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Why It's Time to Stop Punishing Our Soils with Fertilizers

The soil health movement has been in the news lately, and among its leading proponents is U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) researcher Rick Haney. In a world where government agencies and agribusiness have long pursued the holy grail of maximum crop yield, Haney preaches a different message: The quest for ever-greater productivity — using fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and whatever other chemicals are at hand — is killing our soil and threatening our farms.

Haney, who works with the USDA’s Agriculture Research Service in Texas, conducts online seminars and travels the country teaching farmers how to create healthy soil. His message is simple: Although the United States has some of the richest soils in the world, decades of agricultural abuse have taken their toll, depleting the dirt of essential nutrients and killing off bacteria and fungi that create organic material essential to plants.  “Our mindset nowadays is that if you don’t put down fertilizer, nothing grows,” says Haney, who has developed a well-known method for testing soil health. “But that’s just not true, and it never has been.” 

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Haney describes how research is validating the value of natural methods such as plowing less, growing cover crops, and using biological controls to keep pests in check. In the face of a proposed 21 percent cut in the USDA’s budget by the Trump administration, Haney also stressed the importance of unbiased, government studies in a field where research is often dominated by the very corporations that benefit from overuse of fertilizers and chemicals. “We need more independent research,” Haney maintains. “We are only at the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we understand about how soil functions and its biology.”

Yale Environment 360: You’ve been working with farmers to improve their soil?

Rick Haney: That’s right. We know that over the past 50 years the levels of organic matter — it is kind of a standard test for soil in terms of its health and fertility — have been going way down. That’s alarming. We see organic matter levels in some fields of 1 percent or less. Whereas you can go to a pasture sitting right next to it where organics levels are 5 percent or 6 percent. So that is how drastically we have altered these systems. We are destroying the organic matter in the soil, and we’ve got to bring that back to sustain life on this planet.

The good news is that soil will come back if you give it a chance. It is very robust and resilient. It’s not like we have destroyed it to the point where it can’t be fixed. The soil health movement is trying to bring those organic levels back up and get soil to a higher functioning state.

e360: What has caused this decline in soil quality? 

Haney: We see that when there is a lot of tillage, no cover crops, a system of high intensity [chemical-dependent] farming, that the soil just doesn’t function properly. The biology is not doing much. It’s not performing as we need it to. We are essentially destroying the functionality of soil, so that you have to feed it more and more synthetic fertilizers just to keep growing this crop.

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