Dust Unto Dust

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Science  01 Nov 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6158, pp. 565-566
DOI: 10.1126/science.1244579

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In the past, great civilizations have fallen because they failed to prevent the degradation of the soils on which they were founded (1). The modern world could suffer the same fate at a global scale. The inherent productivity of many lands has been dramatically reduced as a result of soil erosion, accumulation of salinity, and nutrient depletion. In Africa, where much of the future growth in agriculture must take place, erosion has reduced yields by 8% at continental scale (2), and nutrient depletion is widespread (3). Although improved technology—including the unsustainably high use of fertilizers, irrigation, and plowing—provides a false sense of security, about 1% of global land area is degraded every year (4). As Fierer et al. show on page 621 of this issue, the diversity of soil biota in the prairie soils of the American Midwest has changed substantially since cultivation (5). We have forgotten the lesson of the Dust Bowl: Even in advanced economies, human well-being depends on looking after the soil (6). An intact, self-restoring soil ecosystem is essential, especially in times of climate stress.