Groups Launch Soil Institute

Foundations Seek to Create Long-Term Research, Analysis on Soil Health

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Roughly half the Earth's topsoil has been lost to erosion, degradation or development over the past 150 years, according to Bill Buckner, president and chief executive officer of the Noble Foundation. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

OMAHA (DTN) -- A pair of agricultural foundations are creating a new institute to examine the state of the country's soil and stress the importance of soil in daily life.

The Oklahoma-based Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation and the Illinois-based Farm Foundation are announcing the aptly named "Soil Health Institute" on Thursday in Washington, D.C. The institute, starting with a 10-year funding commitment from the Noble Foundation, will begin work on a national soil assessment and will upgrade soil testing processes.

"These are the first two projects we have identified that we need to tackle and are critical to the long-term success," said Bill Buckner, president and chief executive offer of the Noble Foundation.

The two foundations are broadening an initiative which began two years ago -- Soil Renaissance -- into a standing institute with staff and funding. To learn more about Soil Renaissance, visit http://soilrenaissance.org/…

"Our goal with the Soil Renaissance was to really get people to focus on the importance of soil health to the planet," said Neil Conklin, president of the Farm Foundation. "Soil is a non-renewable resource in our lifetime."

The non-profit Soil Health Institute will focus on five major areas: research, economics, standards and measurement, education, and public policy.

The institute will be located in Research Triangle, an eight-county region of North Carolina. The area houses a lot of ag research and several major ag corporations, as well as other businesses tied to life sciences.

The Noble Foundation is committing $20 million over the next 10 years to help launch the institute. Buckner said more contributions are needed.

"Improving our soils will take commitment and dedication by many individuals and organizations, not only in time, but in dollars as well," Buckner said. He added, "More donors of this magnitude are needed to help fulfill the institute's mission."

A board of industry leaders will oversee the institute with the mission to help farmers and ranchers manage the land better. Improving soils won't be easy, Buckner noted, citing that it takes about 700 years for nature to create an inch of topsoil.

With food demand expected to double by 2050, preserving the soil is key. Few people realize the world's arable land (available for food production) totals only roughly 3% of the entire planet, or as Conklin described, "one thirty-second slice of an apple. It's a sliver of our planet but one that we depend on critically."

Conklin said on a call with reporters earlier this week that this is an appropriate time to talk about soil health as 2015 is the United Nations' International Year of Soils. Friday is "World Soil Day" and will be celebrated by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

Buckner said soil health should be elevated as part of the global agenda on climate change at talks in Paris.

"We're hopeful that soils will be placed on the agenda, given that it's the international year of the soils," Buckner said. "And I think this is an area and an opportunity for the U.S. to take a lead in restoring our nation's soils, but also lead in helping other countries do the same thing."

Roughly half the Earth's topsoil has been lost to erosion, degradation or development over the past 150 years. Approximately 70% of U.S. soils are considered marginal or inefficient.

Buckner said he was surprised about how much isn't known about the overall state of soils and percent that is degraded in the U.S. Most work is based on estimates and models. That's why he sees a national soil health assessment as a good way for the new institute to establish itself and its work. The institute's assessment would delve deeper than current USDA studies.

"And I think that's the key," Buckner said. "As we look at the physical and chemical nature of soil, we really haven't addressed the biological structure of soil, and that's really what we're attempting to do with this national assessment is starting off with a level of biology of soil that farmers, ranchers and industry can accept and understand and, through science, move beyond that."

Soil-test standards also need to be updated. The standards haven't been updated for 50 years, Buckner said. "We've been using standards based on varieties -- for example, corn and soybeans from the '50s and '60s. And we wonder why we have a nutrient problem these days."

Such standards would dovetail into economics. The institute seeks to help farmers and ranchers understand and calculate the profitability in building soil health.

The institute also would analyze the impact of public policies of soil health, American agriculture as a whole, and ag's interactions with society. Buckner said he expects more effort to tie soil health to other aspects of risk management. He pointed to the link between insurance premium subsidies and USDA minimum conservation-compliance standards developed in the last farm bill.

"What we have to do is take a look at what soil health can do in terms of shaping public policy," Buckner said. "I think first and foremost, on behalf of most agriculturalists across the country, the last thing we want to do is put ourselves in an area where we have to be regulated to do what we feel is right for the land."

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

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(AG/CZ)

Chris Clayton