"Carbon Farming" Adds Hope to Paris Climate Talks

Photo by Heidi Rients for the USDA Natural Resources

Boosting the amount of organic matter in soil does more than sequester heat-trapping CO2. It improves crop yields, increases biodiversity, and, importantly, holds more water, preventing flooding and enhancing resilience to droughts. With drought identified as a contributing factor to social unrest, the issue is not just climate. It is about reversing desertification that has been destabilizing civilizations for millennia.
As discussed in a recent Slate article and in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, research suggests that global warming contributed to the prolonged drought in Syria that led to protests, civil war, and subsequent calamity. What the article and technical paper don’t mention is that centuries of gradually worsening desertification reduced the ability of the soil to withstand drought. The once-Fertile Crescent is turning to dust. This region used to have prodigious herds of grazers, abundant predators, and rich grasslands and forests. What’s true about Syria is also true about many regions of the world, including California and the American Southwest.
Degraded soils release sufficient CO2 to affect the climate, as they have since the dawn of agriculture. The good news is that what was lost can be recovered. The implementation of innovative agricultural practices could, within a decade, reverse desertification in the Fertile Crescent and everywhere else human mismanagement has driven carbon, and hence, life, out of native landscapes. Addressing desertification, in concert with emission reductions, can reverse global warming and enable a more verdant and peaceful future. Research suggests that global warming contributed to the prolonged drought in Syria that led to protests, civil war, and subsequent calamity.
These multiple benefits, global in scope, are driving investments locally. Interest in agricultural efforts to revitalize rural economies was evidenced by the enthusiastic turnout at a recent workshop, “The Wealth of Soils,” hosted by Soil4Climate and the Soil Carbon Coalition in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Speakers included author Didi Pershouse of the Vermont-based Soil Carbon Challenge. Didi measures soil carbon increases in crop and grazing lands throughout North America with the goal of identifying the innovative agricultural practices most effective for growing soil fastest. Her work is adding to the understanding of how to remove the greatest amount of carbon from the atmosphere and return it to the soil in the shortest time.

Sally Dodge of Iroquois Valley Farms LLC, a “food and farmland company making impact investments in local and organic agriculture following triple-bottom-line principles,” offered insights into how innovative financing can make it possible for beginning farmers to get their start. Sally is instrumental in promoting small, diversified farms in Vermont, strengthening the link between farmers, restaurants, and consumers through farmers’ markets and CSAs (community-supported agricultural cooperatives).
Offering an international perspective was Precious Priri, founder of Earth Wisdom and former outreach coordinator and village facilitator of the Africa Center for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe. Precious spoke of her work training villagers in managing land and livestock for improved soil health. She related how better soil improves water retention, increases food production, and allows myriad economic opportunities to flourish.
Rounding out the workshop lineup was Ridge Shinn, founding director of the New England Livestock Alliance. Ridge is building the supply of 100%-grass-fed beef in the Northeast to meet market demands. His new venture, Grazier LLC, will provide sales opportunities for existing small farmers in the region and provide nutritionally superior beef for distribution in the Northeast, all while improving soil and capturing carbon.
Food author Michael Pollan, celebrity farmer Joel Salatin, wildlife biologist Allan Savory, and soils ecologist Christine Jones, among others, have illuminated the connection between climate and agriculture. As carbon farming moves center stage, a growing public now understands that good land stewardship returns carbon to soil and nutrition to crops.

Precious Phiri at "The Wealth of Soils" conference in Hanover, NH.
Precious Phiri at “The Wealth of Soils” conference in Hanover, NH.

Carbon sequestration rates on the order of one ton per acre per year are feasible on much of the world’s soils, according to an accumulating body of scientific evidence. As agroecological practices such as no-till, cover cropping, regenerative grazing, re-mineralization, and use of compost and biochar proliferate in the years ahead, ever more acreage, including here in New England, will be in climate service to humanity by drawing down greenhouse gases out of the air. In time, billions of acres of land throughout the world will be managed in ways that remove billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere each year for long-term storage in soil.
The market is starting to support so-called carbon farming, because it meets production goals while enhancing environmental resources. In 2014, Danish pension fund Pensionskassernes Administration invested $75 million in a beef operation in Australia to satisfy China’s growing demand for protein. Managed by SLM Partners, this 100%-grass-fed meat production provides the ancillary benefits of land restoration and carbon sequestration.
The cattle are grazing on 480,000 hectares (about one-third the size of Connecticut) of what was mostly barren land. Conventional “old school” rangeland science views significantly degraded land in a low rainfall environment as being in a permanently diminished condition, essentially irreparable. Yet the project team is adding animals while simultaneously returning this land to vibrant prairie. The beneficial forecasted returns include land restoration, job creation, superior nutrition, carbon drawdown, and profit.
The biological option of working with nature to grow healthier and more nutritious crops, while scrubbing excess carbon out of the air and sequestering it in soil, at last has a seat at the climate negotiations table.
The great news is that healing soil doesn’t just fix the climate. It increases food security, restores wildlife habitat, replenishes dried-up rivers, and promotes economic development. It also just might make for a safer and more peaceful world, a prayer on the lips of many.

For Further Reading
Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, David Montgomery (University of California Press, 2007).
Climate Change in the Fertile Crescent and Implications of the Recent Syrian Drought,Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Colin P. Kelley, et. al., March 17, 2015.
How Did Humans First Alter Global Climate?” William F. Ruddiman, Scientific American, March 2005.