Soil is the New Bottom Line. An Overlooked Answer to Climate Change Right Beneath Your Feet.
Updated: Feb 9
Dirt has value.
In a world of excess carbon, a solution to the climate crisis will not only require lower greenhouse gas emissions, but also a strategy for sequestering the emissions already released into the atmosphere. One major sink for carbon is healthy soil rich with organic matter.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a natural part of life on Earth, but only when in the right balance. Many of today’s environmental problems arose due to human and industrial disruption of the carbon cycle, in the form of deforestation, the burning of fossil fuels, and the like. Soil loses its utility as a carbon sink when converted to cropland or paved over, adding to rising greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. Carbon not sequestered in the ground adds to the toxic overabundance in air and water.
Thomas Jefferson said “civilization itself rests upon the soil,” words that remain true to this day. Yet hundreds of years later, soil has become one of the most degraded resources on the planet. Regenerative agriculture, however, is a practical solution that can counter this decline. A growing body of research shows that such practices are actually beneficial to the climate and can help restore soil to be able to sequester carbon, reverse detrimental environmental trends, drought-proof ground, and reduce ocean toxicity and acidification.
Scientists, activists, farmers, policymakers, and business leaders agree: soil health is a key part of climate health.
There is not enough carbon where it once was: in the soil.
Carbon-rich soil allows for increased photosynthesis, which captures the greenhouse gases and draws them down into its roots, promoting subterranean nutrient and mineral exchange, water retention, and fertility. In one handful of soil, there are more organisms than there are humans on Earth, noted food-focused author Michael Pollan, who narrates Center for Food Safety’s new Soil Solutions video, which was screened at COP21 in Paris earlier this month.
Humans rely on soil for 95% of our food, but chemical usage, tillage, erosion, and clear-cutting–practices employed for industrial agriculture have accelerated the loss of this essential resource. When damaged, soil releases excess CO2; and since the atmosphere cannot absorb current levels of carbon dioxide, this leads to heating of the Earth, acidifying waters, endangerment of global food webs, and increased intensity of extreme weather.
“There is not enough carbon where it once was: in the soil,” said Pollan, citing that 50-70% of its original carbon stock has been lost. “We now know how to put carbon back in the soil, where it belongs.”
Crop diversity, rotation, composting, and cover crops are key components in adding carbon to the land to make it more productive. Covered fields keep carbon, nitrogen, and other vital nutrients in soil, resulting in far more photosynthesis than bare fields, increasing carbon sequestration, and lowering the overall carbon footprint of farming.
“We’ve gotta do agriculture in a new way,” said Ryland Englehart, Chief Inspiration Officer behind the Los Angeles vegan staples Café Gratitude and Gracias Madre and co-founder of Kiss the Ground. Englehart and his Kiss the Ground team were at COP21 for a daylong regenerative organic agriculture and land-use workshop with Regeneration International, The Carbon Underground, and Project Drawdown, spearheaded by Paul Hawken. The coalition seeks to prove that agriculture, often cast off for only having negative impacts on the environment due to massive greenhouse gas emissions (second only to energy at the industry level) and land desecration, can in fact be an ally in the climate change fight.
In the age of industrial agriculture, only 2% of the population is growing food, said Englehart. There is little incentive to be a farmer, and even less so an organic farmer, which accounts for 0.7% of the food grown in the United States. His coalition and broader networks are calling for a resurgence in regenerative farming in the 21st century, for “stewards of the earth” to work together to mitigate climate change, improve communities, and create drought resilience.
We destroy soil, yet it takes millenia to grow back.
Farmers are, and should be, hugely concerned with soil carbon loss, as it results in agricultural yield declines and degraded land, according to Duncan Cameron, Chair of Plant and Soil Biology at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom.
“We destroy soil, yet it takes millennia to grow back,” Sheffield highlighted the long-term consequences on global food supplies, ecosystems, and economies. “We have the technology, we just need the political will to deliver sustainable solutions,” he added, quoting FDR in saying, “the nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”
While soil was not on the official agenda at the climate conference in Paris, the topic was woven throughout a number of panels and side events, particularly around World Soil Day on December 5.
The French Ministry of Agriculture has taken a clear stand on the issue with its “4 pour 1000” initiative, committing to increase soil carbon by 0.4% each year, the first international effort around carbon restoration in soils. If all nations were to achieve the same, 75% of global annual greenhouse gas emissions could be stored in the soil, according to Michael Pollan in Center for Food Safety’s video on the topic.
Although full soil sequestration capacities are unknown as of yet, carbon capture through organic matter in soil is a hugely promising, low-risk, inexpensive agroecology technique that can be employed immediately. Soils can be rebuilt through organic, regenerative agricultural practices including polyculture, cover cropping, agroforestry, nutrient recycling, crop rotation, and organic soil amendments like compost and biochar.
Soil health is essential in providing food and water for a growing population, as well as a systemic solution to combat desertification and ocean toxicity. Carbon-rich soil has a greater availability of nutrients that boost crop yields and air pockets that allow for water absorption and storage, key in times of both flooding and drought. It minimizes erosion and bolsters land to brace for mounting climate-related challenges such as floods and mudslides. Healthy soil is a must for food security, ocean functionality and a sustainable environment.
An answer to climate change may lie right beneath your feet.
Written for and originally published on Fusion/Univision, following presentations and dialogues on soil and climate health in Paris at COP21.