Build back better – from the ground up

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Washington DC is debating how much the federal government should invest in restoring the economy and what should be included in a stimulus package. While one side suggests that we should only fund improvements in a narrow list of built structures (i.e. roads, highways, and bridges), the Biden administration is approaching economic recovery more. global, asking what we need to do to get the United States back to work and make the economy more sustainable and fair. I implore us to think about why soil and soil reconstruction investments should be included in the conversation.

Measure the depth of soil organic matter

Soil is the lifeblood of agricultural production. When it is healthy, the soil can:

Carbon and water storage? Nutrient transport and communication routes? Houses for biodiversity? All of these services make soil health essential to an economically resilient food system. Unfortunately, we lose about 4.63 tonnes of cropland per acre per year due to erosion, which represents about 1.7 billion tonnes of cultivated land per year. The way our bridges, highways and roads are crumbling, so is our soil. And when we lose our soil, we lose the natural services it provides.

We have come to this point because of decades of political decisions and systems that prioritize “efficiency” over quality. We have encouraged increasingly higher yields, separated agriculture from the natural environments that make them resilient, separated livestock from cropping systems, and propagated a mentality of needing to ‘control nature’. We have bailed out farms that continue to use extractive farming practices such as tillage, monoculture, fallowing and the use of heavy synthetic fertilizers and chemicals – practices that lead to erosion and loss. topsoil compaction, nutrient runoff, desertification and biodiversity loss. How? ‘Or’ What?

The United States has also spent billions of dollars building dams and reservoirs to divert water from rivers and streams. Climate change is reducing the amount of surface water we have available for agriculture, so farmers and ranchers have turned to pumping groundwater from aquifers, which are also drying up. Groundwater is also an important source of drinking water for communities, so the drying up of aquifers adds further harm by threatening the supply of drinking water. Additionally, crop insurance is the largest federal subsidy program in the United States, but it was not designed with soil health in mind. So taxpayers spend billions of dollars subsidizing farming practices that can degrade soil health, practices that can literally drain life from our soil and turn soil into soil. The degradation of soil health is not a problem we can get out of – at least not in the traditional sense.

Plowing

Fortunately, regenerative agriculture offers us a solution. By cultivating in harmony with nature and the community, regenerative farmers understand that they must give back more than they take. In other words, they use agricultural practices and cropping systems that enhance soil health, remove carbon from the atmosphere, fix nitrogen in the soil, increase the soil’s water-holding capacity, and , above all, adapt to the ecosystems of which they are part. (the latter includes the choice of crops adapted to the climates in which they are found).

The multifaceted benefits that regenerative cultivators reap are the reason why we should promote regenerative agriculture. Policies can support and reward producers who adopt a regenerative mindset – they are the ones who rebuild resilience on their farms, resist climate variability, and adapt to changing market demands. We can make these changes through the Farm Bill and US Senator Cory Booker Climate Stewardship Act, adjustments to the Water Resources Development Act, reforms to the federal crop insurance program, and large-scale investments in soil health in President Biden’s infrastructure package. We need to rebuild the natural sponge under our feet.

Little Wizipan Elk of the Rosebud Sioux Nation recently taught me about Seventh Generation Principle. Stemming from the Haudenosaunee, the Seventh Generation Principle asks us to reflect on how our current decisions about water, energy and natural resources affect the livelihoods of people and the planet in seven generations. Below is a picture of healthy soil contrasting with unhealthy soil: the left side is healthy soil full of roots and soil aggregates, has a thick chocolate color, and is full of bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi. The other is a dusty piece of sand that literally crumbles under pressure. I know which sample I want in seven generations from now. Do you?

NRCS Soil Comparisons

US Department of Agriculture, Lance Cheung





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