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UMass Amherst Microbiologists Clarify Relationship Between Microbial Diversity and Soil Carbon Storage

AMHERST, Mass. – In what they believe is the first study of its kind, researchers led by postdoctoral researcher Luiz A. Domeignoz-Horta and senior author Kristen DeAngelis at the University of Massachusetts Amherst report that shifts in the diversity of soil microbial communities can change the soil’s ability to sequester carbon, where it usually helps to regulate climate.

They also found that the positive effect of diversity on carbon use efficiency – which plays a central role in that storage – is neutralized in dry conditions. Carbon use efficiency refers to the carbon assimilated into microbial products vs carbon lost to the atmosphere as CO2 and contributing to climate warming, DeAngelis explains. Among other benefits, soil carbon makes soil healthy by holding water and helping plants grow.

She and colleagues addressed these questions because they point out, “empirical evidence for the response of soil carbon cycling to the combined effects of warming, drought and diversity loss is scarce.”

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Boost Biodiversity with Regenerative Agriculture

When you were growing up, how often did you have to clean your windshield? And how often do you have to do that now?

The universal answer is that remarkably few insects goo up our windshields today, even relative to a few decades ago.

The insect apocalypse is worldwide in scope, and is directly related to how we produce our food. One study estimates that we’ve lost 76 percent of insect biomass over the past 27 years. Two primary drivers of this staggering biodiversity loss are habitat loss associated with the industrialization of our food system, and the unintended consequences of agrichemical use. Reforming our food system gives us a powerful tool for combating this extensive biodiversity loss, and regenerative food systems can overcome many of the drivers of insect loss.

Ineffective Pest Control

Integrated pest management (IPM) was fighting a battle it could never win. In 1959, it became clear that our over-reliance on chemical pesticides was failing, and some scientists in California devised a systematic approach to pest management that could reduce chemical use and increase crop yield.

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Landscapes That Work for Biodiversity and People

BACKGROUND

Biodiversity is under siege, with greatly enhanced rates of local and global extinction and the decline of once-abundant species. Current rates of human-induced climate change and land use forecast the Anthropocene as one of the most devastating epochs for life on earth. How do we handle the Anthropocene’s triple challenge of preventing biodiversity loss, mitigating and adapting to climate change, and sustainably providing resources for a growing human population? The answer is in how we manage Earth’s “working lands”; that is, farms, forests, and rangelands. These lands must be managed both to complement the biodiversity conservation goals of protected areas and to maintain the diverse communities of organisms, from microbes to mammals, that contribute to producing food, materials, clean water, and healthy soils; sequestering greenhouse gases; and buffering extreme weather events, functions that are essential for all life on Earth.

Photo credit: Pexels

ADVANCES

Protected areas are the cornerstone of biodiversity conservation.

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An Open Goal: Why Forests and Nature Need to Be at the Center of the Sustainable Development Agenda

Author: Alistair Monument and Hermine Kleymann | Published: July 9, 2018

In fewer than 900 days, the world will have halted deforestation, taken urgent action to halt the loss of biodiversity, and ensured that ecosystems are being conserved, restored and sustainably used.

That, at least, is part of what the governments of the 193 countries of the United Nations agreed to in 2015 with the adoption of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The above commitments are just a few of the targets due to be achieved by 2020 under SDG 15, ‘Life on Land.’

So how is it going? Not too well, unfortunately. Recently released figures show that, far from being halted, global tree cover loss actually increased by 51% in 2016; for tropical tree cover loss, 2017 was the second-worst year on record. And with wildlife abundance projected to decline by two-thirds between 1970 and 2020, dramatic changes will be needed to reverse the long-term trend.

This should set alarm bells ringing. Failure to meet these targets wouldn’t simply be a setback towards achieving SDG 15. It would also threaten our ability to meet the other SDGs – which are closely linked to targets set out for Life on Land – and undermine the very foundation of sustainable development.

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Regenerative Farms Yield Soil Health and Higher Profits than Chemical-Intensive Operations

Published: July 11, 2018

Ecologically-based farming systems contain far fewer pests and generate much higher profits than their conventional, chemical-based counterparts according to research published in the journal PeerJ earlier this year by scientists at South Dakota State University and the Ecdysis Foundation. The study supports calls to reshape the future of agriculture, as ‘regenerative’ farms, which avoid tillage and bare soil, integrate livestock, and foster on-farm diversity. These farms are found to represent an economically viable alternative to overly simplified, pesticide and fertilizer-dependent cropping systems. Given the study’s focus on corn cropping systems, such a shift is possible for thousands of farmers throughout the United States.

