By 1928, the U.S. Department Agriculture estimated that the nation’s soil was eroding ten times faster than it was being formed. In 1934, windstorms across the Dakotas picked up more than 300 million tons of topsoil and hurled it eastward at a hundred miles and hour. In Chicago, four pounds of dust per citizen rained down on the city.
By the time of the American Bicentennial, a third of the nation’s topsoil was gone for good. At the same time, the federal government began cutting back on funding for agricultural conservation programs.
By the 1990s, writes Montgomery, “Indiana farms still lost a ton of soil to harvest a ton of grain.” The USDA estimates that roughly half of the fertilizer used each year by American farmers does nothing but replace soil nutrients lost to erosion. This puts us in the odd position, writes Montgomery, “of consuming fossil fuels—geologically one of the rarest and most useful resources ever discovered—to provide a substitute for dirt—the cheapest and most widely available agricultural input imaginable.”
If that isn’t nonsensical enough for you, try this: Over the last 500 million years, soil erosion rates have been estimated by geologists to be on the average of an inch every thousand years. Today’s rate is believed to be closer to an inch every 40 years—a rate of soil-stripping that is clearly unsustainable.
Since soil conservation never seems to be a hot-button issue, one answer may lie in urban farming—the adoption of small-scale farming to urban settings. The alternative—mass food shortages—is another method of ultimately focusing our attention on the care and feeding of the nation’s soil.