Let’s Celebrate Soil! New Science and Stories for World Soils Day

December 5, 2018 | 4:50 pm
Photo: NRCS Soil Health/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)
Marcia DeLonge
Former Contributor

There’s never a bad time to celebrate soil—it’s an incredible living ecosystem and a foundation for much of the food, fiber, and fuel we use every day. But if there was ever a time when celebrating soil seemed particularly important, it might be now. And it’s not just because another World Soils Day has rolled around.

Over the past year, a series of scientific studies and reports have contributed to a message that is growing and crystallizing day by day: investing in our soil is a no-brainer—for farmers, rural communities, the environment, and (probably) you. There are lots of reasons why building up soil is a smart way forward, but here are just a few that have emerged since soil’s last big day:

Healthy soils = resilience to climate impacts

According to the recently released Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), written by over 300 experts and representing 13 federal agencies, farmers and rural communities have a lot at stake as climate change is settling in. This federal report describes significant risks and challenges ahead for agricultural productivity, soil and water resources, livestock health, and the lives and livelihoods of rural communities.

Alongside the dire projections, the NCA4 makes it clear that growing intensities in both extreme rainfall and droughts create an urgent need for spongier soils. That’s because soils with sponge-like qualities cover at least two critical bases. Not only do they hold onto precious water during times of drought, but they reduce polluted runoff and flooding during extreme rain events, preventing degradation of water quality and damage to downstream communities.

Fortunately, the NCA4 also provides several examples of possible next steps to manage the risks ahead, and these include adopting practices that protect and build soil health. Among the examples highlighted is one we have written about before—integrating strips of deep-rooted native prairie plants back into crop fields. Based on several years of research in Iowa, scientists and farmers have shown that it is possible to protect valuable soils, improve water quality, and boost biodiversity, all by introducing just a small change to croplands. Through the phenomenal power of soils, scaling up practices like this could play a big role in a future with thriving farms and ranches, perhaps against the odds.

Soil carbon can be part of the climate solution

Healthy soils can do more than just build resilience to extreme weather and enhance productivity. They also store a lot of carbon, which has direct implications for climate change. The links between the carbon cycle and soils (including in agricultural lands) are just one of the valuable topics covered in the Second State of the Carbon Cycle Report (SOCCR2), another major report released the same day as the NCA4 and involving over 200 experts. And it’s this relationship between soil and carbon that forms the basis of what two additional reports had to say about soils just weeks earlier.

In late October, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine—the nation’s premier source of expert advice on scientific, engineering, and medical issues—released a report titled Negative Emissions Technologies and Reliable Sequestration: A Research Agenda. The goal of this report was to explore what we know and what we need to learn about how we can get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The findings? With more research to avoid unintended consequences, increasing soil carbon by changing agricultural practices is a promising strategy that can be scaled up at relatively low cost.

The other report, also released in October, was from the International Panel on Climate Change, the leading world body for evaluating climate change science. The Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC paints a grim picture for our world if we stick to the current trajectory, emphasizing the substantial benefits that would come from limiting global warming. Like the Academies report, it identifies soil carbon sequestration as a potential part of the solution, flagging potential co-benefits like biodiversity and food security.

Time to invest in soils

The steady drumbeat of major studies highlighting the importance of soils to a brighter future is encouraging, and at the same time makes it all the more important to remember that there’s still a lot to learn. That’s why it’s great news that the scientific community is continuing to dig in—working to figure out what practices and strategies are (and aren’t) the most promising, and how much we can bank on soils in the portfolio of solutions to a long list of challenges.

But continued and increased investment in soil is critical going forward. That means new and expanded public policies that direct research and incentives to the healthy soil effort. For starters, Congress should invest more (not less) in the USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program, and research and technical assistance for on-farm soil-building through programs like the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension (SARE) program, and the Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI).

The science is clear: paying attention to soils is key. Now let’s get to it.