Soil Carbon: The Secret Weapon to Battle Climate Change?

Human society is literally built on soil. It feeds the world and produces vital fuel and fiber. But most people rarely give soil a second thought.

Recently, though, soil has been getting some well-deserved attention from environmental organizations, policymakers and industry leaders. It has been covered in news articles, argued over in policy debates and has even received an international day of recognition.

Why all this attention? Because the world urgently needs ways to keep carbon out of the atmosphere, and to build food security for a rapidly growing global population. Soil can do both.

However, current efforts to promote carbon storage in soil miss a key point: Not all soil carbon is the same. As scientists focusing on soil ecology and sustainability, we believe that managing soil carbon effectively requires taking its differences into account.

Soil carbon is amazingly complex

Building up soil carbon can help cut greenhouse gas concentrations in the air. It also improves soil quality in many ways: It gives soil structure, stores water and nutrients that plants need and feeds vital soil organisms.

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A Green New Deal Must Offer Farmers a Way to Transition to Regenerative Agriculture

Last year, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced a resolution to Congress calling for an ambitious re-imagining of the U.S. economy―one that would tackle both climate change and inequality.

Now with broad support among democratic presidential hopefuls, the Green New Deal resolution highlights the transformation of energy, transportation, health care and employment systems in our country, while briefly mentioning food and agriculture.

We believe, however, that since agriculture is both a major contributor to climate change and one of the key solutions, it should be a major part of the Green New Deal. In a new report by Data for Progress, titled “Regenerative Farming and the Green New Deal,” we propose addressing climate change, and the economic hardship faced by small farmers, by providing a supportive transition from unhealthy soil practices to regenerative farming systems.

Right now, soil health is declining because intensive farming practices, including monocultures, deplete soil organic matter, destroy the biological health of soil, and increase the soil’s vulnerability to erosion.

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Growing Food, Growing Climate Change: Why We Need an Agricultural Shift

Burger King has the meatless Impossible Burger. Del Taco boasts two plant-based burritos. Celebrities like J-Lo and Venus Williams have gone vegan. Seems like the message is out: eat more veggies and skip the meat. Not only for your personal health, but also for the health of the planet. Companies are responding to the demand for healthier and more sustainable foods. The intentions are good. The message is wrong.

As a Functional Medicine physician and founder of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, I’m the first one to tell my patients they need more plant-rich foods, especially vegetables. I also support people who choose vegetarianism or veganism for ethical reasons (although neither of those diets guarantee healthful eating).

My advice for everyone is to make at least half of every meal vegetables. In fact, we could reverse chronic illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease if we all started eating a plant-rich diet and avoided refined and ultraprocessed foods, gluten and most dairy. Research backs this up.

 

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Can Vegans And Ranchers Work Together To Rebuild The World’s Soil?

The agriculture sector is one of the biggest emitters of CO2. A 2018 study published in Nature concluded that Americans need to eat 90% less beef and 60% less milk to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius.

But as awareness spreads around the benefits of a plant-based diet on the environment, a growing regenerative agriculture (RA) movement says livestock is actually integral to shaping farming practices that will save the planet.

The world’s soil has been degraded by humans via their management of animals—ploughing, intense grazing and clear-cutting—and according to the United Nations, it will be completely degraded in the next 60 years. This is bad news for the quality of crops, and for carbon emissions, since soil captures carbon and prevents it from going into the environment.

In a separate report from 2017, also published in Nature, scientists note that increasing the carbon content of the world’s soils by just a few parts per thousand each year could remove from the atmosphere the same amount of CO2 of the EU.

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Down Under

Australia is salty, flat, and mostly dry. Repeated submerging by the ocean over the eons combined with a lack of geological uplift (necessary for weathering rock into topsoil) created thin, nutrient-poor soils that were rapidly depleted by a pattern of colonial agricultural designed for the wet climes of England. Plow, cow, sheep, gun, dog, fox, rabbit, and tractor – all exotic – transformed Australia’s fragile ecosystem into a ravished landscape of eroding gullies, denuded flora, and declining native fauna. The advent of industrialized crop and livestock production after World War II made things worse as tilling and overgrazing continued to deplete what remained of the soil’s fertility.

As I saw on my trip, however, a corner had been turned in Australia’s assault on its soil. On a sheep farm in northwest New South Wales called Winona, owned by Colin Seis, I learned that not only are Australians re-hydrating the soil of their depleted continent but they are re-carbonizing it as well.

 

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The Secret Behind Costa Rica’s Remarkable Green Transformation

Aldo Sánchez surveys a field of lofty banana trees with cacao plants bursting with fruit nestled beneath them. “Two and a half years ago, this was pure pasture,” he says. Indeed, his neighbor’s field is just grass.

