It’s World Soil Day: Celebrate Soil, Carbon, and the Opportunities Right Under Our Feet

, senior scientist | December 5, 2017, 3:49 pm EST
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These days, stories about soil health and regenerative farming seem to be catching on, so much so that it’s almost hard to keep up, at least for the avid soil geek.  The New York Times and the Huffington Post both featured op-eds just last week explaining why soil is worth getting excited about, while tales of soil health and science from North Dakota to New England were recently shared by other sources.  Yesterday, NPR hosted an hour-long panel on soil health. And that’s just a short list.

Maybe the rush of soil-slanted stories has something to do with today being World Soil Day. Or maybe it’s because soils and agriculture finally got some love at the latest climate convention.  Or perhaps it has to do with the growing list of states that are working towards healthy soils policies, or that the conversation surrounding the next Farm Bill has actually included soil health.

Or, just maybe, it’s because people are figuring out that the soils beneath our feet, and the farmers and ranchers that tend to them, need more of our attention.  After all, healthy soils are the living, breathing ecosystems that help grow our food, clean our water, store carbon, and reduce risks of droughts and floods.  Together, soils and their stewards can produce food while making agriculture part of the solution to several challenges (including climate change). Let me explain.

Soils stash carbon and deliver services

Some of the amazing features of soils that are finally being celebrated are not new. For some time, scientists have known that soils store a lot of carbon (about three times more than the atmosphere), and that carbon-rich soils tend to hold more water.  They have also known that soil varies a lot, even across small distances, that it changes over time, and that it is affected by management practices.  But we also know that there’s a lot we don’t know.  Thankfully, that’s starting to change.

Getting the numbers right on how soil can fight a changing climate (because we can’t afford not to)

Even just in the past year, soil science—including soil carbon science—has advanced, pushed along by new tools, interests, and urgency.  A lot of the urgency has come as climate change picks up the pace. Today, scientists say that we can’t afford to choose between reducing emissions and sequestering carbon—we must do both.  That puts a spotlight (and pressure) on soils.

Fortunately, new science is rapidly uncovering more details about soils.  For example, pivotal papers have discussed how specific soil-based management practices could help mitigate climate change, and how soil carbon sequestration could be scaled up in the US and around the globe to achieve significant outcomes. Within the past months, key papers demonstrated that the majority (75%) of the organic carbon in the top meter of soil is directly impacted by management and that croplands may hold particular potential to be managed for carbon sequestration, but that soils continue to be at risk.

It’s important to note that while many studies have stressed opportunities in soils, others have questioned them.  For example, some research has suggested that soils may not be able to hold as much carbon as some scientists think, while other research has indicated that links between soil carbon and water are not as strong as previously thought.  Other research has questioned whether certain practices (e.g., abandoning cropland) can bring expected benefits.

In my opinion, all these studies just make more research more important.  Getting the numbers right will help us to find, and fine-tune, the best solutions for healthier, more resilient soil. But as we work out these details, we also need to act – and fast.

The role of farmers and ranchers in bringing out the best in soils, for better farms and futures

Fortunately, many farmers and ranchers already know how to build soil health (and carbon) on their land – and they are taking action (lucky for us, because the health of the soil is in their hands). Farmers and ranchers like Gabe Brown (ND), David Brandt (OH), Will Harris (GA), Ted Alexander (KS), and Seth Watkins (IA), just to name a few, have been experimenting for years with ways to build soil health for more resilient land.  New research from South Dakota shows that farmers are adopting cover crops and other practices in large part to build soil health.  And a growing list of companies and non-profits have supported a standardized definition of regenerative agriculture, suggesting that these healthy soils practices are gaining even more traction.

Recognizing the soils and stewardship beneath food “footprints”

As important as soil carbon, health, and stewardship are to ensuring farms are functioning at their best, it’s surprising that we think so little about them.  There is a larger discussion going on around sustainable diets and the notion that food has an environmental “footprint,” but the fact is that most of the studies that seek to quantify the carbon (or water, or land) footprints of food items haven’t accounted for the role of soil management and stewardship. Therefore, while the conversation about the impact of consumers’ food choices has been an important starting point, we also need to understand how the decisions made by farmers affect the world around us. That means bringing soil carbon to the table, and the sooner the better. With the growing appreciation for soil health science, practice, and story-telling, I think we might be getting somewhere.

P.S.  Prefer a little video inspiration? There’s plenty to choose from if you want to learn the basics of soil organic carbon, how “dead stuff” is key to the food chain, how healthy soils reduce flood risk, or more about the 4 per mille campaign, which puts soils at the forefront of climate change solutions.

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