The recent blinding dust storm that caused fatal highway crashes in central Illinois where Interstate 55 passes through flat farmland was a result of an unusually dry April.
Windy weather arrived during the period when many farm fields were being plowed in preparation for spring planting — as farmers have done for years or even generations. But these dry, bare fields left the soil unprotected, ready to be swept up by the wind.
Soil is a finite resource — the foundation of our food supply and habitat for about a quarter of the world’s biodiversity. Soil is one of the earth’s greatest carbon-capturing systems. When it blows away with the wind, it’s always a tragic loss — even when it doesn’t cause fatal car crashes.
Many people were quick to blame the plowing of farm fields as the main cause of this calamity. But the reality is far more complicated.
In the short-term, plowing — or tilling, to use the agricultural term — is an effective strategy to prepare for planting, suppress weeds, and incorporate fertilizer deeper into the soil where plant roots can access it. For farmers, it’s long been a rational choice to maximize their productivity and profitability.
But these days, weather patterns are changing so rapidly due to climate change that it’s nearly impossible for farmers to adapt quickly enough. Long-standing practices that enabled plentiful and profitable food production appear to be no longer sustainable. We now know that, over the long term, extensive tilling can result in slow but steady soil loss, leading to lower productivity and profitability. And yet, while conventional tilling may no longer be the best approach for many growers, transitioning to new practices is fraught with challenges — including the need to invest in new equipment and relearn a craft they’ve perfected over many years.
The Illinois dust storm should serve as a wake-up call for society and especially the government. What can we do to support our farming community through this transition and avoid this from happening again?
Thanks to technological innovations, farmers have new options to maintain productivity while protecting and preserving their soil. Farming can reduce or even eliminate tilling thanks to seed drills that can penetrate through crop residues and plant seeds deep in the soil. We can also keep soil anchored by keeping roots in the ground year-round through the use of cover crops, which also help divert carbon into the ground and further stimulate soil health. Where tilling is necessary, GPS-guided tractors can limit the soil disruption to narrow strips, where precision planters can then place the seeds. These various methods are part of an approach to environmentally farming known as regenerative agriculture.
Unfortunately, despite the clear benefits of these practices, adoption rates remain low for no-till or low-till farming. Using satellite data combined with machine learning, for example, we found that only 7% of Illinois farmland is planted with cover crops between growing seasons, only 43% use low-till methods and only 29% employ no-till techniques.
Why this slow adoption of regenerative practices? The reality is that farmers are trying to make rational, well-informed decisions. But, too often, the costs of cover-crop seeds and other necessary new equipment appear to outweigh the benefit to the farmer, at least in the short term.
And so far, the additional benefits of improved soil health can sometimes be hard to quantify and predict. Yet, an emerging scientific consensus suggests that the long-term benefits of these regenerative agriculture practices could offset the short-term challenges — especially when we look beyond the farmgate to consider various related benefits, such as long-term soil health, water quality and biodiversity.
So how do we effectively foster the adoption of regenerative practices that can benefit farmers, the environment and society? We can begin by recognizing the importance of protecting our soils and working across traditional boundaries to foster the adoption of regenerative practices. This will require investment in research demonstration and technical assistance programs, as well as creative financing to enable farmers to adopt the new methods and equipment. And public policies on conservation and crop insurance need to be updated and adapted to encourage and reward innovation and adaptation by the farmers on the ground.
Governments and private organizations can provide financial and technical assistance to farmers to help them make the transition to regenerative agriculture. Ideally, too, there could be market mechanisms by companies in the food and agriculture industries to give incentives to farmers to adopt these practices. And consumers, especially ones willing to pay a premium for food they know has been sustainably grown, can be an important force for change. Market motives might prove a more long-term solution than shorter-term government inducements.
There’s a precedent for this sort of collaborative action. Although the Great Dust Bowl is fading in our collective memory, we must not forget the important lessons learned in April 1935 when red Oklahoma dirt blew all the way into the halls of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington. In response, lawmakers, farmers, and society came together to institute ambitious new programs that set the stage for better conservation practices, farmer support and investments in technological research.
Today, in the face of climate change, the situation is no less urgent. Recognizing that we all have a stake in making farming more sustainable will not only help prevent tragedies like the one in Illinois. It will lead to a more sustainable and prosperous future for all, by enabling the global farming community to feed the world while restoring the earth.
Matthew Wallenstein is Chief Soil Scientist at Syngenta Group and Professor Emeritus at Colorado State University. Kaiyu Guan is the Director and Blue Waters Professor of the Agroecosystem Sustainability Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
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