Soil Degradation: Conventional Causes
and Environmental Consequences

What is Soil Degradation and Why Should You Care about It?

Soil degradation is the inability of soil to support the growth of crops.

This agricultural problem could detrimentally impact our food and water supplies as well as the general sustenance of life.

Potential environmental consequences span from famine and water pollution to reductions in biodiversity and ecosystem efficiency.

What Degrades Soil and How Can You Help Prevent It?

The conventional production of agricultural goods (food, clothing, etc.) increases the rate of degraded soil.

Why? Because conventional farming techniques used in the production of those goods trigger soil degradation. (I will explain the details later on this page).

Thankfully, an alternative exists…

The organic production of agricultural goods decreases the rate of degraded soil.

Why? Because organic farming techniques used in the production of those goods prevent soil degradation.

(Find a FREE e-book that tells you all about this here!)

So, when you choose organic instead of conventional products, you help prevent soil degradation and the consequences it has on us and the environment!

You can also do your part by producing your own organic goods!

Find out how to grow your own organic food here. Discover how to make your own organic clothing here.

Soil Degradation: Conventional Farming Triggers and Environmental Consequences

I want you to have a deeper understanding about the pitfalls of the conventional production of agricultural products…

Therefore, on the rest of this page you will find an explanation of... specific conventional farming techniques trigger the various causes of soil degradation and the resulting environmental consequences.

My discussion commences with a major conventional farming method called monocropping…

Monocropping: The Soil-Unfriendly Standard on Conventional Farms

Monocropping (also called monoculture) makes up the blueprint of many conventional farms.

Monocropping is the continuous growth of a crop in the same location over a long period of time.

This repetitive agricultural technique triggers the following causes of soil degradation:

  • Soil infertility. When one type of crop is planted in the same location year after year, that crop gradually exhausts soil of the particular nutrients that it requires for growth, which results in soil infertility.
  • Vulnerability to pest attacks. When the same crop is continuously grown in a location for a long duration of time, the specific type of pest that that crop attracts will be repeatedly drawn to it.

Now I will explain how these factors degrade soil and the resulting environmental consequences.

The soil infertility that results from monocropping degrades soil, since infertile soil cannot support the growth of crops.

A lack of soil fertility increases…

  • The risk of famine. Monocropping reduces the soil fertility that plants need for growth. As crop yields decrease, the risk of famine increases.

    Click here to learn more about the crucial connection between soil fertility and our food supplies.
  • The reliance on toxic synthetic fertilizers. Conventional farmers turn to synthetic fertilizers in order to replenish soil with nutrients that are lost due to monocropping, and in turn, increase crop yields.

    However, heavy applications of synthetic fertilizers indirectly cause soil degradation. Here’s how…

    Synthetic fertilizers are petrochemical products that may harm humans and other living things, including those in the soil.

    Many of these soil organisms naturally increase soil fertility.

    So, when conventional farmers try to remedy soil infertility with synthetic fertilizers, they are actually increasing the problem by harming these beneficial soil organisms.

    Harming soil organisms is also one of the main, direct causes of degradation, resulting in other environmental risks than the soil infertility I mention here.

    Scroll down to the “Harm to Soil Organisms…” section to learn more.

    You can also learn more about the toxicity of synthetic fertilizers here.
The vulnerability to pest attacks that results from monocropping is a less obvious, but major cause of soil degradation.

Why? Because the consequences of this problem indirectly trigger many main factors that render soil unable to support crop growth. Let me explain…

Pest-susceptible crops increase:

  • The use of toxic synthetic pesticides. The vulnerability of crops to pests that results from monocropping leads to an increase of insect, weed, and other pest attacks.

    To remedy this problem, conventional farmers use synthetic pesticides, a toxic form of pest control.

    Like synthetic fertilizers, pesticides are petrochemical products that can kill living things including beneficial soil organisms.

    You can learn more about the toxicity of synthetic pesticides here.

    Synthetic pesticides indirectly degrade soil by harming the beneficial soil organisms whose presence are crucial for the soil fertility and soil structure needed to support the growth of crops.

    Killing soil organisms is a direct, main cause of soil degradation.

    Scroll down to the “Harm to Soil Organisms…” section to learn more.
  • The demand for intensive tillage. Along with synthetic pesticides, conventional farmers also use intensive tillage techniques in order to control the prevalence of weeds and other pests that result from monocropping.

    (Tillage refers to the mechanical manipulation of soil with different tools such as hoes and plows in order to prepare it for successful crop cultivation.)

    Intensive tillage indirectly degrades soil, by increasing the rate of soil erosion, the most noted cause of soil degradation.

    Scroll down to the “Harm to Soil Organisms…” and “More on Soil Erosion…” sections to learn more.

    Additionally, similar to when they apply synthetic pesticides and fertilizers to their crops, conventional farmers also kill soil organisms when they use intensive tillage techniques such as tilling the ground with heavy machines like plows...
...I know I have mentioned soil organisms a lot and that harming them is a bad thing…

Now I will discuss why in detail…

Harm to Soil Organisms = Harm to Soil

So now you know that the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, as well as intensive tillage are the conventional farming techniques that kill or harm soil organisms.

But how specifically does killing off these organisms cause soil degradation? And what are the environmental consequences?

Let me explain…

  • No soil organisms = less soil fertility. Soil organisms promote soil fertility (learn how on the soil life page). Harming soil organisms reduces soil fertility, and crop yields decrease.

    As you know, soil infertility is a major direct cause of soil degradation. Infertile soil that cannot support the growth of crops is degraded soil.

    I also already mentioned that the environmental consequences of soil infertility include an increased risk of famine and an elevated use of synthetic fertilizers.

