Man’s use of fertilizer has radically changed the soil he farms, according to a study of the American prairie conducted by scientists at the University of Colorado. The soil’s fertility could collapse because of the damage done to the range of microbes that play a vital, but little studied, role in the soil.
“The soils currently found throughout the region bear little resemblance to their pre-agricultural state,” concluded the study, conducted under associate professor of microbial ecology Noah Fierer.
“We really know very little about one of the most productive soils on the planet, but we do know that soil microbes play a key role and we can’t just keep adding fertilizers,” said Fierer.
The study showed that uncultivated soils contain bacteria that put nutrients back into the soil. These bacteria are not present where fertilizers have been used—which means that this kind of fertilized soils has no way of replacing lost nutrients except through the use of more fertilizer.
The study, published in the November 1 edition of Science magazine, was accompanied by another piece warning of the threat a collapse in soil fertility poses to civilization.
“In the past, great civilizations have fallen because they failed to prevent the degradation of the soils on which they were founded,” begins the article by Mary Scholes, of the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, and Robert Scholes of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, also in South Africa. “The modern world could suffer the same fate at a global scale.”
“The inherent productivity of many lands has been dramatically reduced as a result of soil erosion, accumulation of salinity and nutrient depletion,” the article continues. “Although improved technology—including the unsustainably high use of fertilizers, irrigation and ploughing—provides a false sense of security, about 1 percent of global land area is degraded every year.”
Citing Fierer’s study, the authors warn that “We have forgotten the lesson of the Dust Bowl: Even in advanced economies, human wellbeing depends on looking after the soil.”
They discuss how man’s perception of soil as merely a kind of container for nutrients led to “an unprecedented increase in food production”—but also a huge amount of pollution and environmental destruction.
Scholes and Scholes dismiss a “dogmatically ‘organic’” approach as impractical, but conclude that “feeding the world and keeping it habitable” will require some major changes in agriculture.
Robert Scholes warns that governments eventually reach a point where they destroy the long-term health of their agriculture to feed people today.
“We’re running out of new agricultural frontiers and we don’t have the freedom to make errors any more,” he said. “We are using up our nutrient capital and face a looming food crisis over the next 30 to 40 years. There is a risk that we are going to paint ourselves into a corner. Famine is a very real possibility.”
The Telegraph’s international business editor, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, says the Scholes “fear that we are repeating the mistakes of past civilizations, overexploiting the land until it goes beyond the point of no return and leads to a vicious circle of famine, and then social disintegration.”
“Cautionary stories abound,” he writes. “The East side of Madagascar has been destroyed by slash and burn deforestation, perhaps irreversibly in any human time horizon. Iceland’s Norse settlers turned their green and partly forested island into a Nordic desert in the 10th century. They have yet to restore the fragile soil a thousand years later, despite careful husbandry.” He concludes with the following warning:
We are becoming complacent again. The blunt truth is that the world cannot afford to lose one hectare of land a year, let alone 12 million hectares. The added discovery that we’re doing even more damage than feared to the soil microbia should bring us to our senses. We argue too much about global warming, which may or may not be caused by man’s actions, and may or may catch us this century.
The global land crisis is almost entirely our own doing. It is closing in on us right now. It can be reversed if world leaders choose to reverse it.
One of the laws in the Old Testament of the Bible frequently ridiculed by critics is the land sabbath. God commanded that every seven years, the land be allowed to rest—there was no pruning or planting (for commercial harvesting), and nothing was to be harvested except what people picked for their own personal consumption (Leviticus 25:2-7, 18-22). To many, this law seems obsolete. Man had gotten around it with fertilizers, they thought.
Scientists are now just beginning to learn that there is no getting around this law. The use of fertilizers to avoid letting the land rest is a shortcut that damages the land even more in the long run.
The Scholes’ paper dismisses a return to this kind of farming as impractical. They are correct in saying that it wouldn’t be easy. In fact, keeping the land sabbath God’s way would require a complete re-ordering of society. It would require a society that trusts in God to provide a bumper crop of food in the sixth year of harvest. It may require most families to have a fairly substantial garden of their own. It may mean that some of the world’s deserts have to be reclaimed for use as agricultural land—something which, as Evans-Pritchard points out, is possible, but is ignored because of the expense.
But as all these experts acknowledge, our current way of farming is not working. If we keep trying to do it this way—and we will—it will bring famine. The land sabbath, as well as God’s other laws, are the changes we need in order to fix this.
Scientists are now ready to admit, “We really know very little about one of the most productive soils on the planet.” The problem is that they’re not yet ready to admit that the God of the Bible knows all about these soils—and a lot more besides. It will take the complete failure of man’s civilization before that day comes.
But once it comes, man will finally be able to reap the blessings of living God’s way of life. For more on what these blessings and this society will look like, read our free booklet The Wonderful World Tomorrow—What It Will Be Like. ▪