This is an exciting time to be engaged in soil health. The tremendous surge in interest is seen across the spectrum, from soil health declarations by the United Nations to on-farm field days at local conservation districts.
We are fortunate that past Farm Bill support for research and adoption has provided the scientific basis and confidence for implementing soil health-promoting practices (e.g., no-till, cover crops, prescribed grazing) to increase soil organic matter (carbon), while also reducing soil and nutrient losses to our waterways and greenhouse gas emissions to our atmosphere.
However, it is equally clear that we simply cannot afford to be complacent, thinking that we have all the answers, because we do not. Doing so would ignore our responsibility to both current and future generations for providing plentiful and nutritious food, clean water, and clean air.
I challenge us to imagine a time when we fully understand the chemical signaling – that dialogue – between plants and soil microbes. Imagine understanding how to manage those interactions that naturally build plant disease suppression and drought resilience.
Imagine a time when our understanding of the interactions among plants, soil microorganisms, and their environment (i.e, the “phytobiome”) is married with our understanding of the microbiome in humans, so that through a fundamental knowledge of soil and plant processes we deliver what humans need for optimal health and longevity. And now imagine a time when the free market rewards those farmers and ranchers by increasing demand for food with specific nutrient qualities, and so to meet that demand, more and more farmers use soil health management systems that are already known to improve water quality, increase carbon sequestration, increase drought resilience, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and provide wildlife habitat.
These are just a few examples of the largely untapped potential for simultaneously addressing human and environmental goals through soil health management in agricultural production.
The upcoming Farm Bill is our nation’s opportunity to position American agriculture to achieve this future through well-funded and strategically-aligned programs, particularly in its research and conservation titles, and support for public-private partnerships. The return on investment, the future careers unleashed, and the impact on health and wellness in society are closer than we think.
The real question is: Are we motivated to invest in the partner-stakeholder research and innovation today that will drive tomorrow’s agriculture? The potential is exciting, as this is a significant opportunity for U.S. leaders to create lasting, positive impacts.
About the author: C. Wayne Honeycutt, Ph.D., is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Soil Health Institute.