By Lea Sloan, American Forests

This is part one of a three-part series exploring the importance of nutrient-rich and stable soil.

SoilI was fortunate to be invited to participate in a recent day-long seminar at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy that was focused on the alarming fragility of our soil — an essential foundation for much of life on the planet. An impressive brain-trust of scientists, federal agency representatives, researchers and nonprofit leaders came together to discuss soil as a renewable resource, how to best advance public understanding and inspire action to confront one of the most serious challenges facing our planet today.

I confess that as a tree person, and officially as an American Forests person, there is a bit of a “can’t see the soil for the trees” phenomenon — our focus tends to be mostly above ground, although we are keenly aware that without nutrient-rich and stable soil, trees and forests are not happy. Their growth and prospects for longevity are essentially tied to the soil they grow in, and trees play a critical role in nurturing the biodiversity that creates healthy soil.

But, as I was reminded, soil’s capacity for carbon and nutrient storage echoes the role of trees. Soil filters and stores nutrients and sediment. Seminar participants discussed the fact that the nutrition in our food is directly related to the health of soil, and that our food today is sorely lacking in the nutritional benefits that many people around the world have enjoyed for millennia. Things have changed in the last century since agribusiness began dominating farm management strategies and promoting the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides, largely turning away from practices such as crop rotation, including planting cover crops that are just turned under.

It was not entirely news to me that our soil is actually disappearing, but it is eye-opening to be reminded that soil on cultivated cropland is eroding at an average rate of 5.2 tons per acre per year, while the average rate of soil formation is perhaps literally glacial —  .008 to .51 tons per acre per year.

We often cite the benefits of trees in regulating stormwater, meaning their roots, but without soil, tree roots would, of course, never hold. In the last five decades, experts noted, extreme precipitation events driven by climate change have rapidly increased erosion. One hundred tons of soil can be lost PER ACRE in a torrential storm.

An attention-grabbing press release and National Call to Action issued by the White House after the conference noted that the U.S. is projected to “run out of topsoil — the medium upon which crop production depends — before the end of the 21st century.” The call to action seeks innovative solutions through technology and scientific expertise to develop solutions to protecting soil through measuring, mapping and sharing data — and educating and engaging the American public. American Forests continues to do its part in soil preservation on behalf of our supporters, with more than 50 million trees planted since 1990.