November 23, 2017

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Soil Health: Critical for Farmers, the Environment and Global Food Security

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Spanning across southern Minnesota from the South Dakota border in the west to the Wisconsin border in the east, Minnesota’s First Congressional District is home to some of the most productive agricultural land in America. Here you’ll find fertile soil, rich with nutrients that support the growth of a wide variety of crops.

In my district, like many others throughout the United States, farmers are the backbone of our economy. There are no better stewards of the land than those who depend on it for their livelihoods and the livelihoods of their families. As policymakers and those interested in both economic growth and environmental conservation, (while meeting the needs of a growing population) we need to ensure that the sound policies are in place to help support farmers and others working hard to be good stewards of the land. And good stewardship starts with healthy soil.  

Soil is the basic resource upon which all terrestrial life depends; it allows for bountiful harvests and is a valuable economic asset to the farmers who grow our food. Healthy soil also contributes to the health of surrounding ecosystems by improving the quality of our streams and lakes, and helping to mitigate the impact of climate change.

Healthy soil is a critical component in farmers’ efforts to meet the needs of a growing population. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that by 2050, we will need to increase food production by 60 percent. As farmers are being asked to grow more food on less land and with fewer inputs, what can we – as policymakers – do to support their efforts?

First, we must increase awareness of soil health as an essential foundation to a healthy, productive food system among the public, the media and policymakers. Very often, soil is simply an afterthought when we discuss our food system. That needs to change. The entire food and agriculture value chain needs to work to prioritize soil health as a pathway to better economic and environmental outcomes in agriculture. When we talk about growing food, protecting the environment, and combating climate change, those discussions need to start with soil health.

Second, we need to work together to support research and further exploration of the role of soil in supporting ecosystems. Together with farmers, researchers, NGOs, and the private sector, the United States Department of Agriculture-National Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS) should continue to lead efforts to build scientific evidence and deploy locally-tailored strategies so farmers can use the best available tools to steward their farms. In addition, Congress should support efforts for additional research on soil health through partnerships with NRCS, the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and at land grant and other research universities. It’s exciting to see the renewed focus on initiatives like The Nature Conservancy and General Mills’ recent soil study reThink Soil: A Roadmap to U.S. Soil Health, the establishment of research organizations such as the Soil Health Institute, and private sector initiatives like the Soil Health Partnership and the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative.

Finally, everyone in the food and agriculture value chain must work together to support public policies that encourage and reward practices that foster soil health as a primary goal. In the coming months, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees will begin their work preparing for the next Farm Bill. This presents the perfect opportunity to elevate soil health in the policy conversation. The time is now: we have a unique opportunity to take action on soil health, and must seize that opportunity in the next Farm Bill.

Photo credit MRCC (Midwest Row Crop Collaborative)

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