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UN Food Agency Says Improving World’s Soils Essential to Achieve SDGs

“Soil degradation affects food production, causing hunger and malnutrition, amplifying food-price volatility, forcing land abandonment and involuntary migration-leading millions into poverty”

Published: August 13, 2018

Improving the health of the world’s soils is essential to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, including Zero Hunger and combating climate change and its impacts, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva, today told participants of the World Congress of Soil Science.

In a video message to the event, which is being attended by more than 2,000 scientists from around the world, Graziano da Silva noted that approximately one-third of the Earth’s soil is degraded.

“Soil degradation affects food production, causing hunger and malnutrition, amplifying food-price volatility, forcing land abandonment and involuntary migration-leading millions into poverty,” he said.

The FAO and the Status of the World’s Soil Resources report have identified 10 major threats to soil functions including soil erosion, soil nutrient imbalance, soil carbon and biodiversity losses, soil acidification, contamination, soil salinization, and soil compaction.

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Our Turn at This Earth: Could Regenerative Agriculture Save the Ogallala Aquifer?

Author: Julene Bair | Published: August 2, 2018

That’s the question I first asked myself some months ago when I began learning about the Soil Health movement. I’d seen a video of Ray Archuleta, the agronomist who spearheaded the movement, demonstrating how non-tilled versus conventionally farmed soils absorb water. When he placed a clump of soil from a field that had been tilled year after year into a jar of water, it immediately fell apart and turned the water brown, while a clump from a field farmed without tillage held together for over 24 hours. In another test, simulated rain just sat on top of the soil from the tilled field, while it thoroughly saturated the non-tilled soil. Ray attributed these differences to there being more pore spaces in the non-tilled sample.

Excited by the implications for water conservation, I paid a visit to the well-known North Dakota soil health advocate Gabe Brown, who showed me how that porosity occurs. In a field where he’d harvested corn the previous fall, then planted a cover crop of rye and hairy vetch, he pulled a vetch plant from the ground and pointed to chunks of soil that clung to its roots. Plant roots, he explained, secrete what he called exudates, which serve as food for microbes and other soil life, including fungi. The fungi return the favor by exuding glomalin, a sort of biological glue that allows soil to stick together. The resulting chunks of soil, known as aggregates, create the pore spaces that allow water to infiltrate and be retained.

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A Consensus is Forming – Report on NY Soil Health Summit, July 18, 2018

Author: Elizabeth Henderson | Published: July 28, 2018

The era of soil health is dawning – that is the conclusion we heard from David Montgomery, keynote speaker at the New York Soil Health Summit, and the theme of his hot-off-the-presses book Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soils Back to Life. Organized by David W. Wolfe, Cornell Professor of Plant and Soil Ecology, the summit brought together 140 people to hear the latest developments underway in research, farming practices and policy related to building soil organic matter and increasing carbon in the soil. A major summit goal is to complete a “Road Map” that will set forth this information.  The 39 organizations represented at the summit covered the full range from the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY) to the Farm Bureau. The exciting news is that this broad spectrum of organizations, farmers, researchers and government agency staffers are coming to consensus about the critical importance of soil health and the need for a soil health program for our state.

Maryellen Sheehan and I attended on behalf of NOFA-NY and left feeling very encouraged. The highest policy priority for NOFA’s New York Organic Action Plan is to: “Create a Healthy Soils Program in NYS: Support research to increase understanding of soil health and the connection between soil health, the nutritional value of food and human health, and provide technical assistance and tax and other incentives to farms that build healthy soil and increase soil carbon, and disincentives for pollution and erosion.” (http://www.nofany.org/images/New%20York%20State%20Top%20Ten.pdf) The broad coalition that can push this through is in formation.

The Soil Health Summit opened with a greeting from Patrick Hooker, former head lobbyist for the NY Farm Bureau and current Deputy Secretary for Food and Agriculture in the Governor’s office.  Hooker stressed that building soil health is a win-win for farmers and the environment.  He listed the investments NY has already made in programs to improve farming practices through the Agricultural Environmental Management, Agricultural Non-Point Source Pollution, and Climate Resilient Farming programs, and observed that the best way to get more farmers to implement better practices is farmer to farmer. It is good to hear that these ideas have made it to the top leadership in NY.

