ARDMORE, Okla. — This week, President Donald Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1, reaffirming the administration pledge to return the United States to the moon for the first time in 45 years and venture even further into space.
His call to action elicits memories of America's great space race when President John F. Kennedy stirred a nation's ambitions by saying: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone…."
As we continue to stargaze, dreaming of the great mysteries above us, we have another historic exploration opportunity. One that is closer. One that requires us to look down, not up. In the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci said, "We know more about the movement of the celestial bodies than the soil underfoot." More than 500 years later, this fact remains true.
While agriculture has greatly advanced through the last half century, much remains to be discovered and understood in the science of soil. The same Kennedy-era that saw us put a man on the moon witnessed the culmination of the Green Revolution in agriculture. New types of seeds, advanced synthetic fertilizers, crop protection products and automation marked the space age in food production, but investments in soil science have not kept pace.
In the rush to feed millions of starving people worldwide, we skipped the need to examine and understand the complex microbiome in soil, a teeming system of life from which nearly all food production springs. As is the practice in a greenhouse environment, we largely viewed soil as just a medium for producing food. We focused our breeding efforts in building a robust plant supported by new technologies to protect those plants in an unhealthy environment instead of unlocking the treasure-trove of soil biology.
According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, 33 percent of our world's soils are moderately or highly degraded. Many agricultural soils have lost 30-50 percent of their precious organic carbon, thereby reducing a soil's capacity to withstand drought, naturally suppress plant pathogens, filter chemicals, and provide nutrients to plants and the animals that eat them (including humans).
Generations of global citizens now demand that stewardship be considered in every endeavor from agriculture to energy production. Organizations like the Noble Research Institute and the Soil Health Institute (which ironically has the mantra: Be to soil what NASA is to space) are leading a national effort to enhance the vitality and productivity of soil through scientific research. To borrow Kennedy's words, we choose to take on this task not because it's easy but because it's hard, and because we are willing to accept the challenge.
So what awaits us in the soil? Answers. A teaspoon of healthy soil can hold 1 billion bacteria, several thousand protozoa, and a wealth of fungi and nematodes. This biome holds the potential to provide humanity with new antibiotics, ways to effectively store large quantities of carbon (which leads to cleaner water and a more resilient planet), and the potential to use less water and synthetic inputs in food production.
Through the work of a coalition of research institutions, nongovernmental organizations, private industry and government agencies, we have identified areas in soil health research that will benefit the environment and the economy as well as position us to feed the rapidly expanding world population (predicted to increase from 7.3 billion people today to more than 9 billion by 2050).
The scientific knowledge generated from this effort will offer necessary information to organize and focus soil health research for generations to come. The discoveries will ripple past our boards and be applied around the globe. Imagine improving soils – the foundation of food production and thus society – and potentially lifting impoverished nations.
The government should not carry the funding burden alone. Public-private partnerships are critical to modern discovery. We're calling on all interested parties to join the Noble Research Institute and the Soil Health Institute to match any and all government efforts to form the greatest gift this generation can leave to all future generations.
It's not one giant leap on the moon, but it's a step in the right direction for those of us here on Earth.
Bill Buckner, President and CEO, Noble Research Institute
Wayne Honeycutt, President and CEO, Soil Health Institute