By Pipa Elias, Soil Health Program Manager, The Nature Conservancy and Dr. LaKisha Odom, Scientific Program Manager, Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research
The global population is estimated to exceed 9 billion people by 2050, placing unprecedented pressure on American farmers to grow even more of the crops that clothe, fuel and feed the world. One way to help alleviate this pressure is to significantly improve soil health on cropland.
By adopting practices like planting winter cover crops and reducing—or better yet eliminating—tillage practices, farmers can significantly improve productivity of their fields, reduce soil erosion, improve water quality and increase carbon storage. In fact, agricultural soils are among the planet’s largest reservoirs (or sinks) of carbon. Improving soil on American croplands has the potential to mitigate 25 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the equivalent to taking 5 million passenger cars off the road for one year.
But how do we know if the adoption rate of these soil health practices, specifically cover crops and conservation tillage, is increasing? Before we can answer that question, we need to understand how many acres are currently managed with these practices (baseline data) and we need the ability to track progress over time.
Technology is Key
New Hampshire-based Applied GeoSolutions(AGS) has developed the Operational Tillage Information System (OpTIS), a GIS tool that uses data from several earth-observing satellites to map and monitor cover crop development and detect plant residue left on cropland to determine the tillage activities. AGS and the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) conducted a successful pilot project to test the capability of OpTIS to map tillage practices and cover crops from 2006 to 2015 in Indiana.
Multiple investors recognize how this technology will advance soil health and a deliver numerous environmental benefits. In fact, Bayer Crop Science, DuPont Pioneer, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Monsanto, Mosaic, J.R. Simplot Company, Syngenta, the Walmart Foundation and The Nature Conservancy have matched a $500,000 grant from FFAR to support expanding the application of the OpTIS technology. This FFAR grant, in addition to support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is making it possible for AGS, CTIC, the Conservancy and other partners to apply the OpTIS technology across the Midwest and ultimately throughout the country.
Not only are the partners mapping soil health practice trends, but they are using a computer simulation model to determine the environmental impacts of cover crops and reduced tillage practices. The DeNitrification-DeComposition Model (DNDC) measures benefits such as nitrous oxide emissions, nitrate loss, soil organic carbon and water-holding capacity.
It is important to note that OpTIS calculations are made using publicly available data and reported at watershed scales to ensure the privacy of individual growers is fully protected.
The better we—goverments, academia, conservation organizations and businesses—understand the trends in adoption rates of these practices, the better we can focus resources and tools that will help farmers secure their future while benefiting communities and nature.
For instance, OpTIS can help
- Soil and water conservation districts establish priorities and to evaluate progress in achieving county or statewide goals.
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state governments track progress towards and better focus efforts to meet the ambitious goals of the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force to reduce harmful nutrient (primarily nitrogen and phosphorous) loading in the Mississippi River basin.
- Stakeholders throughout the agri-food system supply chain better understand market trends in the adoption of cover crops and specific tillage systems that impact environmental sustainability, such as greenhouse gas emissions and soil carbon sequestration.
- Conservation organizations target efforts to improve soil health and water quality.
- Regional and national agricultural offices evaluate and compare the effectiveness of conservation programs across large regions. These groups can use this information to identify areas with low rates of conservation technology adoption and target these areas for future support.
- Academic researchers use spatial information on conservation practices for modeling water quality and the carbon cycle.
Knowledge is power and OpTIS will help to empower a wide range of stakeholders with vital data to help improve farmers’ productivity, safeguard our water and lands and ensure a sustainable future.