Soil is one of the vital components of nature. Belonging to the upper layer of the Earth, it has been ensuring the sustaining of millions of microorganisms and other living creatures so far. With the rapid urbanization and industrialization running at an unprecedented rate, our agricultural soil quality has degraded today. We aren’t usually the ones that handle conserving the soil for us and our incoming future generations. Yes, the time has arrived to think twice before acting negatively on our magical soil.

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Is our agricultural soil safe?

Agriculture soil field
Agriculture soil field | Image Credit – Pixabay

Because of land degradation by globalization, industrialization, and urbanization, agricultural soil has deteriorated massively. The agricultural soil is not safe from anthropogenic disturbances and pressures. Here are several reasons for the soil degradation in the agriculture sector. 

Biofuel energy

Biofuel production house covering an extensive areas of agricultural land
Biofuel production house covering extensive areas of agricultural land | Image Credit – Flickr

With biofuel energy production, the agricultural soil has massively deteriorated. Biofuel production requires extensive areas of agricultural land. Over many years, biofuel production has been produced from the sugarcane in the tropical areas and the cereals from the temperate regions. 

32 million ha have been used so far, which is equivalent to the total cropping area of 1600 million ha. The agricultural land has been used for various purposes to produce biofuel commercially, such as burning plant tissues and animal waste. When the agricultural land is degraded, it is unfit for future activities that lead to unsustainability.

Soil salinization

Concentration of saline soils
Concentration of saline soils | Image Credit – Flickr

When you primarily deal with soil salinization, it deals with the two aspects. Saline soils and sodic soils. Rapid salt accumulation in the soil could not support the higher agricultural yield. It is estimated to impact around 1 billion ha of land globally, which fundamentally targets the arid and the semi-arid regions.

The salinity is a burden on the crop production occurred in around 0.3 to 1.5 million ha of farmland worldwide per year, thereby decreasing the agricultural production by a further 20 to 46 million ha. 

Soil degradation by salinization is dramatically associated with that irrigation. Let us make you clear. For instance: overirrigation. Irrigation with the poor water quality and massive clearing of the native vegetation having deep roots. The best way to eradicate these issues is to restore the marginal soils all over the landscape. But the financial investment must be planned initially for this and invested later. 

Intensification of the agricultural production

In the 21st century, most people think only about their agricultural production; instead, the soil quality. When they use the agricultural land extensively, they are careless about soil protection and use it haphazardly. It may lead to soil erosion of poor quality soil and a lack of strength to bear the erosion activities, acidification, and salinization due to the excessive presence of salt in the soil. 

The Food and Agricultural Organization report of 2015 depicted that 33 % of the soil has been converted moderately to high degradation all across the globe.  When the land is degraded over time, prediction laments it could drop the global food production by 12 % over the next 25 years. 

Soil erosion

Soil erosion in Tana river watershed
Soil erosion in Tana river watershed | Image Credit – Flickr

Soil erosion has been one of the pervasive issues in recent times. As we are heading towards globalization, the dramatic negative pressure on the natural agricultural soil is tremendously increasing. There is an imbalance between soil formation and soil loss. Unless the soil formation and loss ratio get equivalent, the soil could not be proved sustainable. 

Occurring the soil erosion does erode all the topsoil, which is rich in several nutrients. The plants feed these nutrients. Loss of the soil nutrients could not assist in the efficient growth and development of the plants and many agricultural products. 

The estimates show that soil erosion leads to the loss of 23 to 42 metric tons of nitrogen and 15-26 metric tons of phosphorus from the agricultural soils per year. The detrimental effects of how soil erosion can affect agricultural production once the soil is degraded entirely. 

The other negative consequences posed by the agricultural soil erosion entail the economic loss heavily and the loss of the environment costing. The cost associated with the production and use of fertilizers in most agricultural practices across the globe is finally wasted. 

The water stored in the soil is often inferred as the green water credits for 90 % of the agricultural production. When the soil is degraded, the water soil cannot hold the water as per its need and ultimately reduce the agricultural yield volume, thereby suppressing the crops and the cereals’ growth. 

