Healthy farms – and the climate – need healthy soils

This post originally appeared on the Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition’s Blog on June 2, 2017:

Healthy farms – and the climate – need healthy soils (6/2/17)

For those who don’t spend a lot of time on farms, it’s easy to think of soil as simply dirt. But it’s much more than that. Fertile, healthy soil is made up of nutrients, micro-organisms, minerals and other organic material – all of which are vital to grow the food we all need. Healthy soils also naturally sequester carbon, preventing it from seeping into the air and contributing to the greenhouse effect that is causing climate change.

Unfortunately, currently there is not enough healthy soil to go around. In an agricultural landscape dominated by large-scale, industrialized farms, conventional factory farming practices, including tillage and pesticide use, erode soils, kill micro-organisms and emit huge quantities of greenhouse gases. These practices are not only harmful to the climate, but they hurt farmers too. Decreased yields mean less income for farmers and, in turn, less food for the rest of us.

To combat this, a new movement is emerging to restore the healthy soils we need to feed a growing population, support farmers and fight climate change. In the 2017 Maryland General Assembly legislative session, lawmakers passed first-of-its-kind legislation to promote healthy soils and incentivize farming practices that contribute to healthy soils and sequester carbon. The legislation defined “healthy soils” as the continuing capacity of soil to:

  • function as a biological system;
  • increase soil organic matter;
  • improve soil structure and water and nutrient holding capacity; and
  • sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This is a big opportunity for both farmers and environmentalists to come together to find solutions to this problem. If farmers adopt healthy soil practices on a broad scale, such as no-till harvesting, planting cover crops and reducing or eliminating their use of pesticides, we will be able to better secure our food supply, improve yields and profits for farms, improve air and water quality and combat climate change. Research also shows that reaching the goals of the Paris climate agreement (regardless of the U.S.’s official position on the accord) will be impossible without finding solutions in the agriculture sector.

This law is a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done to achieve these goals. A Healthy Soils Consortium managed by the Maryland Department of Agriculture has begun working on this issue, but the state still needs to find a funding stream to provide the incentives for farmers to change their practices. Once the program is fully off the ground, however, Maryland has an opportunity to become a real leader in promoting agricultural practices that benefit the planet as well as farmers and encourage other states and companies to do the same.

So, the next time you think about soil, don’t dismiss it as simply dirt. Instead, remember that an incredible solution to the effects of climate change lies just beneath our feet.

–Kerry Darragh, Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition