Most of us don’t think too closely about dirt, but perhaps we should. After all, it’s the foundation of all life on Earth.
Beyond sustaining plant life—and the rest of the food chain along with it—soil itself is very much alive. One handful of dirt contains up to 50 billion bacteria and hundreds of thousands of individual fungal cells. As these microorganisms move through the soil, they feast on minerals and dead organic matter and leave nutrients behind, allowing plants to grow and ecosystems to thrive.
Meanwhile, the humble dirt beneath our feet is actively purifying our water and fighting climate change. As water sinks into the Earth’s surface, the soil holds on to pollutants like bacteria, minerals and harmful chemicals, resulting in groundwater that is clean enough to drink. When plants use water—along with sunlight and carbon dioxide—to create their own food through photosynthesis, their roots deposit carbon into the soil. This natural nutrient exchange increases the soil’s water retention, structure and fertility, which leads to healthier plants, less water runoff, and a net reduction in atmospheric carbon.
All of these seemingly miraculous processes allowed the soil to sustain life on Earth for millennia, but humans have the power to disrupt them—and we are. Vast clearing of forest vegetation has substantially decreased global soil’s ability to absorb water. When soil can’t absorb water, groundwater reserves are depleted, runoff-related flooding rises, agricultural fertilizers enter our waterways, and nutrient-rich topsoils erode. Commercial farms with little crop cover are particularly susceptible to erosion—and 30 percent of the world’s arable land has become unproductive due to erosion over the past 40 years. Likewise, soil degradation associated with large-scale farming has released 50 to 80 percent of the carbon once stored in soil.
The reality of declining soil health is concerning, to say the least, particularly as the global population is set to increase to more than 9.5 billion people by 2050. If we hope to supply enough food and clean water to meet their needs, we will need healthy soil to do it—and that requires significant shake-ups in the way we manage land.
Rallying research power behind soil health
In 2013, the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation and the Farm Foundation assembled a group of farmers, agricultural industry pros, government agencies, and NGOs to examine soil health and its role in a sustainable ecosystem. As the group detailed the varied issues affecting soil health, it became clear that more collaboration was needed in order to produce accurate, science-based information about what soils need to remain productive. In response, the foundations formed the Soil Health Institute (SHI)—an independent, nonprofit organization charged with supporting soil stewardship and advancing soil health.
To put it simply, the Institute looks to move scientific knowledge about soil health from the laboratory to the field by providing farmers with the tools they need to better manage their soils. “Farmers are the ones who will help us achieve these soil health benefits for the environment and for productivity,” Wayne Honeycutt, president and CEO of the Soil Health Institute, told TriplePundit. “In the area of the business case, we need more information and more research on the profitability of these soil health systems, because farmers and ranchers are businessmen and women.”
The Institute’s Soil Health Research Landscape Tool, for example, consolidates and categorizes publicly-available information on how enhancing soil health can meet specific land management needs. Farmers simply enter some information about their land and crops, as well as the problems they’re looking to address—such as erosion, nutrient depletion or drought—and they’ll get a list of potential management actions based on available research. Implementing the suggested practices can help farmers enhance soil function, which in turn contributes to desired outcomes like increased water-holding capacity, better resilience to extreme weather and enhanced nutrient availability.
SHI researchers are also in the process of evaluating 30 different soil health measurements on up to 150 research plots across North America, in an attempt to help farmers uncover the land management decisions that are most beneficial for different types of soil. “Soil health is something farmers are really interested in,” Honeycutt said, “and this can put them on the front lines of helping us achieve not only our food production needs, but also a lot of our environmental goals.”
Soil health is a “win-win”
“Focusing on soil health is one of those rare win-win situations where what's good for the farmer is also good for the environment,” said Honeycutt, who previously served as the deputy chief for science and technology at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Indeed, healthier soils grow healthier, more resilient and more nutritious crops, increasing profit for farmers. Healthy soils also absorb more water and atmospheric carbon, simultaneously addressing two of the world’s most serious environmental challenges—water scarcity and climate change.
“The research has shown that when we increase carbon in the soil just by 1 percent, we can increase the soil's capacity to hold water by anywhere from about 2,500 to 12,000 gallons per acre,” Honeycutt explained. “That can build resilience to things like drought, so that's how it's good for the farmer. But it’s also really good for the environment, because a lot of these same soil-health-promoting practices can help reduce nutrient losses to our waterways, reduce losses to our groundwater, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
While we already understand a great deal about how promoting soil health can help us address environmental challenges like climate change, more research is needed, Honeycutt told us. “Different soils have different capacities to sequester carbon,” he explained. “One of our priorities is to find support for us to be able to quantify that for every agricultural soil in the United States, so farmers can have a realistic goal on how much carbon they can expect to sequester in their soils, because it is different for different soils.”
That’s where the food industry comes in, Honeycutt says—and supporting research into things like soil health doesn’t just benefit farmers. It safeguards the entire sector.
How the food industry can turn loss into gain
The degradation of global soil health, coupled with the mounting impacts of climate change, already introduce measurable risks to the food sector supply chain. “Globally, right now, there's a brown belt,” Honeycutt said. “At any point in time, about 1 percent of our global agricultural land is under drought. That's projected to increase to 30 percent just by the year 2100.”
“Not only that, but evidence shows that we're increasingly experiencing more and more extreme weather events,” he continued. “All of these things affect yield and therefore affect the abundance of what these food companies are selling and the prices they have to charge for it.”
With this in mind, a growing number of food-industry players are looking to support soil health research and education as a means of fortifying their supply chains. Global packaged foods company General Mills and the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic group founded by the owners of Walmart, fund the Soil Health Institute’s work in this area. The Soil Health Partnership, a farmer-led land management collaborative, similarly calls on industry to support soil health research.
“These investments in soil health—which build water-holding capacity in the soil and reduce water runoff—can help with the stability of the food industry and the ingredients they’re growing to sell,” Honeycutt said. “The more information they can find out from this, the more they will see that it’s a very good investment—not just for generations to come, but also for their companies.”
Along with fortifying supply, a food company’s demonstrated interest in sustainable agriculture is emerging as a key difference-maker among conscious consumers. More than 60 percent of Americans cite healthfulness as a primary driver of food purchases, surpassing even convenience, according to a 2017 survey conducted by the International Food Information Council Foundation. Another 40 percent said they directly prioritize the environmental sustainability of the food they buy.
“As consumers are increasingly interested in how their food is grown, soil health is a great story to tell,” Honeycutt said.
The bottom line
As President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” While research plainly shows that soil health is in decline around the world, solutions are well within our reach—and the food industry has a clear role to play.
“By supporting research into things like the economics of soil health, industry can help farmers see what the business case is for them,” Honeycutt concluded. “Every farm is different, but as you move from one region to the next—different soils, different climates, different production systems—that creates a nuance to inform how a farmer can effectively implement these soil-health-promoting practices. Those are some key areas where the food industry and their stakeholders can work with organizations like us and others to ensure that farmers have what they need.”
Image credit: Nikola Jovanovic via Unsplash
Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL.