Why Protecting Soil Carbon Is a Win-win for Farmers and the Planet

In 2019, a United Nations report laid out a bitter truth: The current food system is fueling the destruction of Earth’s forests — and humanity must overhaul how we grow and ship food to stop climate breakdown.

But countries are struggling to keep farming sustainable while meeting the mounting demand for production — which must increase by between 25 percent and 70 percent by 2050 to feed growing populations.

A groundbreaking new study reports that the secret to making this possible lies in the soil — or more specifically, in the carbon stored in the soil.

Conservation News spoke with Conservation International scientist Bronson Griscom, a co-author on the study, about the vast potential of soil to help halt climate change and why protecting soil carbon is a “win-win for farmers and the planet.”

Kiley Price: Let’s start at the beginning. How exactly does soil store carbon?

Bronson Griscom: Trees and plants suck up carbon from the air and use it to store energy and build their stems, leaves and roots.


The Moment for Food Sovereignty is Now

Last weekend, Kristin Davey received an unexpected shock upon entering her local nursery in Sebastopol, California, north of San Francisco. “The shelves were picked over. The vegetable starts were almost gone. And the seed racks were completely bare,” she said, “I’ve been going to nurseries for 15 years and I have never seen them so empty.”

Davey went home empty-handed that day, and she is far from alone. Just as panic buying is emptying grocery shelves around the country, “panic planting” has overrun nurseries and seed companies alike as people flock to stock up on seeds and seedlings to grow food at home. Nurseries, which are considered essential businesses in some states, are scrambling to keep up with demand, and some have begun to offer curbside pickup and delivery to respect social distancing guidelines.

Seed companies are also inundated. Late last month, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds closed their website to catch up on a record number of orders, while Johnny’s Seed Company co-CEO Gretchen Kruysman reported that the company has seen a 300 percent increase in orders since early March.


Applying the Hard Lessons of Coronavirus to the Biodiversity Crisis

I attended one of three major biodiversity planning meetings this February, originally scheduled for China, but relocated to Rome. The day I arrived, there were three cases of the coronavirus COVID-19 in northern Italy. Two days later there were 21, and five days later there were 229. I left the fifth day, without even attending the primary workshop. A colleague teased me, and I worried that I had over-reacted. From my early training in public health, I suspected this was not just a distant wave, but an unstoppable tsunami that would soon crash upon the world. A few short weeks later, the magnitude of this tsunami became clear, a once-in-a-century crisis that threatens to upend every society on earth.

This year was supposed to be a ‘Super Year for Nature,’ with a number of global meetings; a World Conservation Congress, a UN Ocean Conference, and a UN Nature Summit – all culminating in a global biodiversity conference that would agree on a decade-long ‘Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework‘. 



Cows and Cropland to Help Save the Planet

The calls to shift to a plant-based diet to help mitigate climate change are getting louder. Farmer Daniel Slabbert and their supporters, however, look at it differently. They believe cows and cropland can help save the planet.

In South Africa, there are still plenty of grasslands or veld. Farmers such as Slabbert are practicing regenerative agriculture, farming, and grazing that rebuild soil organic matter and restores degraded soil biodiversity.

The practice, according to Slabbert, is just like trying to mimic nature. He rejuvenates the land by increasing the cattle herd. Herds are enclosed in a rectangular patch of grassland with a low-voltage wire. The herd consumes all the grasses they can find before the wire lifts, and they move to a new section as it replenishes the land. Eventually, crops are planted in the grazing area.

Cows contribute to 145 of all global emissions. A single cow, according to researchers at UC Davis, can belch around 220 pounds or approximately 100 kilograms of methane each year.



Nature’s Waste Becomes the Soil’s Nourishment

A new way to compost

For less than one dollar per acre, a composting bioreactor increases crop yield, nutrition and biological diversity in fields.

Usually composting means gathering discarded fruits and vegetables and having them decompose into healthy materials for the soil. But recently, a new composting method has evolved – a practice that uses a specific blend of grasses and leaves.

A little more than six years ago, David C. Johnson, a faculty affiliate at the Center for Regenerative Agriculture at California State University – Chico, discovered a new way of composting – he invented the Johnson-Su Composting Bioreactor. Since then, he’s fine-tuned, tested and experimented with this low-cost unit, and he has asked others to join him.

Isaac Broeckelman, a soil conservation technician at NRCS in South Hutchinson, decided to do just that. He is building a few bioreactors and getting ready to see how they work in Kansas weather.

