Is Soil Carbon Enough ?
On the morning following the march, I participated in a midtown press conference organized by the Organic Consumers Association to promote the idea that we can reverse climate change by building up stocks of carbon in the soil with progressive farming and ranching practices. One of the speakers was Mark Smallwood, Executive Director of the Rodale Institute, a research and education nonprofit that has been a leader of the organic farming movement since 1947. Last spring, Rodale released a white paper entitled Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming ▻http://rodaleinstitute.org/assets/RegenOrgAgricultureAndClimateChange_20140418.pdf which states boldly that we could sequester more than 100% of current annual #CO2 emissions with a switch to soil-creating, inexpensive and effective organic agricultural methods.
“If management of all current cropland shifted to reflect the regenerative model as practiced at the research sites included in the white paper,” a Rodale press release said, “more than 40% of annual emissions could potentially be captured. If, at the same time, all global pasture was managed to a regenerative model, an additional 71% could be sequestered. Essentially, passing the 100% mark means a drawing down of excess greenhouse gases, resulting in the reversal of the greenhouse effect.”
The solution was as straightforward as it was ancient: plant photosynthesis. And the ‘geoengineering’ technology needed to do the job of building soil carbon on a worldwide scale already exists: it’s called farming and ranching. I liked the way Rodale put it in their white paper: farming like the Earth matters. Farming like water and soil and land matter. Farming like clean air matters. Farming like human health, animal health and ecosystem health matters. Regenerative agriculture is any practice that encourages life to perpetuate itself naturally. Building soil carbon (via soil biology) is a good example. It’s good for plant vigor, mineral uptake, water availability, erosion prevention and species diversity. A quick list of regenerative organic practices include: cover crops, mulching, composting, no-till, and planned grazing of livestock.
“When coupled with the management goal of carbon sequestration,” said the white paper, “these practices powerfully combine with the spirit of organic agriculture to produce healthy soil, healthy food, clean water and clean air using inexpensive inputs local to the farm…Farming becomes, once again, a knowledge intensive enterprise, rather than a chemical and capital-intensive one.”
Great stuff – though I knew from personal experience it was more complicated than that. Getting ranchers to change their ways, for example, was much more difficult to accomplish in real life than in theory. Nature can be difficult in real life too. Droughts make the carbon cycle work more slowly, which reduces the amount of carbon that can be stored in the soil. And droughts are a big problem already around the planet.
Still, this wasn’t the point of the press conference. What mattered was getting the word out about soil carbon, especially on the heels of the publicity and hopefulness generated by the People’s Climate March. The time had come to encourage new research, new policy development and the rapid expansion of regenerative agricultural methods.
“By engaging the public now,” Smallwood said, “we build the pressure necessary to prevent this call to action from sitting on the desks of policy-makers, or worse yet, being buried by businesspeople from the chemical industry. We don’t have time to be polite about it.”
To that end, in a few weeks Smallwood intended to literally walk his talk – all the way from Rodale’s headquarters in eastern Pennsylvania to Washington in order to deliver the white paper directly to the offices of Congressional leaders.
Let’s pray they listen.
Sitting at the press conference and listening to the speakers, I felt amazed how fast all this hopefulness about soil carbon has happened. Just a few years ago, carbon wasn’t on radar screens, at least not beyond laboratories, a few soil scientists, and a handful of progressive farmers and ranchers. Now talk of soil carbon is everywhere. At a major grazing conference in London that I attended the previous month, carbon was the most popular topic discussed (after cattle), with speaker after speaker extolling its virtues. And now we were talking about reversing climate change with the stuff!
Very cool. Very hopeful. The cheering tourists in Times Square would cheer even louder if they knew anything about soil carbon – which they don’t. That’s why we are all working hard to spread this hopeful message.
But are solutions enough anymore? It’s important that they exist, but how do we implement them at a scale that can make a difference beyond isolated pockets of innovation? In other words, how do we help foster a regenerative carbon economy? Is there hopeful news here as well? The answer here wasn’t clear.