Digging Deep: How Farmers and Food Companies are Working to Save our Soils
December 03, 2020
“Land is not merely soil, it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants and animals.” - Aldo Leopold, scientist and conservationist
Do you know what healthy soil looks, feels or smells like?
Most of us don’t anymore. But you’ve probably seen the grim, grey footage of Dust Bowl days, with gaunt sharecroppers buffeted by gritty winds.
A decade of dust storms carried lifeless topsoil thousands of miles from its source, leaving behind barren earth and broken families.
Back then, in 1939, the federal government came to the rescue of farmers plagued not just by years of drought – but by aggressive farming practices that stripped the soil of nutrients and moisture.
Fortunately, we won’t be repeating that chapter in our history. The Dust Bowl served as an abject lesson on the importance of soil conservation – and the need to treat the land with care.
Today, farmers, scientists, policymakers and food companies like Cargill and others are urgently working to heal our overtaxed soils. One approach – regenerative agriculture – has proved promising.
Agriculture has a central role to play in tackling some of the biggest issues of the day: global challenges, like climate change, water preservation and the protection of our planet. Agriculture is how we will cultivate a better future for all.
The profound challenge ahead
With the global population expected to increase 25% by 2050 – from 7.8 billion in 2020 to about 10 billion – we must find better ways to produce enough food for our teeming planet. It’s also essential to reduce farming’s carbon footprint and protect our water resources.
That’s a lot to ask of agriculture, our food systems and our planet. Which is why we are working to support farmers around the world produce even more food on existing farmland – and to do it in ways that also conserve water, reduce the need for chemicals and protect the soils while ensuring their success for future generations to come.
Together with CARE, for example, we are providing agronomic training to communities across Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua that has significantly increased farmers’ production capacity. The result: greatly improved yields for many crops, including maize, red beans, sorghum, green beans, blackberries and peas.
And in America’s heartland, through a collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, McDonald’s, Target and other organizations, we are working with farmers to advance proven soil health practices across 100,000 acres in the beef supply chain. This five-year effort has the potential to sequester the carbon dioxide equivalent of removing over 32,000 cars from the road for one year. Nebraska is one of the top states for U.S. beef production and among the top three states for corn production, a key ingredient for cattle feed.
Advancing sustainable farming practices – including regenerative agriculture methods – holds enormous potential to reduce environmental impacts while creating a sustainable food supply.
Our commitment: 10 million acres of healthy soil
Over the next 10 years, we’ll invest deeply in these regenerative practices and systems. We believe in their ability to improve soil health and boost its productive capacity by restoring the soil’s organic carbon.
As Rattan Lal, soil scientist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and World Food Prize 2020 said, “Carbon is the currency of life. The rapid formation of carbon-rich topsoil is the greatest priority and opportunity of our time.”
Heavily tilled soil can’t hold or “sequester” as much carbon. Repeated planting of the same crops, excessive animal grazing and overuse of fertilizers and pesticides also depletes soil nutrients and adds to greenhouse gases.
By capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide in the soil, sequestration helps to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released as greenhouse gases.
Regenerative agriculture practices -- such as rotating crops over time on the same field -- can improve nutrients and interrupt the pest cycle, reducing the need for fertilizers and pesticides that can alter the soil’s natural biology. All of these practices can improve soils’ ability to act as a natural sink for carbon.
For Cargill, helping farmers improve soil health and reduce carbon levels are important steps towards meeting our commitment to reduce supply chain greenhouse gas emissions and protect water resources.
At the same time, these meaningful environmental initiatives also empower farming communities by protecting the land and regenerating our soils. And it will take efficient, productive farmers to nourish our growing population.
First steps: supporting our farmers
Now, Cargill is actively working with its farming partners to adopt these regenerative agriculture practices. We want to partner with farmers and build on the good stewardship they are already undertaking on their land. Because we work so closely with farmers around the world, we understand the enormous financial pressures they face to sustain their livelihoods – and feed the world.
We are initially supporting reduced tillage, optimized fertilizer use, integrated livestock and the adoption of cover crops where feasible. In this first stage, our initiative will focus primarily on row crops including corn, wheat, canola and soybeans and other staple crops.
Additionally, we will help farmers invest in systems and practices that are foundational to regenerative agriculture by helping to connect them to cost-sharing options and support the development of new market-based solutions. An example: The Soil and Water Outcomes Fund, of which Cargill is a founding member, will give farmers an incentive to improve soil health and protect water quality, while reducing GHG emissions.
We’ll also support access to technical and agronomic resources farmers need to help them improve yield and ensure financial stability. Together with our supply chain partners, we’ll provide access to training on soil health adoption, instruction on data collection and benchmarking and market insight guidance.
We expect these practices to benefit the long-term profitability and resiliency of farmers and support the regenerative agriculture system. At the same time, they will advance Cargill’s progress against its science-based climate commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in our global supply chains and protect and enhance our water resources.
By scaling and supporting leading conservation practices, we will create a practical path for farmers to continue providing the food we all depend on. Future generations of farmers can build on those practices. And agriculture will become a vital source of climate change solutions.
Agriculture is how we will mitigate climate change
Farmers – and food companies -- can play a key role in mitigating climate change. We are ready and eager to do our part, providing the support and backing farmers need and driving food systems forward to save our soils, protect our water, reduce greenhouse gas emissions – and nourish future generations.
We will harvest what we sow. Agriculture is how we will ensure a safe, sustainable and affordable food system.