FACT SHEET: The Obama Administration Announces New Steps to Advance Soil Sustainability
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 work towards the long-term health and sustainable use of one of America’s most important natural resources: its soil. OSTP is also releasing today a Federal framework for soil science, developed in collaboration with more than a dozen Federal agencies, with input from approximately 80 stakeholders from academia, industry, non-profit organizations, and the agricultural community.
Soil is essential to human life. Not only is it vital for providing most of the world’s food, but 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.
The new actions being announced today aim to advance scientific understanding of soils so that land managers and farmers are better able to care for them and maintain their ability to support food security, climate mitigation, ecosystem services, and public health. These actions focus on three key areas:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
The projects in this Fact Sheet 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, land managers have increased the number of acres of farmland enrolled in the Department of Agriculture’s 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 working hand-in-hand with citizens, universities, local organizations, and other private-sector partners.
New Steps Being Taken by the Administration Today
To support the coordination of future government-wide science and technology efforts to protect soils, the National Science and Technology Council’s Soil Science Interagency Working Group (SSIWG) is releasing today “The State and Future of U.S. Soils,” a Framework for a Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science, which is the result of a collaborative effort from more than 15 Federal agencies. In developing the Framework, SSIWG considered input from stakeholders from academia, industry, non-profit organizations, and the agricultural community who attended an OSTP workshop on soils in August 2016. The Framework is available for public comment until January 10, 2017. SSIWG intends to use it to inform the future development of a comprehensive Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science.
The Framework sets forth the most important threats to U.S. soils and potential Federal research priorities. It 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. It also lists potential priorities for future Federal science and technology efforts. In addition, several Federal agencies are supporting the development of the Strategic Plan by expanding their research and conservation initiatives:
Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education
- The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will commit $20 million in Federal funds to soil research, $10 million of which will be used to launch a new flagship soil-plant-atmosphere integrated research program.
- DOE’s Office of Science will expand its Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments to support a new research station in Alaska’s Seward Peninsula to study soil carbon in permafrost regions.
- To support new biological and environmental research on soil, DOE’s Office of Science is proposing an additional $3 million over the next three years to support interagency research on soil carbon, and up to an additional $5 million over the next year for research on watershed soil biogeochemistry.
- The Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is expanding investments in soil research over the next five years by increasing its investments in more than two dozen of their research programs related to soil science. These include efforts to address climate change and further develop ARS’ Long-Term Agroecological Research (LTAR) network.
- ARS will also hire a National Program Leader for Soil Biology, into a newly created position to enhance the agency’s research programs at the intersection of earth and life sciences.
- USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) will create opportunities for soil science funding by encouraging research in soil health in its Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s Education and Literacy Initiative, which funds graduate education and postdoctoral research.
- The Smithsonian Institution will develop new educational materials on preventing soil erosion for up to 6.5 million students; these materials will be included in its comprehensive Elementary curriculum called “Smithsonian Science for the Classroom” and will be distributed to 1,454 school districts in all 50 states.
- The Smithsonian Institution will also launch four long-term research initiatives focused on soil science:
- Impacts of Soil Hydrology on Tree Biodiversity: A new program to study the relationship between tree species diversity and soil hydrology, by wiring a tree experiment designed to operate for 100 years with sensors that link tree water demand to soil moisture.
- Researching Soil Fungi to Conserve Orchids: A new North American Orchid Conservation Center to establish an international program, and build an inventory of soil fungi collected across a gradient of disturbance.
- Soils Supporting Estuaries: A new research program, in collaboration with several universities, to understand how coastal marshes cycle atmospheric carbon dioxide and how to represent the process in Earth system models.
- Soil Warming in Tropical Rainforests: A new long-term experiment to help scientists forecast changes in tropical forest soil-carbon stocks as they continue to warm.
Advancing Computational Tools and Modeling
- DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory will invest $450,000 to develop highly controlled environments that reproduce key parameters of agricultural ecosystems to better understand plant-soil-microbiome interactions. The Eco-FAB project will leverage synthetic biology tools to help prevent soil erosion, improve soil productivity, and support rural agricultural development.
- The U.S. Geological Survey, Natural Resources Conservation Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), as well as state agencies, universities and the private sector are collaborating to develop and expand a National Soil Moisture Network. The goal of this network is to provide a product that represents real-time soil moisture across the United States using in situ, remote sensing and modeling information that can be used for research and monitoring on drought, agricultural productivity, and more.
