Do we need to better soil ourselves?
Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates wrote about something dirty in his March 26, 2019, edition of his Gates Notes. It didn’t focus on cow farts, as he began the piece with “I’m done with cow farts.” Instead, the dirty thing that he focused on is how our society is not paying enough attention to soil and what we are doing to it. The dirt on soil is that it may be playing a major role in climate change, food security, and thus human health.
For years, Rattan Lal, PhD, Distinguished University Professor of Soil Science at the Ohio State University, has been trying to raise awareness on how soil management affects food and the environment. He has pioneered ways to better manage and conserve soil, literally “groundbreaking” work which just earned him the prestigious 2019 Japan Prize, one of the top prizes in science and technology in the world.
If you think you have nothing to lose when you disrupt soil, you’d be wrong. What you’d lose would be a lot of carbon into the air. That’s because soil has tons of carbon in it. Actually, more than tons. Gates mentions a fact that “there’s more carbon in soil than in the atmosphere and all plant life combined.” More carbon in the air can then contribute to the Greenhouse Effect, where more heat is trapped around the Earth, warming the whole Earth like an Easy-Bake Oven. In turn, such global warming and climate change can have numerous negative health effects, which is why the World Health Organization (WHO) listed climate change as one of the top 10 global health threats in 2019.
Lal cited the following statistic, “between 1750 and 2017, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere in carbon equivalents was 235 gigatons, plus or minus 95 gigatons. This is almost half the amount emitted by fossil fuel burning and cement production, which was 430 gigatons, plus or minus 20 gigatons.”
Poor soil management could also cost us the ability to produce enough food for the growing world population. As Michael Drake, MD, President of The Ohio State University, pointed out to emphasize the importance of Lal’s work, “70% of the Earth is ocean. If you then remove the parts where you already can’t grow crops such as mountains, desserts, and places that are built up, that doesn’t leave much.” He added that “food insecurity is a serious global problem. It is important to think about how the world will be sustained moving forward and be thoughtful of how use scarce resources.” Lal emphasized that “soil erosion takes away the best part of the soil. It picks up the organic matter and then leaves stone and other materials that don’t support crop growth.” More people and less soil to grow on doesn’t add up to a good situation.
How do we keep ourselves properly soiled? Lal won the Japan Prize in part for his adaptation of the “no-tillage cultivation method,” which tries to minimize disruption of soil while growing crops. This includes the following steps when converting a wooded area to farmland:
- While cutting trees, leave their stumps and roots, which can help protect the soil,
- After the trees are cut, immediately plant and grow “cover crops” that can protect the soil from the wind and other things that may disrupt and erode the soil.
- Avoid ploughing
- Instead, after the cover crops have died, plant seeds of your target crop in these locations. The dead cover crops can serve as mulch for target crops.
Hiroshi Komiyama, PhD, President of The Japan Prize Foundation Nobel said that “an important criteria for selecting a Japan Prize Laureate is the betterment of the human condition.” In advancing these soil management approaches that have been adopted in different parts of the world, “Dr. Lal’s work has already contributed to the prosperity of humanity,” said Komiyama. Nonetheless, Lal is interested in seeing such approaches more widely adopted.
There are other things that can be done to better manage soil. One, of course, is to not use as much soil to grow crops. This would entail not cutting down trees to create more farmland and being more efficient with the existing farmland and wasting less food. Wasted food is essentially wasted soil. Another is to find ways to produce crops that don’t involve soil. A third way is to develop new ways to prevent soil erosion and keep carbon from being released into the air, like crops with longer roots or other ways to cover the soil.
Gates in his notes also mentioned fertilizers being a problem. He said that synthetic fertilizers can produce greenhouse gas when broken down by microbes in the soil. Natural fertilizers such as manure can be poopy as well, releasing greenhouse gases when they decompose. Something else to consider before purchasing a manure suit.
Lal has pushing for more policies to change what is being done with soil. Lal also believes that farmers need financial incentives to implement various soil management practices. To bring more attention to soil issues, he helped spark the following resolution introduced by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH): S.Res.440 – A resolution recognizing soil as an essential natural resource, and soils professionals as playing a critical role in managing our Nation’s soil resources. But there is still a ways to go to make people aware of this problem. As Lal indicated, “most people don’t know about soil science or think of going into it as a career.”
Drake feels that Lal’s winning the Japan Prize could help bring more attention to soil science: “The Japan Prize is a wonderful world honor that doesn’t happen everyday. It’s the culmination of a lifetime of work and will get more people to pay attention.”
A prominent figure like Gates writing about soil can’t hurt either. If you were a big fan of cow farts or at least talking about them, the March 26 edition of his Gates Notes may have disappointed you somewhat. Nonetheless, he and Lal are bringing more light to an important problem: one that, if not properly addressed, may end up soiling a lot of our plans in the near future.