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Why This Matters: Experts say this “growing” problem is mostly due to over-tilling the soil and other unsustainable farming practices. They also say that the erosion isn’t over, and that to save farming in the Midwest, drastic action must be taken. Losing one-third of farmland may not sound like a lot, but there are 127 million acres of agricultural land in the region. Agriculture in the Midwest represents billions of dollars to the nation’s GDP. Massive crop failure there would have devastating ripple effects on the food market, the energy market, and more.
How did we get here?
Evan Thaler, a Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who worked on the new study, says that decades of plowing the land are to blame. He explained that as farmers tilled the soil, it eroded down hillsides and became vulnerable to wind and water erosion. He said the researchers were able to predict where the lack of topsoil would be most severe, “the [topsoil] was almost always gone on hilltops,” he says. The Agriculture Department has under-estimated the loss of topsoil, according to the study’s authors.
In addition to over-tilling and planting on erosion-prone land, other experts are critical of the two-crop rotation that occurs on a majority of the region’s farmland. Rotating crops, or planting a different crop every season, is crucial to returning nutrients to the soil and ensuring future crop yield. But in the Midwest, farmers have been cycling between two for decades: corn and soybeans. Now, the land is reaping what decades of oversimplified farming practices sowed.
Some experts disagree with Thaler’s study and believe he may be overestimating how much topsoil has vanished. Michelle Wander at the University of Illinois said that the study relies too much on assumption and that topsoil may also end up mixed into lower layers of soil rather than vanish. But Thaler is sticking to his guns, and he has supporters across the scientific community. Anna Cates, Minnesota’s state soil health specialist, is one of them. “We’re essentially trying to make up for many years of fairly thoughtless practices,” said Cates, “maybe it’s twenty percent, maybe it’s forty percent. There’s a lot of topsoil gone from the hills.” Thaler believes the federal government isn’t doing enough to save Midwestern soil, “I think the USDA is dramatically underestimating the amount of loss.”
By Amy Lupica, ODP Daily Editor Today, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released its 2021 Plowprint Report, which tracks the amount of grasslands lost to plow-up each year. This year’s study found that plow-up across the Great Plains has only continued to accelerate, releasing exorbitant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. The report concludes that […]
By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer With global temperatures rising and rainfall patterns changing, global agriculture is shifting too — with big changes projected. Places like Siberia and northern Canada that have been too frigid for farming in centuries past are expected to become cropland by the end of the century. But it’s not a […]
By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer The National Park Service has closed down a large swathe of Alaska’s Denali National Park after excessive permafrost thawing caused landslide activity near the park’s only access road. The access road is now closed, blocking entry to about half of the park. Park officials say that although there have been landslides in […]
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