Best Way to Remove Carbon: Sequestering It in Its Natural Sinks

There is one thing that worries climate scientists universally: the positive feedback loop. This is a process where changing one quantity changes the second one, and the change in the second quantity, in turn, changes the first. Scientists fear a positive feedback loop may spiral the climate crisis out of control.

Desertification is an example of a positive feedback loop, just as the melting of the Arctic ice cap, thawing of the Siberian permafrost, and the large-scale release of methane from methane hydrate lying on the sea and ocean floors.

The climate crisis is causing desertification and, in turn, desertification is exacerbating the crisis. The cycle continues.

Let me explain this, but first a disclaimer: this is an oversimplified version of an extremely complex process.

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Farming Our Way Out of the Climate Crisis

Could changing our land use and agricultural practices make a dent in addressing climate change? Yes, says Project Drawdown and a new report from the IPCC.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new report that highlights the importance of land use and agriculture in climate change.

Good! It’s a crucial area for us to focus on, and it’s often neglected.

I’ve been working on this topicon and offsince the 1990s, and have been bewildered why it doesn’t get more attention. For some reason, when we think of greenhouse gas emissions, we envision factories, cars, and smokestacks — not farm fields, plantations, and cattle ranches. But, it turns out, land use and agriculture are among the biggest contributors to climate change — and can be among the biggest climate solutions.

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We Can Stop the Climate Crisis

It’s time to farm (and eat!) like the world depends on it.

We can stop the climate crisis.

At least, we can start reducing the 23% of global greenhouse gas emissions that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently attributed to agricultural activities.

The answer is regenerative organic agriculture. And the time to implement it is now.

In a report published last week, the UN concluded that humans cannot stave off the effects of climate change without making drastic changes to the ways we grow food and use land.

Conventional, industrial agriculture depends on the use of chemical inputs and fossil-fuel intensive synthetic fertilizers, in addition to heavy machinery and tillage, to grow food. Industrial farming also relies on factory farms for animals. These methods release large amounts of carbon, methane, and other greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere.

In contrast, science proves that regenerative organic systems, which prioritize soil health and good farming practices like cover cropping, crop rotations, and pasturing animals, use 45% less energy and release 40% fewer carbon emissions than conventional agriculture, with no statistical difference in yields.

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Structurally Complex Forests Better at Carbon Sequestration

Forests in the eastern United States that are structurally complex – meaning the arrangement of vegetation is highly varied – sequester more carbon, according to a new study led by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The study demonstrates for the first time that a forest’s structural complexity is a better predictor of carbon sequestration potential than tree species diversity. The discovery may hold implications for the mitigation of climate change.

“Carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, is taken up by trees through the process of photosynthesis and some of that ‘fixed’ carbon is allocated to wood,” said Chris Gough, Ph.D., corresponding author on the study and an associate professor in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “Our study shows that more complex forests are better at taking up and sequestering carbon in wood and, in doing so, they leave less carbon dioxide in the air.”

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Is Grass-Fed Beef Really Better For The Planet? Here’s The Science

For the environmentally minded carnivore, meat poses a culinary conundrum. Producing it requires a great deal of land and water resources, and ruminants such as cows and sheep are responsible for half of all greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture, according to the World Resources Institute.

That’s why many researchers are now calling for the world to cut back on its meat consumption. But some advocates say there is a way to eat meat that’s better for the planet and better for the animals: grass-fed beef.

But is grass-fed beef really greener than feedlot-finished beef? Let’s parse the science.

What’s the difference between grass-fed and feedlot beef?

Feedlot calves begin their lives on pasture with the cow that produced them. They’re weaned after six to nine months, then grazed a bit more on pasture. They’re then “finished” for about 120 days on high-energy corn and other grains in a feedlot, gaining weight fast and creating that fat-marbled beef that consumers like.

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We Could Have Less than 60 Years of Farming Left — Unless We Support This Growing Movement

Sixty years. That’s how long U.N. officials said we have until all the world’s topsoil degrades to the point that it’s no longer useful for farming (and this was back in 2014, so it’s more like 55 years now).

