Soil Issues Threaten Agriculture and Food Production, Prompting Call for Conservation Solutions

Degraded soil health and erosion pose long-term risks to soil quality and productivity.

Healthy soil is crucial for sustainable agriculture and the production of food and fiber that support our daily lives. However, a range of soil issues, including erosion, compaction, organic matter depletion, and habitat degradation, are threatening soil health and agricultural productivity. Recognizing the importance of addressing these concerns, experts are urging farmers and landowners to seek assistance from conservation programs to implement effective solutions.

Soil erosion, caused by non-concentrated water and wind, is a major challenge impacting agricultural lands. Non-concentrated water erosion, in the form of sheet erosion and small streamlets, can gradually wash away topsoil, leading to nutrient depletion and unproductive soil. Similarly, wind erosion affects flat, bare areas with sandy, dry, and loose soil, causing soil loss and deterioration.

To combat erosion, various solutions are recommended. These include residue management, crop rotations, cover crops, adoption of soil health management systems, terraces, contour farming, strip cropping, windbreaks, and herbaceous wind barriers. By implementing these practices, farmers can minimize erosion risks and preserve soil quality for sustainable agricultural production.

Concentrated water erosion, characterized by the creation of sharp ditches or small valleys in land, poses additional challenges. Wide and shallow erosion occurs due to temporary events, while deep and narrow erosion can create large ditches or bluffs if left untreated. Strategies to address concentrated water erosion include residue management, cover crops, adoption of soil health management systems, terraces, grassed waterways, grade stabilization structures, lined waterways or outlets, and water and sediment control basins.

Erosion along bodies of water, such as lakes, rivers, and streams, is another concern impacting water quality. Shoreline erosion, bank erosion, and channel erosion contribute to sedimentation and habitat degradation. Implementing watershed-wide soil health management systems, bank armor and protection, soil bioengineering practices, in-stream structures, and vegetative buffers can help combat erosion along bodies of water.

Coastal areas face the challenge of increased soil salinity, negatively affecting plant growth due to osmosis disruption. Saltwater intrusion, sea-level rise, subsidence, and saltwater inundation from storm surges contribute to increased salinity levels. Mitigation measures include cultivating salt-tolerant crops, restoring or creating protective wetland/marsh buffers, converting salt-damaged land into wetlands, and reducing irrigation water pumped from affected wells.

In addition to erosion and salinity, reduced soil health and quality pose significant risks to agricultural productivity. Soil compaction, caused by excess traffic, machinery, or livestock, affects drainage, aeration, and root penetration. Management practices such as avoiding wet soil, reducing traffic and tillage operations, crop rotation, controlled traffic patterns, subsoiling or ripping compacted areas, and adopting soil health management systems can help alleviate soil compaction.

Organic matter depletion, resulting from soil disturbance, intensive tillage systems, low crop biomass, burning or removing crop residues, and overgrazing, leads to poor nutrition for plant growth and soil biological activity. Diverse crop rotations, cover crops, conservation tillage, grazing management, and maintaining crop residues on the soil surface are effective strategies for countering organic matter depletion.

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