David Wolfe set the stage for the rest of the day by giving a little history of the pioneering work on soils at Cornell with studies like Building Soils for Better Crops by Harold Van Es and Fred Magdoff, and Wolfe’s own Tales from the Underground: A Natural History of Subterranean Life. Wolfe was too modest to mention the fortitude it required to persist in the study of soils while surrounded by an institution that prioritized chemical agriculture and GMOs. In his quick review, he mentioned the breakthroughs in understanding soil biology, the importance of root exudates, the rhizosphere, and putting the soil biome to work. Cornell has led the way nationally in testing for soil biology, instead of just mineral content, and has on-going research on composting, manures and biochar.  I especially appreciate Wolfe’s conclusion that building carbon in the soil is natural “geo-engineering” that increases farm profits while increasing resilience in the face of climate change.

The rest of the morning was devoted to a series of “lightning” presentations – five minutes each from researchers, farmers and not-for profits.  Anu Rangarajan gave a quick summary of her work on reducing tillage with both large-scale farmers and small-scale organic vegetable growers. To encourage reduced tillage adoption, Rangarajan called for incentives for specialized equipment cooperatives and adding a priority for soil health to the NY Grown and Certified program.  Greg Peck talked about substituting mulching for herbicides in apple orchards. Johannes Lehmann shared his research on marketing dairy manure as a fertilizer and brought news of the Cornell pyrolysis facility established this year.  Matt Ryan reported that cover cropping has been adopted on 10% of NY farmland so far: farmers are starting to interseed cocktails of cover crops into corn, a practice that I learned when I started organic farming in the 1980s.  Ryan has also been perfecting kernza, the perennial wheat developed by Wes Jackson and the Land Institute. Kernza’s impressive root system dwarfs that of annual wheat.

Three farmers gave quick glimpses of the practices they are using on their farms to improve soil health.  Donn Branton, who grows 1500 acres of diverse field crops, has switched to low-till and cover cropping, constantly experimenting as soils improve and yields rise. Jean-Paul Courtens explained how a four year rotation of cover crops and vegetable crops has enabled Roxbury Farm to produce 25 % of the vegetables’ nitrogen needs from green manures. Despite the cool wet springs on the shores of Lake Ontario, dairy farmer Dave Magos of Morning Star Farm has been steadily increasing cover crops and reducing tillage.

Representatives of five not-for-profits gave lightning talks about their organizations. Rebecca Benner explained that the Nature Conservancy takes an integrated approach to understanding the relationship between water quality which has been in alarming decline across the state and the benefits of building soil carbon.  This is my 100 word summary of my five minute talk: “Soil health is a top priority of organic farmers and of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York. We have one orthodoxy – healthy soils give healthy crops and people and animals who eat these crops will be healthy. Cooperating with the 6 other NOFA chapters, NOFA-NY has engaged in a multi-year project to identify farmer best practices/innovations in carbon farming and share them through publications, workshops, conferences. NOFA Certification programs introduced 100% grass fed standards. NOFA supports simple testing for soil quality that farmers can perform themselves, and advocates for legislation to create a healthy soils program in NY.”

From American Farmland Trust, David Haight brought their striking calculation that preserving farmland makes a major contribution to reducing carbon emissions since farms emit far fewer greenhouse gases than the housing sprawl that displaces them.  AFT has a new program to train 20 soil health specialists whose job will be to support farmers and non-farming landowners in expanding soil health. David Grusenmeyer shared the good news that since they began funding research in 2006, the NY Farm Viability Institute has supported 41 projects related to soil health for a total investment of $3.66 million. Finally, Jeff Williams declared that the NY Farm Bureau is committed to lobbying for soil health programs in the state legislature.

David Montgomery, a geologist whose eyes were opened to the power of biology through his wife’s energetic soil building in their garden, gave a lively talk on soils and human history.  Referring to a United Nations study, he pointed out that over one third of the earth’s soils have been degraded by human activities and, historically, societies that degrade soil fail.  Since realizing that human activity can also restore soils much faster than it is made by nature, Montgomery has traveled around the world meeting with farmers who have discovered ways, both high tech and very simple, to build soil.  They all adhere to the principles of conservation agriculture: 1. minimize tillage; 2. maintain permanent ground cover; and 3. practice diverse rotations. These regenerative practices – reducing or eliminating tillage, diversifying crops, growing cover crops, recycling crop residues, composting, and integrating livestock with other crops – are the recipe for cultivating microbial soil life.  His conclusion – soil health and human health are one and inseparable.

