Category Archives: SHI in the News

Healthy Soil 101: Why Soil Health Matters and How the Food Sector Can Help

Rallying research power behind soil health-

In 2013, the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation and the Farm Foundation assembled a group of farmers, agricultural industry pros, government agencies, and NGOs to examine soil health and its role in a sustainable ecosystem. As the group detailed the varied issues affecting soil health, it became clear that more collaboration was needed in order to produce accurate, science-based information about what soils need to remain productive. In response, the foundations formed the Soil Health Institute (SHI)—an independent, nonprofit organization charged with supporting soil stewardship and advancing soil health.

To put it simply, the Institute looks to move scientific knowledge about soil health from the laboratory to the field by providing farmers with the tools they need to better manage their soils. “Farmers are the ones who will help us achieve these soil health benefits for the environment and for productivity,” Wayne Honeycutt, president and CEO of the Soil Health Institute, told TriplePundit. “In the area of the business case, we need more information and more research on the profitability of these soil health systems, because farmers and ranchers are businessmen and women.”

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What Fire Does to Soil Microbes

Soil microorganisms are among the most successful creatures on the planet.

Steven Shafer

Steven Shafer, Ph.D.

By: Steven Shafer, Ph.D.

Fire affects many important ecosystem processes. Much of what we understand about the impact of fire on terrestrial ecosystems comes from many decades of research on the effects of forest and prairie fires on plant communities and succession, nutrient cycling, erosion, and soil properties.

Soil itself is a complex ecosystem that supports all living things above ground. Soils also host an incredible diversity of bacteria, fungi and other microbes that are affected by various factors such as soil nutrients, seasonal changes, drought, pH, chemical applications, plant species and farming practices. Although many microbes are adapted to high-temperature environments (we’re all fascinated by reports of weird microbes growing right at the edges of geysers and undersea vents), no physiologically active microorganism can survive fire.

However, we’ve learned that fire is a powerful regenerating force. This is why prescribed burns are useful management tools in forests and rangelands to clear out old growth, stimulate new growth and recycle nutrients.

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Agri-Pulse Opinion

Why it’s Important to Connect Soil Health and Human Health Science-

Article by Dr. Steven Shafer
Steven Shafer
Soil quality has long been defined by measurable physical and chemical attributes. Recent advances in technologies and methods for soil biology have allowed the field of soil health to become increasingly meaningful. In fact, we know that food security, achieved when people have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2003), is inextricably linked to the health of soil.

Soil health is defined as the “continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans.” Healthy soils contribute to ecosystem functions sustaining plant and animal productivity and biodiversity, filtering contaminants and thus maintaining or enhancing air and water quality, and supporting human health.

The phrase “supporting human health” offers a hopeful connection to feeding the growing world population. Experts in the agriculture, food, human and veterinary medicine sciences see major benefits from an improved understanding of connections between soil health (and the farming practices that promote it) and human health. These connections may occur through the impact of land management, crop and livestock production and commodity processing on nutritional and environmental quality, food safety and the human microbiome.

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Advancing soil health and sustainable agricultural systems

FFAR awarded $9.4 million to the Soil Health Institute, the Soil Health Partnership and The Nature Conservancy for collaborative research and education during 2018-2020. The goals are to accelerate adoption and benefits of managing soil health, which can increase farm profitability while protecting natural resources for sustainable agricultural systems.

This project will develop and test standardized measurements for industry adoption in evaluating soil health, while expanding education and decision support tools for local farmers, agronomists and landowners.

Significant engagement with farmers will catalyze greater adoption of soil health promoting practices that benefit productivity, farmer livelihoods and the environment.

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General Mills sustainability chief: Healthy food needs healthy soil

General Mills executive Jerry Lynch says his company is out to do something that sounds simple: Make food that people love.

“We take the output of Mother Nature and farming communities, we transform it into products for consumers to get the nutrition they want in the midst of their busy lives, and we market it to them,” he said.

But as the global food giant’s chief sustainability officer, Lynch is watching that process, from farm to package to table, very closely. And what he sees, he told agribusiness and food industry leaders gathered in Minneapolis on Thursday, concerns him.

“If the front end of that engine — Mother Nature and farming communities — starts to break down, our business becomes either really expensive to operate, or sometimes impossible to operate because we can’t get what we need in order to make those products,” he said.

What he’s talking about: Climate change. Soil erosion and degradation. Extreme weather events that wipe out crops.

Healthy soil, Lynch said, can help with all of those problems: It stores carbon. It has microbes that make nutrients more available to plants, helping them grow. And healthy soil is sponge-like; it can absorb and hold water rather than letting it run off the land.

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One Step Closer To Measuring Soil Health

The Soil Health Institute has announced initial methods for creating standard measurements of soil health.

Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Steven Shafer tells Brownfield there is currently no universal way to measure soil health. “We hope to eventually be in a position to be able to undertake what we would call a national soil health assessment and really look at what’s happening in terms of status and trends in soil health across the United States.”

He says the Institute has defined tier one and tier two indicators of soil health, and a round table of experts have come to a consensus on how to measure them. Shafer says the next step is putting the methods into practice. “We will test these indicators and methods on sites where there has been long-term agricultural experimentation, so we know the history of the specific land management practices and test them, so we can see which ones really tells us something.”

The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research and partnering organizations have invested nearly $20 million in the project to help the industry adopt standard soil health measurements and enhance economic and environmental benefits for farmers.

