The Topsoil Crisis: Dirt Isn't Cheap Anymore

Oct. 01, 2008 4:00 AM ETCRESY, JJGTF, GRU, BLERF16 Comments
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“Taking the long view, we are running out of dirt.”— David R. Montgomery, geologist

Over the summer, Iran bought a large amount — more than a million tons — of wheat from the U.S.

That’s something we’ve not seen in 27 summers. In Iran’s case, a tough drought cut the wheat harvest by a third, forcing the country to look abroad. But still, the fact that Iran had to come to the U.S. is telling. It’s like Lee asking Grant for rations in the summer of 1863. As one analyst put it: “Do you think Iran would come to the U.S. if they had any place else they could buy it… They’re searching the world for wheat. They’re buying the U.S. because it’s the only thing they can buy.”

Markets, like great unscripted dramas, develop their own plotlines as time rolls on. Now unfolding is a new plotline in the agriculture boom. It begins with the fact that there are fewer and fewer options these days for importers looking for large quantities of high-quality grains. But it speaks more to a deeper issue: an emerging shortage in fertile soil. Yes, we’re running out of good dirt.

In fact, fertile soil — good dirt — may become more important to land values than oil or minerals in the ground. Some say it is already a strategic asset on par with oil. As Lennart Bage, president of a U.N. fund for agricultural development says, “Now fertile land with access to water has become a strategic asset.”

Doubtful? Consider rising export restrictions around the globe, which act as a sort of fence keeping the goods within borders. India curbs exports on rice. The Ukraine halts wheat shipments altogether. The number of grain-exporting regions has dwindled, like the vanishing buffalo herds. Before World War II, only Europe imported grain. South America, as recently as

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