- USDA’s Forest Service will extend research efforts as part of its Forest Inventory and Analysis Program (FIA) to develop models integrating soil, climate, and geospatial data and to predict carbon stocks on forest land, and will publicly release long-term data from its soil and litter surveys. Additional research in this program will contribute to improved methods.
Expanding Sustainable Agricultural Practices
- DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) will collaborate to advance soil health through a new Memorandum of Understanding to accelerate the research, development, and deployment of new innovations in soil-carbon and crop systems. Through shared technical expertise, knowledge and experience, this public-private partnership will focus on improving soil health to sequester atmospheric carbon and achieve clean and abundant water, improved crop yields, and sustainable production. TNC and ARPA-E will collaborate on two research programs: ROOTS (Rhizosphere Observations Optimizing Terrestrial Sequestration), which optimizes carbon storage in soils and crop roots, and TERRA (Transportation Energy Resources from Renewable Agriculture), which uses breeding to improve crop yields.
- USDA, aiming to enhance soil-carbon sequestration and improve soil health, will expand and update its Soil Health Monitoring and Enhancement Network, and is establishing new guidelines for the use of cover crops as a soil conservation practice.
- USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service will undertake new conservation initiatives, including expanded ecological site descriptions for agricultural soils across the Nation, national soil inventories in partnerships with the National Park Service, and research on soil organic matter in collaboration with universities across the Nation.
New External Efforts in Response to the Administration’s Call to Action
OSTP issued a call to action on August 1, 2016, calling upon academia, industry, nonprofits, farmers, and members of the public to establish new efforts to advance soil research and protect soil resources across the Nation. New actions being announced today in response to that call to action include the following:
Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education
- North Carolina State University (NCSU), in response to the nationwide decrease in numbers of trained soil scientists, will open its new Soil Science Institute in collaboration with NRCS, an initiative that builds on technical expertise and extension training programs within NCSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences.
- Oregon State University, acting through its College of Agricultural Sciences, will hire new faculty members in soil science and related disciplines, including three new positions related to soil quality. These new researchers will investigate: (1) the application of biochar from agricultural and forest byproducts to improve soil fertility, (2) the development of passive sensors to measure soil pollutants, (3) the use of solarization to reduce soil-borne plant pathogens, and (4) the role of the soil microbiome in maintaining soil health.
- Texas A&M University and Texas AgriLife Research will invest approximately $200,000 per year in the development of its Soil Security Initiative, which will aim to deploy innovative systems for ensuring the long-term sustainability of global soil resources.
- Union of Concerned Scientists will expand its scientific research to develop new interdisciplinary findings that investigate how agro-ecologically informed farming and ranching practices could build soil health and address challenges related to food, energy, and water systems. It will do this by conducting new studies evaluating how specific sustainable, diversified farming systems could help farms and ranches become more resilient to droughts and floods, contribute to climate change mitigation, and simultaneously address multiple food-system challenges.
- University of Alabama (UA) will, in collaboration with more than 15 organizations and cities, establish the Southern Urbanism and Policy Initiative, a new organization with a mission to develop innovative strategies to reverse soil loss and sustainably manage urban soil resources, and to develop new research efforts to scale and apply engineering- and science-based solutions to restore soil health in cities. UA will hire more than 50 new faculty members to engage in research areas related to the Initiative’s work. The Initiative will lead partnerships and collaborations with the City of Tuscaloosa, the City of East Lake, the National STEM Collaborative, Alabama Water Institute, BioCycle, Detroit Dirt, Crabtree Group, Citizens Task Force, Eden Team LLC, LowCountry Alliance for Model Communities, Mouzon Design, West Alabama Food Bank, UA’s School of Social Work, and NOAA’s National Water Center. The Initiative will feature four main programs:
- The Neighborhood Program, dedicated to harnessing innovative urban planning and design to develop clean soil and water systems in southern cities, and improve soil health starting with efforts at the neighborhood scale.
- The Living City Roots Initiative, which aims to generate urban soils through new forms of composting and urban agriculture.
- The Living City Water Initiative, which focuses on developing mechanisms to improve water quality and efficiency in cities.
- The Living City Thrives Initiative, which will build partnerships with local communities and work to ensure inclusive alliance-building and social investment for long-term sustainable use of soil resources.