The other adverse outcomes concerning soil erosion that hails nutrient loss, reduction in water storage, and the volume of the roots for the primary crops. Apart from this, the most cascading effect the soil erosion does cause is sediment deposition into the coral reef systems.

Intending to maintain the soil productivity and fertility sustainably, you can target several approaches such as increasing and improving the vegetation cover, adopting multiple erosion control practices, and fundamentally restoring the marginal land surfaces. 

Urbanization supporter

Urbanization | Image Credit – Pixabay

With the increment in urbanization at an unprecedented rate, degrading agricultural soil has been typical in recent years. By the year 2050, the number of people residing in the urban regions will be increased further to 68%. If such a rate happens as predicted in the future, the land use by the people is expected to increase from 213 million ha in the year 2000 to 621 million ha by 2040. 

It indicates that the more people in the urban areas, the more agricultural land usage. The land is destroyed and converted into several patches by cleaning the agricultural land. Thus, it contributes to the degradation of the soil quality and results in poor soil. Once the soil gets paved, the productive soil deteriorates. 

Because of the more demand for cropping the food and the fiber, the agricultural land is used, and the agricultural intensification. Such activities could undoubtedly lead to land soil pressurization and contribute massively to reducing the soil quality and the capability to serve as the ecosystem services in an ecosystem. In the name of urbanization, the agricultural soil has unfortunately not been able to serve as the crucial server to feed a human. 

Over the years, we have been going through a food crisis. Numerous countries have suffered from food scarcity and the economic crisis. Who believes that the deteriorated soil could feed the globe in such circumstances? Obviously, not. These anthropogenic interventions could directly hamper food production for a prolonged period. Thus, don’t you see that the urban people have been degrading the natural agricultural lands and converting them for their own merits and personal uses? 

Soil acidification 

Over the years, the overuse of nitrogen fertilizers, acid rain, and sure exposed acid sulfate soils in the agricultural land. Because of this, it inhibits plant development and crop yields. Once the soil gets acidified at an immense amount, it restricts the root elongation. Through the soil, root growth is inhibited. 

Are you aware that soil acidification increases the chance of drought and causes nutritional deficiencies? Such activities could undoubtedly lower agricultural production. It reflects how significant the soil is in gaining higher achievement in agriculture. 

Soil contamination

Soil contamination
Soil contamination | Image Credit – Wikimedia Commons

There are numerous ways by which the agricultural soil gets contaminated. Over application of the fertilizers and the pesticides possessing contaminants, contaminated water irrigation, released from the mining and the industrial applications, and direct introduction of the unwanted materials into the water resources without effective pretreatment holds few of them. 

Most troublingly, the soil gets contaminated by organic contaminants such as Diethyl Dimethyl Trichloro Ethane, Polychlorinated biphenyls, and the inorganic one hails metals and metalloids entailing Cadmium, Arsenic, and the lead as the most harmful and toxic ones. 

The rate of how much agricultural soil has been contaminated is a tedious task to identify. But some researchers have detected it from several studies and the findings. China, being the super nation in the era of agricultural development with sophisticated technology, roughly 19 % of the agricultural soils have deteriorated and calcified under the category “Polluted”. 

The sources of soil contamination do vary according to the multiple nations. For instance, European countries’ sources of oil contamination include waste disposal and industrial activities. Besides these, contamination of the agricultural soil by heavy metals comprising 35 %, mineral oil by 24 %, and the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon holds 11 %. Along with this, the Asian countries contribute to the agricultural soil contamination with Cadmium and Arsenic. 

These contaminants could have adverse defects in the food chain and the food web cycle since the natural living creatures could be victims of biomagnification. The soil contamination could not support, preferably the ecosystem services. The most significant effect you could seek is global food scarcity. 

You cannot deny that soil contamination extensively at both spatial and temporal scales may cause famine globally. The situation may arise where you cannot adopt a strategy for the short-term effects after the cascade impacts occur before we act wisely. Thus, it is of utmost necessity to identify and remediate the contaminated soil at maximum. It assures a healthy environment for both the soil and the environment we rely upon. 