Four decades ago, a swath of land including Sánchez’s farm in Jabillos in central Costa Rica was deforested to plant coffee. It was later turned over to cattle, but ranching dried up when prices collapsed. Cacao — the raw material for chocolate — had not been planted since the late 1970s, when the monilia fungus destroyed 80 percent of the national crop.

“Even 10 kilometers [6 miles] away, people couldn’t believe we were planting cacao because the last people to do that were their grandparents,” Sánchez says.

His farm is a successful example of agroforestry — the sustainable combination of crops with trees — that is complementing Costa Rica’s remarkable reforestation in the past three decades.

Today, with exuberant tropical vegetation cloaking its countryside, it’s hard to imagine that the Central American nation of 5 million people could once have been any greener.

 

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Carbon Gardening: A Natural Climate Solution that Can Help Reduce CO2 Emissions While Restoring Biodiversity

Gardeners new to the concept of carbon gardening often ask these two questions: What good soil management strategies will help maximize carbon sequestration? And, what would be a good plant palette to help accomplish this? Good questions both, to which I wish I could give detailed, specific answers. Carbon gardening in northern Illinois, where I live, differs from carbon gardening in other regions; each will require region-specific strategies and plant palettes. Everything depends on where the gardener lives and the conditions in which they are gardening. Thus, what follows is more in the way of a general discussion that might help point in the right direction than a series of rigid prescriptions.

Organic carbon sequestration is one of the oldest tricks in nature’s ancient playbook for global ecosystem regulation. These days, as we search for ways to pull excess carbon out of the atmosphere in order to mitigate global warming, new attention has focused on “natural climate solutions,” or managing land for carbon sequestration by conserving and restoring ecosystems and changing agricultural and gardening practices.

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From Sustainable to Regenerative: Bold Business Moves to Transform the Agriculture System

With a new decade comes a new era of sustainability leadership.

The 2020s herald a pivotal chance to deliver on our great climate, environment and development challenges, and the scale and pace of change will require truly transformative thinking. We will need to move beyond efficiency and doing less harm, and base strategies on new goals that ensure business success also meets the needs of people and the planet. It’s time to step up a gear or three on our journey toward a sustainable future. But what does this mean for how we do business?

At the heart of this shift is a move toward “regenerative” rather than just “less extractive” business strategies. With growing public commitments to “carbon zero” targets, businesses are refocusing on how to work in ways that put back more into society, the environment and the global economy than they take out. This sounds like an abstract goal on the surface, but in real terms, it is a powerful reframing of mindset and action.

Organizations taking this approach share an ambition to grow their brands, have strong financial performance, attract the brightest talent and, most important, be future-fit; but these thriving organizations also deliver benefits that align traditional business boundaries of profit margin and shareholder value with wider societal goals.

One of the most impactful areas for intervention is in agriculture. Any business based on agricultural raw materials is vulnerable to increasing insecurity and volatility of supply, as weather patterns shift and natural resources dwindle.

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Soil Health Hits the Big Time!

It began at the pivotal UN climate summit in Paris in 2015 (COP21), which I had the honor of attending on the behalf of the Quivira Coalition and Regeneration International as an observer. As you will recall, in an effort to slow climate change delegates from 197 nations negotiated and then signed a landmark Agreement committing their governments to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions starting in 2020 (alas, recent events have undercut the Agreement’s prospects).

This was big news at the time, but there was another important development that did not make headlines. It occurred on December 1st when the French government launched a plan to improve food security and fight climate change with soil carbon called the ‘4 For 1000 Initiative’ – a number that refers to a targeted annual growth rate of soil carbon stocks. “Supported by solid scientific documentation, this initiative invites all partners to state or implement some practical actions on soil carbon storage and the type of practices to achieve this.” (see)

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Sue Lani Madsen: Investing in Soil Health Is an Investment in the Future

We’ve been treating soil like dirt for too long. Dirt needs to be fed in order to produce. Healthy soil contains tens of thousands of microbes pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and turning it into food for themselves and for us.

Investing in soil health is an investment in future generations continuing to eat, according to David Montgomery, a University of Washington geologist. His first book, “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations,” looked at the consequences of ignoring soil health. He recently published “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life.”

Focusing on common ground over food is a healthy way to start the new year. It’s a place where government is, as is often the case, both the problem and part of the potential solution.

“Our biggest mistake in 20th-century agriculture is we tried to make the land respond to a single set of practices. We’ve undervalued both the land and the creativity of farmers,” Montgomery said.

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