Healthy Soils are All the Rage!

June 13th 2018

by Katherine DiMatteo

How did dirt get so popular? Sure, as a child you probably ate dirt as I did which was probably not nutritious but fun. Today health and soil (not dirt) are linked and the subject of discussion by farmers, politicians, brands, agriculture and environmental organizations, the media, and maybe even some of the general public. Why? Science has caught up with logic – healthy soils produce healthy plants that are healthy for people and animals. And, by the way, healthy soils sequester carbon, retain water and prevent soil erosion and water pollution. To those that read J.R. Rodale, Sir Albert Howard, Lady Eve Balfour, Rudolph Steiner and others from the early-mid twentieth century this is familiar stuff and today, thanks to Project Drawdown and others, health soils are being recognized for the benefit they bring environmentally and economically.

However, leadership is needed to guarantee that healthy soils are not just a trend but are entrenched in agricultural policy and production. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 25-40 billion tons of topsoil are lost to erosion annually around the world, and in most cases, soil conditions are “getting worse in far more cases than they are improving.” In addition, FAO reports that soil fertility is declining. Solution: conservation, organic, and regenerative agriculture practices. In response to the mounting evidence of both the problems and the solutions, governments are beginning to step up. For instance, in the United Kingdom in its 25 Year Environment Plan there is a commitment to achieve “sustainably managed soils” by 2030. Detailed legislation is not yet written to implement this ambitious goal.

In the U.S. the SOIL Stewardship Act has been introduced by Representative Tim Walz from Minnesota that prioritizes existing and new conservation programs which benefit soil health and soil carbon storage. However, the draft House Farm Bill released and defeated in May would have eliminated the Conservation Stewardship Program – our largest conservation program that has helped farmers of all persuasions adopt minimal tillage, cover crops and crop rotation. With any luck, the advocacy organizations that watch the Farm Bill and fight for environmentally-sound agricultural policies will prevail in retaining, and perhaps expand these critical programs.

Fortunately, state and local governments are not waiting for the Federal government to act. In Maryland there is a Healthy Soils Program, in California there are the Climate Smart Agriculture programs, Hawaii has created a Carbon Farming Task Force, in Ontario, Canada an Agricultural Soil Health and Conservation Strategy will be released later this year, and there are many other examples.

There is movement in the right direction and each of us can keep it going by being aware and taking political action to support the legislation, regulation and leaders that place soil health at the heart of agricultural policy. And, of course, continuing to support through our purchases, farms, brands and stores that value healthy soils and its global benefits.

Katherine DiMatteo is the Executive Director of the Sustainable Food Trade Association.  She can be reached at katherine@sustainablefoodrade.org.    Find out more about SFTA at www.sustainablefoodtrade.org