From nutrient management to carbon storage
Poor nutrient management costs everyone. When farmers pay for improperly planned application or overuse of fertilizers and other soil amendments (and the labor, and fuel to apply them), or when needed nutrients are lost to the environment due to poor soil physical and biological functioning, consumers see higher prices in supermarkets and restaurants.
The environment takes a hit, too: nutrients enter water systems instead of growing food. They stimulate algal blooms that contaminate drinking water and suffocate aquatic life. We saw this on the Ohio River in the summer of 2015, and we see it every summer with the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone, which has been averaging an area the size of Connecticut for the past few years—caused largely by excess nutrient loss from agricultural soils.
Likewise, better nutrient management coupled with other soil health practices have far-reaching positive impacts. For example, a resilient, well structured, healthy soil that drains well after extreme rainfall events, along with better nutrient (nitrogen) management can reduce emissions of the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide—strengthening the significant opportunity for farmers to be a part of the global climate solution. Producers can increase soil carbon stocks and sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while also improving the soil’s ability to retain nutrients through many strategies: such as decreasing disturbance, growing diverse crops and cover crops to maximize the time each year that living roots are building soils, keeping the soil surface protected, and adding amendments such as biochar or compost. And strategic crop rotations and nitrogen-fixing cover crops can also improve nutrient use efficiency, while limiting erosion and increasing soil carbon sequestration. (Paustian et al., 2016)
Better soil health management can often achieve these environmental benefits at a lower cost than other approaches—and for farmers there is real profit potential. Improving infiltration and water-holding capacity, for example, can significantly reduce irrigation water needs, lessen dust pollution, and improve nutrient uptake by plants, which can reduce input costs, and reduce plant stress, disease and pest pressure. Over time, these practices reduce the risk of yield loss due to these stressors, and can bring about a material increase in crop yields and quality. Importantly, we must work with the agricultural industry to find the right policies and business models that unlock this sort of economic potential for both the land owners as well as the farmers who are often tenants on the land.
Better soil health starts with collaboration
With farming and ranching occurring in all 50 of the United States and on roughly 40 percent of land around the world, there is global opportunity to continue building on the success of our soil conservation work and to share and learn from new experience. It starts with collaboration.