Soil, once a supporting actor in agriculture, is finally finding its way to the spotlight. It hasn’t quite made it to the red carpet yet, but integrated soil health and management are well on the way to getting top billing, even outside of agricultural circles.
And rightly so. Soil has long been considered in isolation, a solo act of sorts. But research underlines that soil must be viewed “in the round” – in other words, in relation to its interaction with water, climate and a host of variables that influence its performance and its ability to provide the food that keeps the world alive.
It’s the latter point that has rocketed soil onto the front page. As soil health advocate Senator Rob Black noted in SenCA+ magazine in April, history has shown that civilizations grounded in healthy soil benefit from social, economic and political stability.
The key is how to keep soil healthy, and make its importance understood. That’s not easy.
But outside of the Dust Bowl from the Dirty Thirties, there may have never been a time when so many people were paying attention to soil.
Consider this. Almost 40 years ago, well before Black’s time, the Canadian Senate released a visionary report called Soil At Risk: Canada’s Eroding Future. The report certainly caught the eye of the farming sector. But in the excessive, self-indulgent ‘80s, it was easy for society to ignore dire warnings about almost anything, soil included.
The same with Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS), a network of more than 1,600 farmers and ranchers in nearly 40 communities across Canada. For years, ALUS program participants have been delivering ecosystem services, many of which are related to soil management -- sustainable drainage systems, erosion control and wetlands restoration, among them. Their efforts are admirable and deserve higher profile.
Maybe now they and others concerned with integrated soil health will get it. With inflated food prices and food insecurity a part of daily dinner table conversations, topics related to agriculture are top of mind. Even in the face of everything else we have to worry about, soil health has a much better chance of drawing the public’s attention and understanding, and perhaps even support.
Conversations and activities are happening globally. For example, in the U.K., researchers at the Game and Wildlife Research Trust are looking at research considering the role of soil in crop production in the round, from both a sustainable and profitability perspective.
As researchers there point out, healthy soil represents a huge store of carbon. They say the top 30 cm. alone is thought to contain more than twice as much carbon as there is in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
They note that for every one per cent increase in organic matter, the soil can hold more than 200,000 more litres of water per hectare.
And where soils are healthy, there can be a greater weight of earthworms living below ground than the livestock grazing above ground.
How’s that for integration?
At the University of Illinois, I teach a course in international agricultural communications. Each week we virtually host an agricultural journalist from one of 60-plus countries associated with the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists (which includes Canada and the U.S.). Among other things, these journalists discuss challenges and opportunities in their countries.
Recently, the class heard from a journalist from Bangladesh. Soil salinity, caused by monsoon storms dumping extraordinary rainfall on the land, has worsened with climate change. Researchers are responding by prioritizing salinity-resistant crop development, acknowledging the importance of food security in this densely populated, disaster-prone nation. It’s a big story there.
Soil in the round is a global movement. Its development and sustainability will depend in part on public awareness and support. In modern times, the need has never been more obvious.