Researchers looked at roughly 75 fields on 18 farms, measuring the organic matter in the soil, insect pest populations, corn yield as well as profit. Farms using pesticide treatments, which in corn fields is represented primarily by the use of neonicotinoid-coated seeds, had 10x higher pest levels than regenerative farms. As noted in the study, pest populations are a function of the biodiversity within the crop field. Biodiveristy increased on regenerative farms not only because farmers sprayed fewer pesticides, but because they also allowed more plants to grow in between rows. More plants lead to higher numbers of predatory insects and increased competition for pests, while conventional farms mistakenly attempt to simplify the ecosystem by replacing this diversity with pesticides. Lower levels of biodiversity, however, leads to fewer predators, less competition for crop pests like aphids, and the rapid development of pesticide resistance which facilitates pest outbreaks.

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Regenerative Agriculture: Merging Farming and Natural Resource Conservation Profitably

Authors: Claire E. LaCanne and Jonathan G. Lundgren | Published: February 26, 2018

Most cropland in the United States is characterized by large monocultures, whose
productivity is maintained through a strong reliance on costly tillage, external fertilizers,
and pesticides (Schipanski et al., 2016). Despite this, farmers have developed a regenerative model of farm production that promotes soil health and biodiversity, while
producing nutrient-dense farm products profitably. Little work has focused on the
relative costs and benefits of novel regenerative farming operations, which necessitates
studying in situ, farmer-defined best management practices. Here, we evaluate the
relative effects of regenerative and conventional corn production systems on pest
management services, soil conservation, and farmer profitability and productivity
throughout the Northern Plains of the United States.

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‘Soil My Undies’ Challenge Has Farmers Burying Underwear In Their Fields

Across North America, farmers are burying tighty-whities in their fields.

Author: Dan Nosowitz | Published: July 9, 2018

Started by the Farmers Guild in California, the Soil Your Undies Challenge is a test designed to show the power and importance of healthy soil.

The Challenge is easy: Simply bury a pair of 100 percent cotton underwear—generally white briefs have been the garment of choice—in your farm, garden, or pasture. Two months later, dig them up and inspect and document the changes.

Healthy soil contains all sorts of bacteria, earthworms, fungi, and other little organisms that like to eat organic matter, like, just for example, cotton underwear. In two months, underwear buried in healthy soil will be completely eaten through, leaving little but an elastic waistband.

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Soil Biodiversity and Soil Organic Carbon: Why Should Nations Invest in It to Keep Drylands Alive?

Author: Graciela Metternicht | Published: June 18, 2018

The 2018 World Day to Combat Desertification calls to reflect on the true value of land and the need to invest in it; healthy soils are central to sustainable development. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development increases the demand on soils to provide food, water and energy security, protect biodiversity, and mitigate climate change, increasing the centrality of soils in global environmental and development politics. SDG target 15.3, on Land Degradation Neutrality, reflects the growing awareness that land, and by extension soil biodiversity and soil organic carbon, is both a natural resource and a public good that underpins wider sustainable development.

Soil Organic Carbon (SOC) and soil biodiversity are key to the multifunctionality of a landscape, and the reason why strengthening investment and legislation in sustainable land management is considered to be central to achieving many of the Sustainable Development Goals.

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Grow Life in the Soil

The need is critical to grow more life in the soil, and it starts by treating it as you would your own body.

Author: Raylene Nickel | Published: May 16, 2018

Soil is filled with living, breathing, hardworking creatures – it’s a natural commodity more important than any cash crop. When soil is alive, it’s teaming with macro- and microorganisms, ranging the gamut from highly visible beetles and worms to microscopic viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Each of these soil citizens provides a service to the healthful functioning of the broader community.

Having lots of healthy and diverse organisms in the soil creates a self-sufficient cropping system that becomes less dependent upon synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

The system itself produces fertility for robust plant growth, resistance to pests, and water-stable soil aggregates that enhance soil porosity to permit rapid water infiltration and to resist erosion.

In a nutshell, such a system produces resilient crops. In today’s uncertainty of climate, the need for plant resilience is growing more urgent by the day.

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Bless This Mess: Syntropic Coffee Farming Takes Root In Brazil

Author: Juliana Ganan | Published: May 10, 2018

When I first saw João Pedro David’s farm, it was hard to understand. For me, having grown up the daughter of a monoculture-conventional coffee farmer in Minas Gerais, Brazil, David’s land looked more like a forest than a farm, with some Yellow Catuaí coffee trees dotted here and there.

But with time, David made his case, and explained the symbiotic relationship between coffee and the various species of fruits and vegetables native to our Mantiqueira region he had chosen to carefully plant here.

David’s vision for his Sítio Travessia farm is systemic and soil-focused—the ground here is always covered with mulch and organic material. And so it makes sense that it carries the look of a forest, which, after all, is really just an organic system of constant, dynamic soil-enrichment, with each species in an ecosystem contributing to the health of the whole.

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