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[COMMENTARY] How Lawmakers Can Save Our Soil

Editor’s Note:

In the commentary below, geoscientist Pamela Sullivan at Oregon State University argues that the nomination of Dr. Asmeret Berhe to the Director of Science for the Department of Energy is a positive signal that soil is a vital tool the U.S. needs in combating the climate crisis. Yet for the most part, Americans and lawmakers overlook the urgent importance of soil, and demand farmers to get more “crop per drop” at the expense of our long-term environmental health.

If you are looking for the investment of a lifetime, consider Martian dirt. The samples of rocks and soil that NASA’s Perseverance rover collected on Mars this year cost upwards of $1 million per ounce.

WASHINGTON, Feb. 18, 2021 (Xinhua) — This image made available by NASA shows an illustration of NASA’s Perseverance rover landing safely on Mars. NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down safely on Mars on Thursday, kicking off the agency’s ninth mission on the Red Planet. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout via Xinhua) (Xinhua/NASA/JPL-Caltech via Getty Images)

In contrast, dirt here on Earth is worth less than pennies —  an estimated ¢ 0.004 per ounce, based on 2017 soil erosion rates and what the United States spent that year on programs to reduce its loss. In the United States alone, we lose on average 0.6 centimeters of topsoil — what many call “dirt”  — per year due to water and wind erosion of arable lands. To visualize that loss, the distance from your knee to the ground is the thickness of soil that will be lost over an average human lifetime. Rebuilding it will take at least 1,000 years.

Such a dramatic and consistent loss of topsoil is not natural. Instead, it is the result of our land-use practices — such as tilling and irrigation — which have been further exacerbated by increased occurrence of extreme events.

Moreover, losing topsoil at that rate threatens serious economic and societal hardships. Soil has superpowers: it can reduce flooding, clean our water, and capture tremendous amounts of atmospheric carbon.

When topsoil erodes, we are left with barren rock or highly undeveloped sediments. History has taught us why that situation is bad. Nearly 100 years ago, the “Dirty Thirties” was a decade plagued by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Much more recently, the year 2019 brought a soil crisis when scientists from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that Earth’s soil was being lost at 10 to 100 times faster than it was forming.

Fortunately, both the U.S. government and the everyday American have some recourse to improve the situation. Since 1935 Congress has appropriated over $160 billion ( ~ $350 billion today) to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Farm Service Agency for conservation programs. Indeed, since 1982 overall erosion rates have been reduced by 35%. The recent nomination of Dr. Asmeret Berhe, a Ph.D. soil scientist from UC Merced, to the Director of Science for the Department of Energy signals that soils are a vital resource and a tool that we will need in combating the climate crisis.

At the individual level, consumers’ purchasing power might make a difference to help soil erosion. Consider that our nation’s farmers, like many Americans, identify as land stewards; yet, their financial sustainability is subject to strong shifts in market and climate dynamics. For years lawmakers and the public have asked them to become more efficient, to get more crop per drop, and push their system to optimal yield in order to meet our demands for products that feed, clothe, and soothe us. A mechanism like the designation “certified organic” could help purchasers truly acknowledge and support farmers employing the best practices possible.

But, if such a designation does emerge, its ability to curve the market is likely to be a slow process. A more immediate change is also needed. In order for the atmospheric carbon, climate control,soil on Earth to persevere in centuries to come, we will need another agricultural revolution.

It is our responsibility as a nation to create programs that support farmers’ transitions into new technologies and practices, to support the development of new infrastructure, and to create a platform by which farmers can trust that we have their backs. Politics is one place we can show our support. As long as we depend on farmers and their incredible aptitude and courage to produce food in a world that faces increasing threats from global climate change, voters should know when they cast ballots if their representatives support scientific research and engineering advances that will aid farmers into the future and make candidates’ soil policies a priority.

Too much of our time is spent pointing fingers about who and when this climate crisis was created, instead of coming up with solutions. Soil is one place we as neighbors and citizens should be able to start a conversation — it is, after all, our common ground.

About the Author:
In the commentary above, geoscientist Pamela Sullivan at Oregon State University argues that the nomination of Dr. Asmeret Berhe to the Director of Science for the Department of Energy is a positive signal that soil is a vital tool the U.S. needs in combating the climate crisis.



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