It’s a dry spring day in central Texas in 2012. I’m looking out over a field of kale, spinach, and arugula, different from the dry, shrubby vegetation that surrounds the Texas Hill Country. This farmland soil is dark and soft, and I’m able to dig a deep soil profile. Just 20 feet away, the soil is rocky and, even with the weight of two student researchers, we can’t get the shovel to budge more than a foot into the ground. It’s a clear illustration of the importance of soil health as the foundation of our food supply.  

Beyond food production, soil health is key to addressing the climate crisis. Experts estimate that healthy soils could sequester up to 13 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions annually, helping to mitigate climate change and alleviate extreme weather events in the US, like the megadrought across the southwest and unprecedented flooding in the east. These climate change events disproportionately affect agriculture, leading to large crop losses and hurting farmers’ bottom line, all while the need to ramp up food production to feed a growing global population intensifies. 

Interest in soil carbon sequestration has never been higher, with private and public sectors keen on incentivizing farmers to draw carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in their soils. However, significant research gaps remain, stifling our ability to actualize carbon removal through agriculture. I saw these gaps firsthand at the Department of Agriculture. In a cross-agency effort, I helped pinpoint the research and data we still need to fully understand the impact different conservation practices have on greenhouse gas and carbon emissions. While USDA, academics, producers, and others, have collected soil health data across the US for decades, variances in the types of data collected, the length of monitoring, and the frequency of sampling have introduced too much error for these measurements to serve as a long-term indicator of climate impacts.

We can't manage what we can't measure: without better soil measurement, we can’t activate soil as a carbon sink. Our current understanding of soil carbon is still limited, partly because soil itself is highly variable. For instance, the soils I was analyzing in the Texas Hill Country were much more shallow and alkaline than the deep, acidic soils in neighboring East Texas. But imagine if USDA created a standardized tool to monitor and inventory soil carbon across the country — a “GPS” of soil carbon, if you will — that empowers producers to increase the carbon sequestration potential of their land. Just like a GPS integrates large-scale data to give us precise and tailored information for picking a route or mode of transportation, this innovation could equip producers in different agricultural regions with trusted, science-backed information. Right at their fingertips, producers could access knowledge on regionally-relevant conservation practices to improve the health of their soil and eventually, sequester more carbon.

The 2023 Farm Bill could provide the USDA with significant investment to lead a soil carbon monitoring and inventory analysis network that enables scientifically sound, producer-focused tools that: 

·       Improve measurement, monitoring, reporting, and verification (MMRV) of soil carbon

·       Are underpinned by standardized methods for large-scale data collection and analysis

·       And support demonstrations of regionally-relevant practices

On Wednesday, a proposal to achieve these goals was introduced by Senator Tina Smith (D-MN) and Senator Young (R-IN), setting a bold roadmap to advance climate mitigation through the Farm Bill. The Advancing Research on Agricultural Climate Impacts (ARACI) Act directs the USDA to standardize soil monitoring methods and establish a long-term Soil Carbon Monitoring and Inventory Analysis Network. In doing so, the legislation takes a holistic approach to advancing and scaling soil carbon MMRV by:

· Adding a new focus research area to the Agriculture Food and Research Initiative 

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· Enabling soil carbon demonstration projects through the Conservation Innovation Grants program and the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, and

· Supporting innovation in predictive models and tools, like COMET-Farm, that estimate changes in carbon sequestration as a result of implementing climate-smart practices. 

While Congress and USDA have already invested big in soil conservation programs through the Inflation Reduction Act, these ambitions are outpacing our shared understanding of soil science. The newly released USDA Federal Strategy to Advance Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Measurement, and Monitoring for the Agriculture and Forest Sectors is reflective of key provisions outlined in the ARACI Act and is an important initial investment to a national soil carbon inventory and analysis network.  Now, the establishment of a long-term, widespread soil monitoring network through the ARACI Act would ensure continuation of investment regardless of changes in administration, as USDA builds a first-ever universe of soil science data that USDA can draw from to make decisions across the agency. 

Beyond USDA, the agency’s partners — land-grant universities, agricultural communities, technical service providers, and other academic institutions — would all help shape this network, too. These partners on the ground help ensure individual producers have access to science-backed tools and assistance as they implement findings from ARACI’s soil carbon monitoring and inventory analysis network. This “first-of-its-kind” policy will empower producers to make precise soil management decisions to improve farm productivity, even in areas like the Texas Hill Country, where natural soil properties would seem at odds with sustained agricultural production.  

Innovative policies like ARACI will reshape our understanding of how agriculture can mitigate climate change impacts, which pose a significant threat to the viability of agriculture and the livelihood of producers. My former research and time at USDA showed me the impacts of soil health on plant productivity. Now, I'm encouraged to see legislation that protects our future and creates a path forward for a more sustainable and resilient agriculture system.

Dr. Gretchen Kroh is managing policy advisor at Carbon180. She previously worked at USDA in the Office of the Chief Scientist and holds a PhD in Botany from Colorado State University.