Advancing Computational Tools and Modeling
- The University of Arizona will invest at least $7.5 million in a decade-long experiment to understand the coupled mechanisms underlying the formation of soil from rock. The program will harness the Landscape Evolution Observatory’s (LEO) research facilities at the University’s BioSphere-2 center to conduct highly controlled studies on the interactions among the microbial colonization, rock weathering, carbon sequestration, and hydrologic flow paths that arise during early stage of soil formation. The research will have applications for soil-carbon sequestration and improving soil fertility.
- California State University, Chico will develop a regional soil laboratory that focuses on reducing the cost of data development in a collaborative science/management model, to open within 18 months.
- Colorado State University will hire three new faculty members to complement the recent hiring of two new faculty members who are researching the soil microbiome in relation to cultivated and natural ecosystems. The University will also hire at least one new faculty member into the College of Agricultural Sciences whose work will focus on the intersection between big data and agriculture.
- The National Critical Zone Observatory Program, a network of geological and ecological research observatories funded by the National Science Foundation, will grow a new national research program on soils and water. This will include funding for a new postdoctoral associate and new research initiatives to develop models of soil formation from soil grain to landscape.
Expanding Sustainable Agricultural Practices
- American Farmland Trust plans to work with agricultural partners in the Great Lakes basin over the next three years to implement new models for improving soil health, with a target of restoring 2.8 million acres of agricultural land (equivalent to 10.5 percent of the cropped lands in the Great Lakes basin). The program focuses on models for engaging non-operating landowners (particularly women) and farmer lessees, aiming to improve soil health practices on leased farmland, which accounts for 39 percent of the farmland in the contiguous United States.
- Applied Ecological Services, Inc. will work with farms in Washington, Oregon and Idaho to implement regenerative agricultural practices (including one-pass no-till farming, among others) with a goal of over 1 million acres of participating agricultural lands, with the aim of reducing erosion and nutrient runoff and improving soil fertility. The organization will also work to sequester 1 million tons of CO2-equivalent in soils over approximately 220,000 acres.
- The Environmental Defense Fund will invest approximately $1 million in new funds toward implementing science-based strategies for improving soil fertility, developing conservation planning strategies for soil, and ending fertilizer pollution from soil runoff, as well as a business plan competition to build agriculture environmental data integration models that conserve natural resources while protecting farmer privacy.
- Fall Line Capital will invest a new $200 million fund in an ambitious effort to reduce erosion and restore productivity on degraded agricultural land, aiming for no net loss of soil, to ensure fully productive farmland in perpetuity. This will be accomplished through the comprehensive use of agronomic best practices and investment in emerging agricultural technologies.
- One Acre Fund, a nonprofit social enterprise, will establish and invest approximately $100,000 in a new research program with over 4,500 smallholder farmers in Kenya and Rwanda. The study's objectives will be to determine the long-term effect of different agricultural practices on soil health, to quantify the financial value of soil health for participating farmers, and to determine which products and practices most effectively improve soil health. The findings could improve soil health for the more than 364,000 smallholder-farmers that One Acre Fund currently serves in Kenya and Rwanda.
- Patagonia, in collaboration with The Carbon Underground, will work to restore soil health to 4 million acres of degraded agricultural land to ensure regenerative harvesting of organic cotton that also draws carbon down from the atmosphere to help reverse climate change. This effort will supplement their existing efforts regarding soil and climate change, including research on the Great Plains to demonstrate the impact of bison management on carbon drawdown, the production of educational materials on the relation between soil health and climate change, and the development of foods made from ingredients grown with regenerative agricultural practices.
The Future of Soil Resources in the United States
In the United States, soil on cultivated cropland is being eroded at an estimated rate of 5.2 tons per acre per year, while the rate of soil formation averages approximately 0.5 tons per acre per year. In some parts of the Midwest soil erosion rates are double the national average, and extreme weather events can erode significant quantities of agricultural soil—in some 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 can be destroyed in one day.
Climate change is expected to increase pressure on soil as the frequency of extreme weather events increases, bringing more erosive rain which can accelerate soil loss.
Non-agricultural soils also face challenges. 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. A further challenge has been the deposition of atmospheric pollutants in forests, which has leached essential nutrients from forest soils in many parts of the Nation.
The actions announced today were developed in response to dynamic challenges and new opportunities in soil health. Advances in science and technology—including in information technology—are creating unprecedented opportunities for intelligent and responsible management of natural resources. These actions represent steps toward a more sustainable and resilient future.