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Will Soil Save Us? Carbon Sequestration Through Agriculture

When I taught kindergarten many years ago, I remember when 6-year old Flo fixed her china-blue eyes on me one morning and said she had just figured something out: “Everything in the world is alive,” she declared, “but in its own way.”

Flo’s words come to mind this spring as I get my hands into the earth. I am always awestruck in nature, but these days there’s also an undercurrent of dull grief and panic about climate change. All life, present in all of its variation and complexity, is cherished more than ever before. Every bee and butterfly that enters my garden will get the best seat at the table.

I’m also mindful of my grandfather, a Dutch immigrant who acquired land in southwestern Minnesota in the late 1800s and “broke the prairie” with a sharpened plow and a team of good horses.

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Can Soil Microbes Slow Climate Change?

With global carbon emissions hitting an all-time high in 2018, the world is on a trajectory that climate experts believe will lead to catastrophic warming by 2100 or before. Some of those experts say that to combat the threat, it is now imperative for society to use carbon farming techniques that extract carbon dioxide from the air and store it in soils. Because so much exposed soil across the planet is used for farming, the critical question is whether scientists can find ways to store more carbon while also increasing agricultural yields.

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David Johnson of New Mexico State University thinks they can. The recipe, he says, is to tip the soil’s fungal-to-bacterial ratio strongly toward the fungi. He has shown how that can be done. Yet it is not clear if techniques can be scaled up economically on large commercial farms everywhere.

 

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The Climate Solution Right Under Our Feet

here are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground; there are a thousand ways to go home again. —Rumi

The way to stop climate change might be buried in 300 square feet of earth in the Venice neighborhood of Los ­Angeles, amid kale and potatoes. A half-dozen city youth are digging through the raised bed on a quiet side street, planting tomato seedlings between peach and lime trees. Nineteen-year-old ­Calvin sweats as he works the rake. There’s a lot at stake here. The formerly homeless youngsters are tentatively exploring farming through a community outreach program started by a California nonprofit called Kiss the Ground. More importantly, they are tending to the future of our planet.

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“Soil just might save us,” filmmaker Josh Tickell says, “but we are going to have to save it first.”

 

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New Market Planned to Pay Farmers for Soil Carbon, Water Quality

General Mills, ADM, Cargill, McDonald’s, and The Nature Conservancy are among 10 companies and nonprofit organizations that are forming a national market by 2022 to incentivize the adoption of farming practices that build soil carbon and improve water conservation.

Talks for the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium were convened two years ago by the Nobel Research Institute, which has committed over $2 million to the endeavor with additional support from the General Mills Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, and McKnight Foundations. The aim of the venture is to develop protocols and a market framework to issue greenhouse gas reduction credits to farmers who adopt conservation practices.

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The market will work in two ways. First, farmers will receive credits for the amount of carbon they sequester in the soil or water quality they improve, giving farmers a new and potentially significant income stream; companies can then buy those credits to meet their climate or water goals.

 

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Regenerative Agriculture

Few of us are not aware of the dire statistics of our present world.  The amount of carbon we release into the atmosphere continues to increase even though we’ve made some progress in limiting some sources.  Extreme weather events, climate refugees, and species extinctions herald the arrival of climate change while exploding population growth and resource depletion exacerbate the situation.  Now, we know that we have eleven years to turn it around before we are beset with irreversible climate chaos.  Before you go out behind the house and shoot yourself, remember that we got ourselves into this mess and we certainly have the knowledge and wherewithal to get ourselves out of it.

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We are told that every ton of carbon we put in the atmosphere will be there for ten thousand years or more.  I don’t think that needs to be so.

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Why Regenerative Agriculture Is the Future of Food

As we face an ever-growing need to combat climate change, many people around the world are looking at how we produce our food. Agriculture has a strong effect on climate change (and vice versa). While some methods contribute to higher pollution and environmental degradation, others actually have the potential to reverse climate change. And one of those practices is regenerative agriculture.

Defining Regenerative Agriculture

The Regenerative Agriculture Initiative of California State University, Chico and The Carbon Underground — in conjunction with several other companies and organizations — worked together to create a definition for regenerative agriculture. The goal was to give a basic meaning to the relatively new term and to prevent it from being “watered down,” according to The Carbon Underground.

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“‘Regenerative Agriculture’ describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity.

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Agriculture Is a Big Climate Problem. Now Farmers Are Sharing Solutions

Editor’s note: Andre Leu, international director of Regeneration International (RI), and Hans Herren, a member of the RI Steering Committee, were interviewed by Grist during the COP24 Climate Summit in Katowice, Poland.

KATOWICE, POLAND — Hans Herren began his farm as a hobby almost 20 years ago. He’s been planting grapes and growing apple orchards on an 11-acre plot of land near Napa Valley in California. Thus far, the venture has been a success, but he knows he needs to make some adjustments soon.

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“This year, I lost a lot of apples — the ones that were not inside the tree, covered by leaves so they were in the shade, were burned by the sun,” Herren said. He’s likely going to have to install a screen over his entire orchard to prevent fruit loss.

Today, the average temperature in California is rising, and the nights don’t get as cool as they used to. The warmer nights make for lower-quality grapes, Herren explained, as they’re not given a chance to store nutrients. “I’ve seen the change, even in the 15 years I’ve had those trees,” he said.

 

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Put More Carbon in Soils to Meet Paris Climate Pledges

Soils are crucial to managing climate change. They contain two to three times more carbon than the atmosphere. Plants circulate carbon dioxide from the air to soils, and consume about one-third of the CO2 that humans produce. Of that, about 10–15% ends up in the earth.

Carbon is also essential for soil fertility and agriculture. Decomposing plants, bacteria, fungi and soil fauna, such as earthworms, release organic matter and nutrients for plant growth, including nitrogen and phosphorus. This gives structure to soil, making it resilient to erosion and able to hold water. Typically, organic matter accounts for a few per cent of the mass of soil near the surface.

Increasing the carbon content of the world’s soils by just a few parts per thousand (0.4%) each year would remove an amount of CO2 from the atmosphere equivalent to the fossil-fuel emissions of the European Union1 (around 3–4 gigatonnes (Gt)).

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Heal the Soil, Cool the Climate

Back when I first started at Green America, in 2000, I remember our president/CEO Alisa Gravitz often cautioning those of us on the editorial team against using the term “end” when it came to climate change. There simply wasn’t a solution available that would “end” or “stop” the climate crisis, she would say. The best the world could hope for was collective action that would curb the worst of its effects. We’d get excited about a set of climate solutions and write that they could help “end global warming,” and Alisa would shake her head sadly and ask us to strike the word “end” for accuracy.

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That’s not to say that she wasn’t optimistic about the potential of renewable energy—particularly solar—to make a dent in climate change. Or that she wasn’t hopeful that businesses could come up with some powerful innovations.

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How a Regenerative Revolution Could Reverse Climate Change

Earlier this month the world’s leading climate scientists released the most urgent warning on climate change to date. It describes the implications of our current warming trajectory, including dire food shortages, large-scale human migration and crises ranging from a mass die-off of coral reefs to increasingly extreme weather events. To reverse course, the report calls for a global transformation of historically unprecedented speed and scale. As one of the IPCC study’s co-chairs emphasized, “The next few years are probably the most important in our history.”

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Among the ambitious ideas to meet this challenge is to enable a regenerative revolution, one that supplants our extractive economic model and goes beyond “sustainability” to draw down carbon and reverse course on climate change. Marc Barasch is among the leaders striving to galvanize such a transformation.

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