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World Crisis in Agriculture

Government leaders worldwide have been jolted.
They have suddenly come face-to-face with a
dangerous — yet little understood — crisis in agriculture.
How did it develop?
Why were we not told before?
Where is it leading — and what is the solution?


AGRICULTURE is the oldest, biggest and most basic occupation of man. It has played a vital role in the rise and fall of every great civilization in history. It still employs an estimated two-thirds of the human race.

And it provides you with your daily bread.

But today agriculture is in deep trouble.

It is facing a crisis which even now is affecting the cost and the quality of the food on your dinner table.


A False Assumption

It is easy to see that widespread disease and famine loom on the horizon for the poor, "have not" areas of the world. But few are aware that an agricultural crisis of equal — and possibly greater — magnitude is in prospect for that third of the world we call the "have" nations.

We in the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, South Africa and the other "have" areas of the world are dazzled by the storybook pronouncements of "scientific agriculture." We have become so accustomed to talk about "burdensome surpluses" that we seem to believe we are immune to a food crisis.

But in the very near future, the growing crisis in agriculture could easily cause YOU to be numbered among the seriously sick and diseased — or among those hapless millions who go to bed at night with empty aching stomachs.


Seven Inches from Starvation!

No matter who you are or where you live, you must eat food to continue your physical existence. Ultimately ALL your food comes directly or indirectly from the soil and, more specifically, from the top few inches of earth known as topsoil.

This life-sustaining topsoil lies in a thin layer at an average depth of seven or eight inches over the face of the land. In some few areas it may be as deep as two feet or more; in many other areas it is considerably less than even seven or eight inches (Bennett, Soil Conservation, p. 5).

"If that layer of topsoil could be represented on a 24-inch globe it would be as a film three-millionths of one inch thick. That thin film is all that stands between man and extinction" (Mickey, Man and the Soil, pages 17-18).

This thin layer of earth sustains ALL PLANT, ANIMAL AND HUMAN LIFE!

Previous civilizations have already destroyed much of it, and today we are depleting and destroying that which remains at a faster rate than at any previous time in human history.

Look for a moment at what man has done to the soil.


The Record of History

The valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates supported some of the greatest civilizations of old. A great irrigation complex was based on these rivers. These rich lands were the granary of the great Babylonian Empire. Pliny, the Roman naturalist and writer, tells of harvesting two annual crops of grain on this land and grazing sheep on the land between crops.

Today, less than 20 percent of the land in modern Iraq — site of these two famous valleys — is cultivated. The landscape is dotted with mounds representing forgotten towns, the ancient irrigation works are filled with silt (the end product of soil erosion), and the ancient seaport of Ur is now 150 miles from the sea with its old buildings buried under as much as 35 feet of silt.

Similar conditions exist in Iran, once the seat of the great Persian Empire.

The valley of the Nile was another cradle of civilization. Every year the river overflowed its banks at a predictable time, bringing water to the land and depositing a layer of silt rich in mineral nutrients for plants. Crops could be grown for seven months each year, and extensive irrigation systems were established by 2000 B.C. This land became the granary of the Roman Empire, and this system of agriculture flourished for another 2,000 years.

But the population has continued to grow, and economic considerations have diverted land from growing food to growing cash crops such as cotton.

Then in 1902 a dam was built at Aswan to prevent the spring flood and to permit year-round irrigation. Since then the soils have been deteriorating through salinization, and productivity has decreased. The new Aswan high dam is designed to bring another million acres under irrigation. If other forces did not bring about destruction first, the dam could become the ultimate disaster for Egypt. Aside from salinization, population growth has virtually outstripped any possibility that the new agricultural land can raise the average level of nutrition.

The Sahara desert was once forested and inhabited. The glories of ancient Mali and Ghana in West Africa were legends in medieval Europe. Ancient Greece had forested hills, ample water, and productive soils.

In Lebanon the old Roman roads which have prevented erosion of the soil beneath them now stand several feet above the desert floor. But in a church yard protected from goats for 300 years, cedars were found in 1940 to be flourishing as in ancient times.

"In China the evidence is plainer. The Chinese had one of the greatest and earliest of civilizations. Today they are a poverty-stricken, and helpless people. Tens of millions of them are crowded into flat muddy valleys and other millions of them huddle in house boats on rivers which run yellow with soil from their hillsides". (Soil Erosion Control, Burges, pages 1-2)

"Probably no worse eroded region exists in the world than northwest China. The channel on the Yellow River is choked with silt and its floods are catastrophic in character". (Man and the Soil, p. 37)

"In China and India, ancient irrigation systems stand abandoned and filled with silt," Dr. Lamont C. Cole told a symposium sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "When the British assumed the rule of India two centuries ago the population was about 60 million. Today it is about 500 million and most of its land problems have been created in the past century through deforestation and plowing and the resulting erosion and siltation, all stemming from efforts to support this fantastic population growth."

Speaking of Central and South America, Dr. Cole said, "Archaeologists have long wondered how the Mayas managed to support what was obviously a high civilization on the now unproductive soils of Guatemala and Yucatan. Evidently they exploited their land as intensively as possible until both its fertility and their civilization collapsed. In parts of Mexico the water table has fallen so that towns originally located to take advantage of superior springs now must carry in water from distant sites . . . Aerial reconnaissance has revealed ancient ridged fields on flood plains, the remnants of a ,specialized system of agriculture that physically reshaped large parts of the South American continent."

Today we call these areas of the world underdeveloped. We ought to call them overdeveloped!


The Lesson of Rome

Although the record is not complete, more is known about the progress of soil depletion in the Roman Empire than in the ancient civilizations of western Asia. What is known makes an invaluable case history.

