#SoilPioneers: Cristine Morgan, Soil Health Institute
This story is reprinted with permission from AQUA4D. (June 10, 2022)
As part of our #SoilPioneers series we were honored to speak with Cristine Morgan, Chief Scientific Officer at the Soil Health Institute and Faculty Fellow at Texas A&M University’s AgriLife program. Below we discuss the connection between soil and water health, new carbon and water credits, and how regenerative agriculture might combine with Ag 4.0 to save soils across the States and the world…
Cristine, as Chief Scientific Officer at the Soil Health Foundation, what are your main concerns and activities?
Our mission is to protect the vitality of soils and their ability to sustain humans and the environment. A lot of that has to do with ecosystem services and biomass production. For example, our “North American Project to Evaluate Soil Health Measurements” sampled 124 research sites in the US, Canada, and Mexico. We used these soil samples with management data to evaluate and select a minimum set of soil health measurements to track soil health, continentally. And of course also training and consultancy to stay science-focused and spread the word about soil health. Generally, we aim to lower barriers to adoption of soil health practices.
You were an expert in soil hydrology at Texas A&M: how would you explain this field to a non-scientist?
The soil is a huge regulator of our water cycle. I study how changes in land use and soil affect how it either absorbs or repels water, and how water gets distributed into soils and available to plants.
The number one thing that changes in Regenerative Agriculture is that the soil starts to form structure and increases organic matter, which then changes how water moves through soil.
In the soil-plant-water nexus, what is the role of water quality?
Well it’s all about the soil structure: good water won’t destroy the soil structure whereas poor quality water over time destroys the soil structure. It’s about the “ecosystem service” of being able to absorb the water and make it available to the plant. When water quality degrades, this degrades the soil too and changes the pore size distribution and makes it less advantageous for that plant to get water.
I would say that improving soil health in turn improves the efficiency of irrigation, and this is shown many times in the agricultural literature.
One of your areas of expertise is Precision Irrigation – what role does it have to play?
In the world of Reg Ag, when one improves soil and plant health, when the soil regenerates, the plant roots are able to more efficiently access water in the soil so this improves drought resilience. As the soil thrives, the roots can better explore that soil volume for water and nutrients. The soil is not only more efficiently storing the water but more efficiently giving that water back to the plant. Ultimately irrigation water is more efficiently used: firstly it doesn’t run off the field, secondly once it’s in the soil it’s about more efficiently keeping it there for plants to use it.
What are the barriers to adopting good soil health practices?
Well, firstly economic: many farmers don’t have useful information on whether soil health practices are economically beneficial. But it’s more simply about human behaviors – we learn from the people before us, and the people before us did a certain kind of agriculture. It’s essentially a hard social problem that the Soil Health Institute addresses by gathering and translating the science of and sharing experiences in soil health.
So how can we overcome such barriers?
Social networking and good information are key. The Institute aims to demonstrate local examples to growers.
Unfortunately, there are still too few external drivers for change. If a grower makes a Regenerative Agriculture corn crop today, that grower will likely not get a premium price for it. Nonetheless, we interviewed 100 corn and soybean farmers who had successfully adopted no till and/or cover cropping, and found, on average, about $50 per acre in increased net farm income for the practices. The evidence for bottom line improvement is mounting.
So is it about subsidies and financing in the end?
I think we need to figure out a way to value ecosystems. We want change in our agriculture because we want our soils to better perform ecosystem services, protect us, and provide resilience to climate change. Right now, there is little incentive or mechanism for valuing soil ecosystem services so we don’t pay attention. Somehow, we do need to find a way to value it in our society. This will be different in the U.S. than in Europe, South America, or Australia. Subsidies, markets, policy, and consumer choice all play a role, but each place is different.
Can we technologize our way towards Regenerative Agriculture?
New technologies monitor changes in soil health. In one of our projects we are even using smartphone cameras in an app to measure wet aggregate stability. Technology simply makes quantifying so much easier. Ultimately every farmer is about “show me” – show me what you can do and show me the improvement in the soil.
One of David Lamb’s sayings is that we’ve had a couple of generations that have gotten used to degraded soil and we think that’s normal. So it’s hard to tell someone that it could look better, when it’s become normalized. So it’s about showing them the difference so they can see for themselves: “Oh, this is what soil can look like.” That is why I like technology like the smartphone app. I was the same when I first started working at the Institute, for example the first time I went out to a large 6,000 acre cotton farm doing Reg Ag practices and I looked at the soil and plant vigor and said “wow, this is real, it can happen”. I’m a convert too. How optimistic are you of the U.S. (and the world) implementing Reg Ag on the scale that’s required?
I’m an optimist and gave up a tenure [at Texas A&M] to work on it, so my actions speak louder than words!
It’s clear to me there’s pressure from climate change, from society, from emerging markets, and initiatives such as carbon and water credits for Reg Ag practices. There’s never been more excitement about improving soil, and I don’t see it waning. It’s incumbent upon us now to deliver and provide the tools. Can you tell us more about these carbon and water credits?
Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC) is a non-profit with the idea of stacking credits so that when a farmer practices Regenerative Agriculture there’s a framework for receiving financial benefits from soil services of carbon storage and water cycling. How will the current drought conditions in the western U.S impact soil health there, and what more can be done to mitigate this drought?
That’s a great question. California has always had this problem; it is an arid environment dependent on groundwater. It’s not the same but we can look at Israel, who are improving soil health as they need to grow more food, so we could learn from their efforts. They have amazing irrigation technology there and they’ve invested a lot in the soil physics and engineering technology, but also soil quality, acknowledging that if they’re irrigating so much in an arid environment they’re going to accumulate salts and need to ameliorate that.
It’s about more judicious use of water and about where to farm and where not to. A lot of what they’re doing in California is mulching, which is important, but there’s more we can do for soil health for sure.
What humans do is innovate and build resiliency, especially in bad times. I applaud California in what they’re trying to do to improve agriculture and its impact on the environment. We need to do a better job of quantifying these effects; I always say “if you treasure it, you measure it”, so quantifying these ecosystem services is an important lockstep in a regenerative approach to agriculture.
So in a way, a mix of Ag 4.0 and Reg Ag approaches would be a golden ticket?
Yes, it’s all about improving efficiency. For the longest time we replaced soil functioning with engineering approaches. Regenerative Ag recognizes that nature is also efficient. It’s a balance – instead of 110% engineering approaches, letting nature do its work too. The Green Revolution was all about technology and it fell out of balance, so Regenerative Ag is a rebalancing. We’re always engineering a solution, sometimes it’s about finding a new balance to something which has been over-engineered.
In the end, it’s all about finding a balance, right?
Indeed – thanks for your time, Cristine!
Find out more about the Soil Health Institute and Cristine Morgan’s work here: https://soilhealthinstitute.org/leadership/ https://soilhealthinstitute.org/resources/