Why Carbon Farm?
Good News in the Face of Climate Change
By Anne Bishop
“Carbon farming,” or simple land use practices that build living soils, holds significant advantages over the widespread land use practices that came into vogue in the 1950s. Unlike the lifeless, sterile dirt that results from poor conventional practices, the rich, fertile soils created by carbon farming produce higher yields and more nutritious food. And these results are achieved using less money and labor. Furthermore, these living soils retain 30% more water, thus minimizing erosion and pollution runoff, and making crops drought resistant.
But there is another advantage to carbon farming: by maximizing plant photosynthesis, these healthy soils pull large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2)—the principle global warming gas—out of the air and store the carbon in the ground. Those black, fertile soils are black with carbon. And for every 1 ton of carbon stored in the soil, more than 3 tons of carbon dioxide have been removed from the air, reports Kristin Ohlson, award-winning science writer and author of The Soil Will Save Us (Rodale, 2014).
While there are now toxically high levels of carbon in Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, carbon levels in the planet’s soils and biosphere are dangerously low. This carbon imbalance propels climate change and ocean acidification: two phenomenon that are quickly overturning the conditions within which human civilization flourished. Worldwide, soils have lost up to 80 billion tons of carbon to land misuse, according to Ohlson.
But researchers testing good soil practices at the New Mexico State University's Institute for Sustainable Agriculture have found that not only could they “grow more crops faster, better, and with less water on improved soils, but these healthy plants shuttled 72% of the CO2 they pulled from the air into the soil,” Ohlson reports. The scientists “expected the amount of CO wafting off the soil from plant processes to increase as soil life increased.” But as soil life increased, the amount of CO2 respiration decreased. “Meaning, soil carbon storage was accelerating in a nonlinear fashion: 2 + 2 was adding up to 15 or 20.” Carbon sequestration by healthy soil was advancing in leaps and bounds.
The best news of all is that this group of scientists observed 50 tons of carbon sequestration per acre in a year, removing upwards of 150 tons of CO2 from the air. And this was achieved in just two years—in an arid climate. Therefore, according to NMSU scientists, carbon farming has the potential to offset all human-caused CO2 emissions at 2014 levels “on less than 11 percent of the world’s cropland,” reports Ohlson. “Over twice that amount of land is fallow at any time worldwide.”
The New Mexico scientists' findings are not alone. From ranchers in Marin County, California, to farmers in Bahia, Brazil, and Kenya, East Africa, those who work with the land have been able to restore denuded or desertified dirt to carbon-rich fertile soil, using best practices (see Healthy Soil Dos and Don'ts under Issues tab). As Kristin Ohlson boldly asserts, the soil really can save us and faster than anyone expected.