Soil use, sustainability and conservation

by Dr J Floor Anthoni (2000)

Soil is our most important resource, and also the most maligned and misunderstood. The world population will double in a mere forty years, but agricultural output is not keeping up with demand. In the process, precious soil is lost, waterways and coastal seas polluted. Humans obviously need to be much more knowledgeable about this problem. What is soil? Where does it come from? What kinds of soil exist? Are all soils fertile? How does soil work? Can all places on the planet be farmed? How much food can the planet make? How do we lose soil? How can we prevent erosion? What damage is caused by erosion? What is sustainability? Can soil be farmed sustainably? What can we do?


introduction Introduction to this section on soil and erosion. If you're in a hurry, read this first. (on this page, 4 pages)
dependence The human race depends on its agricultural soil for food. As the population doubles and the soils degrade, it will become a race between technology and dwindling natural resources in order to save mankind. (9 pages)
geology Soils originate from the cauldron of Earth and are recycled and redistributed by the conveyor belts of plate tectonics. Although basic elements are fairly evenly spread, the rocks that contain them, are not. Soil is formed very slowly from the bedrock, under influence of climate and life. (10 pages)
ecology One of the most important factors in soil formation and nutrient cycling is the influence from plant roots, bacteria, fungi and myriads of other creatures. The essence of farming rests ultimately in how to manage this underground 'circus'. (15 pages)
fertility Substances that have proved to enhance growth and productivity, can be added to the soil. Every plant and soil has its own requirements. Where do these fertilisers come from, what are their benefits and limitations? (15 pages)
sustainability Farming must satisfy many criteria: it must be profitable, produce more food than the fossil and other energy used, be friendly to the soil and neighbouring soils, river and sea, and replenish the soil for all following generations and also provide a living for rural communities. (19 pages)
erosion &
Although erosion, the loss of soil, is natural, it has increased dramatically over time. Lost soil also damages, rivers, lakes, wetlands, beaches and the ocean. For a sustainable future, minimising soil loss is the most important task of mankind. How can we do it? How does it work? (23 pages)
roading Urban development, roading and roadside management are important contributors to soil erosion. It appears to be an ad-hoc affair but major environmental gains can be made. (14 pages)
New Zealand The situation in New Zealand, regarding soils, erosion and conservation. (12 pages)
degradation The seas everywhere in the world are deteriorating at alarming rates. Through Dr Anthoni's research, you are the first to read how this works. Runoff from the land in the form of soil loss, animal excrement, human sewage, and excessive use of fertiliser are its main causes. Alarming reading, documented with hard facts. Since mid 2005, Dr Anthoni also made several important ecological discoveries and a scientific method (the Dark Decay Assay) to support his findings and to measure the health of seas, rivers and lakes objectively. (many pages)
Extensive classification, summaries and definitions of concepts related to soil, in three parts:
  1. rocks & minerals: minerals, volcanic rocks, sedimentary rocks, metamorphic rocks, particle sizes, sediment, clays,  (12p) 
  2. soils orders: the world's soils, biomes, original vegetation, carbon fluxes, soil properties, degradation, timescales (4p)
  3. soil chemistry: soil components, texture, structure, pH, CEC, degradation, time scales, Bowen series, cation exchange, (9p)
Glossary of geological terms used in this section. (10 pages)
Periodic Table of Elements with an introduction to atom structure and inorganic chemistry. (10 pages)
Table of the abundance of elements in the universe, sea, land, plants, animals. (5 pages)
Geologic Time Table with climate, earth atlas and organisms. (9 pages)
Timetable of mankind: important events and discoveries that changed the world (22 pages)
Table of units: metric units, conversion factors, simple physics and more. (13 pages)
internet links
Alaska Science Forum: Extensive soil manual and articles.
Intermountain Resource Inventories: Soil Survey Manual. [link defect]
Kenneth Olson Memorial Lecture: about population and agricultural resources.
NASA: Soil Resource. [broken link ]
US Geological Survey: scientific, educational information and maps.
Agrisurf: an extensive searchable database of agricultural internet links, also arranged in a directory by subject.
Sustainable Agriculture Links: World wide virtual library links to sustainable agriculture sites.
books Further reading (on this page)
what's new A log of changes to this section (on this page)

