The solution to some of the world’s most prevalent and catastrophic problems, such as natural disasters, may be closer than we think. In fact, it may be right beneath our feet.
Healthy soil benefits every aspect of life, either directly or indirectly. One of the most instrumental—and perhaps surprising—ways soil impacts life for both people and the planet is by helping to mitigate natural disasters.
Often, well-intentioned government policies react to natural disasters with initiatives to improve weather forecasting, and crop insurance and disaster relief programs. However, their focus primarily addresses the symptoms of disasters, rather than their causes.
Soil conditions play a major role in many natural disasters, such as droughts, flooding, landslides, erosion, and dust storms. Creating optimum soil health not only increases the chances of good harvests, but it protects against natural disasters—healthy soil, for example, can more easily handle flooding than soil that has been neglected and is dry and compacted.
What is Healthy Soil?
Soil environments that are surrounded by various relevant and luscious plants and organic matter and filled with worms, insects and microbes are considered to be flourishing and healthy.
In contrast, when soil has low biological activity, it sets off a cascade of negative effects. For example, low soil biology leads to the collapse of soil aggregation, resulting in compaction. Compacted soil has poor rates of water infiltration and water retention.
Soil that water cannot infiltrate, either by precipitation or irrigation, is highly susceptible to disasters like flooding, runoff, erosion, drought, and dust storms. An infamous example is the 1930s Dust Bowl disaster in the United States. That decade-long calamity occurred after inexperienced farmers moved into the semi-arid Southern Plains territories and removed acres of deep-rooted prairie grass to plant cash crops like wheat and corn. As the Great Depression deepened and seed prices rose, thousands of farmers left their acres bare. As severe droughts struck, these flat, treeless lands became parched, and high winds created huge dust storms that caused unprecedented topsoil loss—and deepened the poverty and displacement of the settlers.
Droughts, erosion, dust storms and other natural disasters “are exacerbated by poor soil health management,” said Dr. Allen Williams, a sixth-generation family farmer and founding partner of Understanding Ag, LLC, and non-profit Soil Health Academy, both headquartered in Fort Payne, Alabama.
“It is impossible to separate the disaster issues from poor soil health,” he said, adding that—as happened during the Dust Bowl days—“soils exposed to nature’s elements are far more likely to experience natural disasters.”
Both Understanding Ag and Soil Health Academy are at the forefront of “regenerative agriculture,” a promising approach to farming and food systems. “Regenerative agriculture” is an umbrella term for a variety of practices—such as the use of cover crops and livestock and reducing or eliminating tillage—to intentionally enhancing soil health and rehabilitating and conserving land.
Building soil health is a structural improvement that conserves and retains water during drought conditions or absorbs and constrains it during floods. Moreover, regenerative agricultural practices work to keep the soil and its health intact during all weather conditions to ensure it is not blown or washed away or otherwise adversely affected.
Education in regenerative agriculture principles and practices is a core sustainable tool available to farmers and owners of the land, large or small. “We do not need special technology, tools and software to implement regenerative principles successfully,” said Dr. Williams, who has consulted with some 4,000 farmers and ranchers in 34 countries on implementing the new practices.
The 6-3-4 Approach to Soil Health
The agricultural industry consultancy, Understanding Ag, is made of farmers and ranchers who believe the practice of regenerative agriculture will lead to productive, profitable, and resilient farms worldwide.
Its key training mechanism is called the “6-3-4” approach, which comprises six principles of soil health, three rules of adaptive stewardship, and four ecosystem processes.
These core principles are:
6 Principles of Soil Health. Know one’s context; minimize soil disturbance; cover soil and build surface armor; mix it up; keep living roots in the soil; and grow healthy animals and soil together.
3 Rules of Adaptive Stewardship. Respect nature—namely considerations and activities relating to its diversity, compounding or interdependence, and disruption.
4 Ecosystem Processes. Energy flow, water cycle, mineral and nutrient cycle, and plant and animal diversity should be understood and prioritized.
“Through many years of very practical, hands-on experience, the Six Principles, Three Rules and Four Ecosystem processes are the key to successful regenerative agriculture,” said Dr. Williams.
“Knowing your context, minimizing disturbance, keeping soil covered or armored, [keeping] living roots in the ground year-round, increasing diversity (of plants, soil microbes, insects, birds), and the proper livestock integration are all equally important,” said Dr. Williams.
Farmers may want to “cherry-pick” their principles, but that system can result in less-than-desirable results, he added.
Criticism and education
Sceptics of regenerative agriculture fault it for its lofty claims. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” Andrew McGuire, an agronomist with Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, wrote in 2018. Research, for instance, hasn’t answered enough questions about whether mixtures of cover crops are superior to monoculture cover crops, he wrote.
Other critics worry that some no-till farmers will use chemicals to remove crops at the end of a season or that the regenerative methods are overhyped, and/or not feasible for all farmers.
Understanding Ag said farmers in Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and Canada have successfully applied and implemented the 6-3-4 approach across all soil types and climates, and with all agricultural products, such as row crops, produce crops, fruit crops, nut crops and livestock. The company further said it knows of case studies in which regenerative farms exhibited great resilience in flooding and drought conditions, and that there is evidence deserts can be “greened” using regenerative principles
“We have personally witnessed significant improvement in soil health, ecosystem health, water quality, and food nutrient density” using the method, Dr. Williams said, adding that in the US, about 32 million acres are under regenerative transition.
Food companies have shown interest in the 6-3-4 approach, according to Understanding Ag, which said it is working with General Mills to educate their wheat, oat, and dairy farmers in regenerative agriculture principles.
Understanding Ag and the Soil Health Academy are offering educational resources through their schools, online curriculum, monthly articles and webinars, podcasts, workshops, conferences, and farm tours.
Consumer-oriented workshops and farm tours introduce regenerative agriculture. These activities aim to show, first-hand, what healthy soil looks like and smells like, and show how much better water infiltrates the land. When people see it, “they are immediately sold on the concept,” Dr. Williams said.