Soil plays critical roles in food security, climate mitigation, ecosystem function, and buffering against extreme weather events. Although it is essential for the stability of the planet, soil is disappearing at an alarming rate.
In the United States, estimates are that soil on cultivated cropland is eroding at an average rate of 5.2 tons per acre per year, while the average rate of soil formation falls between 0.008 and 0.51 tons per acre per year. Some parts of the Midwest are losing soil at a much faster rate, especially during extreme weather events—in some regions of the United States, erosion has been measured at over 100 tons per acre in a single storm. That means that a layer of soil that took over 350 years to form was destroyed in a single day.
Climate change is expected to increase pressure on soil as the frequency of extreme weather events increases, bringing forceful rain and flooding, which can strip away soil. Without coordinated action, the United States is on track to run out of topsoil—the medium upon which crop production depends—before the end of the 21st century.
Erosion is not the only threat to America’s soil. Many urban soils have been contaminated with lead or toxic substances, posing a threat to human health. In some cases, intensive forestry and rangeland practices have also resulted in release of substantial soil carbon into the atmosphere, slowing progress toward tackling climate change. Another threat has been the deposition of atmospheric pollutants in forests, which has leached essential nutrients from forest soils in many parts of the Nation.
In issuing a call to action for soil, OSTP seeks innovative actions from Federal agencies, academic scientists and engineers, farmers, entrepreneurs, businesses, advocates, and members of the public in a nationwide effort to impede soil loss, enhance soil genesis, and restore degraded soils.
Federal Agency Input on Soil: A New National Science and Technology Council Working Group
Under the National Science and Technology Council, OSTP has established the Soil Science Interagency Working Group (SSIWG), which will receive technical input from 15 Federal departments and agencies. This input will include identifying knowledge and technology gaps, identifying research and conservation priorities, fostering public-private collaborations, and working toward Federal actions to protect soil resources.
A National Call to Action
OSTP is issuing a nationwide call to action for farmers, scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, advocates, and the broader public to work together to develop innovative solutions to promote soil health and protect soil from degradation. In order to meet a challenge of this scale, innovation and collaboration are needed at three key stages:
Implementing precise solutions to protect soil requires vast quantities of information. Data are needed about soil moisture, horizon depths, nutrient availability and cycling, soil architecture, type and extent of vegetation cover, microbial presence, soil carbon content, climate (especially precipitation and temperature), and other topics. This information needs to be continuously collected at high resolution across the Nation and made available to inform precise solutions.
This daunting task can be achieved through a combination of innovative technology and traditional expertise in soil science. In particular, OSTP is interested in actions focusing on: (1) low-cost sensors for soil moisture and chemistry that are ready for large-scale deployment; (2) remote-sensing tools for mapping soil moisture, water use, vegetation type, and other soil-related metrics; and (3) expanded availability of high-quality data on soil for communities and farmers, including by obtaining open access to private agricultural and climate datasets for the purpose of soil conservation.
OSTP is specifically interested in actions and efforts that seek to: (1) advance interdisciplinary research on the role of soil in resilience of the food system, energy production, and water quality (especially in computational, chemical, and biological sciences), through, for example research grants or fellowships; (2) develop web portals and other mechanisms that improve the relevance and usability of data relevant to soil conservation; and (3) educate and engage the American public in the importance of soil and ways of participating in its protection, including through the creative arts as well as reliable citizen science
Scientists, farmers, policymakers, and the public need scalable solutions that can be deployed widely at low cost. To that end, OSTP welcomes efforts to develop or deploy solutions or incentives achieve the following: (1) rapidly generating healthy soil or restoring degraded or contaminated soil; (2) increasing soil carbon content and sequestration; and (3) reducing pressure on agricultural soil that is particularly vulnerable to erosion.
Tell Us About Your Work
To tell us what you or your organization will do to protect soil resources, please submit this web form by November 10, 2016.
Jo Handelsman is Associate Director for Science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
Parker Liautaud is Policy Advisor for Natural Resources in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy