Triage, Triage, Triage…or the medical term for “setting priorities”
Ok, so here is a stupid question. How important is it to take someone’s body temperature when you are assessing their overall health? Well that depends, doesn’t it. If the patient is at the doctor’s office for flu-like symptoms, then taking someone’s body temperature is pretty important. However, if the patient is in the Emergency Room with a severed arm and bleeding profusely, then taking their temperature is probably not high on the priority list. The same can be said with soil health. Why are we spending so much time focused on quantifying the little issues with soil health when our soils are “bleeding profusely” from soil erosion?
In a recent discussion with Dr. Doug Karlen, ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and Environment, I asked, “What is the most critical step in improving soil health?” His answer was simple and straight forward. He said you must control soil erosion first and foremost before you can even start to improve soil health.
It shouldn’t take a soil scientist (who I typically revere more than brain surgeons) to figure this out. It simply doesn’t make sense to discuss soil health if there is a critical soil erosion issue that is not being addressed. Under the best circumstances, soil can regenerate about 0.2 ton/acre each year. Yet, nation-wide our average soil loss is closer to 5 tons/acre/year. That means soil is being lost at 25 times the rate at which it is regenerating. Going back to the medical analogy, you wouldn’t offer a glass of water to the patient who is bleeding profusely so that their body regenerates the blood it is losing. You first need to control the bleeding and then set new priorities.
As professionals we need to start with triage. While all of the soil health issues are important, we need to first talk about and address soil erosion. Once we have the bleeding stopped and have the patient in stable condition, we can then focus on the general health.
I know soil health is the new sexy, cool thing. As resource professionals we have grown weary from talking about soil erosion. We have talked, and talked, and talked about it for our whole career. Sure, I understand the need to dress up soil erosion and try and give it a face lift. But still, if we talk to a farmer about improving their soil health, we MUST start with the basics of addressing erosion. Maybe we need to make soil erosion sexy by dressing it up with the economics or cost of soil erosion. Let’s get soil erosion right before we move on.