Tuesday, December 8, 2015

How Can Farming Help Solve Climate Change?

The subjects of farming, agriculture, forestry, soil, meat, crops, growing methods, and land use are finally being recognized as important contributors and mitigators of greenhouse gases. The Paris COP21 talks have spurred discussion and many articles from numerous sources related to how agriculture can or might contribute to carbon sequestration. This includes producing and feeding global populations in the most CO2 efficient ways possible.

I thought it would be valuable to do a round up of some of the articles that address agriculture as it relates to climate change, and that is the purpose of this post.

1. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and Breakthrough Strategies and Solutions, LLC, jointly published a paper that explores how soil carbon is sequestered, the state of soil carbon research, and the debate on its potential. It offers a set of recommendations for ongoing research and highlights the many co-benefits of increasing soil carbon. The paper was written by Daniel Kane, a soil scientist and agroecologist who researches soil carbon cycles, regenerative agriculture, and sustainable food systems. “Based on global estimates of historic carbon stocks and projections of rising emissions, soil’s usefulness as a carbon sink and drawdown solution appear essential (Lal, 2004, 2008),” Kane explains. “Since over one third of arable land is in agriculture globally (World Bank, 2015a), finding ways to increase soil carbon in agricultural systems will be a major component of using soils as a sink.” [Carbon Sequestration Potential on Agricultural Lands: A Review of Current Science and Available Practices. By Daniel Kane]

2. By some estimates, as much as half the carbon dioxide so far put into the atmosphere by human activity has come from trashing the land — by deforestation, draining wetlands, overgrazing grasslands and the destruction of soils. So why not bring that carbon back to earth by restoring damaged landscapes? Advocates here at the Paris conference say replanting forests and reviving soils could realistically absorb a quarter of current industrial emissions. And they want to start in Africa. [How 'Landscape Carbon' can be part of a Solution on Climate. By Fred Pearce]

3. This week, world leaders are hashing out a binding agreement in Paris at the 2015 U.N. Climate Change Conference for curbing greenhouse gas emissions. And for the first time, they've made the capture of carbon in soil a formal part of the global response to the climate crisis. "This is a game changer because soil carbon is now central to how the world manages climate change. I am stunned," says AndrĂ© Leu, president of IFOAM — Organics International, an organization that promotes organic agriculture and carbon farming worldwide. [Carbon Farming Gets A Nod At Paris Climate Conference. By Alastair Bland]

4. Like forests and oceans, soils also capture carbon, through the vegetable matter that decomposes in them. Instead of being released in the form of gases that contribute to global warming, carbon stocked in soil nourishes plants. An increase of 0.4 percent a year in the level of carbon in soils would make it possible to stop the current growth of carbon dioxide—a major greenhouse gas—in the atmosphere, according to the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (Inra). France's agriculture ministry launched an international research programme on the subject this year, which 40 countries signed up to at the ongoing UN climate talks in Paris. [Battling climate change—with worms. By Emmanuelle Michel]

5. Three times the amount of carbon suspended in the atmosphere can be found sequestered underground -- the planet's soil stores approximately 9,170 gigatons of CO2. Until now, scientists didn't really understand why. A new study, published in the journal Nature Communications, suggests lazy microbes are to thank. [Carbon sequestration in soil requires lazy microbes; Researchers say their new model offers a more holistic understanding of microbial communities in soil ecosystems. By Brooks Hays]

6. “We need a radical solution, which is to re-engineer our agricultural system,” Cameron said. “We need to take land out of production for a long time to allow soil carbon to rebuild and become stable. We already have lots of land – it’s being used for pasture by the meat and dairy industries. Rather than keep it separated, we need to bring it into rotation, so that that there is more land in the system and less is being used at any one time.” [Earth has lost a third of arable land in past 40 years, scientists say. By Oliver Milman]

7. Climate change has modified the production cycles in this country, which is experiencing lengthy droughts in the May to October wet season and heavy rain in the November to April dry season. The erratic weather has ruined corn and bean crops. But Reyes, covered head to toe to protect herself from the sun in jeans, a long-sleeved blouse and a hat, is relieved that the high-quality or “improved” seeds have managed to resist the effects of the changing climate. “This corn has withstood it better…the rain hurt it but not very much. Other seeds wouldn’t have survived the blow,” she told IPS in the middle of the cornfield. [Native Seeds Help Weather Climate Change in El Salvador. By Edgardo Ayala]

8. Well-maintained pastures prevent erosion, protect water and, as it turns out, can restore the soil's organic matter much more quickly than previously thought, according to a team of researchers from the University of Georgia and the University of Florida. Soil contains the largest terrestrial reservoir of carbon. Tilling fields every year to plant crops releases soil carbon into the atmosphere. It's been known for a long time that transitioning cropland to pastureland where livestock grazes replenishes the soil's carbon, but their study showed that the process can be much more rapid than scientists previously thought. "What is really striking is just how fast these farms gain soil organic matter," said Aaron Thompson, associate professor of environmental soil chemistry and senior author on the study. "In less than a decade, management-intensive grazing restores these soils to levels of organic matter they had as native forests. These farms accumulate soil carbon at rates as fast as ever measured globally." [Emerging land use practices rapidly increase soil organic matter. By Megan B. Machmuller, Marc G. Kramer, Taylor K. Cyle, Nick Hill, Dennis Hancock, and Aaron Thompson]

9. The solution is farming. Simply put, we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term "regenerative organic agriculture." [Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change; A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming. Rodale Institute White Paper]

10. Last but not least, I helped break the story about how Gabe Brown's rotational farming and cover crop system in North Dakota helped sequester carbon while producing great corn yields and livestock, saved money on inputs, and, was drought-resilient, too, a number of years ago on my site, Big Picture Agriculture. Since then, he's been written up by almost every sustainability news source, including the New York Times, and, he's widely popular on the speaker circuit.

Here is a video describing his system, "Soil Carbon Cowboys".

SOIL CARBON COWBOYS from Peter Byck on Vimeo.

Next, find my recommended written version of what Gabe Brown's system is all about (in 2 parts):

Increasing organic matter on his farm has allowed Brown to reduce the use of commercial fertilizer by over 90 percent, and herbicides by 75 percent, and that’s paying off big time. Sitting on a four-wheeler near one of his corn fields, Brown shows a printout that outlines the financials for his 2011 crop. At today’s fertilizer prices, each 1 percent of organic matter contains $751 worth of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, sulfur and carbon, he estimates. That means Brown’s 5 percent organic matter content is worth $3,755 per acre. When he figures in his expenses for the 2011 corn crop—seed, herbicide, planting, storage, etc.—his 2011 return to labor, management and land was $5.38 per bushel of corn. [Healthy Soil, Healthy Farms, Healthy Communities. By Brian Devore. Part I.]

A combination of results from the Menoken Farm and the fields planted using the 25-acre grants showed that cover cropping could build soil health year-round, not just during the spring and fall. The Soil Conservation District and the farmers also learned that diverse seed mixes that went beyond the traditional cover crop plantings of small grains such as rye built up an impressive amount of carbon while feeding microbes. [Healthy Soil, Healthy Farms, Healthy Communities. By Brian Devore. Part II.]

That ends my round-up of carbon and agriculture. If you've seen any articles that you thought were great on this subject that aren't included (above), please leave a comment with, perhaps, a link to the article. Thanks.

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