The answer lies in the soil: land conservation on both sides of the Atlantic

By August 29, 2017 News Posts

Soil erosion on highly erodible cropland in the United States has been significantly reduced through a land conservation program overseen by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Farm Service Agency.

A report, Conservation Compliance: How farmers incentives are changing in the crop insurance era, published by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), shows that the Highly Erodible Land Conservation (HELC) program helped reduce soil erosion by up to 70 percent compared to crop fields which were not part of the program.

Conservation Compliance provisions fall under U.S. Farm Bill legislation and link farm program benefits to soil and wetland conservation. Participating farmers are required to:

  • Introduce approved soil conservation systems on cropland in fields designated by USDA as highly erodible;
  • Refrain from draining wetlands.

Farmers also must agree that they will not:

  • Produce an agricultural commodity on highly erodible land without a conservation system;
  • Plant an agricultural commodity on a converted wetland;
  • Convert a wetland to make possible the production of an agricultural commodity.

Farmers who fail to meet Compliance requirements could become ineligible for most agriculture-related Federal benefits. Conservation Compliance is effective in reducing soil erosion and conserving wetlands when the incentive— the farm program benefits that could be lost due to noncompliance—exceeds the cost of meeting soil and wetland conservation requirements.

In its conclusion, the report states that on “cropland that is highly erodible for water, erosion reduction was roughly 70 percent larger on highly erodible land in fields subject to HELC than for highly erodible land in fields not subject to HELC. While soil erosion was reduced on all types of cultivated cropland over 1982-2012, including land where Compliance did not apply, HELC clearly played a role.

In Europe, however soil quality is said to be deteriorating, according to EU think-tank, the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP). It states that approximately 22% of all European land is affected by water and wind erosion and that about 45% of the mineral soils in Europe have low or very low organic carbon content, and an estimated 32-36% of European subsoils have high or very high susceptibility to compaction.

Analysis by IEEP identified the lack of a strategic policy framework both at EU level, and in many Member States, which hindered the integration of soil management into sectoral and environmental policies. This significantly impinged on the EU’s ability to form a clear implementation strategy for international priorities including the Sustainable Development Goals and climate mitigation targets.

IEEP proposes several options to remedy the shortcomings in protecting soil health by:

  • Increasing promotion of resource efficiency in agricultural systems, emphasizing the value of soil resources;
  • Emerging signals from the European Commission around the need to improve the coherence of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) prioritizing the efficient use of soil resources;
  • Increasing emphasis on soil’s ability to sequester carbon as part of a strategy to increase the contribution of land management to reducing GHG emissions;
  • Increasing awareness of, and increasing societal value placed on, the wider ecosystem services provided by soils.

IEEP wants to see more done to highlight the value and benefits of soil and calls on local authorities, Member States, business and NGOs to address soil governance in Europe.