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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
Healthy soils are essential for healthy plant growth, but did you also know they play a role sequestering carbon and cleaning our waterways?
Please join us for an introductory discussion on soil health science. We will explore the basics of soil health management systems – including common practices, measurement/assessment approaches, and associated co-benefits. This program is intended for funders new to the topic of soil health or those interested in better understanding the connection between soil health and climate change and clean water.
We will first hear from the Soil Health Institute (SHI), an independent, nonprofit organization charged with coordinating soil stewardship and advancing soil health; focusing on fundamental and applied research. SHI will discuss the basics of soil health science, including what we know and don’t know about co-benefits for water quality, carbon, economics, etc. and the approaches to measuring and assessing soil health.
We will then be joined by the Virginia Office of the USDA – Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). NRCS has worked for more than 80 years in close partnerships with farmers and ranchers, local and state governments, and other federal agencies to maintain healthy and productive working landscapes. NRCS will cover practical soil health management systems to achieve and increase healthy soils.
This program takes place March 30 at 11:00am PT, will last approximately 90-minutes and conclude with a funder-only discussion.
Regenerative Agriculture is a bit of a mouthful compared to “organic,” but there’s a good reason why consumers should familiarize themselves with the term: It will start appearing on food labels as a way for brands to demonstrate they work with farmers dedicated to healthy soil.
On Tuesday, Annie’s Homegrown, Inc., known for its white cheddar macaroni and cheese, announced it has partnered with Montana farmers who use regenerative agricultural practices. The farmers grow crops — including wheat, peas and oats — that are later developed into limited-edition noodles and graham cracker snacks for Annie’s. The farmers’ names and crops will appear on each limited-edition Annie’s box.
On Wednesday, DanoneWave, a multinational food company that includes brands like Oikos and Dannon, also announced its commitment to exploring regenerative agriculture and soil health within the next year and a half. Dannon, Annie’s and Ben and Jerry’s are working together to create a verification system for food grown using regenerative agriculture, Farm Forum reported Wednesday. If they succeed, products would likely display a seal like the “USDA Organic” one.
This move could help reverse climate change
Regenerative agriculture is synonymous with soil health, Byron Rath, communications specialist for the Soil Health Institute, said in an email, explaining that soil health is a holistic term. Healthy soil helps filter water, provide nutrition to crops and can also help purify and clean the air.
Healthy soil can play a large role in preventing or reversing climate change. The ability of soil to hold water can help “build resilience to drought and extreme precipitation,” Rath explained. The “soil organic carbon” in a given field of crops can influence how much water the soil can retain. “Farming practices such as no-till, cover crops and crop rotation have proven effective at increasing [soil organic carbon], thereby restoring a soil’s resilience,” Rath said. The process of allowing healthy soil to store carbon from the atmosphere is known ascarbon sequestration.
ARDMORE, Okla. — Today, a national coalition convened by the Noble Research Institute announced its intent to create a new voluntary environmental services market that benefits agricultural producers and improves the environment for society at large.
This program aims to incentivize farmers and ranchers to improve soil health on working agriculture lands through the development of a market-based platform. Implementing sustainable agricultural production practices and technologies can create positive social, economic and environmental outcomes. Healthy soils can sequester carbon, improve water quality, control run-off and reduce water demand, all of which create a cleaner environment. Healthy soils also improve crop yield and resilience while decreasing farmers’ and ranchers’ need for agricultural inputs.
“Farmers and ranchers are the unsung heroes of our world. Their hard work feeds and clothes us. Their dedication is the foundation for our society,” said Bill Buckner, Noble Research Institute CEO and president. “This market-based approach seeks to reward farmers and ranchers for the land stewardship they practice for the benefit of all of us. The focus will be on monetizing soil health to reward those farmers and ranchers who are actively adopting and improving practices that protect our environment. We see our work as a model from which the program can expand to capture additional environmental and ecosystem benefits for all participating agricultural producers.”
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the agriculture sector accounts for roughly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. With the support of ecosystem services markets, however, agriculture can mitigate up to 89 percent of its emissions by incentivizing farmers and ranchers to sequester carbon in the soil.
Addressing Soil Health Challenges and Opportunities
From the microorganisms down in it to the food that grows from it, farmers care deeply about the health of their soil. Cultivating and maintaining healthy soils on working lands has benefits far beyond crop production, however. The healthier the soil, the less a farmer has to use chemical inputs, which is both a cost saving for the farmer and good for the environment. Healthier soils also better retain moisture, which increases resilience to drought and means that nutrients stay in the ground and don’t leach into the water supply.
Congress is working now to develop our next farm bill, a massive package of legislation that will include policies that either help or hinder the promotion of conservation practices that build and maintain soil health. As the programs and policies of the farm bill are debated, groups like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) are working to promote the benefits of conservation systems and highlight how the next farm bill can help more farmers increase their sustainability.