Next fall, he plans to present a workshop on how to build and use these inexpensive tools.



Restoring Soils Could Remove up to ‘5.5bn Tonnes’ of Greenhouse Gases Every Year

Replenishing and protecting the world’s soil carbon stores could help to offset up to 5.5bn tonnes of greenhouse gases every year, a study finds.

This is just under the current annual emissions of the US, the world’s second largest polluter after China.

Around 40 per cent of this carbon offsetting potential would come from protecting existing soil carbon stores in the world’s existing forests, peatlands and wetlands, the authors say.

In many parts of the world, such soil-based “natural climate solutions” could come with co-benefits for wildlife, food production and water retention, the lead author tells Carbon Brief.

Ground up

The top metre of the world’s soils contains three times as much carbon as the entire atmosphere, making it a major carbon sink alongside forests and oceans.

Soils play a key role in the carbon cycle by soaking up carbon from dead plant matter. Plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and this is passed to the ground when dead roots and leaves decompose.


Natural Solutions to the Climate Crisis? One-quarter Is All down to Earth

Joint research conducted by the Nature Conservancy and the Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, calculated the carbon-storing power of global soils and showcased approaches like agroforestry designed to capitalise on untapped potential.

A critical, nature-based approach to mitigating  has been right at our feet all along, according to a new study reporting that soil represents up 25% of the total global potential for  (NCS) – approaches that absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and lock it into landscapes, including forests, croplands and peatlands.

Representing the first time soil’s total global potential for carbon-mitigation across forests, wetlands, agriculture and grasslands together has been cataloged, the study provides a timely reminder not to neglect the power of soils and the many benefits these ecosystems can deliver for climate, wildlife and agriculture.

Published in the journal Nature Sustainability, the study is titled “The role of soil carbon in natural climate solutions.” The research also argues that a lack of clarity to date regarding the full scale of this opportunity and how to best capitalize on it has restricted investment.


Redefining Agricultural Production

Agricultural production used to be basically divided into two camps; conventional and organic. The two production styles have clear delineations and are pretty much exclusive of each other. Today the lines between these systems are being blurred as farmers are beginning to embrace sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices.

All of these different terms can be confusing. What do we mean by sustainable or regenerative agriculture? How much crossover is there between these production systems and others, including organic and conventional?

“There’s a lot of confusion on the part of farmers,” says Ananda Fitzsimmons, president of the board of directors of Regeneration Canada. “It’s really interesting that in the regenerative movement you see organic and non-organic farmers working together, which is really encouraging. That that hard line that can sometimes exist between organic and conventional seem to be breaking down somewhat in the regenerative space.”

Defining Organic

Let’s begin by defining “organic” production.



You Don’t Have to Go Plant-based to Save the World

There has been a lot of buzz recently about switching to a meatless or fully plant-based diet, not only for sustainability reasons but also for health benefits. Livestock production encompasses 14.5% of all human-related greenhouse gas emissions, with cattle making up for well over half of those emissions. Thus, eliminating the consumption of meat, or red meat specifically, to be more sustainable has been an easy push for climate change advocates. Additionally, a 2012 study revealed that red meat consumption is associated with an increased risk of certain chronic diseases, driving the movement against meat consumption.

However, the urge to completely eliminate meat from our diets is both quixotic and unwarranted. For anyone who enjoys eating meat and is considering eradicating it from their diet for health and or climate change reasons, you may be happy to hear that might not be the best solution.

Instead of forcing people to radically change their consumption habits, I argue that we should focus on sourcing meat sustainably and finding creative ways to reduce, but not eliminate, mass meat consumption through institutional food providers.


What If We Could Eat Our Way to a Healthier Planet?

Climate change, and related issues, dominate the headlines, our news feeds and infiltrate our daily conversations. It’s a critical problem that weighs heavily on our society, but research shows we might be able to eat our way out of the problem. That’s right, a promising solution is lying right beneath our feet — in the soil.

The practice of regenerative agriculture is an approach to farming that treats farms holistically, as part of whole ecosystems. Modern conventional farms segment crops into separate monocultures, which strips the soil of nutrients and releases stored carbon into the atmosphere. In contrast, regenerative agriculture draws carbon out of the air and into the soil while replenishing and nourishing the land. The result is more productive farms, healthier and more nutritious crops — and it might be the magic we need to fight climate change.

According to the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, increasing the level of carbon in soils by just 0.4% could halt the progress of climate change. Raising that level to 4% might actually reverse the damage done to our planet.