Sustaining life from the ground up: The benefits of healthy soil

Nature Conservancy - Farm Rainbow
© Timothy T. Lindenbaum/The Nature Conservancy

A new study details the surprising economic and environmental benefits of healthy soil.

By Michael Doane, Director, Transforming Working Lands at The Nature Conservancy

Healthy soil is the foundation of life on Earth. But what is healthy soil? The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines it as the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans. The key word: living.

A mixture of air, water, minerals, and organic matter, soil is both living and life-giving. It’s one of the most diverse habitats on earth, supporting an estimated quarter of the world’s biological diversity. There are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on the Earth! We depend on healthy, fertile soil to grow our food—an estimated 95 percent of the world’s food supply. Soil is also essential for filtering pollutants from our water and reducing the impact of climate change by storing carbon dioxide emissions.

Healthy soil provides unrivaled ecosystem services that sustain all forms of life, yet these soils are increasingly rare. While official measures are lacking, The Nature Conservancy estimates less than 10 percent of soils in the United States are managed optimally today. Healthier soils unlock so many benefits that we must reverse this trend. As the global population continues to grow and farmers endeavor to meet the consumer demands to produce more food, fuel and fiber, now is the time to reThink Soil.

Nature Conservancy - Soil© Devan King/The Nature Conservancy

With support from General Mills, a team of Conservancy scientists, environmental economists and agriculture experts recently set out to quantify the benefits of healthy soils and devise a plan to transform the way U.S. soy, wheat and corn croplands are managed for soil health. The result is a Soil Health Roadmap to transform the soil health management systems on at least 50 percent of US croplands by 2025.

Confidence in the roadmap also comes from the ground up. Tim Smith is an ambassador for soil health – and a farmer. He works with the Conservancy to use healthy soil practices on his cropland in Eagle Grove, Iowa. “We know how to build healthier soils, and the benefits are real. It’s simply a better way to farm,” he said. “I am protecting my soil from erosion, greatly reducing my impact on water quality by reducing nitrate and phosphorus loss, and improving soil health that will provide for the long-term sustainability of the land.”

Soil Health Is Good Business
According to our calculations, improving soil on more than half of U.S. soy, wheat and corn croplands could deliver up to $7.4 billion in water and climate benefits annually. Furthermore, farmers stand to gain $37 million for each one percent of cropland transformed—that’s $1.2 billion annually across the U.S. corn belt. In the most optimistic case—100 percent adoption of soil health management systems—Conservancy experts estimate up to $50 billion in social and environmental benefits annually.

Nature Conservancy - Soy Farm© Rafael Araujo/The Nature Conservancy

Conservation benefits from achieving our soil health adoption goal include:
- Mitigating 25 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. The equivalent to taking 5 million passenger cars off the road for one year.
- Reducing 344 million pounds of nutrient loss to the environment.
- Eliminating 116 million metric tons of soil erosion.
- Creating more than 1 trillion gallons of available water capacity in cropland soils.

The Path to Success
These estimated values are impressive, but achieving these outcomes is a daunting job – a job that requires diverse stakeholders to come together to achieve a coordinated and elevated investment of time, funding, expertise and commitment across science, business and policy priorities. From farmers to food and agriculture companies, from landowners and consumers to policy makers, now is the time for a strategic, collaborative effort to restore the health and long-term sustainability of our soils.

The Soil Health Roadmap approach is three-fold:
1. Overcome the science and research gap to support expansion of soil health management
Soil health science is still evolving, and there’s a need to develop and implement standardized tools that measure soil health in a cost-effective and accurate way. Without such tools, farmers are limited in their ability to properly manage for the unique conditions of their soil.

2. Overcome economic obstacles by providing the market systems to secure soil health
Developing markets that value the benefits created by improved soil health is crucial. Various approaches—like improved credit terms, payments for ecosystem services, and new business models—are needed to ensure these incentives benefit farmers, landowners and agriculture retail companies alike.

3. Improve the policy environment to advance soil health
Legislators at the national and state levels have the opportunity to create incentives that can drive soil health improvements. Individuals, organizations, and companies in the agri-food sector should come together to show support to their policymakers on soil health actions.

Nature Conservancy - Crop Rows© Carlton Ward Jr./The Nature Conservancy

The road to healthier soils is daunting and filled with challenges, but our vision is clear and the benefits are compelling. Investing in healthier soils can create new sources of wealth for farmers across America’s Heartland while creating a dividend for consumers and future generations in the form of resilient food systems, clean water and a stable climate. Now is the time to reThink Soil.

For more information about how The Nature Conservancy and our partners are working to achieve soil health, visit nature.org/soil.

Tags: Agriculture | Conservation | Farming

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