Healthy Soils The best solution for climate, water quality, and your next meal BY BARBARA HESSELGRAVE Unfortunately, such innovations were enthusiastically adopted with little thought to their potential harm to peo-ple or the environment. And if a little nitrate fertilizer is good for production, well, more might be a whole lot better. In fact, from 1960 to 1990, synthetic nitrogen use increased sevenfold, yet as early as the 1970s scientists were conducting hydrologic tests to study the “present controversy over the role that N-fertilizer use may have in reducing our water quality.” While the Clean Water Act of 1972 mandated wholesale cleanup by indus-try, agriculture was—and even now remains—largely exempt from nutrient regulatory policy. Given the statistics, it’s still easy today to point to farm-ers as a primary source of watershed contamination. Yet, ironically, the more the soil was treated, the less robust it became, until fertilizer became not just an amendment but a necessity. After decades of research on the relationships among nitrogen fertilizer, soil, water, and air, there is more truth now than ever before in the caution, “We all live downstream.” The Land Mirrors the Farmer Rattan Lal, professor of soil science and director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at The Ohio State University, says he much prefers to look ahead for realistic solutions rather than castigate sources of the problems. His mission of promoting awareness that “soil is everything, and we must protect and take care of it” takes him to all corners of the globe conferring with scientists, presidents, and international decision influencers. But the real change, he says, starts from the “ground up.” “We’ve been blaming agriculture for everything, but we forget that it’s feed-ing us three times a day,” affirms Lal. He adds that farmers do want to take care of the land, but land is degraded when they are desperate. “When farm-ers are miserable in times of trouble, they pass on this misery to the land, so we must make sure farmers are happy.” Lal, who has spent his career in the intensive investigation of soil health, says soil content—“healthy soil”—and erosion, aquifer contamination, and water quality are inextricably linked. WWW.EROSIONCONTROL.COM ISTOCK/BURWELLPHOTOGRAPHY t’s an entertaining and yet shocking pastime to read vin-tage advertisements. Today, we shake our heads in amazement at bygone celebrities who extol the relaxing and “digestive benefits” promised by smoking a particular brand of cigarette, at manufacturers who quaintly promote a children’s “lead party” with their paint icons, and at a charming toddler whose bathing suit is pulled by an equally charming puppy revealing her tan, the benchmark of healthful sun worshipping for decades. It’s through this retrospective lens 34 EROSION CONTROL I that we also view what we now know to be environmentally harmful home and lifestyle improvements: phosphates in soaps to clean better; CFCs (chlorine, fluorine, and carbon) to conveniently aerosolize everything from hairspray to asthma medicine; and new antibiot-ics that became a staple of livestock feed. And when enterprising investiga-tors discovered that ammonia could be modified under heat and pressure, farmers leaped to deploy the new chemical fertilizer with the promise of less work, increased yields, and higher profit margins.