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Good Earth: the Importance of Healthy Soil

By Allan Maurer, NCBiotech Writer

-- Shutterstock

Earth literally sustains us. Every living thing, plants, animals, and people, depends upon healthy soil to survive. Yet the soil on the world’s remaining arable land is rapidly degrading. Proper land management focused on soil health can not only reverse that, it could increase food production, conserve water resources, and help reduce greenhouse gases.

So said researchers speaking at the NC Ag Biotech Professional Forum Wednesday at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

The problem is diverse and complex, however. Soil diversity includes physical, chemical and biological aspects, noted Wayne Honeycutt, Ph.D., president and CEO of the North Carolina-based non-profit Soil Health Institute.

The Soil Health Institute is focused on “the capacity of soil to function as a vital, living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans,” Honeycutt said. To do that requires “not just recognizing the physical and chemical aspects, but also the living component.”

A mere teaspoon of healthy soil, for instance, may contain more living things than there are people on the planet: billions of bacteria, hundreds of thousands of fungi species, thousands of bacteria-gobbling protozoa, nematodes (roundworms) and earthworms.

Temperature and water are important to soil health as well, Honeycutt said, adding that global warming is another problem affecting soil health.

Earth is warming, more drought is assured

“Ice core data, tree ring data, all show the last 15 years have been the warmest on record.” As the Earth warms, “What will this mean to wildlife and fish habitats and the need for water? By the middle of this century, many of us will experience an additional 18 months of drought.”

Already, he said, “78 percent of our nation’s rivers and streams are in only fair to poor condition and we have a finger pointed at agriculture as a pollutant of our water.”

On the other hand, “There are a lot of good opportunities, good for the farmer and good for the soil,” to pursue, he said.  “Remember, farmers manage 70 percent of land and the decisions they make affect soil health.”

Innovative methods to boost soil health and resiliency include cover cropping and no tillage in fields to increase the organic carbon –which is what gives soil its dark color. That, in turn, increases its water-holding capacity.

No-till farming is needed

Despite the conventional farming idea that the soil has to be tilled to help it absorb water, that isn’t true and it actually harms soil, Honeycutt said.

Cover crops planted in the fall or winter help protect the soil, feed the soil's microorganisms, and help control weeds and runoff.

“A lot of peer-reviewed research tells us there are a lot of benefits. One study in Alabama showed that no-tillage farming slashed soil loss by half. A cover crop reduced the loss to one-tenth that of conventional methods.

“So, we have a win-win situation,” Honeycutt said. “It’s good for productivity and good for the environment.”

The difficulty in convincing farmers to use these methods is basically economic. The result farmers want, increased production, may not appear for years. In many cases, landowners lease their property for others to farm. If it’s a short-term lease, they may not be interested in long-term results.

The Soil Heath Institute’s mission, he said, “Is to safeguard and enhance the vitality and productivity of soil through soil enhancement.” To do that, it has an action plan based on research, fundraising and communication.

The Institute publishes a quarterly newsletter and its website includes research grant opportunities, a search engine to help find research information about specific soil problems, and upcoming event listings.

Representatives of two entrepreneurial agricultural companies also discussed their unique involvement in soil health during the forum.

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