The Battle for Land and Water

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If you want to grow food, you’ll need fertile land and a reliable supply of water. It’s important to realize that these two resources are very tightly linked and neither is infinite. When either is compromised, food is harder to grow and bad things start to happen. Farmland has been a cause for conflict throughout history, but as agriculture has industrialized and cities have grown, the main casualty of this battle is the earth itself. (Friedmann, 2015)

In Full Planet, Empty Plates, Lester Brown estimates that nearly one-third of earth’s topsoil is being destroyed faster than it can form on its own. Surface soil slowly becomes fertile as plant matter decomposes and silt is deposited, but this layer of nutritious soil isn’t very thick and it forms over centuries rather than years. Humans work very quickly on a geological time scale, especially since tractors and plumbing were invented. When the topsoil is gone, the land transforms into a desert. (Brown, 2012)

The ‘Dust Bowl’ of 1930’s America is a good example of wind erosion escalating to gigantic dust storms and widespread desertification. The same thing is happening now in high-altitude China and Mongolia. Prevailing east-west winds can carry dust particles hundreds of miles away from the now-expanding Gobi desert to massive cities like Beijing and Seoul. (Brown, 2012)

Dust storm approaching Spearman, Texas on April 14, 1935. (US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Wikimedia Commons)

Erosion is a natural result of wind and precipitation, but humans do damage that accelerates the process. Large-scale farming leaves the soil vulnerable by repeated overgrazing, burning chaff, improper terracing, or overuse of plowing and irrigation. (Brown, 2012)

Water is an even more complicated issue because of how precipitation affects erosion. California recently experienced the region’s worst drought in hundreds of years and the impacts are becoming apparent. Lack of rain caused vegetation to die off and wildfires to rage across the state, leaving vast areas completely unprotected. Since California’s cities and agriculture also need a steady water supply, this must be diverted from local streams and shrinking aquifers. Meanwhile, the eroded soil is washed into streams where turbid water has decimated the once-important salmon industry. (Egan, 2015)

A Fendt tractor raising dust on a field in Eastern Germany. 24 September 2009. (Bomenius, Wikipedia Commons)

It isn’t easy to decide how a limited supply of water is used. Many Californians have become critical of the almond industry since it alone uses enough water to satisfy 75 percent of the state’s population. New dams would need to be built for agriculture to keep expanding, but dam projects have been met with fierce environmentalist opposition. City residents vastly outnumber rural farmers, so California’s agriculture could lose out if water is ever determined by a vote. (Egan, 2015)

This battle between agriculture and environment isn’t unique to California. In fact, political borders you see on a map have almost nothing to do with the landscape ecology. The productivity of farmland is measured in unnatural ways as well, like the maximum output of a monoculture crop each year. Modern society is only beginning to study how native peoples managed food crops based on the surrounding environment, and this is the most sensible direction to go if we want to protect the environment while maximizing food production (Friedmann, 2015). The future of humanity depends on these vital resources – food, land, and water – but can all three be protected?

Works cited:
Brown, L. (2012). Full planet, empty plates: The new geopolitics of food scarcity (First ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Egan, T. (2015, May 5). The end of california? The New York Times. Retrieved March 16, 2018, from
Friedmann, H. (2015). Governing land and landscapes: Political ecology of enclosures and commons. Canadian Food Studies / La Revue Canadienne Des éTudes Sur L’alimentation, 2(2), 23-31. doi:

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