Massive farms—the kinds that lean on chemical pesticides, large tilling machines, and other growing techniques that strip the ground of nutrients—are one of the biggest threats to our soil. As the global population rises, more hungry mouths to feed will likely mean more of these environmentally damaging growing practices. 

On the other end of the spectrum, you’ll find regenerative farming that actually mimics nature to restore soil health by pumping nutrients back into the ground. (You can learn more on how it works here.)

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The Green New Deal Wants Farmers to Restore the Land, Not Keep Wrecking It

By the time California rancher Doniga Markegard picks up the phone around lunchtime, she has already moved the chickens, fed the chickens, fed the pigs, cared for a new litter of 11 piglets, moved the sheep, tended to the horses, milked the cow, and completed a business advising session about the future of her family’s 10,000-acre operation. Overall, a pretty typical Monday.

“We’re good at working with the land and working with the animals, but then all of a sudden you have to add marketing and sales and inventory management,” says Markegard. Based 50 miles south of San Francisco in Half Moon Bay, Markegard and her family produce grass-fed beef and lamb and pastured pork and chicken for customers in the Bay Area. If they operated in a more traditional way, they would specialize in a single product and plug neatly into the industrial agriculture system. Instead, in order to break even, they have to run the equivalent of a consumer-facing small business with a farm attached.

“We’d love to just be out on the land with the livestock, doing what we do, but that’s not practical when you really want to be fully regenerative,” she says.

Regenerative agriculture might sound at first like a subtle variation on organic. But if the term “organic” highlights what’s absent—no chemical fertilizers, no pesticides—”regenerative” goes a step further, advocating for practices like adaptive multi-paddock grazing, in which ruminants like cows and sheep are slowly rotated across a property, so they graze on and fertilize one section of the farm at a time while allowing the rest to naturally regrow and replenish. Methods like this require more hands-on planning involvement from the farmers, but they’ve been found to restore soil health, capture carbon, and help ranches thrive over the long term.

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The New Plan to Remove a Trillion Tons of Carbon Dioxide from the Atmosphere: Bury It

Last month, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere surpassed 415 parts per million, the highest in human history. Environmental experts say the world is increasingly on a path toward a climate crisis.

The most prominent efforts to prevent that crisis involve reducing carbon emissions. But another idea is also starting to gain traction — sucking all that carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it underground.

It sounds like an idea plucked from science fiction, but the reality is that trees and plants already do it, breathing carbon dioxide and then depositing it via roots and decay into the soil. That’s why consumers and companies often “offset” their carbon emissions by planting carbon-sucking trees elsewhere in the world.

But an upstart company, ­Boston-based Indigo AG, now wants to transform farming practices so that agriculture becomes quite the opposite of what it is today — a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

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Restoring Depleted Soils with Cattle

Michael Thiele’s mission today is to acquaint more farmers and ranchers with a holistic view of agriculture.

Thiele grew up on a farm west of Dauphin, Man., just north of Riding Mountain National Park. His father had a small grain farm and a few cows.

“We were busy trying to farm and make a living and like all the other farmers around us, we were creating a monoculture of grain crops — mostly wheat, canola, oats and barley,” says Thiele.

“When I went to university, I thought soil was simply dirt,” he says. People didn’t realize how alive soil is, teeming with life and activity, and how much we depend on a healthy soil system. Now Thiele is trying to help producers understand that the way we farmed created unhealthy soil.

In his part of Manitoba there were rich, fertile soils with 10 to 14 per cent organic matter. “But those soils are now between two and four per cent. 

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How Regenerative Land and Livestock Management Practices Can Sequester Carbon

For people who want to help address climate change through their daily choices, many media headlines point to avoiding meat as the biggest way to reduce their impact. With livestock as one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, it might seem that if we only eliminated animals in food production — cows, in particular — we’d save the planet. Meatless meat is exploding in popularity — even Burger King and White Castle have started offering meatless burgers on their menus. Still, despite good intentions, a blanket censure against cattle leaves out a big part of the story: humans. How animals are raised and managed by humans makes the difference in beef’s climate impact.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, a 2017 life cycle assessment (LCA) conducted with one of EPIC Provisions’ beef suppliers, White Oak Pastures, gives evidence that regeneratively managed cows actually can help sequester carbon in the soil.

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