Could Soils Help Save the Climate?

Soils are a double-edged climate sword. They are huge reservoirs of organic carbon and can act as a carbon sink. But they can also release CO2 into the atmosphere when used unsustainably.

Author: Irene Banos Ruiz | Published: February 6, 2018

Forests are often called the lungs of the planet because of the way they “breathe” in carbon dioxide. The role they play in locking in carbon dioxide is so essential UN schemes promote forests conservation as a way to offset greenhouse gas emissions.

Soils, meanwhile — less beautiful, and oft forgotten beneath our feet — get less press. Yet they hold 70 percent of the planet’s land-based carbon — four times as much as all the world’s biomass and three times the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Agriculture is responsible for around 13 of global greenhouse gas emissions. But if farms managed their soils more sustainably, they could lower that share considerably, scientists say.

And not only would they emit less greenhouse gases — as carbon reservoirs, agricultural soils could even mop up carbon already in the atmosphere. And that’s a win-win situation because once in the soil, carbon fertilizes plants, boosting agricultural yields.

Carbon – a valuable resource

Plants absorb carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. Some is released back into the atmosphere and some is stored in plant matter. When that biomass is broken down by microorganisms in the soil, it becomes an organic material called humus, which nourishes plants and other organisms, conserves water and balances the soil’s pH level.

“This carbon is like the fuel for any soil,” Ronald Vargas, soils and land officer at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), told DW.

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A New Weapon in the Carbon Fight

The ability of soils to sequester carbon as a win-win strategy must be recognised by policymakers

Author: Sujatha Byravan | Published: January 16, 2018

It is not usual to think of soils in the context of climate change. Policy is usually focussed on reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the electricity sector, transport and industry. There has, however, been a renewed interest in understanding how soils can serve as a sink for carbon dioxide since atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have crossed 410 parts per million and oceans are already turning acidic. Besides, increasing soil carbon offers a range of co-benefits and this would buy us time before other technologies can help us transition to a zero-carbon lifestyle.

Significant carbon pools on earth are found in the earth’s crust, oceans, atmosphere and land-based ecosystems. Soils contain roughly 2,344 Gt (1 gigatonne = 1 billion tonnes) of organic carbon, making this the largest terrestrial pool. Soil organic carbon (SOC) comes from plants, animals, microbes, leaves and wood, mostly found in the first metre or so. There are many conditions and processes that determine changes to SOC content including temperature, rainfall, vegetation, soil management and land-use change.

Many benefits

Increasing SOC through various methods can improve soil health, agricultural yield, food security, water quality, and reduce the need for chemicals. Changing agricultural practices to make them more sustainable would not just address carbon mitigation but also improve other planetary boundaries in peril such as fresh water, biodiversity, land use and nitrogen use.

Currently, the world is on a path to be about 3ºC warmer than pre-Industrial times even if there was follow through on all the commitments made at the Paris climate conference in 2015. The aim of the global community is to try and stay below 1.5ºC, which is a very tall order since current average temperatures are already about a degree higher.

Approaches to increase SOC include reducing soil erosion, no-till-farming, use of cover crops, nutrient management, applying manure and sludge, water harvesting and conservation, and agroforestry practices. Rattan Lal from Ohio State University estimates that an increase of just 1 tonne of soil carbon pool of degraded cropland soils can increase crop yield by several kilograms per hectare. Moreover, carbon sequestration in soils has the potential to offset GHG emissions from fossil fuels by up to 15% annually. In contrast, it has been estimated that SOC in India has reduced from 30% to 60% in cultivated soils compared with soils that are not disturbed.

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Will 'Climate Smart Agriculture' Serve the Public Interest – Or the Drive for Growing Profits for Private Corporations?

Authors: Peter Newell, Jennifer Clapp, and Zoe W. Brent | Published: January 19, 2018

The race is on to deliver models of agricultural development that are viable and sustainable in a world of accelerated climate change.

The urgency derives from the fact that the food and agriculture sector is both a major contributor to climate change and especially vulnerable to its worst impacts.

Most studies estimate that between 20-35 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gases are associated with the food and agriculture sector, while some have it as high as 50 percent.

Industrial model

And as drought and extreme weather events associated with climate change increase, the livelihoods of a huge proportion of the world’s population – over 2.5 billion people – who make their living from the sector are on the line.

