The Detriment of Distraction

Ian Vanness

One under-covered issue that holds enormous consequentiality, both domestically and abroad, is topsoil degradation. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations declared 2015 the International Year of Soils, yet not many people have heard about it, and even fewer are talking about it. The severity of this issue cannot be understated. The UN’s FAO suggests that it takes roughly 1,000 years to create three centimeters of topsoil, and at this pace, we will deplete all global topsoil in 60 years! A myriad of crucial issues intersects with the use and treatment of topsoil. Water, food, trade, pollution, politics, and policy all in one way or another involve topsoil. It is inexcusable that so little coverage has been allotted to this looming crisis, and it deserves a meaningful national and international discussion in the same way we see being had on topics of global warming and overpopulation. Fortunately, no other generation has been more equipped to ignore our media’s schismatic hysteria than ours, and in doing so we can focus attention on how to prevent a global calamity.

 The first part of Merriam-Webster’s definition of topsoil states, “surface soil usually including the organic layer in which plants have most of their roots”. This probably seems pretty straightforward, but the second part of the definition reveals a troubling truth about how we treat and perceive this delicate life source, “and which the farmer turns over in plowing.” The two most detrimental practices responsible for the intensification of topsoil degradation are over tilling, and the excessive use of fertilizers. Plants’ nutrients reside in the soil it inhibits, which contributes to overall nutrition of the food we eat, but its role in the global ecosystem is more profound. As we enter further into a period of continual water scarcity new techniques for efficient water usage will become part of everyday life, that includes agriculture. The fibrous makeup of topsoil allows for greater water retention than degraded soil. Finally, strong topsoil keeps carbon in the ground, feeding beneficial microbes, and prevents carbon from escaping into the atmosphere where it would become CO2, increasing overall greenhouse gas emissions. 

  Our society’s relationship with food is starting to come full circle, with the millennials coming to age during this agricultural renaissance. Younger Americans are more aware of issues related to sustainability. Multiple venues host opportunities to access the conversation around sustainable agriculture from taking a college course, volunteering on an organic farmjoining a CSA, to eating at a trendy farm to table restaurants. Each serves as a vector for increasing the education around food systems. The rise in popularity of food-related documentaries, cooking at home, and celebrity chefs all point to an increased curiosity and commitment to the conversation. The important first step in reversing decades of industrial farming is raising awareness among the general public.Every time we attend a farmers market, or plant basil outside our urban apartment window, we are reverting back to abandoned cultural practices that connect us to our environment and food, and thus soil too.


Having a broad understanding of the tenets behind sustainability has enabled us to see that an underlying theme behind the challenges we have inherited is the consistent prioritizing of short-term gains at the expense of long-term stability. Issues resulting from industrial farming are no doubt complex, but to simply chalk topsoil degradation up as a necessary trade-off would ignore the severity of the situation, and perpetuate the shortsightedness of past decades’ policies. This September the Farm Bill will expire, and the Trump administration along with Congress will reauthorize the legislation. On the federal level, the Farm Bill is the most consequential legislation pertaining to America’s agricultural sector. Supporting farmers to regenerate their soil without using chemical fertilizers, expanding cover crop insurance in order to prevent erosion and decrease carbon emissions, and incentivizing crop diversification via subsidies are all attainable via the Farm Bill.   

  The staggering reality is that current topsoil is being lost faster than it can be revitalized. Unfortunately, this is coinciding with the necessity for greater food production, with lessarable land, in order to support the world's population growth. This crisis is too large and complex to expect farmers, who are already under financial strains, to solve on their own. We have already accepted the challenge of educating ourselves and altering lifestyles in order to adapt to foreseeable changes that an agricultural overhaul will undoubtedly bring. Our generation must continue to lead this conversation in order to create possibilities. The absence of topsoil degradation in our national moment suggests a foundational whole in how we prioritize content coverage. Raising awareness around this issue has the potential to influence which topics we choose to discuss in the future. If something as simple and omnipresent as dirt is at the center of an unspoken global crisis, it begs the question, What else are we distracted from discussing?

(Published March 1, 2018 - View Full Newsletter Here)