most people view conservation lands is to consider them as being properties that are owned and regulated by the government. However, some conservation lands are actually privately owned and many of them were established as a solution to soil degradation.
The most common way these lands are created is through conservation easements. This occurs when a private property goes through a conversion process that officially establishes it as land that falls under a certain level of environmental protection.
Most properties that are classified as conservation easements were typically created to preserve the natural aesthetic of an area or to protect species and wildlife. This is achieved through an agreement by the property owner to give up specific developmental rights on their land.
By giving up these developmental rights, the soil on the property is permanently protected from development and degradation. The majority of lands that have conservation easements in place are owned by various land trust organizations or the United States Government. However, many private property owners have converted their lands into conservation easements for their residence or simply for environmental protection.
Our planet is currently experiencing a pollution crisis that is directly caused by human activity. While we commonly think of pollution as being a threat to our ocean or the quality of our air, it is also a major problem for soil degradation.
Since the majority of our food and our water are directly affected by the health of our soil, we must identify what is contributing to soil degradation through pollution so that we can weed out the source. However, this is easier said than done, as there are so many different types of pollution that enter our soil and many of them are often obscure and not noticed until it’s already too late.
There is a lot we can all do to prevent further soil degradation in our society by making simple lifestyle choices. With that being said, the majority of the pollution that enters our soil is actually caused by large industries which pump out waste on a much larger scale. Let’s explore some of the ways we can mitigate and eliminate pollution from entering our soil.
As mentioned previously, farming is a major player in soil degradation solutions, but it can also be a major adversary when not done conscientiously. Since farming is such a dynamic industry when it comes to soil, it is important to consider not only how we directly treat our food as it’s growing but what happens to all of the pollutants that were used during the process.
It’s easy to forget that one of the biggest contributors to air, water, and soil pollution comes directly from large industrial farms. Agricultural waste comes in many forms, as farms can vary in how they treat their waste and what they harvest from their land. These are some examples of some of the most common contributors to soil degradation caused by agricultural waste.
As industrial farming exploded in the 20th century so did the use of harmful pesticides. These pesticides contain toxic chemicals, which made dealing with pests that interfered with our crops a breeze.
While the pesticides we use are effective with pest prevention, they do have adverse effects on the health of our soil, as well as the vital resources the soil depends on. The pesticides we use contribute to soil degradation by directly pumping harmful toxins into the ground, which is not healthy for soil fertility.
In addition, these pesticides do not simply absorb into the ground, they filter through our soil and generally end up in wells or other freshwater channels, which we later will likely drink or utilize for farming. Where pesticides become a complex issue is that we are so dependent on them that we are constantly creating new, more powerful poisons to grow our food.
We have trapped ourselves in a vicious cycle of relying on a toxin to grow our food, which these pests adapt to on an annual basis, which results in us needing to produce more and more harmful chemicals to get the same job done. A solution to soil degradation is to, first, utilize organic farming to grow our food and, secondly, to implement farming techniques that mitigate runoff from pesticides.
No matter the type of farm being assessed, there will likely be a certain level of pollution and runoff that enters our soil. This runoff is challenging to completely stop but it can be greatly prevented when addressed.
However, some farms contribute to pollution and soil degradation more than others - with the first being livestock and cattle ranches. We commonly disassociate livestock from traditional pollution that comes from farms due to a lack of pesticides and soil-based food growing.
In actuality, the pollution that comes from cattle is known for being toxic to natural resources such as water and soil. The runoff that comes from cattle trickles directly into our ground, which is why livestock farms tend to have unusable land for anything other than further cattle production. There are a number of harmful toxins from livestock that enter our soil, but predominantly it is ammonia and methane.
In addition, it’s often the case that these toxins do not only cause soil degradation directly but indirectly as well, as these pollutants enter our freshwater, which enters the ground elsewhere. The best solution for preventing soil degradation caused by livestock runoff is to lower our national and global intake of cattle - and meat products in general. However, establishing these cattle farms in areas that don’t have great soil and are not ideal for food growing would be a useful adaptation.
Large-scale industries around our nation are a major threat to our environment and are directly interfering with a lot of society’s solutions to soil degradation.
Industrial waste and pollution contribute to the degradation of our soil in many ways, which is primarily dependant on the industry itself. A lot of this pollution comes from the mismanagement of industrial resources or the deliberate dumping of industrial waste directly into our soil.
After conducting various impact reports, environmental workers are discovering that our soil can often contain harmful metals or even dangerous chemicals, which can enter our food and our water supply. Some of the common toxins found in our soil are lead, arsenic, nickel, and copper.
The challenge of preventing soil degradation through industrial pollution is that our society is highly dependant on the various products and services that many of these industries offer, which can make finding a solution almost impossible for many situations.
However, there is a lot we can all do to limit the amount of industrial pollution that contributes to soil degradation. A solution to this is to identify an industry that creates this kind of pollution and to mitigate our use of their product or service. In addition, there are a lot of advancements within industries and manufacturing in recent years that make these kinds of choices more practical such as driving a hybrid or electric car instead of one powered by fossil fuels.
It’s easy to forget that a lot of our own waste directly affects soil degradation. While our ability to manage our waste has greatly improved in the last century, we have also been creating more waste than ever before. This is a huge problem, as we are not only creating more waste in quantity but also more waste that is harmful or even toxic to our soil.
One of the major reasons for this is that we are using waste products that are primarily single-use and were not designed to be biodegradable. Most of this waste consists of single-use plastics and metals, but it is often the case that we get harmful chemicals being thrown away, which can amount to the same level of soil degradation as many large-scale industries.
Much of the urban waste that enters our soil also consists of sewage materials or is due to sewage mismanagement such as leaks and overflows. In addition, many people are throwing away things into their sewage that should not be there such as chemicals and other harmful household items.
Unfortunately, most of the developments that we carry out in our urban areas have had a negative impact on the health of our soil. When we develop cities and infrastructure, we tend to create concrete jungles that invasively occupy the natural area that was once there.
While it is extremely challenging to set up developments in an urban area that has a small effect on soil degradation, we can carry out our developments in a way to ensure that the negative effect is minimized. This can be achieved through conscientious and responsible development by utilizing city planning techniques that are less invasive and designed to be hybrid eco-friendly living spaces.
A good way to approach a green space when city planning is to reflect on how we established our city parks - green areas in urban environments. We can continue to implement this tactic by creating more spaces within cities and towns that have more vegetation and greenery that directly come from the ground.
However, there will be many instances where development will interfere with soil health. In which case, it’s best to simply build projects that are qualified green buildings. By developing buildings that are energy-efficient and are less dependant on fossil fuels, we can indirectly be part of a solution to soil degradation.
In addition, a major contributor to soil degradation has come from poor infrastructure planning - roads, highways, and interstates have been placed in vital land areas in ways that are invasive to the health of the surrounding soil. As our infrastructure gets built, it’s important that an environmental impact report is conducted prior to the development so that the most optimal way to prevent soil degradation can be implemented in the process.
About THE AUTHOR
James Parker has a Masters degree in Sustainability with a focus on land management, permaculture and regenerative agriculture. He also has experience managing sustainability projects, and is passionate about conservation and sustainability.Read More About James Parker