Protecting Soil: Reasons for Hope
Last week, I shared the news that, due to drenching rains this spring, over 19 million acres went unplanted this year, the highest acreage on record. Making matters worse, the crops that did get put into the ground were not planted on time, and much of our remaining topsoil has become less productive due to factors ranging from excessive chemical inputs to land intensive practices.
However, there remains enormous room for hope. We have the tools in agriculture to save our soils. Here are a few of the initiatives that make me optimistic. Organizations on the ground today are innovating with an eye to changing the existing system through the implementation of sustainable practices.
There are a number of basic agricultural practices and approaches that, when put into place, lead to more resilient farming systems. These include utilization of cover crops which build topsoil and improve yield consistency, riparian buffers which function as a living filter between farm fields and waterways, modern seed drills which allow for the sowing of seeds without tilling the ground (and the subsequent erosion that comes with cultivation of soil), and agroforestry which incorporates perennial trees and shrubs into cropland and pastures.
What if the annual commodity crops that we rely on for global grain production could be perennialized?
That’s the question Wes Jackson asked when he founded The Land Institute over 40 years ago. Its efforts in selective breeding have gone in many directions, including both rice and sorghum, but one of their best-known outcomes is Kernza. This intermediate wheat grass is a distant cousin of modern wheat, but being a perennial, has long roots that work their way deep into the earth. It does an excellent job of holding topsoil in place, preventing erosion and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.
As a cash crop, it can be used in a number of applications – as a whole grain, ground into flour for baking, and even brewed into beer (I’ve sampled Kernza ales from Bang Brewing and Patagonia. Yum!). As an added bonus, the crop residues after harvest can be utilized as forage material for ruminants.
When I toured the Kernza test plots at the University of Minnesota a few years back, I could see that large scale adoption of this crop is still some ways away, but it has the potential to change the face of agriculture in the Great Plains. Efforts by global companies like Patagonia and General Mills to champion Kernza have made national news, but it remains to be seen whether Kernza will get real traction with consumers.
Let’s Make it Happen
There is much to be optimistic about in agriculture, but there is also significant room for improvement.
Conservation practices and perennialization offer significant ecosystem services, contributing to an agricultural system that regenerates topsoil and reduces nutrient pollution of our water. As a bonus, farming done right can combat a changing climate. Unfortunately, implementation rates of these various practices are very low. As an example, less than 20% of farms use seed drills for low/no-till systems, and cover crops are only being applied to around 2% of American acreage, as reported by the Environmental Research Service arm of the USDA. We have the tools to make agriculture sustainable, but they are not being sufficiently utilized. It is time we rectify this situation.
With the right approaches we can be ready to weather the next climate event, be it flood here in Missouri, wildfire in Oklahoma, or drought in California, but it is going to take serious effort. Now. And on scale.
Resources for further reading:
- The Terraton Initiative from Indigo Ag is an ambitious project to build out a carbon market which pays farmers to employ many of the conservation practices I have mentioned in an effort at mass carbon sequestration to combat climate change.
- A recent report from the IPCC states that “Agriculture, forestry and other types of land use account for 23% of human greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time natural land processes absorb carbon dioxide equivalent to almost a third of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry”. This points to both a cause of climate change, but also a solution. Photosynthesis is currently the cheapest and most reliable mechanism available for carbon sequestration.
- The USDA has numerous excellent programs which promote various approaches to conservation and sustainable agriculture. The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program has been funding farmer-driven research on various conservation practices in agriculture for over 25 years. Conservation Reserve Program has a broad range of initiatives which convert ecologically important areas of farm land away from production in order to prevent soil erosion and improve water quality. CRP based projects are sequestering 49 million tons of CO2 annually, and lining 170000 miles of stream with riparian buffers. Natural Resources Conservation Service offers technical and financial assistance to farm and forest through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
- Conservation and sustainable agriculture focused programs have thrived at the USDA in part thanks to the efforts of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. When the Farm Bill gets to congress, NSAC is there fighting to ensure the sustainable agriculture programs get funded.
- Leaders in agroforestry include the Savanna Institute and The Center for Agroforestry at the University of Missouri. Special shout out to Missouri’s Agroforestry Podcast which has some fascinating deep dives on the subject.