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Soil Health Affects Three Legs of Ag

From Agri-View;

The role of soil health in enhancing human health will receive increasing attention in the next several years. That increased focus will affect three main legs of agriculture – research, business and production. Panelists discussed the current and future effects of soil health at the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit, held March 20-21 in San Francisco.

Agricultural research – The Soil Health Institute has listed as a priority establishing and expanding the state of knowledge on relationships between soil health and human health. That priority was described in the “Soil Health Institute Action Plan,” published in May 2017. Interdisciplinary research is needed on how soil-health-management systems influence sustainable nutrition. Those systems impact plant-nutrient availability and uptake as well as the nutritional quality of food, the Soil Health Institute stated.

The Soil Health Institute is comprised of leaders from agribusiness, farms, government agencies and non-governmental organizations. It identifies and prioritizes gaps in soil-health research and develops strategies for funding that research.

Agricultural business – The increasing focus on soil health is attracting startup businesses and the investment community. As evidence, several entrepreneurs and investors attended the “Monetizing the Microbiome” panel discussion at the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit.

William Buckner, president and CEO of the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation of Ardmore, Oklahoma, moderated the discussion.

“Healthy soil is becoming more of a focal point in the foundation of creating a healthy ecosystem,” Buckner said.

But currently there are limitations to the agricultural industry’s understanding of the relationships between soil health and human health, he said. Buckner also serves as the chairman of the board of the Soil Health Institute.

Those limitations are resources, technologies and – to a degree – acceptance by land-grant universities to make soil health a greater priority, he said.

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What’s the Big Deal about Soil? Everything

Your Soil is home to most of the Biodiversity in the World. Keeping it Healthy will Keep you and your cows Healthy, too.
By Robert Fears

Soil health has become a frequent topic of conversation and for good reason—it’s the basic element of the cattle industry. Healthy soil grows abundant forage which keeps cattle producing in good body condition. Unhealthy soils can cause ranchers to file for bankruptcy.

“Soil health is the capacity of a soil to function as a vital, living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans,” says Steven Shafer, chief scientific officer with the Soil Health Institute. “Key words in this definition are vital and living. Soil health is vital to our livelihood and soil is alive with physical, chemical and biological components.”

Physical component

“Soil has structure, which is the arrangement of primary particles into secondary units called aggregates. Soil aggregates are clumps of soil particles held together by moist clay, organic matter, polysaccharide gums produced by bacteria and fungi and fungal hyphae (strands),” says Dennis Chessman, Southeastern regional soil health team leader, NRCS Soil Health Division.

“Pores between aggregates contain water and air and allow roots to grow. Structure affects water infiltration, water holding capacity, water and air movement, nutrient availability and root growth,” he explains.

An example of poor soil structure is plating, which is horizontal layers of soil particles created by compaction or lack of root growth. Plating prevents downward movement of water, nutrients and roots and reduces soil productivity.

“Soil texture is the percent of sand, silt and clay particles and determines water holding capacity,” Shafer says. “Water is lost to deep percolation below root zones in sandy soils, whereas clay soils hold water too tightly for it to be available to plants. Available water capacity occurs in medium textured soils between levels of field capacity and wilting point.”

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DNA Testing, Biocarbon And Custom Microbes:

How These Startups Are Improving Soil Health

There’s increased pressure being placed on farmers to improve crop yields in order to feed a booming global population. But increasing those yields has become harder in the past few decades, which have seen increasing degradation of the health of an essential component of agriculture: the soil itself. That declining health is in large part due to a loss of organic matter in the soil – decomposing plants, microbes, and other essential parts of the ecosystem.

“In many of the soils that we’re dependent on, we’ve lost 40-60% of its organic matter,” explained Dr. Wayne Honeycutt of the Soil Health Institute. “That’s important because it’s critical for water holding, filtration in soil, and enhancing nutrient availability.”

There’s hope on the horizon, though. In recent years, a number of startups have emerged to improve the health of soil – in the process helping farmers and ranchers improve yields and save money.

“There’s a great opportunity here,” explained Honeycutt. “When you look to improve soil health, it’s beneficial for farmers and the environment. When you can increase that soil organic carbon by 1%, you increase capacity to hold water from 2500 to 12000 gallons per acre. That means a lot for farmers’ and ranchers’ ability to withstand drought and stay in business.”

Here’s a look at just a few of the new startups moving into the space of soil health.

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Steven Shafer, soil scientist interview

Steven Shafer is Chief Scientific Officer at the Soil Health Institute, which aims “to be to soil what NASA is to space.” He spent 33 years at the USDA Agricultural Research Service before coming to the institute.

Shafer studies the “phytobiome”—the environment that plants inhabit along with their surrounding organisms—and how it influences soil health. Shafer thinks that studying the phytobiome can help solve a potential food crisis: Currently, the world’s population of 7 billion people are fed by arable land that comprises 10 percent of Earth’s land mass. By 2050, it is estimated there will be 9.7 billion people, but crop yields are peaking. To counter this problem, Shafer says scientists should consider the numerous factors that affect crop yields, such as insects, microbes, weeds, weather, and nutrients. Scientists typically look at one interaction at a time. But examining these factors more holistically, Shafer says, might help farmers predict which crops do better under certain conditions, enhancing their performance and yields.

SciCom’s Anna Katrina Hunter sat down with Shafer in February at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Austin, Texas.

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