Sunday, October 02, 2016

Looking to the Earth Itself as a Climate Solution

The agriculture industry is beginning to consider soil's ability to capture and store carbon, a potential climate-saver long overlooked.
Farmers, by using techniques that help preserve soil carbon, could make a contribution to reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions. (Credit: Getty Images) Click to Enlarge.

By using techniques like "no-till," in which farmers plant crops without disturbing the soil, they can minimize the release of carbon.  Farmers can also plant cover crops after the growing season that improve soil health by adding carbon, make the soil less prone to erosion and draw in and store carbon from the atmosphere.  

More U.S. farmers may be asked to do their part and use these techniques soon.

The White House's Council on Environmental Quality recently held a series of meetings, including one with agriculture and forestry stakeholders, to investigate industry trends and these and other possible mitigation strategies.  The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in August announced a new interagency working group on soil health.  And last year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack launched "Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture," a framework for helping farmers deal with —and mitigate — climate change, including using carbon sequestration.
"There's recognition that soils are a very large part of the carbon cycle, and when you look at options and potential around taking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it somewhere else, soils are one of your greatest unexplored opportunities," said Harold M. van Es, a professor of soil science at Cornell University.

Over the past decade or so, more American farmers have started to employ the practices that store carbon or minimize its release.

"Soil health and soil carbon, which have been front and center for sustainable agriculture, including organic, for decades and decades, has suddenly become this big conversation in conventional agriculture, particularly around no-till and cover cropping," said Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.  "It's one of the most hopeful things in agriculture. ... It would be terrible if the U.S. submission for the mid-century [targets] in any way downplayed ag."

The numbers, however, are still relatively tiny.  Only 2 percent of the farmland in the Mississippi River basin, for example, is planted with cover crops and about 35 percent of the cropland used to grow the eight major crops use no-till.

But environmental groups and academics are optimistic that more producers will start using these methods, not least because they improve soil health — and productivity.  

Read more at Looking to the Earth Itself as a Climate Solution

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