Healthy soil can protect us from drought and flood impacts, saving farms, rural communities and even the American agriculture industry, according to a new report from the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). Can Soil Save Us? Making the Case for Cover Crops as Extreme Weather Risk Management is a 34-page report that details the benefits of investing in healthy soil as protection from natural disasters and completely endorses the use of cover crops.

The news release announcing the report contends, “Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as drought and floods, often hitting farmers and rural America hardest. Decades of mechanized farming has left our soils degraded and particularly vulnerable to extreme weather; unable to retain water to withstand dry spells and unable to soak up excess water during flood.”    

The NWF goes on to suggest, “The Farmers are the first to feel the heat of extreme weather events—losing crops, livestock and equipment. But consumers and taxpayers also pay through higher food prices and subsidized crop and flood insurance, as well as spending extensive resources on efforts to plan for and respond to extreme weather events.”

NWF officials say that from 1980 to 2012, 16 drought events cost America $210 billion and floods cost an average $7.96 billion per year.

"We can never prevent drought or floods, but we can get smarter about them," said Patricia White, senior policy specialist at the NWF and the report’s author. "In addition to predicting extreme events before and responding after, we can build soil quality to support farms when disaster hits. That healthy soil will act as a reservoir to hold moisture during a drought and a sponge to hold water during floods. And water held in our farm fields won’t be flooding our homes and streets."

For a fraction of what we now spend on extreme weather events, America could be investing in improving soil health by promoting sustainable agriculture practices such as cover crops, White and the NWF contend.

“USDA reports that for each 1 percent increase in organic matter from improving soil health, our cropland could store the amount of water that flows over Niagara Falls in 150 days. And we could reach 20 million acres of cover crops with a modest investment of just $740 million,” the NWF explained.

The recommendations for action by numerous organizations and farmers as found on Page 30 and 31 of the report are reprinted below, and the full report can be read by clicking here.  

RECOMMENDATIONS

Considering the increase in frequency and severity of extreme weather events, the immense costs of preparation and recovery, we encourage the extensive existing cadre of agencies, organizations and experts currently engaged in drought and flood policy to include cover crops as integral part of implementation going forward. Responsibility and leadership is needed from all levels, from the White House to individual producers:

  1. Add cover crops to existing plans, strategies, legislation and regulation
  2. Inform agriculture industry about benefits of cover crops
  3. Incentivize the adoption of cover crops
  4. Continue research (agronomic and economic) on benefits of cover crops

White House

Update President Obama’s Climate Action Plan to include cover crops

National Drought Resilience Partnership

Promote cover crops to participating agencies and affected communities via the National Drought Resilience Partnership

President’s State, Local and Tribal Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience

Update the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard that requires all federal investments in floodplains to meet higher flood risk standards to include incentives and guidance on cover crop adoption

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Include technical and financial assistance for cover crop adoption to states, local governments and tribes via the Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations (WFPO) Program

Update the USDA Climate Change Adaptation Plan to include cover crops

Include cover crops as a science-based agriculture tool for responding to impacts of a changing climate via the USDA Climate Hubs. Support cover crops research, provide outreach, education, technical assistance to natural and education resource managers.

NRCS

Create setasides for cover crops as drought/flood mitigation in funding programs such as EQIP, CSP, CIG and RCCP, where appropriate

SARE

Provide funding for pilot projects to demonstrate the drought/flood mitigation benefits of cover crops

Provide cover crop outreach and education to various segments of the agriculture industry including producers, cooperatives, elevators, seed sales and other input suppliers

Economic Research Service

Conduct a thorough cost-benefit analysis of current spending on mitigation impacts of drought and flood versus cost of widespread cover crop adoption (with GAO)

RMA

Eliminate all barriers to cover crop adoption

Educate RMA staff and crop insurance industry on cover crop benefits as risk management for drought and flood

National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC), University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Because the NDMC stresses preparedness and risk management rather than crisis management, the Center should include promoting cover crops as a measure that reduces societal vulnerability to drought

Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder

Because the NHC advances knowledge on hazards mitigation and disaster preparedness, response, and recovery, the Center should include cover crops in their research, information sharing and education of hazards scholars and professionals

U.S. Congress

In all reauthorizations related to extreme weather event preparedness, response and recovery as well as the Farm Bill, include research, funding, training, outreach and capacity building for the promotion of increased cover crop adoption as mitigation for the impacts of drought and flood.

Governors

Direct state agriculture agencies to promote the use of cover crops to mitigate and recover from the impacts of drought and flood

State Floodplain Managers, The Association of State Floodplain Managers

Include cover crop adoption in all aspects of the ASFPM’s efforts to promote education, policies, and activities that mitigate current and future losses, costs, and human suffering caused by flooding

National Association of Flood & Stormwater Management Agencies

Include cover crops in NAFSMA’s promotion of public policy, technologies and education to protect lives, property and economic activity from the adverse impacts of floods.

U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO)

Conduct a thorough cost-benefit analysis of current spending on mitigation impacts of drought and flood versus cost of widespread cover crop adoption (with ERS)