Tuesday Talks with Dr. Patterson

January 27, 2015

Don’t Call it Dirt

Former Professor of Agronomy Dr. Joe Hood, who taught Auburn University’s Basic Soil Science course for several decades, would admonish his students to not refer to soil as dirt – “Don’t call it dirt.”  As a soil scientist he understood how the complex structure of soils contributed to their productive capacity for plant growth, while also providing valuable environmental benefits.  He recognized soil as too valuable a resource to characterize it as dirt.  The United Nations too has recognized the great importance of soils and has declared 2015 as the International Year of Soils.  At a kick-off ceremony on December 5, 2014 in Rome, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva said, “healthy soils are critical for global food production, but we are not paying enough attention to this important silent ally” (Matz).

 The FAO makes several compelling arguments for paying more attention to soils.  First, it is a resource that is in fixed supply.  Currently, there are about 0.4 acres of arable land per person in the world.  As the world’s population grows by an estimated two billion during the next 40 years, this same, and perhaps less, amount of arable land will be required to produce more food.  Indeed, the amount of productive land per person in 2050 is estimated to be only one-fourth the amount that was available in 1960 (FAO).  Second, the FAO estimates that about one-third of all the earth’s soils are degraded due to erosion, compaction, soil sealing (soil covered with buildings, roads, or other urban and industrial developments), salinization, nutrient depletion, acidification, or pollution (FAO).  One U.N. official suggested that under current practices, the earth’s top soil could be gone in 60 years (Arsenault).  Third, soils are not only valuable for their role in crop production, but they also play an important role in our ecosystems by storing carbon, storing and filtering water, and improving the lands’ resilience against floods and droughts (FAO).  By declaring 2015 as the International Year of Soils, the U.N. and partner institutions hope to:

  •  Raise the awareness among society and policy makers about the importance of soil for human life;
  • Promote effective policies and actions for sustainable management and protection of soil resources;
  • Promote investment in sustainable soil management; and
  • Encourage soil health information and monitoring at all levels of government (Matz).

 The U.S. Department of Agriculture has partnered with FAO in the International Year of Soils campaign and has a long interest in soil conservation.  Persistent drought conditions in the Great Plains beginning in 1932, led to extensive soil erosion caused by wind, resulting in the Great Dust Bowl.  In May 1934, a wind storm blew soil particles from the Great Plains into a cloud that eventually moved over Washington, DC, darkening the city, and then 200 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean.  This occurred as Congress was holding hearings on developing soil conservation laws.  On April 27, 1935, Congress passed Public Law 74-46, which recognized that “the wastage of soil and moisture resources on farm, grazing, and forest lands … is a menace to the national welfare.”  This law formed the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) as a permanent agency in the USDA.  In 1994, the SCS was renamed the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).  Throughout its history NRCS has worked in partnership with farmers, ranchers, local and state governments and other federal agencies to maintain healthy and productive landscapes.  Often these programs are administered in the form of government payments made for the adoption of certain soil and resource conserving practices.  These practices extend to the improvement of water resources and wildlife habitat. (NRCS)

 In addition to conserving soil by preventing erosion, some scientists and agricultural leaders are now discussing the concept of soil health, which looks at the structure of soils and the complex system of organisms living in soil which enhance its productive capacity (Farm Foundation).  It is estimated that one-quarter of the world’s biodiversity lives underground.  These organisms play crucial roles in nutrient cycling and some play an important role in enhancing plant growth.

 Conserving the productive capacity of our soils is the ultimate sustainability challenge facing agriculture, as their productive capacity is not just important to today’s generation, but to all generations that follow.  So, with increased concern about future global food security, it is appropriate to pay closer attention to the most basic resource supporting crop production – our soils.  And remember, don’t call it dirt.



 Arsenault, Chris.  “Only 60 Years of Farming Left if Soil Degradation Continues.”  Yahoo New, December 5, 2014. (Accessed January 25, 2015): http://news.yahoo.com/only-60-years-farming-left-soil-degradation-continues-165713221.html

 Farm Foundation.  The Soil Renaissance: Knowledge to Sustain Earth’s Most Valuable Asset.  (Accessed January 25, 2015): https://www.farmfoundation.org/webcontent/The-Soil-Renaissance-Knowledge-to-Sustain-Earths-Most-Valuable-Asset-1873.aspx

 Food and Agriculture Organization.  “Nothing Dirty Here: FAO Kicks off International Year of Soils 2015.”  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.  (Accessed January 25, 2015):  http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/270812/icode/

 Matz, Marshall.  “2015: The Year of Soils.”  Agri-Pulse, December 21, 2014.  (Accessed January 25, 2015): http://www.agri-pulse.com/Matz-2015-The-year-of-soils-12222014.asp

 Natural Resources Conservation Service.  History of NRCS.  Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDA.  (Accessed January 25, 2015): http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/about/history/


Dr. Paul Patterson is Associate Dean for Instruction for the College of Agriculture and Professor of Agricultural Economics.