From its inception, the Hemy A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture has regarded soil quality as a central issue related to the sustainability of agriculture. Current, reinvigorated research that focuses on both private and social benefits of soil quality now provides the seeds for a more fully integrated natural resource and environmental policy agenda. The key to this process is understanding and documenting what a broad spectrum of scientists are now telling us: namely, that healthy soils help maintain water quality, regulate water quantity, prevent water and wind erosion, buffer global climate changes, ensure food safety, and enhance biodiversity-all while simultaneously promoting crop yields. In other words, improved soil health may provide private benefits to farmers, and social benefits to everyone else. Links between the soil and environmental quality are not new. Soil erosion and its impacts on soil productivity have been studied intensively for the past 70 years. What is new, however, is the breadth implied by the "new" concept of soil quality, which is now defined by the soil's mUltiple functions. The package of environmental benefits believed to be gained by improving soil quality is becoming more important as society places higher and higher values on environmental quality. If, for example, increasing costs are placed on greenhouse gas emissions, it may ultimately prove cost effective to sequester carbon in the soil. Indeed, one energy company is already experimenting with a program that entices farmers to change their tillage practices to increase the levels of organic carbon in the soil. Farmerstaking advantage of programs like this one may boost their own net returns, while helping to reduce the level of atmospheric greenhouse gases. Before soil quality can become a focus of policy, however, research must address the needs of farmers, policy makers, and everyone concerned with environmental health. We need to know whether soil degradation is a social problem, and if it is where to target policy. We need to be able to predict the expected health and environmental benefits from improving soil quality. And we need to know how much return farmers can expect from investing in soil quality. The environmental and farm benefit information is crucial to assessing whether added investments in soil quality will yield net benefits for farmers and for society. The Henry A. Wallace Institute believes the potential for net social benefits from soil-quality improvements merits more attention and, with this report, has attempted to fulfill two goals: (1) to summarize current research documenting private and social benefits of enhancing soil quality, and (2) to identify the knowledge gaps that must be addressed before fully evaluating a soil-quality policy agenda. Partial funding for this study was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The report's contents and conclusions, however, are solely the responsibility of the author and the Wallace Institute.

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Policy Studies Report No. 10

 Record created 2017-04-01, last modified 2018-01-22

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