Although we want to emphasize healthy, high-quality soils because of their ability to produce high yields of crops, it is also crucial to recognize that many soils in the U.S. and around the world have become degraded— they have become what many used to call “worn-out” soils. Degradation most commonly occurs when erosion and decreased soil organic matter levels initiate a downward spiral resulting in poor crop production (figure 1.1). Soils become compact, making it hard for water to infiltrate and roots to develop properly. Erosion continues, and nutrients decline to levels too low for good crop growth. The development of saline (too salty) soils under irrigation in arid regions is another cause of reduced soil health. (Salts added in the irrigation water need to be leached beneath the root zone to avoid the problem.)

downward spiral of soil degradation

Historically, soil degradation caused significant harm to many early civilizations, including the drastic loss of productivity resulting from soil erosion in Greece and many locations in the Middle East (such as present-day Israel, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon). This led either to colonial ventures to help feed the citizenry or to the decline of the culture.

Tropical rainforest conditions (high temperature and rainfall, with most of the organic matter near the soil surface) may cause significant soil degradation within two or three years of conversion to cropland. This is the reason the “slash and burn” system, with people moving to a new patch of forest every few years, developed in the tropics. After farmers depleted the soils in a field, they would cut down and burn the trees in the new patch, allowing the forest and soil to regenerate in previously cropped areas.

…what now remains of the formerly rich land is like the skeleton of a sick man, with all the fat and soft earth having wasted away and only the bare framework remaining. Formerly, many of the mountains were arable. The plains that were full of rich soil are now marshes. Hills that were once covered with forests and produced abundant pasture now produce only food for bees. Once the land was enriched by yearly rains, which were not lost, as they are now, by flowing from the bare land into the sea. The soil was deep, it absorbed and kept the water in the loamy soil, and the water that soaked into the hills fed springs and running streams everywhere. Now the abandoned shrines at spots where formerly there were springs attest that our description of the land is true.

—PLATO, 4TH CENTURY B.C.E.

The westward push of U.S. agriculture was stimulated by rapid soil degradation in the East, originally a zone of temperate forest. Under the conditions of the humid portion of the Great Plains (moderate rainfall and temperature, with organic matter distributed deeper in the soil), it took many decades for the effects of soil degradation to become evident.

The extent of erosion on a worldwide basis is staggering—it is estimated that erosion has progressed far enough to decrease yields on an estimated 16% of all the world’s agricultural soils. The value of annual crop loss due to soil degradation by erosion is around $1 billion. And erosion is still a major global problem, robbing people of food and each year continuing to reduce the productivity of the land.