Three more lightning talks brought research results on the economics of soil health on the farm scale, a survey on the benefits and constraints to soil health in NY, and the potential impact of regenerative practices on climate change. Lynn Knight, a USDA-NRCS economist, shared the results of economic case studies of soil building practices on farms.  Her partial budget of Dave Magos’ farm shows that increased yields and decreases in fertilizer and herbicide expenses more than outweighed the costs of cover crop seed on 830 acres for a net return of $62 per acre.  Cedric Mason analyzed the survey of 180 NY farms and found that overall, reduced tillage brought greater yields, though the benefits differ between field crop and vegetables farms. A significant finding is that the longer farms use these practices, the more benefits they realize on their farms from the incentives provided by federal programs in terms of improved drainage, greater resilience to drought and reduced erosion. Jenifer Wightman evaluated the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that result from soil health practices, and called for more research to better quantify the costs and benefits.

For the final hour of the summit, participants divided into small groups to brainstorm on the Soil Health Road Map. Paul Salon of the NRCS facilitated discussion at the table where I sat.  We focused on overall goals for the Road Map – identifying the barriers to farmer and landowner adoption of soil health practices, especially for dairy farms, and creating a statewide program to overcome those obstacles through research, farmer to farmer extension of regenerative practices, and incentives to adopt them. We endorsed the creation of a “NY Soil Health Act” and building a coalition based on the people who came to the summit with the political clout to get it passed, funded and implemented.

A full report including all the presentations and a video of Montgomery’s keynote will soon be available on the website:  www.newyorksoilhealth.org.

33 Ways the Regenerative Agriculture Movement Is Growing

Authors: Austin Badger, Taylor Herren and Betsy Taylor | Published: July 2018

Policy:

1) Australia’s Coalition Government is investing $450 million in a Regional Land
Partnership program and $134 million in Smart Farms program to improve soil health

2) The Government of Andhra Pradesh has launched a scale-out plan to transition 6
million farms/farmers to 100% chemical-free agriculture by 2024. The programme is a
contribution towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals, focusing on ‘No Poverty’,
‘Clean Water and Sanitation’, ‘Responsible Consumption and Production’, and ‘Life on
Land’. It is led by Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (RySS) – a not-for-profit established by the
Government to implement the ZBNF programme – and supported by the Sustainable
India Finance Facility (SIFF) – an innovative partnership between UN Environment,
BNP Paribas, and the World Agroforestry Centre.

3) The U.S. Climate Alliance in partnership with the Working Lands Initiative convened a
consortium of large land conservation, forestry, and agricultural organizations at a
“Learning Lab” in July. Over 50 technical experts across industry, academia, and
government worked together to draft guiding principles that state governments can use
to develop strategies, policies, and funding initiatives to draw down carbon from the
atmosphere and sequester it in the soils across farms, rangelands, forests, and
wetlands. Read More

4) A new bill will be brought before the UK parliament this year mandating, for the first
time, measures and targets to preserve and improve the health of the UK’s soils.

5) The Ministry of Primary Industries in New Zealand is ramping up its work to promote
healthy soils. See here

6) Zimbabwe has passed 3 recent policies related to climate and agriculture, focused
particularly on coping with less rainfall in the region.

7) Luca Montanarella with the European Commission shared this new organic production
and labelling of organic products regulation in the EU: The Regulation (EU) 2018/848 of
the European Parliament was passed on May 30, 2018

8) Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet recently introduced the Conservation for Very
Erodible Row Cropland Act of 2018 (COVER Act) to promote soil health practices in
conservation programs. The bill would incentivize and develop farm practices that
improve soil health, enhance farm resilience, and increase carbon storage, while
boosting farm incomes.

Practice:

9) Bringing Farmers Back to Nature: 70 countries gathered in Rome recently to discuss
how agroecology can create a healthy more sustainable food system. Countries around
the globe are already investing millions to make this change happen.

10) Soil Health Institute released a catalog of policies and a catalog on education that
advance soil health as part of a $9.4 million grant from the FFAR.

11) Silvopasture is gaining a lot of attention as a powerful way to integrate trees, agriculture and soil carbon sequestration. Chelsea Green Publishing just released a new book: A Guide to Managing Grazing Animals, Forage Crops, and Trees in a Temperate Farm Ecosystem.

12) There are many farming networks in the US and globally. Farmer peer to peer learning and field schools are often at the heart of changing practices. The Land Stewardship Project is working in conservative areas to support farmer networks and the Soil Builders program.

13) Holistic Management International provides training programs and support to farmers and ranchers working to build healthy soils. Check out their events and training
programs.

14) Danone is promoting regenerative agriculture through incentives and investment in
farmers. Learn more here.

Science:

15) One of the principles supporting healthy soils and SOC storage is diversification of our agricultural systems. A recent paper looked at plant diversity on the land. Ecosystem
management that maintains high levels of plant diversity can enhance SOC storage and
other ecosystem services that depend on plant diversity.

