How Healthy Soils Can Help Battle Climate Change
For many people it may just look like dirt. But soil – the complex ecosystem containing minerals and many living organisms – is the foundation for our ability to grow healthy crops and food. But there is even more soil can do for us. We talked to Charles Foresman, Sustainable Agriculture Systems Lead at Bayer, about how a better understanding of this important ecosystem can also help us to farm more sustainably and at the same time counter climate change.
Charles, Soil Has Received More Public Attention in the past Months. Why Is It So Important for Humanity?
Civilizations have been made and destroyed based on the health of their soils. It is the foundation for successful harvests and soil is becoming more and more important for food production and food security. We have lost nearly half of the topsoil on the planet in the past 150 years and it can take thousands of years to newly form a small layer of topsoil after being eroded. So, it is vital that we focus on soil health and farm more sustainably in order to ensure food security for the future.
What Causes Soil Erosion and What Can Farmers Do to Prevent It?
When soil is broken up and turned during tilling, it increases the probability that the soil will erode through wind or rain. Modern farming practices, such as no-till help farmers to leave the soil undisturbed and thus promote soil health. Other practices to increase soil health and reduce erosion are rotating crops and using cover crops, which are planted between growing seasons of a farmer’s primary crop. This all helps to keep nutrients and organic matter in the soil, leading to better harvests. We learned more about soil health in the last five years than we did in the last five decades and better understand how the ecosystem works and how we can work with nature.
Do You Think That Farmers Understand the Importance of Keeping Their Soil Healthy- Compared to 50 Years Ago?
My father was a farmer. His generation had to continually till the soil to keep the weeds at bay. This continuous disruption of the soil is probably the worst thing you can do to your soil as it leads to more erosion and degradation overtime and releases carbon into the atmosphere. But with the introduction of modern herbicides to control weeds, farmers could get away from this practice. Less tillage also cuts down fuel and energy use and costs. If I think about the next generation of farmers and of consumers, sustainability is top of mind. I think this also changes the way growers keep their soil healthy and grow food more sustainably.
How Can We Farm More Sustainably While at the Same Time Increase Food Production for a Growing Population? Isn’t This a Paradox?
We need to sustainably increase the productivity of the land we already farm on. That way we can protect biodiversity and the environment in areas that we would otherwise need to grow more food, for example sensitive areas like forests. There are several ways we can do it. New seed varieties adapted to the specific growing environments, effective crop protection products and digital tools are crucial to make the best use of our farming land. Using these tools and practices will not only be key to meet the demand for food but also contribute to the fight against climate change. Again, healthy soil is key here as well.
Could You Explain This a Bit More?
In simple words, soil can store carbon dioxide, which drives climate change. This process is called carbon sequestration. It is the idea of capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and transferring it via plants and roots into the soil. We know that practices like no-till and cover crops together have large opportunities to sequester and keep carbon into the soil permanently. Just imagine if we can scale up those practices over the millions of acres that are currently in production agriculture, it could be a huge lever to tackle climate change. This goes beyond agriculture. For example by protecting forests and reforesting. Bayer supports initiatives in both areas. There is no silver bullet in combatting climate change but agriculture can play a significant role in combatting it long-term.
What Is Bayer Exactly Doing to Foster and Promote a Carbon Neutral Agriculture or Incentivize Carbon Sequestration Methods?
Climate change is top of mind and. So, I think the number one thing we can do is to educate – within the agriculture community and outside – about the impact agriculture can have in the fight against climate change. The second is to run our business in a way that sets an example. Bayer’s sustainable commitments show we're trying to walk the walk and deliver through greenhouse gas reduction and through our environmental impact commitment. Bayer is committed to empowering 100 million smallholder farmers in developing regions by 2030 by improving access to agronomic knowledge, products, services and partnerships. And then lastly, Bayer announced this summer it will start rewarding farmers in Brazil and the U.S. for generating carbon credits by adopting climate-smart practices designed to help agriculture reduce its carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions.
What Potential Do You See for a More Sustainable Agriculture in the Future?
If I compare what I was working on ten years ago to tools and ideas that are out there now, it blows my mind. Both within agriculture and technology in general. Smartphones, software and other tools are changing everything from the way we work or communicate with each other. These same solutions are also bringing more innovative and digital management options to the farm, allowing farmers to grow more while using less input, even in an increasingly unpredictable climate. Secondly, because we have an increased focus on sustainability, we're investing more in understanding how to drive it. There's more concerted effort in investing in technologies that help the farmer increase yield in a more sustainable manner. So, the look into the future is exciting with still more room for improvement, and a lot of innovation potential.
About Charles Foresman:
Charlie is the Sustainable Ag Lead for Corn and Soybean Systems at Bayer Crop Science. He has over 15 years of experience in agronomy, plant breeding, and sustainability. Charlie is also an active member in a family Farm in Western Illinois.