Iowa Farmers Fighting Climate Change in the New Year

As the 2015 International Year of Soils draws to a close, world leaders have finally come to a landmark climate agreement that they hope will help mitigate climate change. And while agriculture wasn’t explicitly mentioned in the agreement, farmers are exploring the nexus of soil and climate to harness the power of belowground ecosystem services and improve their bottom lines. In a changing climate, it’s time to recognize soil conservation practices – including for example reduced or no till, planting of windbreaks and buffer strips and measures so increase soil organic matter – as common-sense business practices that help farmers reduce reliance on inputs, retain the value of soil on their fields, and increase their incomes.

By taking good care of soil, farmers around the globe can harness the power of belowground ecosystem services—the economic benefits provided by nature—to reduce their financial dependence on artificial fertilizers. Research from the Practical Farmers of Iowa shows that incorporating livestock onto farms and lengthening crop rotations can reduce input costs and provide long-term soil fertility management. Through these and other soil conservation practices—ranging from riparian buffers to cover crops—farmers improve their bottom lines while preserving the quality of their farmland for future generations.

These essential soil conservation practices are being scaled out across the globe. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) LIBERATION project, which is working to provide the evidence-base for ecological intensification, found that the economic value of ecosystem services—such asnitrogen mineralization of nutrients in soil, the process that transforms chemical compounds present in organic matter in a form that can be absorbed by plants —could exceed the input costs of pesticides and fertilizers, even if adopted on only 10 percent of the world’s arable land.

Furthermore, by keeping soil on fields, farmers retain the value of soil and fertilizer that’s currently being lost to erosion. Reducing tillage in Iowa and planting riparian buffers can help farmers save about US$2.1 per ton of soil, and enrollment in EQIP and other conservation programs provides farmers with subsidies for reducing erosion and conserving soil.

Agricultural economist Mike Duffy of Iowa State University estimates that 2.32 pounds of nitrogen and one pound of phosphorus were lost for each ton of soil eroded, costing farmers US$2.10 per ton of soil loss (at an estimated cost of US$0.63 and US$0.64, per pound of nitrogen and phosphorus respectively, in 2012). However, an economic benefit of US$4.93 per ton could be obtained through better soil management.

And healthier soil simply leads to higher yields, helping boost farmers’ incomes. Matt Leibman of the Henry A. Wallace Chair for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University envisions a future for Iowa where farming practices protect soil and water quality. Liebman finds that more diverse and longer crop rotations can greatly reduce fertilizer, herbicide, and fossil fuel inputs whileincreasing crop yields. And another study by Dr. Maria Tsiafouli of the FAO LIBERATION project reveals the importance of cultivating soil biodiversity to boost agricultural yields across Europe.

Iowa is fortunate to have some of the richest and most productive topsoil in the world.

Groups like the Practical Farmers of Iowa are working in the fields every day to preserve this precious resource by implementing an ecological model that extends crop rotation, improves diversity on pasture, and analyzes finances of small farms. These solutions to soil erosion and degradation can not only help Iowa farmers, but farmers across the world. Global leaders should recognize these farmers not only for their environmental efforts, but also for their aptitude as innovative business owners responding to an uncertain climate.

David Colozza is a consultant at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization; Danielle Nierenberg is the President of Food Tank. 

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