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Soil erosion threatens environment and human health

March 22, 2006

Around the world, soil is being swept and washed away 10 to 40 times faster than it is being replenished, destroying cropland the size of Indiana every year, reports a new Cornell University study.

Yet the need for food and other agricultural products continues to soar.

"Soil erosion is second only to population growth as the biggest environmental problem the world faces," said David Pimentel, professor of ecology at Cornell. "Yet, the problem, which is growing ever more critical, is being ignored because who gets excited about dirt?"

Plenty of people should be, stressed Pimentel, whose study on the food and environmental threat of soil erosion is published in a recent issue of the Journal of the Environment, Development and Sustainability (Vol. 8, 2006).

"Erosion is a slow and insidious process," stressed Pimentel. "Yet, controlling soil erosion is really quite simple: The soil can be protected with cover crops when the land is not being used to grow crops."

Other ways to reduce erosion include reducing the need for people in developing countries to clear forests for agriculture, overgraze their cattle and remove crop residues for cooking fuel.

The vast majority -- 99.7 percent -- of human food comes from cropland, which is shrinking by more than 10 million hectares (almost 37,000 square miles) a year due to soil erosion, Pimentel reports, while more people than ever -- more than 3.7 billion people -- are malnourished.

"Erosion is one of those problems that nickels and dimes you to death: One rainstorm can wash away 1 mm (.04 inches) of dirt. It doesn't sound like much, but when you consider a hectare (2.5 acres), it would take 13 tons of topsoil -- or 20 years if left to natural processes -- to replace that loss," Pimentel said. "And that kind of loss occurs year after year by wind and rain around the world."

The study, which pulls together statistics on soil erosion from more than 125 sources, reports:
  • The United States is losing soil 10 times faster -- and China and India are losing soil 30 to 40 times faster -- than the natural replenishment rate.
  • The economic impact of soil erosion in the United States costs the nation about $37.6 billion each year in productivity losses. Damage from soil erosion worldwide is estimated to be $400 billion per year.
  • As a result of erosion over the past 40 years, 30 percent of the world's arable land has become unproductive.
  • About 60 percent of soil that is washed away ends up in rivers, streams and lakes, making waterways more prone to flooding and to contamination from soil's fertilizers and pesticides.
  • Soil erosion also reduces the ability of soil to store water and support plant growth, thereby reducing its ability to support biodiversity.
  • Erosion promotes critical losses of water, nutrients, soil organic matter and soil biota, harming forests, rangeland and natural ecosystems.
  • Erosion increases the amount of dust carried by wind, which not only acts as an abrasive and air pollutant but also carries about 20 human infectious disease organisms, including anthrax and tuberculosis.
-end-


Cornell University

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Erosion: Changing Earth's Surface (Amazing Science)
by Robin Koontz (Author), Matthew Harrad (Illustrator)

Did you know that rain, waves, wind, snow, and ice can change the shape of Earth’s surface? They can create valleys, sea stacks, caves, and rock arches. Learn about the natural forces of erosion and how they shape the land. View Details


Cracking Up: A Story About Erosion (Science Works)
by Jacqui Bailey (Author), Matthew Lilly (Illustrator)

Describes the process of erosion and how water, ice, wind, and sun wear away at Earth's surface. View Details


Weathering and Erosion (Science Readers: Content and Literacy)
by Torrey Maloof (Author)

The Earth's surface is always changing. Learn how weathering and erosion constantly reshapes the earth through wind, water, and more! Even people can drastically change the earth's surface. With the help of easy-to-read text and bright, colorful images, this reader simplifies challenging scientific topics while keeping students engaged from cover to cover. This reader also includes instructions for an engaging science activity where students can see what happens when land erodes. A helpful glossary and index are also included for additional support. View Details


Erosion (Reading Essentials in Science)
by Virginia Castleman (Author)

Earth is changing every day as a result of erosion, and weather plays a major part. View Details


Erosion and Weathering (Rocks: The Hard Facts)
by Willa Dee (Author)

Discusses the different causes of erosion and weathering, how these phenomena create problems for people, and their role in the rock cycle. View Details


Erosion (Let's Explore Science)
by Shirley Duke (Author)

Examines the different forces of erosion, such as wind, waves, acid rain, and glaciers and explains how those forces affect the topography of the earth. View Details


Soil Erosion and How to Prevent It (Everybody Digs Soil)
by Natalie Hyde (Author)

Looks at the processes of weathering, erosion, and deposition, and how they affect plant and animal life. View Details


Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations
by David R. Montgomery (Author)

Dirt, soil, call it what you want―it's everywhere we go. It is the root of our existence, supporting our feet, our farms, our cities. This fascinating yet disquieting book finds, however, that we are running out of dirt, and it's no laughing matter. An engaging natural and cultural history of soil that sweeps from ancient civilizations to modern times, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations explores the compelling idea that we are―and have long been―using up Earth's soil. Once bare of protective vegetation and exposed to wind and rain, cultivated soils erode bit by bit, slowly enough... View Details


Erosion: The Psychopathology of Self-Criticism
by Golan Shahar (Author)

Self-criticism is a personality trait that has been implicated in a wide range of psychopathologies and developmental arrests. Defined as the tendency to set unrealistically high standards for one's self and to adopt a punitive stance towards the self once these standards are not met, self-criticism is both active and cyclical. Self-critics actively create the social-interpersonal conditions that generate their distress, and their distress itself exacerbates self-criticism.

Erosion offers a comprehensive treatment of self-criticism based in philosophy, developmental science,... View Details


After the Fact: The Erosion of Truth and the Inevitable Rise of Donald Trump
by Nathan Bomey (Author)

This trenchant analysis examines the many ways our society's increasingly tenuous commitment to facts laid the groundwork for Donald Trump's rise to power.

Award-winning journalist Nathan Bomey argues that Trump did not usher the post-truth era into being. He was its inevitable outcome. Bomey points to recent trends that have created the perfect seedbed for spin, distortion, deception, and bald-faced lies: shifting news habits, the rise of social media, the spread of entrenched ideologies, and the failure of schools to teach basic critical-thinking skills

The evidence... View Details

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