05/29/2016

How Soil Microbes Fight Climate Change

photo credit: radixag

Author: Esther Ngumbi

Around the globe, 2016 has been a dusty year. Just this month, massive dust storms enveloped Guazhou County in China, engulfing five-story buildings. Dust storms in Kuwait suspended oil exports, while another  storm engulfed the Texas Panhandle. In January, red clouds of dust swept across Free State, South Africa, while scientists warned that the erosion of nutrient-rich topsoil threatened food security.

But the loss of soil also presents a less obvious challenge: it robs us of a key ally in fighting climate change. That ally is soil microbes.

Global soils already hold three times as much carbon as exists in the atmosphere, and there’s room for much more. According to a recent study in Nature, enhanced carbon storage in the world’s farmland soils could reduce greenhouse gas concentrations by between 50 and 80 percent.

To realize this stunning potential, farmers would need to adopt certain game-changing farming practices that restore depleted soils, largely through spurring the activity of the soil microbiome, a web of microscopic life that includes fungi, nitrogen-fixing bacteria and trillions of other bacteria that promote plant growth. Like the microbes that live in and on our bodies, helping us with everything from nutrition to immune responses, soil microbes are allies. They can help us deal with many of the climate challenges facing agriculture.

Indeed, we are just beginning to understand how to harness the potential of soil microbes. Research has shown they can help restore degraded soils, including land in Mexico’s southern Sonoran desert. This capacity gives soil microbes the potential of revolutionize agriculture. Healthier soils produce higher crop yields, hold water more effectively, sequester more carbon and allow for increased agricultural productivity on existing land.

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