Against this background the idea of ‘climate smart agriculture’ increasingly features in high level policy discussions.

Climate smart agriculture (CSA) describes interventions that generate ‘triple wins’: that make agriculture more resilient to the effects of climate change, in ways that reduce poverty and increase yields, while at the same time reducing the substantial emissions created by the agricultural sector.

These goals are widely accepted, but there are vastly different models on offer for how to achieve them, each vying to come out on top. The stakes are enormous, as the model that dominates will shape the future of agriculture for years to come.

One view, already dominant in policy circles, seeks to apply ‘fixes’ to the existing industrial model of agriculture to make it more sustainable.

Questionable sustainabilty

This model employs a suite of modern technologies and practices including genetic engineering, biofuels, biochar, and increased use of fertilisers that will deliver a ‘sustainable intensification’ of production.

This approach is underpinned by Malthusian assumptions about growing populations and dwindling fertile land, asserting that ‘we’ need to extract more with less to sustainably ‘feed the world’.

The main champions of this dominant approach are the World Bank, UN bodies such as Food and Agriculture Organisation and the International Fund for Agriculture and Development (IFAD) and large agribusiness corporations.

They find it attractive because it requires only slight changes to business as usual, while providing new opportunities for profit.

CSA projects provide a convenient cover for attempts to introduce controversial technologies into new markets or gain access to growing markets for their products, with questionable sustainabilty impacts.

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Where the Natural Products Industry Goes, So Goes the Mainstream

Author: Brian Frederick | Published: January 2018

Lara Dickinson is the Co-Founding Director of One Step Closer to an Organic Sustainable Community (OSC2) and Cofounder of the Climate Collaborative. She applies over 20 years of consumer packaged goods marketing, sales, and management experience to helping healthy product innovations grow in natural and mass markets.

The goal of the Climate Collaborative is to bring together the natural products industry—from manufacturers to suppliers, distributors, brokers, and retailers—to inspire and facilitate action on climate change. It launched in 2017 at Natural Products Expo West as a project of OSC2 and the Sustainable Food Trade Association (SFTA). On December 20, 2017, nine months after launching, the Climate Collaborative celebrated its 150th member, No Evil Foods, which committed to taking climate action in agriculture, deforestation, packaging, and transportation.

Dickinson earned a B.S. in Business from the University of Southern California and studied European international relations at the University of Oxford. Returning to the United States, she finished her M.B.A at Cornell University in 1994 and started out working in consumer products marketing. Dickinson served as the Vice President of marketing at several companies, including Numi Organic Tea and Balance Bar, and the CEO at LightFull Foods. In 2012, she helped create OSC2 to drive positive change in the natural products industry, provide sustainable leadership, and build a collaborative platform.

Food Tank had the opportunity to talk with Lara Dickinson about the Climate Collaborative and what role the natural products industry can play in mitigating climate change and reducing food waste.

Food Tank (FT): What incentives are there for the natural products industry to mitigate climate change?

Lara Dickinson (LD): Well, the first incentive is that if we don’t actually reverse global warming, our industry will be forced to face some dramatic challenges. But there is a much more hopeful answer. Food and agriculture together represent the number one cause and also most hopeful solution area for climate change. We have made the journey more straightforward for companies. In our initial survey of the industry, nearly every natural product business leader we spoke with agreed that they, and the industry, can and must do more. But the majority also shared that they were not clear on the most important thing to do. So we have identified the nine priority commitment areas where companies can have the most impact. We provide tools, resources, webinars, and case studies to help them on their path. The industry is a leader in so much—organics, animal welfare, non-GMO—and climate is now a focus. Retailers, such as NCG and INFRA, and distributors, such as KEHe, are a part of this network of companies working together and recognizing best practices among the brands engaged. In terms of incentives, there are solutions that actually have long-term cost savings benefits such as increased use of solar power and reduction of food waste.

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Can Agriculture and the Climate Fix Their 'Unhappy Marriage' in 2018?

Author: Thin Lei Win | Published: December 28, 2017

ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – After René Castro-Salazar attended the first U.N.-led climate talks in Berlin in 1985 as Costa Rica’s environment and energy minister, he tried to talk about agriculture and climate change – but few wanted to join the conversation.

“There was always opposition – and we couldn’t understand why,” said Castro, now assistant director-general at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

To him, the need to tackle the topic was clear.

