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COLLEGE STATION, Texas (DTN) -- Soil scientists, researchers and foundations are working to draw attention to long-term global soil security challenges and to encourage producers to implement practices that reduce soil erosion and improve water quality.
Texas A&M University hosted the Global Soil Security Symposium this week to highlight the importance of protecting the productivity of global soils. The United Nations has designated 2015 as the International Year of Soils and the conference included speakers from 10 countries reporting on the state of global soils.
"I firmly believe a global approach to soil health is needed for our well-being," said Michael Jeffery, Australia's national advocate for soil health.
Jeffery and others hope global soil security becomes the focal point later this year when world leaders meet in France to discuss how to deal with greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
Soil security revolves around main themes that are becoming more central to American agricultural productivity. Global population continues to grow, which is driving demand for more food. Yet the amount of arable land is shrinking by an average of 1% globally every year. In the U.S., about 41 million acres of rural land has been lost to urban sprawl over the last 30 years; approximately 14 million of those acres were considered prime crop land. Soil erosion remains a problem for farmers facing hotter temperatures and more weather volatility as climate changes.
The conference's lead organizer, Christine Morgan, a soil science professor at Texas A&M, noted a wide range of people are becoming more interested in soil health, but there are questions about how the topic continues to advance. She thinks grassroots efforts to protect soils are going to improve as farmers and landowners see more measurable reasons for management decisions oriented around improving soil health. She pointed to efforts such as Field to Market that are coalescing various groups around soil health.
"That's where the biggest advances are going to happen," she said.
Morgan noted scientists know what needs to be done. She believes work revolving around soil health will expand on the farm as people are rewarded for those practices.
Morgan added, "I'm hoping we make changes before a big catastrophe occurs."
Deputy Chief of Science and Technology at USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service Wayne Honeycutt noted the need to increase crop productivity also translates into greater demand for water. That requires boosting water-holding capacity of soils.
There is a nexus between soil health, water demands and water quality. Nationally, 78% of streams and rivers are classified as in fair or poor condition. When the carbon content in soil is increased, the water-holding capacity of the soil also increases. Most studies show that one of the best ways to increase carbon content is to reduce or eliminate soil tillage.
"We can say with pretty good assurance that we know how to increase the carbon in the soil," Honeycutt said.
No-till, combined with cover crops, builds resiliency in the cropping system. Honeycutt pointed to a survey following the 2012 drought showing corn farmers who grew cover crops produced an average of 114 bushels per acre compared to 103 bpa among those who did not.
NRCS has put greater emphasis on soil health in the last couple of years. The agency is developing a new soil health division headed by Bianca Moebius-Clune. She came out of academia, having spent 11 years at Cornell University where Moebius-Clune worked on the Adapt-N nitrogen management strategy for corn that has been embraced by some major seed and agronomy companies.