It’s no secret that without soil, we cannot produce food. But how much do most of us know about the sustainable practices farmers undertake to avoid and alleviate soil erosion, a problem that has been recognized as a food production issue since 1930 and still remains a concern? This is not just an issue in the United States. Researchers have noted that “global rates of soil erosion have been exceeding those of new soil formation by 10- and 20-fold on most continents of the world in the last few decades.”
Check out these three ways our farmers and food producers are “fighting the good soil fight” and are aiming to effectively combat soil erosion and continue to provide us with the food our ever-growing population needs.
Farm, Conserve Wetlands, Build Wildlife Habitats, Repeat
Undoubtedly, agriculture can have an impact on the environment, but farmers and ranchers are working together to alleviate those impacts across large areas of land in the United States. In the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), farmers and ranchers have voluntarily signed up to prevent soil erosion and create new wetlands and wildlife habitats to 20 million acres of farmland. Signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1985, CRP is one of the largest private-land conservation programs in the United States.
In the summer of last year, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said, “The Conservation Reserve Program is an important component of the suite of voluntary conservation programs USDA makes available to agricultural producers, benefiting both the land and wildlife. … CRP also is a powerful tool to encourage agricultural producers to set aside unproductive, marginal lands that should not be farmed to reduce soil erosion, improve water quality, provide habitat for wildlife and boost soil health.”
Busting out the Bioengineering
Crops that are grown with bioengineered (BE) or genetically modified seeds can positively impact soil health as well. In the United States there are 11 commercially available genetically modified crops: soybeans, corn (field and sweet), canola, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets, summer squash, papaya, apples and potatoes. Farmers are harvesting these bioengineered crops that are often designed to be resistant to pests and diseases. This type of agriculture allows farmers to use less pesticide and herbicide treatments while still maintaining healthy, high-yielding crops. The reduction in chemical usage is also beneficial for water and wildlife. In addition, farmers are growing and harvesting drought-resistant crops to aid in growing food in less arable areas.
There are also BE crops that are designed to be herbicide-tolerant. These crops enable farmers to break up the soil less often (a practice known as conservation tillage). With these crops, weeds can be sprayed and left in the field. Then the incoming crop is planted directly into the leftover organic matter, without turning over the soil.
This use of conservation tillage, where much or all the crop residue is left in the field and tilling is reduced or eliminated, helps to conserve water from rainfall and irrigation, increase water absorption and minimize soil erosion. All these benefits aid in maximizing crop yields and minimizing water usage. Additionally, conservation tillage releases less carbon dioxide(CO2) into the environment compared with conventional tillage and helps to sustain habitats beneficial for insects, birds and other animals.
The “Three Cs”
The first “C” we just talked about above is conservation tillage. The other two are cover crops and crop rotations. The three C’s are powerhouse methods for reducing soil erosion. When used concertedly by farmers, they have proven to be key sustainability practices in a farmer’s toolbox.
As noted by the USDA, “Cover crops are grasses, legumes, and other forbs that are planted for erosion control, improving soil structure, moisture, and nutrient content, increasing beneficial soil biota, suppressing weeds, providing habitat for beneficial predatory insects, facilitating crop pollinators, providing wildlife habitat, and as forage for farm animals.” There are several different types of cover crops (over 100, in fact)—and many of them you might not even think of as serving in this role: quinoa, carrots, spinach, fenugreek, corn and mungbean. Farmers use cover crops to help protect fields from weed growth, absorb soil nutrients such as nitrogen and decrease the need for fertilizer on companion crops (crops grown in proximity).
Crop rotation, growing a series of dissimilar or different types of crops in the same area in sequenced seasons, can help replenish soil nutrients, increase organic matter, add diverse biological activity and reduce erosion. It has also been found that crop rotation can help with problems with insects, parasitic nematodes, weeds, and diseases caused by plant pathogens.
Longer, more diverse rotations seem to be the most effective for many farmers. It’s not always easy for farmers to weigh profitability and yield when trying figure out the best crops to use in their rotations and when the rotations should be done, but it often holds numerous benefits (as noted above) and can improve a farmer’s bottom line.
If you never loved dirt before, perhaps you have a better appreciation for it now. This Earth Day, we remain mindful of how precious natural resources—including soil—are, and how they support our health and well-being via the growth of all crops.