How Does Soil Erosion Affect Crop Productivity & How Do You Fight It?

Soil Erosion

In the U.S. Midwest alone, soil erosion translates to $2B in economic loss or a 6% decline in productivity for farmers. In fact, according to UMass Amherst Professor, Isaac Larsen, "Sixty billion metric tons of topsoil in the Midwest has been lost over the past 160 years." 

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) calls soil erosion the single biggest threat to global food security, with an estimated 33% of the world’s soil already degraded due to erosion.  

Soil erosion is a significant problem because it leads to the loss of fertile topsoil. When topsoil is lost, the remaining soil is often less fertile, more compact, and less able to hold onto moisture and nutrients, making it difficult for crops to grow.  

In this blog, we will discuss: 

  1. How soil erosion is affecting farmers? 
  2. How soil erosion is affecting the environment? 
  3. Leading causes of soil erosion. 
  4. Potential solutions to offset soil erosion. 


How Does Soil Erosion Affect Farmers and Crop Productivity? 

American farmers don’t have to think back too far to remember one of the worst events in farming history – the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Characterized by severe soil erosion and drought, massive dust storms swept across the American Great Plains, damaging crops and causing significant economic and environmental damage.  

While today’s farmers aren’t facing a dust bowl, they are facing productivity losses that not only affect today’s crops. but the quality of crops their children and grandchildren can grow.  

According to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, soil erosion has reduced wheat and corn yields in the United States by 6% and 3% respectively. In the American Midwest, some studies report that productivity loss caused by erosion equates to a loss of $2 billion per year. Globally, the FAO estimates that worldwide erosion losses amount to about $400 billion per year in agricultural productivity.  

How does soil erosion effect crop production? When soil erodes, valuable nutrients and organic matter are lost from the soil. Soil structure is changed and diminished. Soil water storing capacity, and the ability to store nutrients are reduced, making it more difficult for crops to obtain water and nutrients. Here are four key ways soil erosion can hamper crop productivity: 

  1. Reduces yields - When soil erodes, erosion can reduce crop yields by removing nutrients, organic matter, and topsoil. Soil erosion removes topsoil with associated nutrients and organic matter resulting in reduced crop yields.

  2. Leads to uneven crop growth – Soil erosion can lead to uneven crop growth as some areas of the field may be more affected by erosion than others. Soil topography can direct the flow of water and wind causing uneven patterns of erosion resulting in variations of crop growth patterns, areas of crop loss, and areas rendered untillable. 

  3. Increases soil compaction – When soil erodes, damage to soil structure can result in soil compaction, making it harder for plant roots to penetrate and access nutrients and water. This can lead to stunted plant growth and reduced yields. 

  4. Increases potential input costs – Farmers may need to apply more fertilizer and other inputs to compensate for the loss of soil health quality.  


How Does Soil Erosion Affect the Environment? 

According to the United Nations, “Every 5 seconds, the equivalent of one soccer field is lost due to soil erosion.” Not only does soil erosion lead to major strains on our agricultural system, but it can also negatively affect the environment. Here are five key ways soil erosion damages our environment: 

  1. Increases flooding - Damage to soil structure and changes in soil topography result in a reduction of water-holding capacity. This can increase the risk of flooding. 

  2. Reduces water quality - Soil erosion can lead to increased sedimentation in waterways, which can lead to decreased water quality and impact aquatic life. The U.S. EPA states that sedimentation is a major cause of water quality impairment in rivers and streams in the United States. 

  3. Increases air pollution – Soil erosion can release dust particles into the air, reducing air quality. 

  4. Reduces carbon sequestration – As soil health is reduced, the soil is less able to sequester carbon and mitigate climate change.  

  5. Leads to a loss of biodiversity – Damage to habitat caused by soil erosion can result in the loss of plant and animal species in the immediate area of the erosion and areas downwind and down water from the area of erosion. 


What are the leading causes of soil erosion? 

Understanding what causes soil erosion can also help us combat the negative effects soil erosion has on farm productivity and the environment. Here are five of the leading causes of soil erosion:

  1. Water - Where soil is exposed and unprotected, heavy rain can cause soil particles to be washed away. Runoff from fields and construction sites can carry soil away and deposit it in waterways. 

  2. Wind - In arid regions with little vegetation, or where the area is exposed, strong winds can blow away loose soil particles.

  3. Tillage - Tilling can disrupt soil structure and make it more prone to erosion. 

  4. Deforestation - Clearing forests can lead to soil erosion as vegetation is not there to hold the soil in place.

  5. Other causes - Overgrazing, construction, and changes in weather can cause or worsen soil erosion.  


What are potential solutions to offsetting soil erosion? 

Most solutions to fight soil erosion fall back on the farmer to implement. The United States government offers financial incentives to farmers that incorporate some of these practices, including cover crops and no-till agriculture. 

Here are five potential solutions to offsetting soil erosion on the farm: 

  1. Reducing tilling practices – Implementing reduced or no-till agriculture methods maintains crop coverage and/or crop residue on the soil surface. This method of agriculture eliminates or diminishes soil-disturbing practices such as plowing. No-till holds soil in place when faced with wind or flowing water. Ultimately, it doesn’t just reduce soil erosion but increases soil quality and nutrient retention in the ground for the following season. 

  2. Implementing cover crops – The use of cover crops is a component of no-till agriculture. Cover crop helps keep the soil covered, holding the soil in place. It also provides other benefits such as weed suppression and nutrient cycling, and depending on the cover crop used provides an additional source of revenue. 

  3. Adding conservation buffers – These might include adding grassed runways or other areas of vegetation along field edges or near waterways to enable and guide water runoff with no or reduced erosion, filter sediment, and reduce wind erosion. 

  4. Utilizing products that improve soil quality, such as microbials – Utilizing products that improve soil quality can also combat soil erosion. Microbial products that contain the appropriate strains of microbes can break down organic matter, release nutrients and improve soil structure long term. All these benefits help combat soil erosion on the farm.  

  5. Incorporating other agricultural practices, including terracing and contour farming
Posted by Kaitlyn Ersek on Mar 30, 2023 10:00:00 AM

Kaitlyn Ersek

Topics: agriculture

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