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How Much Money Are We Leaving In the Ground?

by

Justin Adams

Global Managing Director, Lands, The Nature Conservancy

November 2016

Photo courtesy of USDA NRCS
Photo courtesy of USDA NRCS

A new report by The Nature Conservancy, supported by General Mills, quantifies the value of soil health across the croplands of the United States as an indicator of economic and environmental success that can deliver billions of dollars of benefits.


Imagine changing farming practices on just one percent of America’s row-crop landscapes and unlocking more than $37 million of net economic gains for farmers. Then, add on top of that hundreds of millions of dollars of additional benefits to society including, for example, $226 million in water, environmental and climate benefits each year. A new report published this week by The Nature Conservancy and General Mills details this compelling case for focusing on healthy soils in the United States.

Since people first began tilling the soil, we have understood that its health can be key to our survival, with healthy soils facilitating 95% of all food production as well as providing crucial water filtration and storage, and support for biodiversity. And over time we’ve come to understand the powerful carbon sequestration benefits of healthy soil as well. However, a team of Conservancy scientists, environmental economists and agriculture experts estimates that the current societal and environmental costs of soil loss and degradation in the United States are now as high as $85 billion each year. This price tag is due to a range of unintended effects of soil loss and degradation on property, energy, endangered species, biodiversity loss, eutrophication, agricultural productivity and climate resilience. Managing for improved soil health provides the most cost-effective approach to reducing this burden while creating improved economic returns for farmers.

The report, “reThinkSoil: A Roadmap to U.S. Soil Health,” lays out a plan to transform the situation, including stimulating the adoption of soil health management systems on more than 50% of soy, wheat and corn cropland in the US by 2025. Under the base case scenario, for each 1% of cropland adopting an adaptive soil health system, annual economic benefits translate into the aforementioned $226 million of value for society in water, environmental and climate benefits, as well as $37 million of productivity gains for farmers. At full adoption, the Conservancy team estimates that almost $50 billion of societal and on-farm benefits could be realized each year—taking a substantial bite out of the negative costs of current soil conditions.

reThink Soil Health Executive Summary

Download

(1.04 MB PDF)

Ten steps to transformation

Bringing about transformation on such an enormous scale requires strategic collaboration across three areas: science, economics and policy. The roadmap lays out ten recommendations to support this transformation. For example:

  • Standardized methods for rapid measurement of soil health indicators would help farmers and landowners to make appropriate land management decisions.
  • New lease arrangements that integrate soil health systems could cultivate better understanding between absentee landowners and farmers about the long-term value of the land – for society, farmers, and the landowner.
  • Crop insurance could be reformed to shift premium subsidies based on underlying measures of soil health.
  • Technological innovations such as sensors, drones, and precision agriculture software could advance adoption.

While the task may seem daunting, the potential pay-off is huge. Healthy soil practices applied across half of the US row crops would reduce 344 million pounds of nutrient loss to the environment, eliminate 116 million metric tons of soil erosion, and create 3.6 million acre-feet of available water capacity in cropland soils. These practices could also mitigate 25 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions—the equivalent of taking 5 million passenger cars off the road for a full year.

Download a PDF of the soil health infographic.

One state, one hundred soils

To estimate the scale of benefits, the Conservancy team focused on three management practices – reduced tillage, cover cropping and crop rotations – to serve as proxies for adaptive soil health systems. Reduced tillage decreases disturbance of the soil, thereby improving its ability to retain nutrients and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Cover cropping between cash crop seasons maximizes the time each year that living roots are building soil nutrients and keeping the soil covered as nature designed. Diverse crop rotations build nutrients, limit erosion, and foster carbon sequestration.

Such practices are not new, but they are simply too rare. The Conservancy estimates less than 10 percent of croplands are managed this way, and measures are required to accelerate adoption across many more millions of acres of farmland. The US produces just under half of the world’s corn crop, so it’s no surprise that some of the leading soil health work is already under way in the middle of the Corn Belt. It is remarkable how productive the lands are across the Midwest, where sophisticated modern farming produces some of the highest yields around the world. But the environmental impacts are also evident: we’re losing 5-8 tons of soil per acre from our farmland; our waters are being degraded by water run-off containing nutrients; and the expanding Gulf of Mexico dead zone is primarily caused by these high nutrient loads. At the same time, here as everywhere, farmers are dealing with more extreme weather events—causing more severe and unpredictable floods and droughts.

By focusing on improving soil health, it is possible to boost productivity and reduce those environmental impacts. On a recent trip to Indiana, I learned that there are more than one hundred different types of soil in that one state alone – each requiring a specific set of actions to ensure optimum soil health. And no one knows how to steward the land better than our farmers, many of whom are poised to unleash a new wave of innovation in agriculture. Mike Shuter is a corn, soybean and cattle farmer from Madison County, Indiana. He and his family have been no-tilling for 30 years, strip-tilling for 10 years and, for the last five years, have been integrating cover crops into their operation. Integrating these soil health practices is already helping farmers like Mike boost profitability while at the same time delivering significant environmental benefits.

Wouldn’t it be smart for society to determine how to reward farmers for delivering water, carbon and biodiversity services in addition to the crops they produce that feed us? What is clear from the roadmap is that soil health is critical to meeting that challenge – and momentum is building for unlocking the win-win value of healthy soils for farmers, businesses and communities for generations to come.

For more information visit nature.org/soil.

This piece also appears on the Taste of General Mills blog, where you can learn more about General Mills and the company’s sustainability initiatives and progress.

Soil is made up of air, water, minerals and organic matter. Photo © Nick Hall
Soil is made up of air, water, minerals and organic matter. Photo © Nick Hall
Soils host a quarter of our planet’s biodiversity, which is essential for food security and nutrition. Photo © USDA NRCS
Soils host a quarter of our planet’s biodiversity, which is essential for food security and nutrition. Photo © USDA NRCS
More than 1,000 species of invertebrates can be found in a square meter of forest soil. Photo © Douglas Steakley
More than 1,000 species of invertebrates can be found in a square meter of forest soil. Photo © Douglas Steakley
Healthy soils are essential for food production, water filtration, carbon sequestration and other ecosystem services. Photo © Bridget Besaw
Healthy soils are essential for food production, water filtration, carbon sequestration and other ecosystem services. Photo © Bridget Besaw
An estimated 95% of the world’s food is produced on our soils. Photo © Amy Deputy
An estimated 95% of the world’s food is produced on our soils. Photo © Amy Deputy
Healthy soil can capture and store large amounts of water. Photo © Nick Hall
Healthy soil can capture and store large amounts of water. Photo © Nick Hall
During droughts, crops can absorb stored water from the soil. During heavy rainfalls, soil can help reduce flooding and run-off by slowing the release of water into streams. Photo © Rafael Araujo
During droughts, crops can absorb stored water from the soil. During heavy rainfalls, soil can help reduce flooding and run-off by slowing the release of water into streams. Photo © Rafael Araujo
Soils help to combat and adapt to climate change by playing a key role in the carbon cycle through carbon sequestration and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Photo © Timothy T. Lindenbaum/TNC
Soils help to combat and adapt to climate change by playing a key role in the carbon cycle through carbon sequestration and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Photo © Timothy T. Lindenbaum/TNC
Soil is a finite resource. Lost soil cannot be recovered in the course of a human lifespan. But sustainable agricultural practices can help preserve our healthy soils. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Devan King)
Soil is a finite resource. Lost soil cannot be recovered in the course of a human lifespan. But sustainable agricultural practices can help preserve our healthy soils. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Devan King)