Healthy Soils: How to Manage and Prevent Soil Erosion
If you ask a friend what they think the most valuable natural resources on the planet are, you are likely to hear answers such as water, coal, oil, natural gas, metals, or even sunlight. What is often overlooked, despite being just as important as all of the above, is healthy soil.
Soil is the birthplace of everything we eat. From soil sprouts the means to feed and grow our society. Without healthy, nutrient-rich soil, we would not have the means to grow food to feed our communities. Soil also sustains wildlife, natural and wild habitats, and biodiversity.
That is why the degradation and erosion of soil poses an incredible threat to more than just the yields and livelihoods of farmers. If food is grown in depleted or low-quality soil, it impacts the nutritional quality of the crops grown in it. With hundreds of millions of people worldwide going to bed hungry each night, soil becomes a vital resource and tool to help farmers achieve Zero Hunger.
“Part of food security is securing our soil,” said Dr. Cristine Morgan, the chief scientific officer of the Soil Health Institute.
“Maintaining soil resources gives us food security hundreds of years down the road.”
“In Central America, for example, most smallholder farm hillsides are highly susceptible to soil erosion due to the slope, heavy rains and poor agricultural practices that leave the soil bare,” said Dr. Marie-Soleil Turmel, regional technical advisor of the Water Smart Agriculture Program affiliated with Catholic Relief Services. “High degrees of physical, chemical and biological soil degradation results in low productivity and makes farmers highly susceptible to the increasingly frequent and erratic dry spells and droughts that occur in the region.”
“Both climate and soil degradation are major drivers of poverty and food insecurity in the region,” she continued.
When soil erodes, it leads to the expansion of farmland into previously untouched areas, causing excess unintended pollution and deforestation. The disturbances to the soil that erosion causes leads the carbon stored in the soil to release into the atmosphere, increasing the amount of greenhouse gases and hastening climate change. Last year, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) stated that every five seconds about 7,000 square meters of soil is eroded. If this trend is not reversed soon, the FAO believes that in 30 years, over 90% of the earth’s soils could be eroded, which could be devastating not only to agriculture, but also the environment. Already about 75% of agricultural soils in Central America are degraded, according to Dr. Turmel.
While this may seem like a rather dire situation, luckily for us, soil management scientists and plant science have developed solutions that help to reduce erosion, protect soil and mitigate the negative effects of climate change. When implemented, these strategies build soil health, minimize land degradation, and protect and even restore soil, water and biodiversity.
“The Water Smart Agriculture Program uses an integrated approach to soil management to prevent soil erosion and improve water capture and retention in order to improve productivity and drought resilience,” she said. “Our goal is to build soil organic matter, keep soil covered and prevent erosion ― it is essential to get soil fertility and plant nutrition right for productive conservation agriculture or no-till systems.”
Additionally, no-till farming is a method to avoid tillage which can destabilize the soil and make it vulnerable to wind and rain. In addition, disturbing the soil releases the sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. The undisturbed soil from no-till farming also reduces the impact of unpredictable weather events like dust storms. Recent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) research found that un-disturbed soils can also contribute to less-severe floods.
“In addition to mitigation of climate change, soil health is really good for adaptation to extreme weather events caused by climate change,” explained Dr. Morgan. “It helps with drought-resilience, as the higher carbon in soil helps retain more water. It prevents soil erosion from more intense rainfalls. It also we know that protecting our soil prevents erosion. This is probably more important than it ever has been, because our weather cycles are getting more difficult and increasing the risk of soil erosion and yield instability.”
Cover crops are another great way that sustainable land management can reduce soil erosion. Cover crops are planted in farmers’ fields in order to keep the soil secure and in place. In addition, they help manage the quality of the soil, water-use efficiency and can prevent pests and diseases from ravaging a farmer’s harvest.
“I’ve seen the data of the economic benefits that cover crops provide,” said Dr. Morgan. “It’s amazing what they can do, they really do work and they’re so worthwhile. I have cover crops in my personal garden and the bees are so happy with them.”
“Good soil health increases productivity and climate resilience, which are essential for improving food security and the economic viability of agriculture,” Dr. Turmel concluded. “We work to improve smallholder productivity and resilience, while at the same time promoting environmental stewardship, providing solutions to some of the region’s most significant socio-economic and environmental issues.”
Now that you’ve got an idea of the benefits of soil and the importance of keeping it healthy and secure, check out our interviews with leading experts who have first-hand experience with the value of the planet’s most vital resource. In addition, Living Soil is a documentary produced by the Soil Health Institute that provides an in-depth look at what farmers, scientists and policymakers are doing to implement sustainable soil management practices.