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, 104 (33), 13268-72

Soil Erosion and Agricultural Sustainability

Affiliations

Soil Erosion and Agricultural Sustainability

David R Montgomery. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A.

Abstract

Data drawn from a global compilation of studies quantitatively confirm the long-articulated contention that erosion rates from conventionally plowed agricultural fields average 1-2 orders of magnitude greater than rates of soil production, erosion under native vegetation, and long-term geological erosion. The general equivalence of the latter indicates that, considered globally, hillslope soil production and erosion evolve to balance geologic and climate forcing, whereas conventional plow-based agriculture increases erosion rates enough to prove unsustainable. In contrast to how net soil erosion rates in conventionally plowed fields ( approximately 1 mm/yr) can erode through a typical hillslope soil profile over time scales comparable to the longevity of major civilizations, no-till agriculture produces erosion rates much closer to soil production rates and therefore could provide a foundation for sustainable agriculture.

Conflict of interest statement

The author declares no conflict of interest.

Figures

Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.
Comparison of rates of soil erosion from agricultural fields under conventional agriculture (n = 448) and geologic erosion rates from low-gradient continental cratons (n = 218), soil-mantled landscapes (n = 663), and alpine terrain (n = 44) (sources are listed in SI). Soil erosion rates reported in various units were converted to equivalent lowering rates assuming a soil bulk density of 1,200 kg/m3. Shaded area represents range of the USDA. T values (0.4–1.0 mm/yr) were used to define tolerable soil loss.
Fig. 2.
Fig. 2.
Probability plots of rates of soil erosion from agricultural fields under conventional (e.g., tillage) and conservation agriculture (e.g., terracing and no-till methods), with erosion rates from areas and plots under native vegetation, rates of soil production, and geologic rates of erosion (a composite distribution of the data for cratons, soil-mantled landscapes, and alpine areas in Fig. 1). Data sources for agricultural and geologic rates are the same as for Fig. 1. Shaded area represents range of USDA. T values (0.4–1.0 mm/yr) were used to define tolerable soil loss.
Fig. 3.
Fig. 3.
Box-and-whiskers plot showing the range of reported increases in erosion rate for studies reporting direct comparisons of erosion under conventional agriculture vs. native vegetation for comparable settings (n = 46, median = 18, mean = 124, minimum = 1.3, maximum = 1,878). Data include studies that reported both rates individually and those that simply reported a ratio between erosion rates under native vegetation and conventional cultivation.
Fig. 4.
Fig. 4.
Box-and-whiskers plot showing the range of reported decreases in erosion rate for studies reporting direct comparisons of conventional tillage and no-till practices for comparable settings (n = 39, median = 20, mean = 488, minimum = 2.5, maximum = 7,620). Data include studies that reported both rates individually and those that simply reported a ratio between erosion rates under conventional or no-till cultivation.
Fig. 5.
Fig. 5.
Critical time (Tc) required to erode a soil profile of differing initial thickness (S) for different net soil erosion rates set by the difference between rates of soil erosion (E) and production (P), defined by Tc = S/(E−P).

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