For suggestions and comments, please e-mail the author, Floor Anthoni. Read tips for printing.
-- home -- environment -- issues -- Rev 20050418,20051120,20070716,



It may come as a surprise to find a large section about to soil, geology and erosion on a web site devoted to the conservation of the sea. The reason is that soil erosion is the biggest problem affecting our seas, not just in New Zealand, but even more so all over the world. Far too much muddy water enters our coastal seas, overfertilising them and suffocating sensitive organisms. In the process we are rapidly destroying our coastal biodiversity, while also losing our precious soils. 
Another reason is that our agricultural base is under serious threat, so much in fact, that the world may not be able to feed the ten billion people expected to inhabit Earth within 40 years. It appears that humans are walking into an enormous trap, with their eyes wide open.

Humankind is poised to enter a new era, which arrives so suddenly that preparation is almost impossible. Within fifty or even forty years, the world's population will double, while (hopefully for everyone) affluence will also spread to the poor people of the world. Their combined effect is an enormous stress on the world's resources, of which soil and coastal seas are the most important.
title pageHumans have been cultivating soil for many thousands of years, and whole civilisations have been made possible by its improvements in efficiency and productivity. Yet, this most important resource has always been poorly understood, resulting in misadventure, overexploitation and collapse of the very civilisations it once supported. Is this our fate in the 21st century? We see at one end of the spectrum, entrepreneurs raping the soil for short-term profit and on the other end health-conscious greenies imprisoned by their many strange beliefs. Somewhere in the middle we'll find the path of common sense.

This section, consisting of several chapters, tries to make you understand how soil works, how it can be coaxed into sustainable production and how it can so easily be lost. While researching the content for this section, I was struck by how the relevant information appeared scattered in far too many books and references, as if the overview was lacking, as if nobody really knew how it all works together. I also found many conflicting statements. In this section I have not only tried to collect, collate and present all relevant information, but also to make it easy to read, understand and learn. Many colourful diagrams and maps have been drawn for this purpose.

In the various chapters, we'll analyse how much we depend on soil, and how it was formed by Earth's mysterious cycles. Although you won't need to become a geologist, some geologic knowledge is absolutely necessary. The soil's ecology is a new discipline, uncovering the functions and roles of soil organisms and opening the way to sustainability.
People have always known that some substances like fertiliser promote plant growth and increase yield, without an appreciable increase in work or cost. In a world of rapidly increasing populations and limited agricultural land, we need to be able to increase yield, without spoiling the earth, waterways and seas. We need to be able to retain the precious nutrients that feed the plants, and it is in this area that appreciable gains can be made. In the section on sustainability, we'll boldly define natural laws that will help us to manage our soils sustainably (forever). The importance of soil organisms for soil fertility has been underestimated.
In the chapter on erosion, we'll focus on the forces that erode the land and how they can be harnessed for sustainability. An important contributor to soil loss is urban development and roading, and the ways the road's margins are managed. Major improvements can be made here too. Finally, the subject is reviewed for the situation in New Zealand, a relatively young country which struggles to conquer its own and unique problems.
wise menOne of the amazing outcomes of this resource on soil is how pressing the situation in the world has become. One of our greatest renewable resources, our soil, is under severe threat, and with it our fresh waters and coastal seas. When driving through the countryside and seeing the fertile landscape unfold in checkered colours, one would not for a moment conceive that this sight is not forever. It would be so easy, so it seems, to accommodate a doubling of the population. There's space everywhere! Yet, the careful measurements and estimates made by many scientists around the world, tell a different story. Even if our own place in the world remains manageable, even sustainable, we would not escape from the world-wide effects of deforestation and pollution. As the soil bleeds into the sea, it causes almost irreversible changes there too, evident from the disappearance of species, poisonous plankton blooms and demise of coastal fishing. Do we really wish to be remembered as the generation that caused it but did nothing about it, because we were ignorant about it?
My wish is that many will read the pages that follow. The world needs wiser wise men.

