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Ignoring Soil Health At Our Own Peril

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Senator Tom O'Mara

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Eighty years ago, during the height of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote in a letter to America’s governors, “The Nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.”

That statement remains as true today as when it was written in 1937. Last week in Albany, farmers, researchers, policymakers and other experts gathered for New York State’s first “Soil Health Summit” hosted by, among others, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University.

It is a rapidly evolving modern-day scenario getting the attention it deserves, and demands. It is simply one of the most alarming and critical challenges facing farmers and the agricultural industry overall throughout New York State, the nation and the world.

Last year the Nature Conservancy released a report, “rethink Soil: A Roadmap to U.S. Soil Health,” examining how over the past century agricultural technology improvements have helped farmers continue to feed a world population that has soared from under 2 billion to over 7 billion. At the same time, however, it is taking a toll on America’s agricultural soils. The report estimates that “the annual societal and environmental costs of the status quo are up to $85.1 billion annually through unintended effects on human health, property, energy, endangered species, biodiversity losses, eutrophication, contamination, agricultural productivity, and resilience.”

The Senate and Assembly Environmental Conservation Committees also hosted a panel discussion last year, “From the Ground Up: Why Soil Health is Key to Sustainable Food Production.” The discussion focused on soil health and resiliency, giving it the attention it warrants and encouraging action on the development of a New York State Soil Health Management Network modeled after the successful federal Soil Health Network. 

Furthermore, last year’s state budget included funding from the state’s Environmental Protection Fund for a “Soil Health Initiative” at Cornell University. The initiative works to facilitate ongoing soil-related research and guide additional efforts toward the establishment of the state-level Soil Health Management Network. The envisioned network would be a public-private extension and education consortium. Last week’s Soil Health Summit continued to advance the next steps. You can read more at http://www.summit.newyorksoilhealth.org.

We have witnessed firsthand in the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes regions over the past several years how soil health and resiliency have such a significant impact on farm productivity, profitability and sustainability. The same is true statewide. The ability of soils to resist drought, flooding and other impacts continues to emerge as a critical conservation, economic growth, environmental protection and food quality challenge in New York State, as well as across the nation and world.

The bottom line is clear: the sooner the better on developing and implementing a comprehensive, state-level response. As always, Cornell CALS is at the forefront of the emerging research and response strategies. 

The fundamental, underlying importance of this challenge -- and the necessary pursuit of forward-thinking programs and policies to tackle it -- is highlighted in a recently released book by author David R. Montgomery from the University of Washington, who was a keynote speaker at last week’s New York Soil Health Summit.

In “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” he echoes FDR’s warning from eight decades ago when he writes, “Unlike other environmental problems such as dwindling water supplies and loss of forests, the degradation of soil fertility has gone relatively unnoticed. It happens so slowly that it rarely becomes the crisis du jour. Therein lies the problem. The once-Edenic, now-impoverished places that spawned Western civilization illustrate one of history’s most underappreciated lessons: societies that don’t take care of their soil do not last.”

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