Soil – the 'Underdog Natural Resource'

Soil – the 'Underdog Natural Resource'

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As the global population rapidly expands, additional stress is placed on the resources found in the environment. While water quality and air pollution often first come to mind when people think of environmental issues, the state of our soil is just as critical according to Andrea Basche, assistant professor in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture. She considers soil the “underdog natural resource.”

“Soil plays a critical role in our health and environment,” Basche said. “Soil is where so much is happening – it’s an interface for both water and gases moving through the earth system, which plays a role in water and air quality. Plus it is where food is grown – and we all eat several times a day.”

Soil plays a critical role in our health and environment. Andrea Basche

The general public may not think of the resource often, but producers concerned with their long-term productivity are increasingly focused on soil health. Functions of a healthier soil include cycling the nutrients plants need to grow, or how well the soil holds water. Basche often refers to the biological, physical and chemical aspects of soil to gauge its health. Issues such as water erosion, nutrient depletion and contamination affect these soil properties.

Water erosion is a common issue that producers face. When a heavy rain hits the soil, it breaks up the matrix of particles found in the soil that helps water infiltrate the surface. When the particles separate, the topsoil erodes away, which can be a serious issue because the amount of topsoil is known to impact crop productivity. It takes a significant amount of time to replace the soil that was washed away.

“We’re currently losing soil at a rate much faster than it naturally forms,” Basche said.

However, producers can take steps to minimize the stress placed on soil and make it more productive. Cover crops, for instance, can help buffer a soil to things like flood and drought. Cover crops are planted to protect the soil when the land would otherwise be bare. The use of cover crops has shown to slow erosion, increase water infiltration and add carbon to the system.

Other common actions aimed at improving soil health include no-till farming, planting more diverse crops and integrating livestock, among others. While there are benefits to each of these actions, Basche doesn’t believe that any one practice will guarantee a resilient soil. She prefers a broader approach that creates a well-rounded cropping system, with soil health being just one of the benefits.

“Implementing just one of these practices isn’t going to guarantee soil health,” she said. “Producers can think about these principles – such as minimizing disturbance, diversifying crops and integrating livestock – as ways to influence soil health while improving their operation as a whole.”

Basche is currently co-leading a project mapping the “where” and “why” of conservation practices that are generally known to promote soil health. It’s a challenging task because practices related to soil health generally aren’t tracked well. While there are a number of resources to track many different aspects of crop production, there is much less information available to the public that consistently tracks the use of different conservation practices, such as cover crops.

The project is bringing together a diverse team of scientists, policymakers and practitioners with the goal of reducing barriers to the adoption of soil health improving practices. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation-supported Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center.