Seth Itzkan, Steven Keleti, and Karl Thidemann
Congressional Democrats have offered an ambitious legislative framework for 2019. Titled the Green New Deal, it seeks to tackle impending climate threats while generating innovative opportunities in the energy, transportation, and agricultural sectors. The Green New Deal includes support of soil health. Between 50% to 70% of agricultural soil has been lost, and rebuilding soil health is crucial for food system security, water quality, and climate change mitigation.
A bi-partisan movement at the state level is calling for what is termed “Healthy Soils Legislation.” Proposed bills nationwide promote good land stewardship through principles and practices that support the aspirations of the Green New Deal by providing practical support for farmers and ranchers, many of whom might not otherwise be supportive of climate efforts. Speaking to this point, Bill McKibben, founder of the global climate movement, 350.org, stated, “Soil is increasingly taking its rightful and necessary place in the climate fight; this is a battle farmers and ranchers can help the world win.”
A promising indicator of this comes from New Mexico where a Healthy Soils Act was approved with rare, overwhelming consensus. The House version passed with a vote of 48-6 and the Senate version passed unanimously, 34-0. Officially titled “An Act Relating to Natural Resources,” the New Mexico law creates a Healthy Soil Program and a Healthy Soil Grant Program in the state’s Department of Agriculture. The purpose of the program is “to promote and support farming and ranching systems and other forms of land management that increase soil organic matter, aggregate stability, microbiology and water retention to improve the health, yield and profitability of the soils of the state.”
It should be noted that the phrase, “increase soil organic matter,” literally means to increase the carbon content of soil. Carbon is naturally accumulated in soil through the photosynthesis process. Conventional farming and ranching practices have greatly depleted soil of its carbon, contributing to global warming and exacerbating the impact of droughts and floods. Fortunately, improved cropping and grazing methods embraced by environmentalists and producers, and emphasized in healthy soils legislative efforts, can reverse this negative trend and increase soil carbon, making these approaches important allies in the climate flight. It is estimated that improving soil globally can sequester many billions of tons of excess atmospheric carbon annually. Such “drawdown” efforts — meaning they pull carbon out of the air — will be essential as we take measures to bring atmospheric carbon dioxide back down to safe levels.
Commenting on the bi-partisan nature of the New Mexico effort, Jeff Goebel, a management consultant involved in drafting and lobbying for the legislation stated, “We understood that the only people who can actually change the health of the soil on a daily basis are ranchers, farmers, foresters, and gardeners. Therefore, we need to do everything possible to help land managers be successful. We were adaptive (consensual) in the language without giving up the integrity of the legislation.”
Nebraska recently passed legislation to create a Healthy Soils Task Force to develop a healthy soils initiative and action plan. A Massachusetts bill, “An Act to Promote Healthy Soils,” directs the state to form a Healthy Soils Program that shall “seek to optimize climate benefits while supporting the economic viability of agriculture in the commonwealth.” With strong bi-partisan support from both chambers, passage is likely. Healthy soils legislation has also been in legislatures in 2019 in the following additional states: Connecticut, Vermont, New York, Illinois, Iowa, Washington and Oregon.
A complete list of state-level healthy soils legislative efforts is available at the Soil4Climate website, www.soil4climate.org.