    Lastly, I will write again, conventional farmers actually perpetuate soil infertility in their attempt to remedy it with synthetic fertilizers.

    These petrochemical products kill the beneficial soil organisms that could have naturally replenished soil with the nutrients required for crop growth.
  • No soil organisms =less ecosystem efficiency and biodiversity. Soil organisms like earthworms and bacteria are involved in the breakdown of organic matter.

    Earthworms break down organic matter so that smaller decomposer bacteria can convert it into inorganic nutrients that plants can absorb as food.

    This example supports my statement above that without soil organisms, soil degradation caused by soil infertility increases, since these organisms are crucial for nourishing soil with nutrients that plants need for growth.

    Click here to learn in detail how soil organisms promote soil fertility.

    This example also briefs how earthworms, bacteria and other living things as well as the nonliving parts of an ecosystem constantly exchange energy and matter in order to sustain life.

    When conventional farmers kill such organisms, the environmental consequence is that their interdependent activities are disrupted and the ecosystem efficiency that we need to sustain life decreases.

    Learn more on the ecosystem definition page.

    By harming the soil organisms on their crops, conventional farmers also decrease biodiversity (the large array of living things on the planet).

    This reduction is an alarming environmental consequence, since biodiversity is crucial for our sustenance.

    Learn about the importance of biodiversity here.
  • No soil organisms = more soil erosion. When conventional farmers harm soil organisms, they also trigger soil erosion, the main cause of soil degradation.

    Soil organisms assist the development of a stable soil structure. (Learn how soil organisms promote soil structure here).

    When these organisms are harmed or killed off by conventional farming techniques, soil is more likely to be carried away (erode).

    Soil degradation can be viewed as resulting from a defect in the quality of soil that adversely impacts crop growth.

    However, soil erosion is such a renowned cause of degradation, because it does not simply degrade soil quality. Instead, erosion causes soil to not be present to support the growth of crops in the first place!
…But what are the environmental consequences of soil erosion?

...In what other ways do conventional farming techniques trigger erosion?

More on Soil Erosion: Direct Conventional Triggers and Environmental Consequences

Now you know a major way that conventional farmers degrade soil is by triggering soil erosion.

I mentioned that the petrochemical products (synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) as well as the intensive tillage that conventional farmers use indirectly increase the occurrence of soil erosion by harming the soil organisms that help to develop a stable soil structure.

Direct Conventional Triggers

Additionally, intensive tillage techniques that require the use of plows and other heavy machinery directly trigger soil erosion by prompting soil compaction to occur.

Soil should have a porous structure, which enables it to soak up water. This capacity to hold water enables soil to stay in place.

However, when soil becomes compacted, it is less able to absorb water. This reduced ability to retain water increases the likelihood that soil will be carried away (erode).

Environmental Consequences of Triggering Soil Erosion

Now you know the ways in which several conventional farming techniques indirectly and directly render soil unable to remain in place where it should be supporting the growth of crops.

What consequences result from not keeping soil put?... 

  • Raised risk of famine. A loss of soil due to erosion detrimentally impacts plants since they depend on soil to hold them in place and to provide them with nutrients that they need for growth.

    As a result of soil erosion, crop yields decrease, which raises the risk of famine.
  • Increase of water pollution. Where does soil often end up when it erodes? In our fresh surface water—where soil throws aquatic ecosystems off balance and contaminates our drinking water.

    Even worse, the soil that erodes off of conventional farms also contaminates our drinking water with toxic synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

    Click here to learn more about water pollution.
What else does water have to do with soil degradation?...

More on Water: The Over-Use of this Natural Resource

Now you know that triggering soil erosion is a major way that conventional farmers pollute water.

Conventional farmers also frequently over-irrigate their crops, which not only pollutes water, but also wastes water.

Over-irrigation contributes to the mass amount of water that is used for agriculture.

Click here to discover this statistic that will confirm why conventional farmers’ lack of effort to conserve water is a big problem.

But how is the over-use of water a major cause of soil degradation? How does over-irrigation waste and pollute water? And what are the other environmental consequences of this conventional farming technique? Let me explain…

The over-use of water:

  • Wastes water. Over-irrigation inundates crops with a surplus of water. Water is wasted, since soil does not have time to absorb the excess water.
  • Triggers soil erosion. What happens to the unabsorbed excess water? It runs off the crop surface, carrying soil with it.

    This soil erosion triggered by the over-use of water is a major cause of degraded soil. As I discussed earlier, the consequences of erosion include famine and water pollution.
  • Pollutes Soil. Conventional farmers also pollute soil when they over-use water.

    After crops have been over-irrigated, salinization (an overabundance of salt) occurs in soil.

    This surplus of salt is a chemical pollution of soil that leads to soil infertility, which as you know, is a major cause of soil degradation.

    You also know that the consequences of soil infertility include an elevated risk of famine and an increased reliance on toxic synthetic fertilizers that harm soil organisms...

    ...(and harming soil organisms is a main cause of soil degradation in itself.)

On a Brighter Note…How You Can Help Conserve Soil

…Now you know that conventional farming techniques used in the production of agricultural goods degrade soil. And that degraded soil can be costly for the environment.

You can help prevent this agricultural problem and its negative impact on the environment by…

Choosing organic products instead or by making your own organic goods since…

The organic agricultural methods used to produce these goods conserve soil. And soil conservation prevents soil degradation.

Click here for a FREE e-book that explains how organic farming techniques differ from conventional agricultural methods in their guard against soil degradation.

Click here for tips on how you can conserve soil when you make your own organic goods.

Return from Soil Degradation to Organic Instead home page.