The soil sustains many life forms, writes Karen Ross, Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). It supports more than 25% of the world’s biodiversity and is the key to a sustainable world food supply. In the following article, Karen outlines how California farmers, with the help of CDFA and over $100 million in grant funds, are working to unlock the potential of the soil for the good of the planet and nutrition security. 

It’s critical that we understand the fundamental connection between the ground beneath our feet and the many forms of life it sustains.  That’s the title of a book written by Paul Luu, a European agronomist and leader in the international push to recognize the essential nature of soil in climate resilience and nutrition security.

The book resonated with me immediately for several reasons: a connection to the place I grew up — a family farm in Nebraska — and my understanding of the commitment of California’s farmers and ranchers to care for the soil in order to maintain sustainability well into the future for food production, environmental protection and stewardship of the land for succeeding generations.

It’s critical that we understand the fundamental connection between the ground beneath our feet and the many forms of life it sustains. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2020 Executive Order to bolster climate resilience and conserve California’s unique biodiversity highlights that soils host more than 25% of the world’s biodiversity. Following Newsom’s executive order, the California Department of Food and Agriculture commissioned a report on the essential nature of below-ground biodiversity  – in other words, soil.

The report, introduced last month, was written by an advisory committee of soil scientists from UC Davis, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It underscores California’s remarkable variety of soils — more than 2,500 types — and notes that our soils make a number of vital contributions to the world food supply. It also says that we must improve our understanding of soils to achieve carbon neutrality and successfully adapt to climate change.

The report points out that soil biodiversity, including communities of bacteria, fungi and microscopic animals, plays a critical role in the functioning of agricultural and natural ecosystems. This diversity is highly complex and mostly invisible to the naked eye. Without it, critical functions such as carbon storage, nutrient regulation and water purification would cease. Promoting soil biodiversity is an area of focus with untapped potential for conservation initiatives throughout the state.

At the CDFA, we’re trying to unlock that immense potential. In addition to the governor’s executive order, CDFA and its state agency partners introduced the Healthy Soils Program in 2016. This grant program helps farmers and ranchers improve soil health through practices that sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The program has already awarded more than $106.3 million in grant funds to support soil health improvements on 130,000 acres in California.

Our state’s growers are demonstrating leadership with innovative as well as tried-and-true practices, and they’re showing that our farms and ranches can increase carbon sequestration while enhancing productivity to ensure future food production and nutrition security.

We must leverage this work through partnerships to take advantage of new information and scientific findings to continually improve the effectiveness of our soil health practices.

CDFA’s Environmental Farming Science Advisory Panel and the State Board of Food and Agriculture are exploring the practical application of the report’s findings for incorporation into our Healthy Soils Program. Meanwhile, we will continue to seek opportunities to support farmers and ranchers as they lead with climate solutions on the land. We cannot fulfill our purpose of producing nutritious food with climate-smart practices for healthy communities without partnering with our farmers and ranchers and farmworkers; they literally hold the earth in their hands.

This article was first published in the Sacramento Bee and is reprinted with the permission of the CDFA.