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The latest episode of the Thrive podcast takes a close look at the ground beneath our feet. Soil, on which terrestrial life depends, is often ignored precisely because it is everywhere and yet invisible. Healthy soils contribute so much to human well-being, from nutritious food to clean water, and yet the soils of more than a fifth of all cropland, pasture, forest and woodland are degraded to some extent. Degraded soils, apart from being unable to meet the needs of the people who depend on them, also emit large amounts of greenhouse gasses, contributing to climate change.

How, then, can we best restore degraded soils? Sessions at Global Soil Week 2015 in Berlin, co-organized by the Water, Land and Ecosystems research program of CGIAR, provided a platform for people to share different approaches, each of which has something to offer.

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Last month, the USDA announced its plan to invest an additional $21 million of Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funds to support on-farm water conservation efforts in severely drought-stricken areas. The investment will expand financial and technical assistance to crop and livestock producers in eight states, including California, in an effort to promote practices that conserve water and build soil health.

Administered by the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), EQIP supports on-farm conservation improvements through financial cost-sharing and technical assistance to growers. Over $27 million of FY 2015 EQIP funding is already targeted toward drought management practices in California. The additional funding will direct EQIP allocations to areas experiencing exceptional or extreme drought conditions, and focus on conservation practices that help farmers cope with drought, such as improving irrigation efficiency, implementing prescribed grazing, and building soil health through cover crops and reduced tillage. NRCS aims to both improve on-farm water use efficiency and also contribute to the long term resilience of crop, pasture, and rangelands against drought.

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Humankind is faced with the continuing challenge of sustainably growing sufficient food to feed an ever-growing population. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization [1] citing a United Nations World Population Prospects report predicts that the earth’s population will reach 9.1 billion by the middle of this century.

Much of this growth will be in nations whose populations now suffer from malnutrition or outright starvation. In addition to a growing population, the increase in people will demand more food, more meat, and higher quality food because it will be more urban and wealthier according to FAO. Their estimate is that increased demand will require current food production to rise by 60 percent.

The challenge becomes more acute when it is understood that the land area for growing food is not expanding. Indeed, urban growth onto farmland and loss of arable (farmable) soil by wind and water erosion are reducing the available land area most suitable for farming. More land can be brought into production, but with a potentially high environmental and monetary cost.

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Alix Blair: Book Review

Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth by William Bryant Logan.

W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1995.

 

William Bryant Logan’s book Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth is a 202-page love song to the soil. Logan’s book is made up of multiple styles: part scientific fact, part narrative storytelling, part poetry, part history-lesson.

 

Logan’s writing is beautiful, meditative, metaphor-full, and poetic, filled with lyrical connections between surprising thoughts. He uses soil as the connective thread to examine multiple, immense ideas, many verging on discussions of the meaning of life.

 

To give an example of his style of writing, in taking on the beginning of life on earth (no small subject), Logan writes, “life is the story of bodies that learned to contain the sea…when you look for a creature to match the range of motion of the human hand, you find yourself back with the wiggling orange filaments of fungi and the gesture of acclamation of a spreading bacterial branch” (11,13).

 

Moving from the beginning of life, he takes on death in graphic detail in the chapter The Soil of Graves writing, “so in the end the tomb is empty, and human forms have been changed into apple forms. The soil of graves is the transformer. It is natural magic. The grave is a memory from which the story of the Earth is told” (57).

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Authors:

Lorena M. Zavala. University of Seville, Sevilla, Spain

Antonio Jordán. University of Seville, Sevilla, Spain

Jorge Mataix-Solera. University Miguel Hernández, Elche, Spain

Artemi Cerdà. University of Valencia, Valencia, Spain

 

Originally posted at http://blogs.egu.eu/divisions/sss/ on March 3, 2015. 

 

According to official statistics, during the 1990’s, about 1.5 million ha were burned in Spain. In the first decade of this century, the burned area in Spain also surpassed one million hectares. To put it in conventional TV surface units, the burned area in the past 20 years equals the provinces of Cáceres and Badajoz, or 274,000 soccer fields. The effects caused by the fire on the soil have been studied over the past 20 years by research groups who have made a significant contribution to the advancement and improvement of scientific knowledge.

 

Forest fires are a regular topic of conversation in our society, especially during summer conversations, and people agrees to describe forest fires as disasters. Instead, they disagree vehemently about forest management, restoration and prevention policies. We have never seen one of those familiar discussions in which a consensus has been reached. Nor have we seen people talking about the twinned management of fire and forest areas. We cannot understand fire as something alien to ecosystems.

 

Undoubtedly, forest fires are an important part of the history of Mediterranean and most terrestrial ecosystems. Natural fires caused by lightning or other causes such as volcanic eruptions, have contributed to shape the history of vegetation, soils, and ultimately the landscape we know. Fire has been used by humans since 400,000 years ago and only about 10,000 years ago man learned to light a fire without relying on natural agents such as lightning.

