Carbon Farming: Hope for a Hot Planet

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photo credit: audubon

Author: Brian Barth

Michael Pollan deemed it agriculture’s “secret weapon” in a December op-ed for the Washington Post. Bill McKibben, in his praise for an upcoming book on the topic, described carbon farming as “a powerful vision,” one that he hopes will “presage major changes in our species’ use of the land.” Paul Hawken went so far as to call it “the foundation of the future of civilization,” with potential to “surpass the productivity of industrial agriculture.”

Why all the hubbub? And, for that matter, what exactly is it about?

Carbon farming is agriculture’s answer to climate change. Simply put, the goal is to take excess carbon out of the atmosphere, where the element causes global warming, and store it in the soil, where carbon aids the growth of plants. The principle is pretty straightforward—the practice, not so much.

Most folks understand that burning fossil fuels puts carbon that was once buried deep beneath the earth into the atmosphere, turning the planet into one big greenhouse in the process. But in addition to petroleum underground, the soil on the surface of the earth contains a sizable store of carbon in the form of organic matter—the stuff that environmentally aware farmers and gardeners are always striving to maximize. Plants add organic matter to the soil when they decompose, and photosynthesis, by definition, removes carbon dioxide from the air and pumps it through the roots of plants and into the soil.

Concern over climate change may have thrust the concept of carbon farming into the limelight—25 countries pledged to pursue it during the December climate talks in Paris—but ranchers like Gabe Brown, who raises livestock and an array of crops on 5,000 acres outside Bismarck, North Dakota, have preached its virtues for decades. “All soil biology eats carbon, and that’s how nutrients cycle,” explains Brown of the network of microbes and fungi and earthworms underground. “Farmers need to think of carbon as their fertilizer, because it’s what drives a healthy system.”

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