How business can yield solutions for the soil

How business can yield solutions for the soil

ShutterstockTony Baggett

On Aug. 2, humans will overdraw Earth’s natural resource checking account. According to the Global Footprint Network, we will have consumed one year’s worth of natural resources after only 214 days.

Just as an investment yields profit, the planet yields ecological resources, from fresh water to fish. And like capital gains, resources take time to accumulate. As trees, for example, grow only so fast, harvesting a timber forest beyond its growth rate inevitably leads to collapse.

While we’ll need many strategies to rein in our eco-budget, focusing on healthy soil is one effective solution. By enhancing the medium that supports crops, forests and grasslands, we can address three of the most critical environmental threats to biodiversity: carbon; water; and nitrogen.

Carbon is the chief reason our resources are overdrawn. Driven by electricity generation, industry, transportation, and agriculture, we are emitting heat-trapping carbon into the atmosphere faster than our oceans, forests and soils can soak it back up. Worse still, the destruction of forests, grasslands and other habitats doesn’t just emit carbon, but it also slows the rate of reabsorption — a one-two punch that's pushing global temperatures ever higher.

On a hotter planet, healthy soil is valuable because it stands up better to drought, floods and other extreme weather events. Soil with roots and tiny burrowing critters has more nooks and crannies that allow water to infiltrate the ground more deeply and evaporate more slowly. Improving soil organic matter also supports soil microbes, which, like human bacteria, help boost plant health and immunity. As extreme events grow more common across the planet, farmers will rely on soil to weather the conditions — as will all of us who rely on them for food.

Nitrogen is another element present in our environment at unsustainable levels. Prevalent in animal waste and in fertilizers, excess nitrogen from cities and farms is building up in rivers and oceans, where it feeds microbes that deplete the oxygen underwater animals need to survive. Indeed, scientists estimate a New Jersey-sized "dead zone" will straddle the Louisiana and Texas coasts this summer, driven in large part by nutrient run-off across the Mississippi River basin. Shrimpers working the Gulf of Mexico can attest to the harm this does to fisheries and their communities.

Fortunately, more farmers are adopting a variety of practices to improve the quality of their soil and, in doing so, limit negative impacts downstream. By ensuring a healthy mix of minerals, microbes, insects and organic matter, farmers are improving their land’s ability to hold carbon, retain water and withstand erosion.

Through cover crops, for example, farmers can use nitrogen-loving plants to absorb the element from the atmosphere and fix it underground, reducing the need for fertilizers, the production of which emits carbon. They also help keep the soil in place, slowing the erosion of soil sediment, nutrients and pesticides into waterways. And by using conservation tillage — a soil cultivation method that preserves crop residue from previous years — to prepare the land for new planting, farmers plow less or not at all, reducing soil disturbance and helping keep more water and carbon underground.

Shifting practices isn’t easy for farmers. It requires resources often in short supply: time; money; and technical assistance. That’s why it’s so critical for supply chain stakeholders — from traders to brands to retailers — to get involved.

The Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, for example, brings together a mix of food companies, retailer Walmart and conservation non-profits (including World Wildlife Fund) to support farmers who are working hard to improve soil health and water quality in Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska — three of the largest crop-producing states in the Mississippi River Basin.

In addition to providing technical assistance, supply chain stakeholders also can leverage innovative financing mechanisms, such as long-term contracts and other de-risking tools, to help give farmers the predictability and confidence they need to invest in practices that may take a few years to pay off.

Businesses also can use their political influence to support funding for critical agricultural stewardship programs such as the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which allow farmers and the private sector to work together to scale up the impact and value of public dollars on working lands.

Anyone who has managed a budget knows that spending faster than one earns leads to bankruptcy. Similarly, if we continue consuming Earth’s resources faster than they regenerate, we will do irreversible damage to our climate, oceans, rivers, forests, grasslands and the diverse life they support.

With so many challenges to overcome, there’s no single solution or approach. But for farmers and their downstream supply chains, addressing the foundation of agriculture — the soil — is a good place to start.