 

Since then, the fire has been an excellent tool to harness and manage natural ecosystems worldwide. The Mediterranean landscape we know today has been shaped by the action of man for thousands of years, and the use of fire is not out of this process. The intense transformation of original forests in cropland and pastures since the fifteenth century to promote livestock, the exploitation of coal and wood, and human supply has been possible thanks to fire.

 

Since the mid-twentieth century, and as a result of urbanization and the abandonment of rural areas, traditional agricultural uses and management are being lost. Perhaps this is why, now, people see fire as an enemy that must be eradicated. The problem is not fire itself, but the modification of natural fire regimes in ecosystems.

 

This has turned fire, a natural ecological factor, in an environmental problem. The solution therefore is not as simple as the total eradication of fire. Burning shrubland.

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Introduction

 

Non-point source pollution (NPS) is a global problem affecting the safety of our drinking water supply and aquatic habitats. According to the 2000 National Water Quality Inventory, agriculturally derived NPS is the leading cause of water quality degradation in surface waters. Pollutants originating from agricultural runoff include sediment, nutrients (N and P), pesticides, pathogens, salts, trace elements, dissolved organic carbon and substances that contribute to biological oxygen demand (BOD). 

 

For example, discharge of nutrients into aquatic ecosystems has led to the formation of hypoxia/anoxia induced “dead zones” in more than 400 locations worldwide. Thus, new and effective management practices for agriculture must be identified, tested and monitored in order to reduce the impacts of agriculture on the sustainability of water resources.

 

Wetlands are widely advertised as critical components of our planet providing a wide variety of ecosystem services: kidneys of the hydrologic cycle by removing pollutants, biodiversity hot spots, habitats of rare and endangered species, ground water recharge zones, localized areas for flood protection, carbon sinks and aesthetic value.

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“A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”
– Franklin D. Roosevelt

Roosevelt’s words might bring to mind images of pavement or resource extraction, yet our most common agricultural practices also are destroying our soil.

Modern industrial agricultural practices have been impacting our once-rich belowground ecosystem since the early 20th century and we’re just beginning to understand how it’s affecting our health.

When compared with the nutrient value of the foods our grandparents ate, what we consume today has substantially lower nutritional value. According to the “Journal of the American College of Nutrition,” today’s foods typically are lower in protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C. It’s now possible to buy an orange that contains zero vitamin C.

Why is this happening? One potential cause is changes in plant varieties. If breeders are focused on other factors besides nutritional value (yield, disease resistance, etc.), then the new varieties may decline in nutrient concentrations. Depleted soil may be another reason.

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- With endocrine-disrupting compounds affecting fish populations in rivers as close as Pennsylvania's Susquehanna and as far away as Israel's Jordan, a new research study shows that soils can filter out and break down at least some of these emerging contaminants. The results suggest that water pollution can be diminished by spraying treated wastewater on land rather than discharging it directly into streams, according to researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

 

Using Penn State's 600-acre "Living Filter" -- a wastewater reuse system less than a mile from the University Park campus -- as a laboratory, researchers tested soil samples for the presence and accumulation of three estrogens. For almost three decades, more than 500 million gallons of treated wastewater from the campus has been sprayed annually from irrigation pipes onto this site, which is composed of cropland, grassland and forest.

 

To understand how endocrine-disrupting compounds behave in the soil, researchers extracted samples and analyzed for two natural estrogens, 17-beta-estradiol and estrone -- hormones naturally produced by humans and animals, such as dairy cattle -- and one synthetic estrogen, 17-alpha-ethynylestradiol -- a compound in birth-control pills.

 

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Soil-profile art is not akin to classic paintings with themes; rather, it resembles abstract art: and if you are used to thinking of soil as dirt, which is customary in our society, you are not keyed to find beauty in it.”  Hans Jenny, 1984

 

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Why soils?

2015 has been designated the International Year of Soils by the United Nations.  This designation has been embraced in the United States by the Department of Agriculture, the Soil Science Society of America and others. Many readers may be asking, “why?” This article will serve as an introduction to the topic and CIRS will post monthly submissions by experts on the particular value of soils. Our approach will focus on the rural but we will not limit our discussion to rural regions. There are many rich and productive soils being used in urban areas to sustain communities by providing space to grow food. And food production is our concern. Soil is the foundation of civilization and has been the key to human development over the past 13,000 years.

 

In this series of posts we will discuss soil formation, ecosystem functions of soil, soil loss, the economic value of soil, soils on pasture land, soils in crop production, soil and water, the politics of soil, soil and food security and carbon sequestration in soils. Expect a diverse and well regarded group of writers and look for them here the last Monday of every month.

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The University of California magazine California Agriculture recently published a report that measured soil carbon levels in three perennial cropping systems across Northern California. This study, which was funded by the USDA, brings California one step closer to realizing programs for agriculture that could incentivize sustainable soil management practices and provide financial benefits to farmers.

With a focus on the lesser-understood “high-value specialty perennial crops,” such as walnuts, almonds and wine grapes, researchers in the study sought to develop baseline soil carbon estimates for a variety of agricultural land types and management systems. They gathered data by implementing long-term monitoring networks in perennial crop soils, using a research methodology that could serve as a model for future carbon storage studies.

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