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Rebuilding valuable soil.

THE 1930s Dust Bowl that threatened to turn America's Great Plains into a vast desert was a traumatic experience that led to revolutionary changes in the nation's agricultural practices, including the planting of tree shelterbelts (rows of trees planted beside fields) and strip-cropping (the planting of wheat on alternate strips with fallowed land each year). Strip-cropping permits soil moisture to accumulate on the fallowed strips, while the alternating planted strips reduce wind speed and, hence, erosion on the idled land.

In 1985, Congress, with strong support from the environmental community, created the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to reduce soil erosion and control overproduction of basic commodities. By 1990, there were some 14,000,000 hectares (35,000,000 acres) of highly erodible land in permanent vegetative cover under 10-year contracts. Under this program, farmers were paid to plant fragile cropland to grass or trees. The retirement of 14,000,000 hectares under the CRP, together with the use of conservation practices on 37% of all cropland, reduced soil erosion from 3,100,000,000 tons to 1,900,000,000 during a 15-year stretch. This approach to controlling soil erosion offers a model for the rest of the world.

Terracing, a time-tested method for dealing with water erosion, is common in rice paddies throughout the mountainous regions of Asia. On less steeply sloping land, contour strip farming, as found in the American Midwest, works well. Another utensil in the soil conservation tool kit--and a relatively new one--is conservation tillage, which includes both no-till and minimum tillage. In addition to reducing erosion, this practice helps retain water, raises soil carbon content, and reduces the energy needed for crop cultivation. Instead of plowing land, discing or harrowing it to prepare the seedbed, and then using a mechanical cultivator to control weeds, farmers simply drill seeds directly through crop residues into undisturbed soil, controlling weeds with herbicides.

In the U.S., where farmers were required to implement a soil conservation plan on erodible cropland to be eligible for commodity price supports, the no-till area went from 7,000,000 hectares in 1990 to 25,000,000 in 2004. Now widely used in the production of corn and soybeans, no-till has spread throughout the Western Hemisphere, covering 24,000,000 hectares in 2004 in Brazil, 18,000,000 in Argentina, and 13,000,000 in Canada. Australia, with 9,000,000 hectares, rounds out the five leading no-till countries.

Algeria, trying to halt the northward advance of the Sahara Desert, announced in December 2000 that it is concentrating its orchards and vineyards in the southern part of the country, hoping that these perennial plantings will halt the desertification of its cropland. In July 2005, the Moroccan government, responding to severe drought, announced that it was allocating $778,000,000 to cancel farmers' debts and to convert cereal-planted areas into less vulnerable olive and fruit orchards.

There are similar concerns about the expanding Sahara on the southern edge of the desert as well. Pres. Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria has proposed planting a Great Green Wall of trees, a band five kilometers wide stretching 7,000 kilometers across Africa, in an effort to halt the desert's advance. Senegal, which is on the western end of this proposed wall and is losing 50,000 hectares of productive land each year, strongly supports the idea. No one knows how long this project would take, but Senegalese Environment Minister Modou Fada Diagne observes, "Poverty and desertification create a vicious cycle.... Instead of waiting for the desert to come to us, we need to attack it."

In Inner Mongolia, efforts to halt the advancing desert and to reclaim the land for productive uses rely on planting desert shrubs to stabilize the sand dunes. In many situations, sheep and goats have been banned entirely. In Helin County, south of the provincial capital of Hohhot, the planting of desert shrubs on abandoned cropland has stabilized the soil on the county's first 7,000-hectare reclamation plot. Based on this success, the reclamation effort is being expanded. The Herin County strategy centers on replacing the large number of sheep and goats with dairy cattle, increasing the number of these animals from 30,000 in 2002 to 150,000 by the end of 2007. The cattle are kept in enclosed areas, feeding on cornstalks, wheat straw, and the harvest from a drought-tolerant forage crop resembling alfalfa, which is grown on reclaimed land. Local officials estimate that this program will double incomes within the county during this decade.

To relieve pressure on China's rangelands, Beijing is asking herders to reduce their flocks of sheep and goats by 40%. In communities where wealth is measured in livestock numbers and where most families are riving in poverty, such cuts are not easy or, indeed, likely, unless alternative livelihoods are offered pastoralists along the fines proposed in Helin County.

The only viable way to eliminate overgrazing on the two-fifths of the Earth's land surface classified as rangelands is to reduce the size of flocks and herds. Not only do the excessive numbers of cattle--particularly sheep and goats--remove the vegetation, but their hoofs pulverize the protective crest of soil that is formed by rainfall and that checks wind erosion. In some situations, the only viable option is to keep the animals in enclosures, bringing the forage to them. India, which successfully has adopted this practice for its thriving dairy industry, is the model for other countries.

Protecting the Earth's remaining vegetation also warrants a ban on the clearcutting of forests in favor of selective harvesting as, with each clearcut, there are heavy soil losses until the forest regenerates. Thus, with each subsequent cutting, productivity declines further. Restoring the Earth's tree and grass cover protects soil from erosion, reduces flooding, and sequesters carbon. It is one way we can restore the Earth so that it can support our children and grandchildren.

Lester R. Brown, Ecology Editor of USA Today, is president of Earth Policy Institute, Washington, D.C., and author of Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble and Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures.
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Title Annotation:EYE ON ECOLOGY
Author:Brown, Lester R.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2007
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