Soils are fundamental to life on Earth, yet gaps remain in our understanding of how healthy soils can be created and maintained. The Soil Renaissance has defined soil health as the continued capacity of the soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans. Critically important agricultural research goals include defining the biological, chemical and physical factors that influence soil health; understanding how these factors interact and are influenced by various agricultural practices; and developing models that can lead to the generation and maintenance of optimal soil health while simultaneously resulting in economically profitable systems for farmers and ranchers. A new program initiative on soil health does not need to duplicate the past work, but needs to build on it to generate a more complete understanding of this complex area of science.
A goal of the Soil Renaissance is to convene the research community to advance soil health.
Objectives and strategies:
1. Bring the scientific community together to collaborate on soil health research and solve problems.
- Build a core soil health research team representing key organizations and scientists in the research community.
- Agree on operating principles and infrastructure to support future activities.
- Develop an infrastructure and governing board that will organize and guide future activities of soil health research and deliver results.
- Create a virtual collaborative research platform from which prioritized research activities are tracked and supported.
- Conduct a preliminary review and prioritization of research needs by research team, including requisite review of existing soil heath research and determination of soil attributes to be researched.
- Convene a Soil Renaissance Prioritization Symposium to begin the review and prioritization process of the gaps in soil health research.
- Conduct an annual review of soil health research priorities.
2. Ensure steady and significant funding pool for soil health research.
- Convey soil health research prioritization results and needs as appropriate to USDA, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Academies of Science and other research entities.
- Convey soil health research needs to commodity check-off programs for potential research funding.
- Convey the Soil Renaissance research priorities to the private-sector agronomic and soils community.
- Collaborate with USDA agencies to integrate soil health priorities into FY2016 President’s Budget Proposal.
- Integrate soil health research priorities into the funding investments of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), NIFA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), and NRCS’s Conservation Innovation Grants funding investments.
April 2015: The Soil Renaissance Research Work Group has made great strides over the course of the last few months. The group’s primary objective is mobilizing researchers, farmers, government representatives and industry experts from across the United States to identify gaps in soil health research, as well as lasting solutions for these gaps.
The group met in December 2014 to examine the problems facing agriculture and the soil health community. Participants, who represented a cross section of each stakeholder group, used existing resources and knowledge of their respective disciplines to identify and organize the research gaps in soil health.
A significant number of soil health research challenges were identified during the meeting, ranging from understanding the capacity of soil to sustainably handle maximum biomass production, to growing healthier foods from soils. Each challenge was examined through the lens of basic, applied and transitional research needs. Three main soil health parameters—microbial activity, soil structure and soil organic carbon—serve as guidelines to determine what basic research needs are lacking from optimal soil health.
The Research Work Group agreed that the overarching research goal was to “meet needs efficiently.” The group then identified five major sub-goals for research:
- Reduce greenhouse gasses, including atmospheric effects.
- Increase resistance to such things as disease, flood and drought, and increase the resilience or function of soils and systems.
- Reduce on- and off-site impacts.
- Improve soil health.
- Soil rehabilitation.
While research is needed in each of these areas, many of the areas will be overlapping. However, with the framework in place, construction of research projects can begin. Successful completion of each sub-goal must include input from the other Soil Renaissance Work Groups—Measurement, Economics and Education—as each has a vital role in the adoption of soil health practices. The Research Work Group will reconvene in June to refine gaps in soil health research and further develop projects under each of the five sub-goals.
September 2014: A meeting with the Research Team is planned to discuss and prioritize potential research issues.
A virtual platform is being developed that will allow researchers to readily find and exchange information. Details will be discussed at the Research Team meeting.