Why Our Future Depends on Healthy Soil

By: Shaun Dreisbach, Nutrition & Features Editor  |  EatingWell 2018 American Food Heroes

Larry Clemens, director of North America's Agricultural Program at The Nature Conservancy, has been working with farmers and ranchers to improve the health of their soil.

Most of us don't give a second thought to the earth beneath our feet. It's humble. It's unassuming. It's dirt. To Larry Clemens, though, soil could very well be our environmental and agricultural savior. Healthy soil is rich in nutrients, which translates to more robust crops and less need for chemical fertilizers. It also acts like a sponge, soaking up rainwater so it doesn't run off and erode farmland, and holding it for times of drought. Perhaps most important: well-tended soil can help mitigate climate change, thanks to its immense capacity to trap and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Yet conventional tillage practices have caused our nation's soils to lose as much as 60 percent of their stores of this greenhouse gas. They also rack up more than $85 billion in societal and environmental costs annually from factors including reduced water quality, increased energy usage and loss of both productivity and biodiversity.

Related: 2018 EatingWell American Food Heroes

Last year, Clemens helped spearhead an initiative to right that wrong. In partnership with General Mills and nonprofits (including Soil Health Partnership and Soil Health Institute), The Nature Conservancy launched a $20 million plan to work with farmers and ranchers to improve the health of their soil. "Our goal is to see at least half of all U.S. row-crop lands (primarily wheat, corn and soy) using better soil-health practices by 2025," he says. Considering the fact that 58 percent of all farmland is devoted to just these three crops, the impact would be profound. And it's a move that will benefit not just the environment, but the farmers as well—to the tune of $37 million a year for every 1 percent of land that is transformed, thanks to better productivity and reduced energy costs.

Clemens has championed just about every environmental issue you can think of during his 26 years with The Nature Conservancy—from helping small farmers adopt best practices like cover crops and nutrient management to pushing legislation to preserve our land and waterways. But this is arguably his most fundamental cause yet. "Healthy soils are the cornerstone of life," he says. "They're totally necessary for our future. And the farmers that are starting to use our practices have become true believers in the benefits."

Larry Clemens

3 Cool Facts About Larry Clemens

Larry's food hero: "Jerry Lynch [chief sustainability officer] at General Mills. I think Jerry is doing a wonderful job right now in leading this connection between our food production, sustainability and agriculture."

Surprising fact: Larry has personally planted more than 5 million trees all across the Midwest on weekends and vacations.

Best advice for home gardeners: "The more living roots that you can keep in the soil year-round, the better the quality of your soil and ultimately the better the quality of the vegetables you'll grow."