16) This is a grass-fed beef study that demonstrates soil carbon sequestration from grazing that completely offsets the greenhouse gas cost of beef (in the finishing stage).
Adaptive multi-paddock grazing can sequester large amounts of soil C.

17) A study has found that increased drought and wildfire risk make grasslands and
rangelands a more reliable carbon sink than trees in 21st century California. As such,
the study indicates they should be given opportunities in the state’s cap-and-and trade
market, which is designed to reduce California’s greenhouse gas emissions to 40
percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

18) Rice is cultivated as a major crop in most Asian countries and its production is expected to increase to meet the demands of a growing population. This study looked at rice production and how to both reduce emissions and capture carbon in Bangladesh rice
paddies. It concluded that under integrated management, it is possible to increase
SOC stocks on average by 1.7% per year in rice paddies in Bangladesh, which is nearly
4 times the rate of change targeted by the “4 per mille” initiative arising from the Paris
Climate Agreement.

19) Klaus Lorenz and Rattan Lal of Ohio State have published a book on soil carbon
sequestration and agricultural systems. They attended the Paris carbon sequestration
conference in May 2017. “Carbon sequestration in Agricultural Ecosystems”

20) Whendee Silver of University California Berkeley wrote an interesting blog about
whether soil carbon sequestration can help cool the planet. This was written for a
general rather than scientific audience Can Soil Carbon Sequestration Affect Global
Temperatures?

21) The arid west of the United States is changing due to climate change. The Agricultural
Climate Network helps monitor and conduct research to share findings on how to help
farmers adapt.

Adaptation and Agriculture:

22) The Institute for Trade & Agriculture Policy released a new report about state policies
and plans in the United States to make agriculture more resilient in the face of climate
impacts.

Funding:

23) The Soil Carbon Coalition has a new prize for carbon farmers. The Soil Carbon
Challenge is an international (and localized) prize competition to see how fast land
managers can turn atmospheric carbon into soil organic matter. This coalition seeks to
“to advance the practice, and spread awareness of the opportunity, of turning
atmospheric carbon into living landscapes and soil carbon.”

Media Coverage​:

24) This article by Marcia Delonge of the Union of Concerned Scientists speaks to the link between regenerative agriculture and farm resilience.

25) Politico says regenerative agriculture is the next big thing.

Workshops and Conferences:

26) No Till on the Plains is attracting a huge audience to its summer and winter
conferences. Their next gathering to celebrate and learn about farm management
practices to build healthy soils will be in January.

27) Regeneration Midwest held a lively conference in Chicago to begin forming a 12 state
coalition promoting regenerative agriculture.

28) The FAO recently held workshops in Latin America with a focus on development and
strengthening of soil statistics and indicators for decision making and planning.

29) Healthy Soils Institute is holding a national conference on soils in November, 2018

30) Roots of Resilience will hold a grazing conference in March, 2019

31) The 5th Annual Conference on Plant and Soil Science will be held in London in
February, 2019.

Internships:

32) The RockGroup is offering 12 internships for students interested in regenerative
agriculture.

33) The Regeneration Academy offers internships in regenerative agriculture on a farm in Spain.

6 Ways We’re Letting Our Soil Die – and How We Can Save It

Author: Malcolm Smith | Published: July 18, 2018

Unless you’re an avid gardener, you probably don’t give much thought to soil. It’s that dark muddy stuff that dirties your shoes. But farmers are utterly reliant on it to grow most of our food crops and to raise livestock  on pasture it nurtures.

So we are all reliant on soil for our breakfast cereals, our milk, our beef…and much more. Are farmers treating soil with the respect it deserves, though? Here are six soil concerns – and some solutions.

Less matter

Organic matter is the lifeblood of a healthy soil. But a government survey this year found that just a third of farmers keep track of it.

Organic matter gets into soil through the decomposition of plants on the soil surface (the stems and leaves after a crop has been harvested), from living and dead soil organisms, or by adding compost or manure.

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To Feed the World Sustainably, Repair the Soil

A reconceived farming system can rapidly improve fertility without chemical fertilizers, and without sacrificing crop yields

Author: David R. Montgomery | Published: July 16, 2018

New technologies and genetically modified crops are usually invoked as the key to feeding the world’s growing population. But a widely overlooked opportunity lies in reversing the soil degradation that has already taken something like a third of global farmland out of production. Simple changes in conventional farming practices offer opportunities to advance humanity’s most neglected natural infrastructure project—returning health to the soil that grows our food.

