New research shows synthetic nitrogen fertilizer stimulates soil microbes, which feast on organic matter. Over time, the impact of this enhanced microbial appetite outweighs the benefits of more crop residues, and thus, the net effect of synthetic nitrogen use is to reduce soil’s organic matter content.
There are microbes (tiny, invisible fungi, bacteria and single-cell organisms) are everywhere and life is utterly dependent on them. In the same way microbes are essential to the body, they’re essential to the soil. But agriculture disturbs the soil. Tilling quite literally turns well-established microbial communities upside down. And in the process, stores of carbon are released.
As world leaders convened at the UN’s annual General Assembly last week, amidst the backdrop of New York’s Climate Week, the message was clear: we must act now and we must act together to tackle climate change.
For Judith Schwartz’s most recent project, Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World, Schwartz delves into the little-known role the water cycle plays in planetary health, which she illustrates with vivid, empowering stories from around the world. While we might not be able to change the rate of precipitation, as land managers we can directly affect the speed that water flows off our land and the amount of water that the soil is able to absorb. Trees and other vegetation are more than passive bystanders at the mercy of temperature extremes — they can also be powerful influences in regulating the climate.
Two years ago, Indonesia experienced the largest fire event in modern human history, with more than 2.5 million hectares (6 million acres) of tropical landscape burning, emitting more greenhouse gases than all of Germany does in a year. But the most visible sign of the disaster was the haze that spread across a huge swath of Asia; the particulates in the smoke sullying the air that tens of millions of people breathed. According to one study, the haze resulted in an estimated 100,000 deaths.
Soil contamination occurs in most countries with a lot of farmland, heavy industry and mining. But the biggest problems occur in China, the world’s largest producer of food and of heavy industrial commodities such as steel and cement.