Soils & Policy #1: Soil Health Initiatives
Policies have been on the books in the United States for decades that help conserve soil and prevent erosion, often sequestering soil carbon in the process. In this series, we’re breaking down five policy areas that have helped sequester soil carbon. All five articles have been adapted from the article “Grounding United States policies and programs in soil carbon science: strengths, limitations, and opportunities” by Danielle Gelardi, Daniel Rath, and Chad Kruger in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems.
What are soil health initiatives?
The short answer: Soil health initiatives are state-specific policies that, broadly, aim to improve soil health.
- Now, in 2023, twenty-four states have formalized soil health initiatives on the books. These initiatives were created through resolutions and laws.
- States with soil health initiatives passed via legislation include Washington, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois, New York, West Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Hawaii.
- Twenty additional states have shown interest in creating soil health initiatives through related policy activity.
- All of these initiatives vary in their level of funding, focus on stakeholder engagement, and projects in their portfolios.
The term “soil health” covers way more than just soil carbon. It has a broad focus on the soil’s capacity to provide multiple functions. Because of this, soil health initiatives can provide a flexible policy approach that does more than just sequester soil carbon.
Why it matters: The agronomic co-benefits of improving soil health is a much better draw to entice farmers than the promise of payments for improved soil carbon alone.
- These co-benefits include soil fertility, reduced erosion risk, or water holding. These incentives may be more important to farmers than financial incentives.
- Because soil health initiatives are state-specific, they can offer flexibility and location-specific incentives. An example: if erosion and topsoil loss is a huge concern for farmers in a certain state, that state could offer incentive programs tailored to cut back erosion.
- This tailored, community-driven approach to soil health initiatives offers a great entry point for improving soil health and soil carbon sequestration. As funding and engagement increases, so, too, can the scope of these initiatives.
Just because a soil health initiative exists doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing.
- The presence of a soil health initiative can signal that action is being taken, even when there’s not enough funding or engagement from the community.
- Because of this, a soil health initiative could have a “greenwashing” effect that reduces the pressure for immediate action, such as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction across all sectors.
Soil health can be tough to quantify. The term can be hard to pin down, and getting the measurements right to show progress and provide incentives can be tricky.
- The US Department of Agriculture defines soil health as “the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans.” Broad, right?
- Measurements are broad, too. Soil fertility is one of the most common, with many farmers regularly measuring their soil nitrate, phosphate, and potassium levels to better manage nutrient application. Other measurements could include water quality metrics, leaving crop residues, or applying cover crops. But terms like “human health” and “sustainable plant production” are harder to quantify.
Cohesion is one of the greatest opportunities for soil health initiatives. Creating a nationwide soil health initiative coalition could help share knowledge between states and stakeholders.
- For example, a national coalition could help states exchange best management practices, and soil carbon models.
- On the research and education side, the coalition could create materials and templates to help track state-wide initiatives. It could create customizable soil health economic studies, survey approaches, data management, or even project monitoring and evaluation templates.
- Verified and peer-reviewed toolkits for soil health science could be aggregated and made public, like:
- Git repositories containing code for GIS, web, or extension products
- Statistical models for project evaluation or climate modeling.
Take widely used tools from the USDA for example: COMET, SSURGO, and conservation technical guides illustrate how cohesion and coordination could advance the quality of soil health initiatives.
A few programs are working toward more coordination in soil health initiatives at the national level. Check them out:
In short, soil health initiatives provide great opportunities to tailor soil health programs to specific communities. They also provide co-benefits to farmers for improving soil health. But there are many opportunities to improve soil health initiatives through cooperation at the national level and provide greenhouse gas emission reduction through soil carbon sequestration at the same time.