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Breaking Up

Topsoil, where almost everything grows, is the world's lifeblood and without it almost nothing will grow. Despite this it is disappearing, losing its structure or degrading almost everywhere animals are farmed. Grazing and 'denaturing' through the overuse of pesticides and fertilisers for animal feed - fodder - crops are the main reason.

Forty per cent of all agricultural land has been degraded in the last century because of compression and compaction by the hard hooves and heavy bodies of animals or because of nutrient loss and pollution.

Worst Affected

About 20 per cent of the pastures and rangelands are degraded in the more fertile areas of the world but in the arid and semi-arid lands, which girdle one third of the Earth, the figure is as high as 73 per cent, according to the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation.

Former rainforest land is the worst affected because its soil is comparatively thin and cattle and other grazing animals make short work of breaking down its structure.

Gone for Good

Once felled, forests no longer soak up heavy rainfall and it can flood off the land carrying topsoil with it. When this silt reaches the ocean it can smother the life there and destroy it. Because there are no longer any trees to evaporate water through their leaves, the amount of wtaer vapour in the atmosphere reduces and the climate can become so dry that rainfall may stop almost entirely.

The end result of these different factors is often desert. Those responsible for creating it simplymove on and repeat the process elsewhere.

Man-Made Famine

When drought strikes and crops fail, as happened in the Ethiopian famines of the early 1980s, there is enormous sympathy in the affluent world. But few people are ever made aware that their diet - what they eat on a daily basis - plays a big part in the disaster. The Sahel region of Africa, of which Ethiopia is part, has suffered huge damage from overgrazing by cattle. Sleeping sickness disease (trypanosomiasis) is deadly to cattle and when chemicals were introduced to contol it, herd sizes were increased suddenly and dramatically. The land couldn't sustain them, became degraded and the result was famine. Most meat was grown for the export market.

It wasn't nature that was to blame but economics and bad decision making.

Burger Barmy

Cattle are the main grazing animals because their meat is needed to fuel the world-wide hamburger culture. When the land degrades to a point where it's no longer suitable for them, goats and sheep often take their place. The fact that they will eat almost anything ensures a wipe-out of most vegetation and tghe problem gets worse.

The most effective way of slowing down soil degradation and desertification is to reduce overgrazing, deforestation and intensive agriculture. Nothing will do that quicker than changing your diet to avoid all animal products.