It is critical we do so. In 2015, a U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization report concluded that ongoing soil degradation reduces global harvests by a third of a percent each year under conventional farming practices. In some parts of the U.S. I’ve visited, the rich black topsoil that settlers once plowed is gone, eroded away leaving farmers tilling anemic subsoil.

And while mechanization, agrochemicals, and the Green Revolution transformed agriculture and boosted crop yields in the 20th century, they also delivered another unexpected downside. The combination of highly disruptive mechanized tillage and heavy fertilizer use took a toll on soil organic matter and beneficial soil life even as it masked the effects of degraded fertility by pumping up crop yields. So far, America’s farms have lost about half their soil organic matter since colonial days.

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‘Soil My Undies’ Challenge Has Farmers Burying Underwear In Their Fields

Across North America, farmers are burying tighty-whities in their fields.

Author: Dan Nosowitz | Published: July 9, 2018

Started by the Farmers Guild in California, the Soil Your Undies Challenge is a test designed to show the power and importance of healthy soil.

The Challenge is easy: Simply bury a pair of 100 percent cotton underwear—generally white briefs have been the garment of choice—in your farm, garden, or pasture. Two months later, dig them up and inspect and document the changes.

Healthy soil contains all sorts of bacteria, earthworms, fungi, and other little organisms that like to eat organic matter, like, just for example, cotton underwear. In two months, underwear buried in healthy soil will be completely eaten through, leaving little but an elastic waistband.

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Soil Farmers: How A Renewed Focus On The Land Is Building More Resilient Farms

Author: Brian Kaufenberg | Published: June 26, 2018

Peter Allen wants to bury a fence.

Tucked within the rolling landscape of the driftless region, on a farm outside of Viola, Wisconsin, a barbed wire fence runs along the spine of a ridge separating a strip of pasture from the valley below. The noticeable three-foot drop between the fence and the field is the result of years of soil washing away while the field was being used as conventional cropland.

“When we got here, this soil was in really bad shape; it hardly grew anything and there was no topsoil left, it was all just sand subsoil,” Peter Allen recalls in a January 2018 episode of the television show “Outdoor Wisconsin.” “So we immediately brought the animals in, […] planted about 30 different species of native prairie grasses and flowers and then a bunch of trees in rows, and then we ran chickens here behind them. And now, just two years later, this is some of the best forage we have on the farm, right where we ran the chickens through.”

As Allen’s animals—cattle, hogs, sheep, and chickens—graze the forage, they return nutrients and organic matter to the land, slowly rebuilding what’s been lost—adding between a quarter of an inch to an inch of soil per year, he says, and slowly restoring the savannah ecosystem once native to the area, a mix of trees and prairie. The livestock are key to this process, providing the cornerstone to a farming system that now yields perennial fruits and nuts, annual crops like corn, and pastured beef, pork, and chicken.

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To Realize Land’s True Value, We Need to Invest In It Wisely

Authors: Lulu Zhang and Kai Schwärzel | Published: June 19, 2018

It takes 200-400 years to form one centimeter of soil, while the estimated rate of soil erosion is 100 times greater than soil formation. Where erosion is prevalent, the rate of soil loss reaches 4 mm per year (FAO 2015); 70% of drylands suffer from land degradation in varying degrees (Gibbs and Salmon 2015). While global population grows rapidly, land is finite in quantity.

With an annual financial loss of US$400 billion due to soil erosion from arable lands, as estimated by the FAO-led Global Soil Partnership, investing in sustainable land management and practices such as restoring degraded land can recover soil health and enhance soil functions and land productivity to provide critical ecological and economic benefits for human needs. Goal 15 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) explicitly outlines the international community’s resolve to halt and reverse land degradation.

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Soil Biodiversity and Soil Organic Carbon: Why Should Nations Invest in It to Keep Drylands Alive?

Author: Graciela Metternicht | Published: June 18, 2018

The 2018 World Day to Combat Desertification calls to reflect on the true value of land and the need to invest in it; healthy soils are central to sustainable development. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development increases the demand on soils to provide food, water and energy security, protect biodiversity, and mitigate climate change, increasing the centrality of soils in global environmental and development politics. SDG target 15.3, on Land Degradation Neutrality, reflects the growing awareness that land, and by extension soil biodiversity and soil organic carbon, is both a natural resource and a public good that underpins wider sustainable development.

Soil Organic Carbon (SOC) and soil biodiversity are key to the multifunctionality of a landscape, and the reason why strengthening investment and legislation in sustainable land management is considered to be central to achieving many of the Sustainable Development Goals.

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