Dirt gets treated, well, like dirt. But its status is on the rise among climate scientists and a small but growing cadre of farm activists who see healthier soil as a three-way win for farmers, global food production, and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, InsideClimate News reports.
“Attention to soil health is gaining momentum out of frustration with our inability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions at an economy-wide scale,” said Thomas Driscoll, director of conservation policy for the National Farmers Union, the United States’ second-largest farm industry group. “People are starting to pay attention to farming and land use because they’re having so much trouble everywhere else.”
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Soils acquire carbon when plants, microbes, or other life grow in them and then die or shed material that becomes entrained and sequestered alongside the grains of mineral content in dirt. It’s estimated that the world’s soils “have lost as much as 70% of their natural carbon since agriculture began about 10,000 years ago,” InsideClimate notes. Researchers in California, meanwhile, recently concluded that most of what remains wasn’t absorbed recently.
Nonetheless, ICN asserts, “the world’s cropland has the potential to store 20 billion tons of carbon” over a quarter-century, “enough to offset as much as 15% of carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning each year.”
France is leading an international effort to increase the organic carbon in soils, but conservative farm groups in the United States—the world’s largest and most industrialized agricultural producer—have resisted the call. The American Farm Bureau, the country’s biggest industry group, “has questioned the reality of man-made climate change,” notes ICN’s Georgina Gustin, “which makes it highly unlikely to push its members to take steps, particularly costly ones, to address carbon.”
Nonetheless, the Obama administration has held a series of meetings to push farm and forestry stakeholders to take steps to address climate change, the InsideClimate reports, “including using carbon sequestration.”
One incentive for farmers to adopt soil carbon strategies would simply be to pay them, suggested Rattan Lal, a soil scientist at Ohio State University. His proposal: pay every farmer worldwide US$16 an acre to use carbon-conserving practices like foregoing tilling of fields.
Based on four billion farmed acres around the planet, Lal calculates his idea would cost about US$64 billion. “That’s the price of a few fighter jets,” he said. “So do it.”
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