Agriculture, forestry and other land uses together account for nearly a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions heating up the planet, according to the FAO.

Cutting these is essential if the world is to keep global temperature rise to a manageable level, said Castro.

Farms and forests can also store large amounts of carbon, and simple actions by all countries could result in immediate environmental benefits, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In the early years, the climate negotiations focused on reducing emissions from the energy sector – the largest emitter – while the relationship between agriculture and climate change was not fully understood.

Later on, poor states feared discussing the linkage would result in obligations for them to curb emissions from farming. Rich nations worried they would have to pay for poor farmers to adapt to a changing climate.

At November’s climate talks in Bonn, the stalemate was finally broken, with nations agreeing to move forward on issues related to agriculture and climate change.

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'A Low-Carbon Livestock Sector is Possible', Says UN Chief

The head of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has called for sustainable, low-carbon practices to be built into the developing world’s growing livestock sector.

Published: January 23, 2018

Speaking at the recent 10th Global Forum for Food and Agriculture in Belin, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva, said:

“With improved and climate-smart practices, we can quickly put in place more sustainable and greener livestock supply chains…A low-carbon livestock sector is possible to achieve”.

The FAO estimates that livestock generates 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions from human sources and the industry is expected to expand as demand grows within developing countries.

While the Director-General was keen to point out that an increase in demand for animal products is a good sign among some of the world’s poorest communities, it isn’t without potential pitfalls. This includes how the sector’s growth can align with the Paris climate agreement to reduce carbon emissions and limit global temperatures to below 2 degrees.

However, the FAO believes that emissions can be cut by up to 30 percent by adopting a variety of climate-smart agricultural practices.

These include greater uptake of energy from waste, recycling nutrients, regenerative grazing and managing pasturelands so that carbon is stored within the soil.

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How California Farmers can Conserve Water and Combat Climate Change

Author: Rich Collins | Published: December 9, 2017

In January and February, no less than 125 million gallons of rain fell upon my 200-acre farm, located off Highway 80 between Dixon and Davis.

Our soil, blanketed with an annual winter cover crop of mixed grass and legumes, absorbed all of those 24 inches of rain. Not one single gallon left our property.

Where did all that water go? Some was used by the cover crop and a small amount evaporated. But most sank down to be stored in the soil and to recharge groundwater.

On conventionally managed fields nearby, copious and disheartening amounts of rainwater ran off, causing some localized flooding. But most it made its way out the Delta, then the bay and beyond. It was an opportunity lost.

Similarly, I fear Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature will be missing an opportunity in the coming budget.

California is a global leader on climate change. Brown and legislative leaders miss no opportunity to remind the world of our model. The state has an ambitious greenhouse gas reduction target and many climate change programs to achieve those goals.

Among them are agriculture programs supported by farmers and ranchers that help store carbon in soil, trees and shrubs; fund conservation easements that spare farmland threatened by development; and help dairies reduce methane emissions. More than $200 million has been invested in these programs.

However, our leaders could be missing a great opportunity to support sustainable agricultural solutions to climate change unless they provide at least a modest sum for critically important sustainable agriculture programs.

The State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program has provided financial assistance to growers for improvements that save water and energy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Launched in 2014 during the drought, and oversubscribed by more than 200 percent, this popular program has provided $67.5 million for almost 600 projects across the state. Over the 10-year life of the project, 700,000 acre-feet of water will be conserved, and there will be a reduction of 225,000 tons of greenhouse gas. It will be one of the state’s most cost-effective climate programs.

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How California’s Fires Are Linked to Climate Chaos, Soil Health and Food Choices

Throughout history, agriculture has caused the loss of fertile soil, leading to the downfall of civilizations.

Author: John W. Roulac | Published: January 22, 2018

In late 2017, Northern Californians suffered a firestorm in eight counties simultaneously, followed by the devastating Thomas Fire (now the largest in state history) in Southern California.

For many of us, the fires provoked a déjà vu feeling of “apocalypse now.” There were two dozen fatalities, entire neighborhoods burned to the ground, thousands of homes and family possessions were turned into grey debris, massive plumes of severely unhealthy smoke and soot wafted in the air for weeks, and a highly toxic soup of ash and grime flowed into rivers and then the ocean.

