Soil isn’t necessarily the watchword of the environmental movement – but soon could be. Soil is responsible for providing the nutrients and water to grow food, feed, fiber and renewable fuels and chemicals.  It also provides innumerable environmental benefits – filtering and storing water, and playing a key role in the carbon cycle.  Healthy soils can improve resilience to extreme weather events such as droughts and floods and actually remove and sequester carbon from the atmosphere.  Off the farm, healthy soils help prevent issues such as impaired drinking water, excess sediment and urban flooding events. 

Faced with still climbing carbon emissions, degraded water quality and a need to feed, clothe and support an estimated 9 billion people by 2050, policymakers are looking for those elusive ‘win-win-win’ solutions to the interconnected food-water-energy nexus. Soil -- a decidedly low-tech climate solution -- is becoming somewhat of a darling in certain circles, as more realize the interconnectedness between soils and farm productivity, food security and combatting climate change. 


What Is Old Is New Again

In direct response to the Dust Bowl, Congress established the Soil Conservation Service in 1935 (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service at the USDA), primarily to combat erosion. While erosion rates have dropped significantly since then, soil is facing new problems such as loss of organic matter, contamination and overall degradation.  At the same time, research is only now catching up to the complexities of the many physical and biological processes happening in soils.

The United States is blessed with some of the most fertile, productive soils in the world, with a higher percentage of highly productive soils than any other country.  This natural advantage gives a big boost to farmers, ranchers and foresters no corporation could devise. And yet, according to assessments of the state of U.S. soils, they are degraded, affecting crop productivity as well as water and carbon storage.

Globally, 24 percent of global agricultural lands show decreased productivity, with another 1 to 2.9 million hectares of agricultural land becoming so degraded each year that it is unavailable to farm. This crisis has caused many to look towards tending the soil through low-tech solutions such as cover crops, no-till, and edge-of-field practices to return organic matter to the soil, thus decreasing the need for fertilizer and other inputs.  Groups are also betting big that soil will be a potent tool for dealing with climate change.  


Soils as a Climate Workaround?

In agricultural circles, climate is rarely mentioned but producers see first hand the impact that changes in weather patterns are having on production. Wisconsin dairy farmer Paul Jereczek recently commented to the New York Times, “The phrase [climate change] has become so politicized, it’s just hard to talk about … But we talk about everything else. Even round here, protecting soil is such a hot topic right now. But we talk about the soil, saving fertilizer, that sort of thing.”

According to Kris Nichols, chief scientist of Rodale Institute, “When we’re talking about climate change, we’re talking about issues with weather uncertainty. We can debate about climate change and what that means – but the reality is – the one certainty they [farmers] have seen in the last several years is that weather has become even more uncertain.”

With increased extreme weather events comes increased uncertainty for producers. By making farming systems more resilient to extreme weather, primarily through promoting healthy soils, farmers are able to mitigate some of the risks presented by a changing climate. According to the Nature Conservancy, if 50 percent of cropland were to adopt soil health programs, then by 2025 we could avoid 25 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as reduce nutrient loss by 244 million pounds.  


Improving Soil Health: The Business Case

In the United States, it is now widely recognized in agricultural circles that conservation measures will improve soil quality, but progress has been slow. Only 13 percent of U.S. farms are managed as no-till, with only 6 percent using cover crops. The barriers to implementing conservation practices are numerous and complex: uneven policy support, lack of technical and financial assistance, as well as a conservative approach to farm management due to complex relationships between agricultural banks and farmers, as well as landowners and renters. Complicating matters is that farms and soils vary immensely, requiring more than a one-size-fits-all solution to conservation.

However, there are signs of change. Now that the implications of healthy soils are understood, growers groups, researchers, and USDA are busy figuring out how to implement soil-boosting practices in a cost-effective manner for producers in both conventional and organic systems.

On the conventional side, the Soil Health Partnership (SHP), an initiative of the National Corn Growers, is collecting an unprecedented amount of data on the effects of no-till, cover cropping and precision nutrient management on 32,000 acres. One participating SHP farmer, Roger Zylstra, a corn and soybean farmer in Lynnville, Iowa, commented, “early results show we’re making some progress. This year we noticed a definite suppression of weeds in our soybeans.”

Building healthy soils has long been explored at the Rodale Institute, through their Farming Systems Trial (FST), which has been examining the conventional-organic transition for over 34 years.  FST has been comparing three side-by-side plots in a corn-soy rotation (conventional, legume-based organic and manure-based organic). While they have found yields to be higher on average in conventional systems, the organic systems consistently outperform conventional on net profits. The reason? Soil organic content, which increases water holding capacity and eliminates the need for additional fertilizers.   

Other groups are getting plugged in with soils. Food conglomerate General Mills announced in November that soil health was critical to their operations. Jerry Lynch, Chief Sustainability Officer at General Mills stated, “As a global food company, it’s imperative to protect the natural resources and communities upon which our business depends. In our case, the foundation is soil health.” According to a recent report from the Nature Conservancy, restoring healthy soils in the United States would provide $1.2 billion in net economic gains for farmers and could provide $50 billion in overall societal benefits.

At the SHP meeting, Zylstra urged farmers not to shy away from cover crops, despite the initial difficulties associated with them. “Don’t let the potential challenges at start-up stop you from trying them on the farm … There’s going to be a lot of value to cover crops. Don’t give up. Try, try again. We need to figure it out to improve our soil.”


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