Soil Health is Essential to Human, Plant and Animal Health

Enhancing soil health is “one of those rare win-win situations,” Wayne Honeycutt, president and CEO of the Morrisville, NC-based Soil Health Institute told the 2018 Ag Biotech Summit. “It’s good for the farmer and for the environment.”

Practices for good soil health, Honeycutt said, “have environmental benefits that address water quality and carbon sequestration,” among others. But he warned, “don’t become complacent and think we’ve figured it out.”

Sally Rockey, Ph.D.
Sally Rockey, Ph.D. addressing Summit attendees
- - Courtesy of SP Murray Photography

Sally Rockey, Ph.D., executive director of the Washington DC-based Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research (FFAR) noted that the science behind agriculture is “blossoming in an explosion of innovation,” with ground-breaking advances in genomics, big data, digital tools, satellite imaging, drones and systems analysis. She pointed out during the luncheon keynote, however, that “soil health is complex.”

Understanding soil health has expanded from studying its physical and chemical properties to complex biological and ecological science, she said. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines it as “the capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that can sustain plants and animals.

Soil is alive

Soil is alive with microorganisms (more microbes in a teaspoon of dirt than there are people on the planet). They play important roles in both soil and plant health. “Healthy soil is biologically active,” said Alan Franzleubbers, Ph.D., research ecologist of the USDA Agricultural Research Service at North Carolina State University.

The microbes in soil, types of soil (sandy, clay, etc.), elevation, slope, climate and other factors vary substantially, adding to the complexity of maintaining soul health.

Some soil health practices, such as no till and crop cover fields provide substantial benefits over time. Those include increasing the carbon content (making the soil darker), boosting biological activity, improving nutrient cycling, soil structure and water availability.

Steven Shafer Soil Health Institute
Steven Shafer, Ph.D. discussing soil health
- - Courtesy of SP Murray Photography

Still, Steven Shafer, Ph.D., chief scientific officer of the Soil Health Institute said, “Stable soil systems vary with conditions.” Soil health practices have to be determined to meet those conditions, which can vary even in a single field.

For instance, he said, there is “a huge amount of variation in soil’s water holding capacity.” The water and carbon cycles are closely linked. “If we can control some of this, we can control crop productivity,” he said. But many questions remain, such as what is the maximum carbon storage potential of soil, how long does it take to reach that potential, and how long does it reside in the soil?

An additional $9.7 billion in agricultural research will be needed by 2050, Rockey said. “More food will be eaten in the next 50 years than was in the past 7,000 years,” she explained. We’ll need to feed more than 9 billion more people by 2050 on less arable land than we had in 1960.

FFAR builds public and private partnerships, matching federal dollars with non-government money to fund research and development. “We have to be laser-focused on soil health,” she said. “The room for innovation in soil health is amazing.” FFAR leverages investments from venture capitalists, private foundations, philanthropists, and industry. It has worked with 85 different partners.

Soil health fits into all of FFAR’s challenge areas, she added. “Humans’ closest relationship with the Earth is through agriculture,” she said. “We must treat it well for it to be bountiful for us.”

Good Soil Health Practices Boost Both the Quality and Quantity of Food

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Allan Maurer, NCBiotech Writer
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