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close this bookBiotechnology and the Future of World Agriculture (GRAIN, 1991)
close this folderAgriculture in crisis
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe soil and water crisis
View the documentThe productivity crisis
View the documentThrough the looking glass
View the documentThe hidden harvest
View the documentThe problems not addressed
View the documentBiotechnology, the solution?

The soil and water crisis

If the Brundtland report made one thing clear, it is that we are destroying, at an incredible rate, the very base of our capability to produce. The earth is losing soil at a pace which is threatening agricultural production the world over. By the late 1970s, soil erosion exceeded soil formation on about onethird of US cropland. In India, soil erosion affects over one-quarter of all land under cultivation. Globally, over one-third of the earth's land area suffers from some form of desertification, both in the North and in the South. At least six million hectares of valuable crop land is irreversibly lost in this way each year. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization calculates that in the long run the Third World alone will lose over 500 million hectares of rainfed cropland because of soil erosion and degradation. (5) To get some grasp of dimensions, this is more than twice the area now planted to rice and wheat in the entire Third World, (6) almost four times the size of all of India's arable land, and over three times all agricultural land in the USA.

Most of this soil destruction is a direct result of human activity in the form of inappropriate agricultural modernization schemes and deforestation for logging and food production. Desertification is not confined to the Third World. Take a walk on a dry and windy spring day in the potato fields of Groningen, a northern province of the Netherlands. You will most likely find yourself in the midst of a dust storm, blowing away substantial parts of the top soil. Years of intensive soil treatment with the world's most powerful biocides to make continuous potato production possible, are turning this once so fertile province into a barren desert.

Even where the soil is not literally being blown away because of erosion and desertification, it is often being ruined in other ways. In what has been called 'the greatest threat to sustainable food security',7 the earth's soil is being crippled by salinization, alkalinization and water-logging. Salinization and water-logging are to a large extent induced by modern irrigation schemes and therefore often occur on the most fertile soils. When large quantities of water loaded with minerals, salts and other substances are used through irrigation on soils of poor drainage, the water table comes closer to the surface, evaporates and leaves behind an ever increasing concentration of salts. Additionally, a high water table prevents plant roots from penetrating deep enough into the soil. Both processes render land useless for agriculture. It is estimated that half of all existing irrigation projects suffer from these intoxication processes, forcing some 10 million hectares of irrigated land to be abandoned annually. (8)

In India alone, ten million hectares of irrigated cropland are water-logged or saline, resulting in productivity losses of 20% or more. (9) In the Sahel the rate at which irrigated land is abandoned because of these problems matches almost exactly the rate at which new irrigation schemes are introduced. (10) The other side of the coin of water-logging is water-mining. The explosive increase in the use of electric tubewells to pump water to the surface in many parts of the Third World has caused water tables to fall in the areas supplying the irrigation water. In many parts of the world this has already turned many millions of hectares of fertile soil into unproductive wasteland.

Decades of intensive use of chemical fertilizer, heavy machinery and pesticides have also degraded the soil. In industrialized countries, groundwater in many regions is severely polluted with either chemical pesticides or nitrates and phosphates. Many European farmers are now faced not only with milk and crop quotas, but also with quotas on the amount of natural and artificial fertilizers they are allowed to put on the land, as the authorities desperately try to turn the tide.

The soil and water crises are intimately interlinked. What they have in common is that they are largely man-made and result from over-exploitation due to farming methods based on a reductionist approach to the use of natural resources. They turn two renewable resources par excellence soil and water - into non-renewable ones. Together they form one of the most serious threats to agricultural production everywhere.