Feeding 9 billion people by 2050 will require the world to grow as much food in the next 40 years as it's produced in the past 500 years. But that daunting challenge doesn't have to come at the expense of our soil resources.
To the contrary, building up soil health through no-till, cover crops and proper rotations will enable farmers to produce more and do it in a more sustainable way, said Ron Nichols, soil health communications coordinator for USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service in Greensboro, N.C.
"Soil health is a potential game-changing component of the solution to this worldwide challenge," Nichols says.
It also is the focus of a new large-scale, nationwide campaign, called "Unlocking the Secrets in the Soil," launched by NRCS. Nichols was quite animated in reviewing this promotional campaign during the recent Nebraska Association of Resources Districts conference in Kearney, saying that improving the nation's soil health is "one of the most important endeavors of our time.
"The clock is ticking. We're at a tipping point," he said, referring to the need to feed the world while facing the impacts of climate change, weather extremes, the continual loss of prime farmland and the need to reduce use of finite resources. Twelve to 19 million acres globally each year are converted to other uses.
One additional challenge is educating producers as well as NRCS field staff on soil health concepts and practices. Nichols quoted Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian intellectual, painter and inventor, to describe our soil knowledge level: "We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot."
Nichols summarized the general benefits accruing from healthy soils, in particularly increased soil organic matter. Doing so he said, improves soil structure, aeration, water retention, nutrient availability, and controls erosion and sedimentation. It also is protection against drought.
The website for the soil health campaign is www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/soils/health.
There you will find several tabs on the left-hand side of the home page explaining its features. The top one, "Soil Health Theater," is the most important, Nichols said, because it features videos of successful adopters of soil health practices telling their own stories.
Additionally, the "Dig a Little, Learn A Lot" tab offers fundamentals on soil ecology and tips on how producers can build soil health on their farms.
The "Grow With It" tab describes the core conservation practices that are part of a soil health management system.
NRCS plans to partner with other organizations and agencies on the campaign.
It will also use social media, radio and print public service announcements and a direct-mail campaign for absentee landowners.