Let’s talk dirt.
We need a new conversation on soils, the foundation of our agricultural heritage. This discussion should include their current condition, their historic role and their promise to ensure the survival of humans and the planet.
Since the dawn of crop cultivation, we have used soil to secure our future, rarely acknowledging that it is a living thing prone to overuse and continually needing care and nourishment.
Our limited knowledge about the collective impact of agriculture on the complex web of life, exacerbated by financial and political interests, has created a sense of complacency. We tend to think of soil as an indestructible and infinite resource. But as a small ranch owner who raises grass-fed beef, I can assure you that it is not.
Only recently did we begin to base large-scale agriculture practices on the realization that the land is a living system that grows our food and keeps ecological systems in balance. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s soils conservation legislation in the 1940s was one of the first shifts to a more holistic view. Today, California has an opportunity to carry that vision forward.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed Healthy Soils Initiative, which is part of the cap-and-trade spending package, is a landmark program aimed at increasing the soil’s organic matter in California’s agricultural lands. This will help with water retention, soil stability and nutrient use efficiency – all while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Healthy Soils is one component in the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, which if adopted by the Legislature could invest nearly $3 billion to projects to advance the state’s path to a low-carbon future. By law, these funds must be used for activities that reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also providing other benefits to California communities. Our natural and working lands are a critical part of that equation.
Most Californians are well aware of the assets that natural and working landscapes provide: healthy food, clean water, wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation opportunities. Not as visible are the benefits that help stabilize our changing climate.
Protecting natural and agricultural landscapes from urban conversion reduces harmful emissions in multiple ways, and climate-smart ranching practices lower pollution and draw down greenhouse gases into soils and plants.
California’s conifer forests store, on average, hundreds of tons of carbon per acre while providing habitat, preserving open space and sustaining rural jobs. Restoration of the state’s wetlands provides significant greenhouse gas reductions while providing water storage, flood control and habitat for much of California’s diverse wildlife. And in California cities, urban forests and green infrastructure can sequester carbon, reduce energy use and provide access to nature in highly populated and disadvantaged communities.
Fortunes have been made in the past by damaging industrial agriculture methods. These have created ecological dead zones, human health problems from chemical and pesticide impacts, and excess carbon in our atmosphere. These outdated practices will not help us to grow a clean economy, nor will they grow healthy food that can help reduce now-common maladies like obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Our farms, rangelands, forests, wetlands and urban green spaces not only clean our air and water, they are the only climate tools that actually remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. California cannot reach its climate goals without them.
Investments like those proposed by Healthy Soils will support practices that build topsoil, sequester carbon, abate drought and grow nutrient-rich food critical to our health and prosperity.
We just need the political will and adequate funding; nature will do the rest.
Kat Taylor is co-owner of TomKat Ranch in San Mateo County, and co-founder of Beneficial State Bank with her husband, Tom Steyer, a business leader and philanthropist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.