BioCycle December 2016
In early November, about three weeks or what feels like 150 years ago, I ran into David Batker, the director of Earth Economics at the airport. I was on my way to the Soil Science Society meetings and he was going to Louisiana, where he is helping to put a dollar value on efforts to recreate the islands in the Mississippi delta as a means to protect against flooding and hurricanes. We talked about soils and how to put a value on improving them with animal manures. That was before the General Mills announcement and the Presidential election, two potentially conflicting messages.
General Mills, in association with The Nature Conservancy, announced that in addition to trying to cut food waste and conserve water, it is putting a high value on the restoration of soil health. General Mills is arguing that improved soil health can provide $50 billion a year in economic benefits. It says that if 50 percent of the growers in the U.S. adopted practices that foster soil health, there would be a $1.2 billion net economic gain as well as benefits to the tune of $7.4 billion for water and climate.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have an incoming president with only real estate business experience whose administration may attempt to undo much of the environmental legislation of the last 50 years. Whether you care about bunnies or bucks (and here I mean the U.S. Treasury version, not male deer), rolling back these regulations makes no sense from whatever angle you look at it — including the bottom line. Here are a few examples.
About 150 years ago dirty air was thought to be the price of progress. Smog was tolerated as the inconvenient by-product of industry and energy. In 1873, a week of yellow smog blanketed London making it impossible to see across a room. People died as did some prize cows. It took 83 years of bad air until Britain passed the Clean Air Act in 1956. The U.S. version was passed in 1970.
Now many countries, including China and India, are facing a similar air quality crisis. Air pollution was so bad in Delhi in November that schools closed and kids died. With better monitoring and an increased sophistication in cause and effect, we now understand that the true cost of dirty air is about 1 in 10 deaths worldwide. Air pollution was the fourth leading cause of death globally, right behind poor diet, high blood pressure and smoking in 2015. Aside from the associated expenses of health care before they die, killing people, especially a high number like 1 in 10, is not good for building your customer base.
Similar things can be said for dirty water. If you want to just focus on death and disease, as of 2003, 1.6 million deaths per year were associated with inadequate access to sanitation and clean water. Much has improved since then, particularly from the perspective of access to clean water. However, we have quite a ways to go for sanitation. To continue with an emphasis on bucks, investment in water and sanitation is a much better deal than casinos in Atlantic City. The United Nations estimated that each $1 invested in water and sanitation returned $8 in averted costs for healthcare and illness and increased productivity. The World Heath Organization saw a return ranging from $3 to $34.
One of the main culprits in India’s dirty air crisis is burning crop residues on farms and street sweepings in the cities. And we all know about one of the benefits of treated wastewater — you get biosolids. Let’s just say that instead of putting crop residues into the air as particulates and untreated human waste into streams we put them into compost piles. In its soil health road map, General Mills focused on crop rotations, cover crops and reduced tillage — all great things. The deal though is that composts with or without those tools make soils even better. Here we can look at work that has been done by many groups across many soil types and cultivation systems. The Marin Carbon Project is using animal manure compost and rangelands to restore soil carbon. The wastewater program in King County, Washington is close to carbon neutral thanks to its biosolids program. And the wheat farmers that use the biosolids are seeing higher yields and higher profits. If you look quickly, you will even see this in the revised EPA WARM model that gives a soil carbon credit of 0.24 tons of CO2 for every wet ton of food waste that is composted and land applied. That is in addition to the credits for methane avoidance.
The deal with storing carbon in soils is that soils with higher organic matter are more productive. That means that they store more water and grow bigger plants. Those bigger plants in turn take more CO2 out of the atmosphere and put even more into the soil. This process is referred to as increases in net primary productivity. More carbon stored and more food to eat. That is a process to take advantage of and be grateful for as you prepare your holiday feasts.
It is also something that makes economic sense. It means that you can take the return on the dollar associated with the health benefits of clean water and clean air and add to it the dollar benefits associated with clean soil. That adds up to really big money. And even more important than the money — it adds up to healthy people and a healthy planet. Hopefully that is a message that won’t be completely lost in the coming years. m
Sally Brown is a Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board.