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The Obama Administration Announces New Steps to Maintain and Create Healthy Soils

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is releasing a framework for Federal soil science, and announcing new actions to protect soil health.

Soil is essential to human life. Not only is it vital for providing most of the world’s food, it also plays a critical role in ensuring water quality and availability; supports a vast array of non-food products and benefits, including mitigation of climate change; and sustains the biodiversity needed for ecological resilience. These roles make soil essential to modern life. Thus, it is imperative that everyone--city dwellers, farmers and ranchers, land owners, and rural citizens alike--take responsibility for caring for and investing in our soils. Given their importance, soil must be protected from degradation, as the alternative is the loss of an array of important ecosystem services.

Today, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), in collaboration with Federal agencies and private-sector stakeholders, is announcing new steps to promote the long-term health and sustainable use of one of America’s most important natural resources: its soil. The new actions being announced today aim to advance scientific understanding of soils to better care for them and their ability to support food security, climate mitigation, ecosystem services, and public health. These efforts focus on three key areas:

  1. Promoting interdisciplinary research and education, to answer key questions on rates of soil genesis and erosion, the role of soils in bioenergy production, the development of advanced soil sensors, and research to better understand non-agricultural soils.
  2. Advancing computational tools and modeling, to improve analytical capacity and develop a robust predictive framework in studying soil properties, including pursuing a more sophisticated understanding of soil-carbon fluxes and the potential for soil-carbon sequestration.
  3. Expanding sustainable agricultural practices, to ensure farmers and ranchers have the information and tools they need to protect and enhance agricultural soils and ensure global soils can continue to provide food security and climate benefits for future generations.

A full list of actions being announced today can be found here. They build on decades of experience, research, and conservation efforts of farmers, ranchers, and land owners along with States and the Federal Government. Since the 1930s, when the onset of the Dust Bowl led to the creation of the Soil Conservation Service, Federal agencies have invested tens of billions of dollars in soil conservation and research initiatives. During this Administration, farmers, ranchers, and land owners have increased the number of acres of farmland enrolled in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) conservation programs by nearly 200 million acres. Federal soil-science efforts are not limited to agricultural soils—across the Federal research enterprise, more than a dozen agencies work to protect soils in rangelands, cities, forests, coasts, and other areas—often hand-in-hand with citizens, universities, local organizations, and other private sector partners.

Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science

The National Science and Technology Council’s Soil Science Interagency Working Group (SSIWG) is releasing today a Framework for a Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science, which aims to identify needs, gaps, and opportunities in soil science; develop opportunities for expanding soil conservation practices and enhancing soil carbon sequestration; and coordinate Federal research priorities for the future.

The Framework identifies three overarching “Challenge and Opportunity” categories: (1) land use and land cover change; (2) unsustainable land management practices, and (3) climate and environmental change. In response to these challenges, the SSIWG makes five recommendations for future research priorities, focusing on: (1) improving data storage and analytics tools, (2) studying the influence of soils on the global climate, (3) expanding long-term coordinated research programs on land use and land cover change, (4) supporting the applied social sciences, and (5) developing programs to minimize unsustainable land management practices.

More than a dozen Federal agencies, including four USDA agencies, collaborated to develop the Framework. In writing it, members considered input from diverse stakeholders from academia, industry, non-profit organizations, and the agricultural community who attended an OSTP Soil Science Workshop on August 1, 2016. Today, the National Science and Technology Council, on behalf of the SSIWG, published a Request for Information in the online Federal Register seeking public comment on the Framework. The public comment period is open until January 10, 2017.

New and Expanded Federal Actions to Support Soil Science

In support of the development of the Framework, several Federal agencies will launch or expand research, education, and conservation programs. A few examples of the diverse projects announced today include:

  • $20 million in new investments in interdisciplinary soil science by the Department of Energy (DOE)’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
  • The expansion of more than two dozen soil-focused research projects led by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.
  • A memorandum of understanding between DOE’s Advanced Research Projects AgencyEnergy (ARPA-E) and The Nature Conservancy to boost the development and deployment of soil-carbon sequestration and crop breeding technologies.
  • New educational materials developed by the Smithsonian Institution to teach up to 6.5 million students across more than 1,400 school districts children about the effects of, and solutions to, soil erosion.

External Actions in Response to the Call to Action

Numerous universities, businesses, and non-governmental organizations developed new projects in response to OSTP’s Call to Action to protect soil resources. These actions include new research initiatives in a wide range of academic disciplines across the earth and life sciences, expanded soil conservation practices on more than 8 million acres of agricultural land, and technology and knowledge transfer to help thousands of farmers in Kenya and Rwanda better protect their soils. Specific examples include:

  • A $200 million effort from Fall Line Capital to expand modern soil conservation practices, including through the use of precision agriculture tools, onto degraded agricultural land.
  • The creation of the Southern Urbanism and Policy Initiative, a collaboration of more than 15 organizations led by the University of Alabama, which aims to develop innovative strategies to sustainably manage urban soil resources and restore soil health in cities.
  • New faculty hires at Colorado State University, the University of Alabama, and Oregon State University in fields related to soil science, with research foci ranging from the applications of big data in sustainable agriculture to the development of passive sensors for measuring soil pollutants.
  • A collaboration between Patagonia and The Carbon Underground to restore soil health to 4 million acres of agricultural land.

The combined efforts of Federal and private-sector initiatives announced today will have a substantial impact on ensuring the sustainability of soil resources in the United States and around the world. Collectively, they will help build a more sustainable and resilient future.


Jo Handelsman is Associate Director for Science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy