By Nick Goeser, Ph.D.
As we wind down this week’s celebrations of Earth Day, my mind focuses on the pressing issues facing our planet. Global population growth, food security, water quantity and quality, air quality, increasing numbers of extreme weather events – and the list can go on. Looking across the list, a common thread emerges in an area of focus that can help to mitigate the risks of several issues listed. This common thread is soil health and many groups, including farmers, are working to improve this valuable resource as a means to improve their operations and as a means to improve food security, water use efficiency, water quality, air quality and resilience to extreme weather.
Let us look at a few of the areas that can be improved with soil health and the groups working hard to provide cropping systems solutions to farmers.
Well-functioning soils are a crucial component of ensuring continued crop productivity and securing our global food supply. A number of months back, the Environmental Defense Fund invited me to discuss soil health effects on food security (“The key ingredient in a resilient food supply: healthy soil”). This article focused on the tools we have to protect productive soils and to improve impaired soils- recognizing that there are no silver bullets and it takes time and effort to protect and improve soil.
Soil aggregate stability and adequate soil organic matter pools help to improve water quality through greater resistance to erosion, improved infiltration, and enhanced nutrient cycling for better crop nutrient use efficiency. Soils with greater aggregate stability and shear strength can withstand greater amounts of rainfall without sediment losses to run off. Throughout the growing season, a high level of soil organic matter and soil biological functioning increase soil decomposition of crop residues and release of nutrients to crops. Components of soil organic matter also retain nutrients that improve nutrient use efficiency and reduce the risk of fertilizer loss to the environment.
Soil health plays a large role in improving agricultural water use efficiency. Components of soil health—such as increasing soil infiltration rates, biological diversity, soil organic matter pools, soil porosity, and soil aggregate structure—all help a soil to accept and hold water from rain or melting snow. These soil characteristics work together to improve the pool of water available to crops throughout the growing season.
As I continue to reflect on agriculture’s contributions to improving our planet, I am excited to see a great number of organizations working to help provide practical solutions for farmers to benefit their operations through improved soil functioning. The Soil Health Partnership has the pleasure of working with a diverse group of collaborators Soil Renaissance, U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service and Agricultural Research Service, Noble Foundation, The Farm Foundation, the Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation Technology Information Center, American Farmland Trust, state and national commodity associations, Monsanto, and many additional organizations in the agricultural industry. It gives me great hope to see farmers contributing alongside such a large number of organizations with the skills to provide the solutions we all need.
Dr. Nick Goeser is NCGA’s manager for soil health and sustainability.