Let us consider one example from research. The study detects a positive relationship between soil and water contamination in China. Because of the heavy soil contamination, some areas serving as food production areas are inferred as “Cancer villages”. It indicates how the villages have been suffering from agricultural soil contamination. 

The over use of the fertilizers

The over use of the fertilizers
The overuse of the fertilizers | Image Credit – Wikimedia Commons

For any better agricultural yield, fertilizers entailing Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium (NPK) are substantial. Among them, nitrogen is foremost, followed by both Phosphorus and Calcium. Because today’s society relies on synthetic fertilizers, the trend of using synthetic nitrogen in agricultural land has been increasing. 

It no doubt can hamper the soil quality for a prolonged period. Don’t you think so? Ever wondered how we have deteriorated our agricultural soil in the name of synthetic fertilizers being used extensively throughout the globe. Indeed, such activities have increased the rate of degradation of agricultural soil. And for sure, we all must accept this scenario. 

Increment in soil usage and decrement in soil care has dramatically influenced soil quality. The forefathers’ soil for extensive agriculture has been converted into the plotting areas segregated into the patches. 

First and foremost, the over-application of the nitrogen in the soil beside the plant needs and the nitrogen leaching as a cause of the overuse of the nitrogen does aid in the soil acidification. On average, the heavy addition of synthetic nitrogen in the agricultural soil has been detected to reduce the soil pH value by 0.26 units.

The over-application of fertilizers has adverse outcomes hampering the environment, such as the eutrophication of numerous water bodies. The increment in nitrogen content in the water bodies is released to the soil after runoff at a larger scale. It has undoubtedly resulted in soil degradation, making it unfit for the extensive agricultural yields in both present and the upcoming days. 

Loss of Soil Organic Matter (SOM) 

The soil organic matter has a significant contribution to the physical, chemical, and the biology production of the soil. 

When soil is mixed with the soil organic matter, it stores and supplies the nutrients that entail Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Calcium, magnesium, and much more. Are you aware that soil organic carbon aids in decomposing the minerals more rapidly? 

The soil organic matter’s role is vital in the water holding capacity and the infiltration rate of the water and the air. The massive use of agricultural production may lose out the organic matter in the soil. Until and unless we save our soil, we could not achieve the sustainability target of food production so far. 

Because of the eradication of the organic materials in the soil and the soil oxygenation, there is a loss of the soil organic matter. As a result, the agricultural land deteriorates and is unsuitable for farming for a prolonged period. Simultaneously, the soil fertility losses. 

Lack of the water holding capacity as a decrease in the organic carbon possesses lower agricultural yield. When this process continues, for sure we will be in a food crisis one day. When you think about agricultural production sustainably, you need to first think about the soil’s importance. 

Genetic diversity loss of the soil

Genetic diversity loss of the soil
Genetic diversity loss of the soil | Image Credit – Flickr

The more soil deteriorates, the more significant is the complexity of the biological productivity of the living creatures. It may reduce the body mass of the soil fauna in an environment. When the soil originality degrades over time by anthropogenic induced interventions, no doubt the soil can be unproductive for a more extended period. It could result in the genetic diversity loss of the soil. 

Healthy soil biodiversity could sustain healthy living organisms. Thus, it has been imperative to improve the soil management practices intended to maintain the soil quality for supportive and perfect agricultural production all across the globe. 

To wrap up

As the globe has been facing soil degradation in the agriculture sector over the years, there is a loss in multiple sectors such as economy, import, and the export business, resulting in the famine situation in the days to come. Is not this the right time to act upon our soil to preserve it for a prolonged period? 

(Last Updated on June 11, 2022 by Sadrish Dabadi)

Kalpana Ghimire holds a post-graduate degree in Environmental Science from Nepal. She possesses numerous research experiences working in water pollution, community forestry, environment conservation status, and wildlife ecology. She was an internee in the Department of Environment (EIA monitoring and auditing section) under the Government of Nepal. Kalpana Ghimire is an avid traveler, an enthusiastic wildlife researcher, and has a huge passion for working in the environment sector. She loves far traveling to the natural areas, conducting field wildlife research and reading the novels.