The story of agriculture begins with soil, as from soil springs the basis for the biodiversity of all land-based life on this planet. It is a part of a process that begins when bare rocks are colonized by certain species that scientists refer to as pioneer species (for example, lichens and mosses). As the lichens and mosses live and die, they decay and get replaced by new generations of lichens and mosses. This decay just keeps building up, bit by bit, and over time it builds up into the first layer of humus,- the first step in the creation of soil. As these humus layers continue to build up, herbaceous vegetation finally comes along, then shrubs, and then finally trees. . It is a process that can take hundreds, or even thousands of years. This is how soil becomes the basis for an entire ecosystem,- contributing to plant, animal, and microbial diversity. The health of our soil is a large indicator of the health of our environment as a whole.
Recent increases in the human population have placed a great strain on the world’s soil systems. Deterioration of the soil can be caused by physical factors, such as wind and water erosion, chemical harm such as toxins, and biological harm, with the loss of microbes. With the population now exceeding over 7 billion people, scientists today estimate that half of the Earths topsoil has already been lost, largely due to activity relating to agriculture. Mismanagement by farmers, and overgrazing by livestock are seen as major causes of the loss of soil. Referred to as soil degradation, mismanaged agriculture can deplete the soil, and cause a loss of organic material, a lack of roots and plant life holding it together, as well as a decline in soil fertility. A final outcome is often erosion. In urban areas, the creation of roads and concrete with impermeable surfaces also contributes to erosion, streaming, and ground loss.
The impact of this loss of soil and the effects on soil degradation are far reaching. With the loss, also comes a great loss in biological diversity. This loss includes the microbial communities as well a great impact on all the different kinds of insects and animals that live in the soil, as well the disappearance of different stages and types of vegetation. As for the trees themselves? Agriculture is the largest single cause of deforestation that there is, with the most significant drivers being soy plantations, palm oil, and cattle ranching. All of this taken together, including the loss of soil, vegetation, and trees, contributes to a much larger picture,- a loss of biodiversity, habitat, and ultimately, tragically,- animal extinction. Mismanaged agricultural activity has a huge impact on quality of soil and the entire ecosystem that springs from it. Although often overlooked by the casual observer, the health of our soil and the way our entire eco-system springs life from it are a center piece of the environmental equation.
“Worldwide demand for palm and soy are among the most significant agricultural drivers of deforestation threatening tropical rainforests.”
Agricultural practices have a number of other impacts on the environment as well. When pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are applied to agricultural land, they accumulate in the soil. This can alter microbial processes, and be toxic to the organisms that normally live there. And beyond that, the pesticides can be ingested by non-targeted insects and animals as well, because of the way they are used in a blanketed fashion across entire agricultural fields. The crop itself can also also absorb the chemicals, and pass them along to the people who eat them. Pesticides and fertilizers can leach into groundwater aquifers, or end up in streams or rivers. When they reach the ocean, they can create oxygen-deprived “dead zones” in the aquatic environment. Lastly, pesticide spray can drift and cause air pollution, effecting an area larger than it was intended to treat. The effects of both pesticides and fertilizers can be far reaching, posing a threat to both humans, wildlife, as well as the environment.
Agricultural animal waste poses yet another challenge to the environment. Today, industrial and intensive farming dominates livestock production. Nearly all the meat, poultry and dairy products come from industrial-scale operations where thousands of cattle, pigs and chickens are kept in cramped, confined conditions, indoors and on dirt lots. But when you confine large numbers of animals like this, you also have to deal with the huge volumes of waste they produce. Just like the pesticides and fertilizers, if not carefully controlled, toxic contaminants from farm waste systems can find its way into groundwater aquifers and waterways, polluting drinking water and killing aquatic life. Like fertilizer and pesticide runoff, toxic manure effluent is a major contributor of pollutants to lakes and rivers, and contributes to creating oxygen-deprived dead zones along the coast.
Finally, and most importantly of all, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the animal agriculture sector, which includes the production of feed crops, the manufacturing of fertilizer, as well as the shipment of meat, eggs, and milk, is a primary contributor of green house gas emissions. This includes methane emissions directly from the livestock, carbon emissions resulting from the transport, and the decay of organic waste including manure used as fertilizer. By contributing green house gases, animal agriculture is literally choking the life out of our planet, slowly, one bit at a time, and the longer we ignore it, the deeper in we get, and the more we limit our ability to protect our health and save the environment. Raising livestock for meat, eggs and milk generates a significant percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions, and is a major contributing factor to global warming.
“When trees are burned to make room for animals to graze, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, and methane, another greenhouse gas, is released with the animal waste.”
References and Resources:
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is a specialized agency of the United Nations that leads international efforts to defeat hunger and improve nutrition and food security.
From the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Farmers apply nutrients on their fields in the form of chemical fertilizers and animal manure, which provide crops with the nitrogen and phosphorus necessary to grow and produce the food we eat. However, when nitrogen and phosphorus are not fully utilized by the growing plants, they can be lost from the farm fields and negatively impact air and downstream water quality.
The European Network for the Durable Exploitation of Crop Protection Strategies aims to develop science-based sustainable, innovative pest control strategies to reduce pesticide use in agriculture.
Collection of indicators, reports, links, data sets and targets on topics related to European agriculture and the environment.
Mission is to create environmentally and economically sustainable rural communities and regions through sound agriculture and trade policy. Supporting sustainable agriculture, reduced pesticide use, and related practices.
LADSS is an agricultural research tool being developed to assist in the investigation of policy and environmental change impacts such as CAP reform and climate change.
Research in natural systems agriculture featuring perennial grain polycultures using nature as its measure.