A section on soil would be incomplete without addressing the use of pesticides, herbicides and discussing the dangers and benefits of genetic engineering. Forgive me that I have not done so yet. For constructive feedback, contact me.
Floor Anthoni, 11 November 02000.

Further reading

The books and articles marked blue are available from the Seafriends Library

Bates, R & J A Jackson: Dictionary of geological terms.1984. Doubleday.
Brown, Lester R et al.: Beyond Malthus: sixteen dimensions of the population problem. 1998. World Watch 143
Bryant, Richard H: Physical geography. 1993. Reed Elsevier.
Coleman, David C. and D A Crossley Jr: Fundamentals of soil ecology. 1996. Academic Press.
Connell, R P and J W Hadfield: Agriculture. 1961 Whitcombe & Tombs.
Corbett, Janice R: The living soil, the processes of soil formation. Martindale Press, 1969.
Daily, Gretchen C: Nature's services - societal dependence on natural ecosystems. 1997. Island Press.
Ehrlich, Paul R and Anne H Ehrlich, John P Holdren: Ecoscience - Population, resources, environment. 1977. Freeman.
Etherington, J R: Environment and plant ecology. 1976. John Wiley.
Glanz, James: Saving our soil - solutions for sustainig Earth's vital resource. 1995 Johnson Books
Kormondy, Edward J: Concepts of ecology. 1969. Prentice-Hall
Lal, R and F J Pierce, eds: Soil management for sustainability. 1991. Soil and Water Conservation Society publication
Larcher Walter: Physiological plant ecology. 1980. Springer Verlag.
MAF: Control of soil erosion on farmland. by D L Hicks. MAF Policy Technical Paper 95/4. Aug 1995.
MAF: New Zealand Agriculture. 1972.
Michele, Vincenzo de: The world of minerals (World of nature series). 1972. Orbis Publ.
Molloy, Les: Soils in the New Zealand landscape. 1988. NZ Society of Soil Science.
Montgomery, Carla W: Environmental geology. 1997. McGraw-Hill.
NIWA/ NZOI: An illustrated guide to common soil animals. H Pauline McColl. 1981.
Phillipson, John: Ecological energetics.1979. Edward Arnold.
Pimentel, David & Marcia Pimentel: Food, energy and society. 1996. Univ Pr Colorado.
Sistrom, W R: Microbial Life. 1969. Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Smil, Vaclav: Global population and the nitrogen cycle. SciAm Jul 1997.
Smil, Vaclav: Cycles of life: civilization and the biosphere. 1997. Sci Am Libr.
Smil, Vaclav: Feeding the world: a challenge for the 21st century. 2000. MIT Press.
Suzuki, David with Amanda McConnell: The sacred balance. Rediscovering our place in nature. 1997. Allen&Unwin.
Time-Life: Grasslands and Tundra. Planet Earth series. 1985.
Wackernagel, Mathis & William Rees: Our ecological footprint. Reducing the human impact on Earth. 1962. New Soc Publ.
Whittaker, Robert H: Communities and ecosystems. 1975. MacMillan.


What's new

20071001 - long pages broken into smaller ones.
20070211 - a link made from soil ecology to slush and symbiotic decomposition in the DDA chapter
20051120 - minor changes to all chapters and links to the new Dark Decay Assay plankton tool.
20050418 - a link to the principles of degradation in the sea added.
20020110 - Further thoughts about soil sustainability added.
20010525 - Disruption of the water recycling added and decreasing fertility of cropland with graph.
20010411 - In sustainability a subchapter added to explain the disruption of the water cycle. Detailed soil horizons table added. Additions and changes to all chapters and tables.
20001206 - In Geology, the subchapter on rain, evaporation and runoff added.
20001205 - Final chapter on the New Zealand situation finished and corrected.
20001117 - Corrections and suggestions of Mrs M Borich added. Chapter on roading completed.
20001107 - Chapters on fertility and sustainability and erosion added.
20001018 - Chapter on soil ecology completed.
20001015 - Chapters on dependence and geology completed. Also rock classification and glossary.
20000920 - Started this section