Opinion: Earth Day calls for conservation that starts from the ground up – literally
This Earth Day, it may be the earth right under our feet that matters most. While we do not think about it often, our soil impacts almost every element of our daily lives, from the food we eat and the water we drink, to the health of our local economies. Just ask any farmer, who will tell you that healthy soil is good for farms, farmers and farming communities because it leads to more productive farmland, cleaner water and a stronger agricultural economy.
Here in the Midwest, row crops like corn, soybeans and wheat are the cornerstone of the region’s economy, generating more than $120 billion in revenue annually. But, over the decades, growing these crops has taken a heavy toll on farms and the quality of the water that surrounds them.
Since the mid-1800s, agricultural soils in the U.S. have lost up to 60 percent of their original carbon content. This has altered the Midwestern landscape by exacerbating loss of key nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that farmers add to the soil in the form of fertilizer. These nutrients are essential to growing soybeans and corn but are often unintentionally lost to rivers and streams, where they become pollutants and waste farmers’ money.
Today, in regions like the Mississippi River Basin, up to 40 percent of all streams are impaired, many from excess nutrients. Ultimately, these nutrients end up in the Gulf of Mexico and create ‘dead zones’ where fish and marine life can’t survive.
But this isn’t just about the environment; it’s about our economy. Losing nutrients into rivers and streams is bad for farm economics, and long-term profitability and prosperity of farms. However, many farmers have found that environmentally-friendly tactics that improve water quality also build soil health and also their bottom lines.