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It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it—or we're all in trouble

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

I’ve been thinking a lot about dirt lately.

I know that most people give dirt—or the more accurate term, soil—about as much thought as they do mattress tags, but I can’t seem to get the subject off my brain. After all, soil is life and we’re running out of it.

Last month, I had the honor of speaking at the National Conference on Cover Crops and Soil Health in Omaha, Neb. All the cover crop/soil health visionaries attended, including Howard G. Buffet, Gabe Brown and Ray Archuleta, among many others. These men rallied in the heartland to discuss advancing cover crops to improve soil health and keep farmland productive for generations to come. 

DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton mused after the meeting that he had “drank the Kool-Aid.” I contend that the rest of the world should have a sip as well.

While cover crops are vital (they build organic matter in soil and improve water infiltration), I keep going back to the soil itself because soil is the beginning of it all. Without soil, there are no plants and no livestock that consume plants. There are no people who consume plants and livestock. There is no society. Soil is the foundation. Period.

Soil experts have made a few projections that will keep you up at night:

  • Half the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years.
  • Soil is being lost 10 to 40 times the rate at which it can be naturally replenished.
  • Experts forecast the world’s population will increase from 7 billion to 9.5 billion by 2050, reducing the ratio of arable land to people and placing increased demands on the performance of Earth’s most valuable asset.
  • Globally, about 40% of the soil used for agriculture is classified as degraded or seriously degraded.
  • At current degradation, some experts believe the world has about 60 years of topsoil left.

Do I have your attention now? If these projections are accurate, it brings greater focus on the fact that this is not tomorrow’s problem. This is happening now. We must act now to conserve, improve and safeguard the soil just as we would any exhaustible resource.

Both public and private soil health initiatives are springing up across the country. USDA’s National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) is working on a soil health campaign, while the National Corn Growers Association, The Nature Conservancy, Monsanto and the Walton Family Foundation focus on a soil health program centered in the upper Mississippi Valley.

These are good efforts, but we need something that takes a broader approach. We need something that completely changes the world’s view of soil. We need a renaissance. So we’ve started one.

This past fall, The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation and Farm Foundation, NFP, initiated The Soil Renaissance: Knowledge to sustain Earth’s most valuable asset. Soil health has been an issue for decades. The Soil Renaissance acknowledges the value of what we know to be good practices while seeding a path to new information, new tools and new techniques that can further sustain this non-renewable natural resource.

The Soil Renaissance’s aggressive three-year goal is to make soil health a priority of farmers, researchers, foundations, nonprofits and government agencies. To achieve our mission, we have brought together agricultural leaders from conventional and organic farmers, researchers, policymakers, university professors, and industry professionals.

A first task was to answer a fundamental question: What is soil health?  A committee of experts and thought leaders reached this answer: The continued capacity of the soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans.

Now we’re working to define a standard for measuring soil health; identify opportunities for specific research work; provide education; and quantify the economics behind improved soil health.

This is a whole-system, industry-wide, global effort aimed at changing our perception of soil forever. I will keep you updated on the activities of The Soil Renaissance, and you can visit the project website.

It’s time to get our hands dirty, folks, and protect our soil. Like I said, I’ve been thinking about dirt a lot lately. And I think you should, too.

Bill Buckner Bill Buckner (
President and CEO of The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation | Twitter | Facebook

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The views and opinions expressed in AgChllenge2050 blog posts are solely the opinions of the authors, and not those of Farm Foundation, NFP.