Many people close to me lost everything. Yet, through this time of need, there has been a heartening outpouring of community goodwill to help friends and strangers alike. As we rebuild and move forward, a new question is emerging. Will Californians begin to understand the connection between climate chaos—with its ongoing drought, searing temperatures and vulnerability to fires—and industrial agriculture—the world’s leading cause of climate change?

Over the centuries, agriculture has caused the loss and degradation of fertile soil leading to the downfall of civilizations worldwide. Modern industrial agriculture is doing it even faster. Today’s food system is based on copious amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and the confinement of cows, chickens, and pigs. Agriculture is a major contributor to the 75% drop in winged insect populations. The massive footprint of this carbon-centric system is accelerating climate change and the deadly weather anomalies that follow as a consequence.

The Solution Under Our Feet

There is a climate solution literally under our feet, based on healthy soils and on pastures that yield better-tasting and more nutritious foods while conserving water and sequestering carbon. A new movement called regenerative agriculture seeks food grown in a manner that more closely mimics nature.

Regenerative ag restores and maintains natural systems, like water and carbon cycles, to enable the land to continue to produce food in a manner that both moderates the climate and is beneficial for people’s nutrition and the long-term health of the planet. Plants and soil organisms literally pull carbon from the atmosphere and build it into healthy soil.

Our generation has the responsibility to return this legacy load of carbon back to our forests, farm fields and grassland. If we fail to take heed then our climate and oceans are in peril from excess carbon.

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Biodiversity for Resilience Against Natural Disasters

Author: Rocco Pallin | Published: January 2018

Climate change is increasingly putting pressure on farmers and the global food systems, according to researchers from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and the transdisciplinary International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES). These groups and others are highlighting the importance of resilience—an ecosystem’s capacity to resist or recover from stress, shocks, and disturbances—for the security and productivity of the world’s food and farming systems in the face of climate change.

Resilience matters most for feeding the world’s growing population as the climate changes, according to these leading food security and agriculture groups, and agricultural biodiversity can be key to building it.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines agricultural biodiversity as the diversity among plants, animals, and microorganisms directly or indirectly used for agriculture and food production.

Agricultural biodiversity exists at three levels, all of which are important for climate adaptation. On a regional level, agricultural biodiversity involves farms in proximity to one another growing and supporting a range of different crops and species. At the farm level, crop diversity can mean farmers employ sustainability measures like crop rotation to maintain soil health, or agroforestry, or intercropping. Farmers utilize genetic diversity of crops when they grow several different species of a crop rather than one variety.

Research from CGIAR, FAO, and others over last two decades has concluded thatbiodiversity significantly contributes to resilience, and furthermore that a combination of biodiversity-increasing strategies often yields the greatest results.

For example, in the Central American hillsides in 1998 after Hurricane Mitch, researchers who surveyed farms and agricultural damage concluded that farmers engaged in diversification “such as cover crops, intercropping, and agroforestry suffered less damage than their conventional monoculture neighbors.”

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NASA Langley Scientist Touts Biochar: An 'Environmental Superstar'

Author: Tamara Dietrich | Published: January 9, 2017

Over many centuries — perhaps millennia — primitive peoples plowed biochar into farm fields, turning poor soil into rich cropland.

In fact, it’s such a miraculous soil amendment that 20 years ago researchers found that biochar applied in the Amazon basin more than 500 years before is still enriching soils there.

“It hadn’t broken down, it hadn’t rotted or degraded or anything,” said Doris Hamill, a physicist at NASA Langley Research Center with a deep interest in green technologies. “And that made people say, ‘Hmmm, you know, if biochar can be put in soils and not break down for hundreds of years, this could be a real solution to global warming.’ ”

That’s right — global warming. That’s because an added benefit of carbon-packed biochar is that, by plowing it into farm fields, it removes the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide indefinitely from the carbon cycle.

But that’s not all.

Biochar can be made from common organic waste material — from chicken and cow poop to sticks and brush from your yard. It can make environmentally unfriendly synthetic fertilizers obsolete. It can trap nutrient runoff before it pollutes places like the Chesapeake Bay. It can even filter out toxic heavy metals from water.

“It’s an environmental superstar,” Hamill said. “It’s global warming, it’s soil fertility, it’s sustainable agriculture, it is protection of groundwater — it just does everything. It’s really kind of amazing.”

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