December 7, 2012
All week we have posted articles from people involved with USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program about soil health and cover cropping. SARE offers a rich stockpile of research results and educational materials on these issues that will help farmers adopt best practices and also help inform USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) as they pursue their new soil health initiative. Today we conclude the series with a brief exploration at some of the related federal policy dimensions. The thoughts and perspectives that follow are entirely our own and do not necessarily reflect the views of either SARE or NRCS.
December 5, 2012 was World Soil Day according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The FAO dedicated this entire week to “Securing Healthy Soils for a Food Secure World.” FAO headquarters in Rome was the site of a week-long “Managing Living Soils” workshop, building on the foundation of the Global Soil Partnership launched by FAO last year. The Partnership aims to promote sustainable soil management, promote targeted soil R&D, and harmonize methods, measurements and indicators of sustainable soils.
In light of both FAO’s global soils initiative and NRCS’s domestic initiative, we are pleased to have highlighted the important contributions of the SARE program in this arena. We agree with the FAO that:
…(S)oils have in recent decades been seen as a second-tier priority in international and national decision making processes. Indeed, soil degradation is a silent process that does not call the attention of decision makers. Yet, soils are a critical resource for addressing current and future pressures on limited resources and meeting growing demands of our expanding population. Recognition, advocacy and support for promoting sustainable management of soils is the only alternative to guarantee healthy soils for a food secure world and for the maintenance of the many vital ecosystem services that soils provide.
Indeed, attention to soil quality lies at the very heart of sustainable and organic approaches to farming! Sustainable agriculture practitioners and researchers therefore have a great deal to offer all of agriculture as this encouraging refocusing on soil health takes place.
Enhanced and targeted research, education, and extension can drive changes in farming practices and farming systems to create more productive, healthy, and resilient soils. A review, refocusing, and re-enforcement of the entire soil quality research enterprise — across all the relevant programs of the Agricultural Research Service, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, NRCS, and other agencies — is very much in order. So too is ramping up support for the SARE program. SARE needs enhanced resources to build on the foundation of its great cover cropping and sustainable soil management work and to launch a larger farming systems research enterprise on the scale needed to actually transform the status quo and build a food secure future.
Conservation technical and financial assistance is also a critical ingredient, and NRCS is making a good start with its new Unlock the Secrets of the Soil campaign. In addition to its ability to assist farmers with conservation planning, one of the most important tools it has to promote better soil quality is the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). More than any other farm bill conservation program, the CSP provides farmers with support for advanced soil quality improvement, including resource-conserving crop rotations, intensive cover cropping, intensive no-till, and intensive rotational grazing, as well as composting, green manure systems, and intercropping.
There must be dialogue between farmers, conservation assistance providers, extension, and research practitioners to fully utilize existing information and to help target future exploration. One area that immediately stands out is the urgent need to finish work on a soil management assessment framework that can be used directly by farmers and in-the-field conservation professionals to assess actual soil quality improvements over time.
All the positives that good research and conservation assistance can create will not be fully realized, however, if our federal farm programs work in opposition to better soil health. Our current farm support structures work against crop and enterprise diversity and often even work against best conservation practices. As the most powerful signals sent by the government, these farm subsidy programs must be adjusted to support — rather than hinder — sustainable soil management. When commodity programs started in the New Deal they were aimed explicitly, in part, on creating better resource conservation farming systems. We badly need a 21st century version of that original vision, beginning with a revitalization of the conservation compliance regime and new crop insurance rules to remove barriers to advanced cover cropping and nutrient and pest management.
The totality of an effective policy agenda for soil health is of course larger than just these items, but they suggest key actions needed at the federal policy level. As we come to the close of “Securing Healthy Soils for a Food Secure World” week, we are glad to have been able to add our voice — and to share important insights and information from USDA’s SARE program — to this critical underpinning to a future food secure world.
Read the Rest of the Series