The soils of Italy started to decline before the reign of Augustus (called the golden age of Rome), and by the time of the fall of the Western Empire, some 500 years later, the soils not only of Italy but of all the provinces except Egypt were completely exhausted. In England evidences of Roman cultivation have been found, in places, five feet below the present surface.

Largely as a result of Roman exploitation, there are today no forests on the Mediterranean coast from Spain to Palestine (Vanishing Lands, Jacks and Whyte, p. 80-81). Typical of this region is the North Dalmatian coast where the hills were once magnificently clothed with primeval forests. The Romans and the Illyrians, the earliest inhabitants, began the destruction of the forests. The first Slav settlers were prodigal, too. The denudation of the hills was completed by the Venetians, from about 1400 to 1700, who cut the trees for timber for their ships and piling for their palaces. The Yugoslav government was unable to reforest the hills because the young trees not uprooted by the savage north winds of winter were eaten by the goats of the peasants.

Before the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 A. D., the agricultural regions of Italy and the provinces were nearly depopulated. The exhausted, eroded soil simply could not support the population and the terrific weight of imperial taxation.

Until modern America came on the scene, the world had never known a more exhausting exploitation of both man and soil than that of the Roman Empire. As we have just seen, the results of Rome's avarice are visible yet today in the eroded hills of Greece and the Mediterranean coast, in the sands of North Africa and Western Asia.

Yet thirty years ago Kellog reported that some soils in Italy had completely recovered and were producing more than they ever did. Also, some soils in Central Europe and England have been farmed for centuries not only without injury, but with yields steadily increasing for the past 150 years (The Soils that Support Us, p. 269).

WHY? How did this recovery come about? And why is it that the soils of Central Europe and England have not suffered erosion comparable to that of other areas?


The Golden Age of Abundance

Following Rome's self-destruction, Europe in the Middle Ages was always on the verge of starvation. No progress was made in maintaining soil fertility.

During the 18th century, Central Europe's soils were showing severe deterioration.

But since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the world has had a larger food supply than it ever had before. The 19th century was the golden age of abundance. If you wonder why this abundance came about just at this point in history, write for our free book, The United States and The British Commonwealth in Prophecy.

Except for this relatively brief period, food has been man's chief preoccupation throughout history. Now this age of abundance is rapidly drawing to a close. Already two-thirds to three-fourths of the human race are again underfed and undernourished.

Two factors made the 19th century an era of spectacular abundance of food. While Europe was undergoing an industrial revolution, it is often overlooked that it was simultaneously undergoing an agricultural revolution.

Substitution of grasses and legumes for bare fallow, contour cultivation and good crop rotations were three important conservation practices which were adopted. Further, agriculture shifted from a soil-depleting grain economy to a soil-building livestock economy. Devoting large acreages to permanent improved pasturage not only greatly increased Europe's food production, but gave an unparalleled stability to her soils — a stability maintained despite two world wars. This stabilization was aided by the fact that soils in Central Europe are generally heavy and not as easily erodible. Also, the rainfall is regular, frequent, and gentle, as contrasted with the heavier and more irregular rains that prevail in most parts of the U.S.

But there is also this most important fact which must be considered: SOIL STABILITY IN EUROPE WAS PURCHASED AT THE EXPENSE OF THE RUTHLESS EXPLOITATION OF THE SOILS IN THE NEW CONTINENTS. (Food or Famine, p. 5) The dramatic agricultural revolution which fed the new European masses fathered by the machine age was important. But even more important was the European colonization of the rich new fertile lands — the Americas, Africa and Australia — and the opening up of the black lands of Russia.

This colonization took place coincidentally with the perfecting of machine exploitation of the soil and with the development of rail and ocean transport of food crops to the ends of the earth.

With this combination of machine tillage and rapid transport, the vast new lands became the granary of the world. Their produce could be moved quickly to feed the swiftly growing industrial population of the capitalist countries or to alleviate famine in India or China.

The soils and resources of the new frontiers — and especially North America — seemed inexhaustible. But not for long!


The Last Frontier

Shamefully the New World had been exploited and abused. The white settlers had scarcely set foot on the North American continent before the menace of soil sacrifice appeared. By 1685, streams muddy with silt were seen and increased floods, due to cutting down the forests, were observed. Undaunted, the destruction of field and forest continued.

Washington and Jefferson — among a host of other early American leaders — were alarmed by what they saw taking place around them. They crusaded against destructive farming practices in word and deed, but to no avail. The rape of the New World continued — and accelerated. When one tract of land wore out, new land was always available just a little to the west. "Every social and economic force seemed to encourage the spread of American agriculture. The invention of McCormick's reaper, in 1831, and the other inventions of farm machinery that followed it made possible the cultivation of more and more acres. When the iron plow proved inefficient in the sticky prairie soil, the self-scouring steel plow appeared in 1837 to accelerate the westward march of agriculture". (Man and the Soil, p. 46)

Some few, such as Marsh, a Vermont lawyer and scholar, wrote with the ringing tones of a prophet, warning that the way man was going was "as to threaten the depravation, barbarism, and perhaps even extinction of the species" (The Earth as Modified by Human Action, p. 43). But all such warnings were ignored.

"Between 1889 and 1906 the Oklahoma territory was opened to farmers. It was the last great area of restricted public farmland . . . . Access to free land had been the safety valve which had relieved the pressure of unemployment and economic distress". (Man and the Soil, p. 48)

Now all this was about to change. Throughout history, when man had worn out land in one area, he had moved to another. Now, for the first time, there was no rich, new agricultural land to which man could go. The last significant frontier in the U.S. had been reached!