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Soil health at critical juncture

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The Soil Health Institute partners with more than 160 organizations and individuals to conduct research and enable farmers and other landowners to adopt regenerative soil health systems.
The societal and environmental costs of soil loss and degradation in the United States alone are estimated to be as high as $85 billion every year.

Editor’s Note: Mr. Teater is a writer with the North Carolina Biotechnology Center

By 2050, the world’s agricultural systems will need to provide food, fiber and fuel for another 2 billion people, or about 9.8 billion total.

If that’s not daunting enough, consider that, in the last century, soils have lost 40 to 60% of the basic building block that makes them productive, organic carbon. The societal and environmental costs of soil loss and degradation in the United States alone are estimated to be as high as $85 billion every year.

This picture grows even bleaker with the looming impact of climate change caused by rising greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists predict drought due to climate change will parch over 30% of the world’s arable land by the end of the century, a 30-fold increase from today.

“We are at a critical juncture in human history where we must address these challenges, and soil health is the framework to do just that,” said Wayne Honeycutt, Ph.D., a soil scientist who grew up raising tobacco, corn and other crops on his family’s 120-acre farm in Metcalfe County, Kentucky.

Honeycutt is president and chief executive officer of Soil Health Institute, a global nonprofit organization based in Morrisville that aims to safeguard and enhance the vitality and productivity of soils through scientific research and outreach.

The Institute’s team of about two dozen scientists and educators partners with more than 160 organizations and individuals to conduct research and enable farmers and other landowners to adopt regenerative soil health systems that bring economic and environmental benefits to agriculture and society.

One of the Institute’s major initiatives, the U.S. Regenerative Cotton Fund (USCRF), received a $2 million grant this month from the Walmart Foundation. The three-year grant will help the USCRF expand its work to help cotton farmers in the South adopt regenerative soil health systems aimed at eliminating 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent from the atmosphere by 2026.

Regenerative soil health

"Regenerative soil health systems can provide significant benefits for farmers, food supply chains, our climate and nature," said Kathleen McLaughlin, chief sustainability officer and executive vice president at Walmart Inc. and president of the Walmart Foundation. "However, adoption of soil health practices remains low. The USRCF's scientific approach empowers farmers and aligns with the Foundation's work on regenerative agriculture. We are excited to support this ambitious project to support farmers with the resources and tools they need to adopt more regenerative systems and accurately measure the outcomes of these practices for their land and livelihoods."

The grant will help scale activities of the USRCF and expand the initiative to Alabama and South Carolina.

“The drought conditions sweeping across the cotton belt this year only underscore the importance of soil health systems to farmers' livelihoods because they can build drought resilience and increase profitability,” said Cristine Morgan, Ph.D., the Institute’s chief scientific officer, “We feel fortunate to have the Walmart Foundation's support that will allow us to expand the reach and impact of the USRCF to Alabama and South Carolina."

The new activities will build on work begun last year in Texas, Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi. In those states, USRCF:

  • established farmer-to-farmer education networks with more than 100 cotton farmers
  • delivered 12 education programs;
  • sampled soils in over 200 locations to develop soil health and soil carbon targets;
  • interviewed farmers managing 11,000 acres to assess their economic experiences with regenerative systems;
  • delivered initial economic results to growers managing 187,000 acres; and
  • mentored five student interns from Historically Black Colleges and Universities to help prepare them for leadership positions in U.S. agriculture. (One of those interns, Jordan Kelly, is from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro.  Kelly is an undergraduate student majoring in sustainable land management and food systems. She plans to become an environmental scientist.)

Research shows that improving soil health in agricultural systems increases carbon sequestration, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, increases drought resilience, enhances water quality, boosts crop yield, increases nutrient availability and suppresses many plant diseases.

Yet today, only 5% of cropland in the U.S. is managed using the basic soil health practice of cover cropping, according to the Institute. Adoption is hindered by gaps in information on the economic benefits of soil health practices, lack of scientific knowledge on how healthy a given soil can become and what that means for land managers and the environment, and a scarcity of locally relevant resources and mentoring networks for farmers.  

To address these issues, the Institute in July announced five new strategic goals:

  • Climate Change: Provide the soil science knowledge and tactics needed for agriculture to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Regenerative Agriculture: Provide the scientific leadership for understanding, managing, and measuring soil health systems contributing to regenerative land management in agriculture and other ecosystems.
  • Water Resources: Provide the soil science knowledge and tactics needed for improving water quality and quantity with soil health systems.
  • Farmer Empowerment: Provide farmers with the information they need when selecting and implementing soil health systems to be profitable, resilient and environmentally sound.
  • Consumer Demand Plus Policy: Provide the science, metrics, information and partnerships that will inform consumer demand and policies for food, fiber, feed, and fuel grown using soil health systems. 

“Bold challenges require bold action,” said Honeycutt, “so we will use cross-cutting tactics that allow us to tackle several strategic goals simultaneously. For example, we believe land managers will be motivated to improve soil health once they learn how healthy their soils can become and what that means for increasing drought resilience, nutrient availability and profitability.”  

To address this gap, the Institute is establishing soil health targets that will illustrate to farmers, ranchers and their advisers how healthy their soils are and how healthy they can become. Because organic matter is an important soil health measurement, this will also provide farmers with an assessment of how much carbon their soils can store.

“These science-based targets will empower farmers with the information they need when considering new management practices that will simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas emissions, build drought resilience, improve water quality, increase profitability and meet the growing consumer demand for food and fiber grown using regenerative soil health systems,” Honeycutt said.

Source: The North Carolina Biotechnology Center,which is solely responsible for the information provided, and wholly owns the information. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.
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