The increasing world populations and the food production it demands make it vital to keep our soil healthy and productive. The health of our soils ultimately determines the health of our people. Healthy soil is the starting point of a healthy food system. Why you ask? The answer is simple. Soil quality equals food quality. High quality, nutrient-dense soils produce healthy plants. Healthy plants, produce healthy foods, healthy foods provide nourishment that is essential for the maintenance and growth of the human population. It’s all tied together and works in unison like a symphony. That’s right. Your health is directly associated with the caliber of the foods you consume, and the value of that food relies on the condition of the soil in which it is grown.
Healthy soil is a living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans alike. It literally is swarming with all sorts of life! Organisms are carrying out critical functions, including converting dead and decaying matter into plant nutrients, or soil organic matter, a product of biological decomposition. Earthworms are busy at work creating water channels as they burrow through the soil, providing passages for rainwater to get in and bring moisture to the soil below. Microorganisms are also at play, filtering and keeping soils intact. There is a lot going on under the surface! All this activity impacts the chemical and physical properties of the soil as well as its health and level of productivity.
With the global population projected to exceed nine billion by the time 2050 rolls around, many farmers have begun mass producing their crops, using techniques that degrade soil health, like chemically-derived pesticides and fertilizers. These chemicals can reduce the benefits of the foods grown in that soil and the quality of our nation’s nutrition is suffering. Our environment is suffering too! Conventional and mass production farming leaves soil bare and allows water to evaporate, accelerating erosion.
Unfortunately, our agricultural policies are lagging far behind the green wave, but there is hope this trend can be reversed!. The Cornell soil health testing lab does an assessment that is used by farmers, gardeners, landscape managers and researchers. With this assessment, anyone who would like to test the nutrient levels of their soils has the method to do so. Soil management strategies also are made available in an online training manual.
In February of 2014, the National Conference on Cover Crops and Soil Health was held in Omaha, Neb. Together, more than 300 agricultural leaders and innovators convened to discuss how to make American agriculture more sustainable and what it would take to improve soil health. It was confirmed that the method of using cover crops is highly beneficial, improves soil health, reduces runoff and preserves natural resources. Cover crops also have the ability to protect and improve soil health by bringing natural fertilizers to the soil and creating an armour that prevents erosion. Cover cropping, along with diverse crop rotations, becomes the infrastructure of a food system that is more resilient to extreme weather patterns and healthier for us and the planet in the long run.
Why? Because healthy soils lead to a healthy environment and healthy crops sustain the world. Humans are an integral part of this ecosystem.
Carbon farming is confirmed to be another popular management solution. It entails increasing the carbon content of the soil, making it more fertile, feeding microbes and producing nutrient-dense foods. In the process known as “photosynthesis,” plants use sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and sugar. The plants use that sugar as food, which then becomes food for us, along with releasing oxygen into the atmosphere. With the right amount of sunlight, water and air, microorganisms in the soil use the carbon to nourish themselves and create a suitable habitat for plants to flourish.
Other methods of increasing soil health include no-till (also known as zero tillage), advanced nutrient and pest management, organic farming and the development buffers and drainage systems.
Technical and financial assistance is available to a growing number of America’s farmers, who are using soil health management systems to improve the health and utility of their soil.
If you are thinking of planting a garden or improving its productivity, consider managing the land sustainably to reduce the negative impacts on the environment and capture the benefits of productive agriculture.