Soil erosion and agricultural sustainability

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
David R Montgomery


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.


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