Carbon Sequestration—The Climate Change Solution That Virtually All Climate Activists Ignore

Story at-a-glance -

  • 2015 has been declared the International Year of Soils, with the objective to achieve full recognition of the prominent contributions of soils to food security and climate change adaptation
  • Carbon sequestration in soils can help regenerate soils, increase crop yields, reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, limit fresh water usage, reduce use of agricultural chemicals, and reduce pollution
  • About 40 percent of agricultural soils around the globe is currently classified as degraded or seriously degraded; the world only has about 60 years’ worth of topsoil left

By Dr. Mercola

2015 has been declared the International Year of Soils,1 and few topics could be more important at this time. One of the objectives of the International Year of Soils is to "create full awareness of civil society and decision makers about the fundamental roles of soils for human's life."

Another is to "achieve full recognition of the prominent contributions of soils to food security [and] climate change adaptation." Rarely do you hear climate activists2 address the issue of soil and land regeneration, yet it is perhaps the most comprehensive solution to everyone's concerns.

Fighting over whether or not climate change is real; or whether climate change is manmade or not is completely irrelevant. Arguing over whether the temperature is actually rising or falling, or whether arctic ice sheets are shrinking or growing is a waste of time.

Why Agricultural 'U-Turn' Is Necessary

The fact of the matter is, the global landscape is changing, and food security is no longer a given, even if you have plenty of available land, and here's why:

  • Water scarcity is getting worse as aquifers are drained faster than they can be refilled. In August 2014, the National Geographic3 reported that a four-year long drought in California had led to the depletion of snowpacks, rivers, and lakes.
  • As a result, the state has been tapping into its underground aquifers to make up for the lack of water. At present, nearly 60 percent of California's water needs are met by groundwater4 that does not have time to recharge at the same rate it's being used.

  • Soil erosion and degradation is rapidly getting worse.
  • Air and water pollution are worsening.
  • Land is turning into desert at a rapid clip, and with it, we're losing biodiversity of both plant and animal life.
  • Everything is getting more toxic, and according to a wide variety of scientists, we are looking at no more than 50-60 years' worth of "business as usual" before we reach a point at which nature will no longer sustain us on any front, be it water, air, or soil quality.

The World Has Only 60 Years' Worth of Topsoil Left

One striking example highlighting just how pressed for time we are is the news that the world only has about 60 years' worth of topsoil left.

In a 2012 Time Magazine5 interview, University of Sydney professor John Crawford discussed this issue, noting that about 40 percent of agricultural soils around the globe is currently classified as degraded or seriously degraded.

"Seriously degraded" means that 70 percent of the topsoil (the layer of soil in which plants grow) has already disappeared. The reason for the erosion and degradation is farming methods that remove carbon from the soil and destroy the microbial balance in the soil responsible for plant nutrition and growth.

At present, topsoil is being lost 10-40 times faster than nature can regenerate and replenish it naturally. According to Professor Crawford:

"People don't always think about how [soil] is connected with so many other things: health, the environment, [food] security, climate, water. For example, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of our fresh water use...

If soil is not fit for purpose, that water will be wasted, because it washes right through degraded soil and past the root system. Given the enormous potential for conflict over water in the next 20-30 years, you don't want to exacerbate things by continuing to damage the soil, which is exactly what's happening now...

Under a business as usual scenario, degraded soil will mean that we will produce 30 percent less food over the next 20-50 years. This is against a background of projected demand requiring us to grow 50 percent more food, as the population grows..."

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Nitrogen Application Contributes to the Problem

Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers add to the problem by turning soil carbon into carbon dioxide (CO2). According to André Leu, President of Organics International and author of The Myths of Safe Pesticides:

"Research shows a direct link between the application of synthetic nitrogenous fertilizers and the decline in soil carbon.

Scientists from the University of Illinois analyzed the results of a 50-year agricultural trial and found that synthetic nitrogen fertilizer resulted in all the carbon residues from the crop disappearing as well as an average loss of around 10,000 kg of carbon (C) per hectare per year.

This is around 36,700 kg of carbon dioxide per hectare on top of the many thousands of kilograms of crop residue that is converted in to CO2 every year.

The researchers found that the higher the application of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer the greater the amount of soil carbon lost as CO2. This is one of the major reasons why conventional agricultural systems have a decline in soil carbon while organic systems increase soil carbon."

In a paper6 titled, Nitrogen: the double-edged sword, Christine Jones, PhD goes into some detail about the impacts of inorganic nitrogen. Ironically, in addition to depleting soil carbon, application of nitrogen fertilizers also deplete the soil of its natural nitrogen stores. In her paper, she also describes the inter-dependency between nitrogen, carbon, and aggregation produced by soil fungi.

Mycorrhizal fungi use carbon to form soil aggregates, which is how soil structure is built. (More specifically, soil aggregates are produced by arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi.) Soil aggregates are like clusters of tiny particles that do not fit together, resulting in porous spaces in the soil. This alleviates compaction and allows for water retention.

As explained by Dr. Jones, if soils are not actively aggregating (due to a lack of mycorrhizal fungi), it will not fix significant amounts of atmospheric nitrogen, nor will it sequester stable forms of carbon. The mycorrhizal fungi responsible for aggregation can be significantly harmed by agricultural chemicals and disruptive methods like tilling, both of which are cornerstones of our modern chemical-based agriculture. The use of diverse ground cover plants is also important for mycorrhizal fungi proliferation, and this is rarely done in conventional farming. She writes, in part:

"When soil is bare there is no photosynthesis and very little biological activity. Bare soils lose carbon and nitrogen, nutrient cycles become dysfunctional, aggregates deteriorate, structure declines and water-holding capacity is reduced. Bare fallows, designed to store moisture and retain nutrients, become self-defeating. The maintenance of bare fallows - or the use of high rates of inorganic N in crops or pastures—or worse, both—results in the uncoupling of the nitrogen and carbon cycles that have functioned synergistically for millennia."

Nitrogen application also pollutes water supplies. As noted by Dr. Jones: "The USDA estimates that the cost of removing nitrate from U.S. drinking water is more than $4.8 billion per year, while nitrogen run-off from farmland is the single largest source of nutrient pollution contributing to the massive 'dead zone' in the Gulf of Mexico."

Carbon Sequestration is an Important Part of the Solution

There's an obvious answer to all of these concerns. Unfortunately, too few are giving it the attention it deserves, if they're paying it any attention at all. The answer is to alter our agricultural practices in such a way as to return and confine organic matter and carbon in the soil. This will help:

Regenerate the soil Limit agricultural water usage with no till and crop covers
Increase crop yields7 Reduce the need for agricultural chemicals and additives, if not eliminate such need entirely in time
Reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels Reduce air and water pollution by lessening the need for herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers

2014 Saw a Rise in Sustainable Farming

8 2014 saw an upshot in ecological farming—agricultural practices that protect, sustain, and regenerate the Earth's ecology. Increasing numbers of farmers are indeed starting to recognize the value, if not necessity, for such modifications.

Eco-farmers have also started getting increasing support from international organizations—the United Nations in particular. As noted by Olivier De Schutter, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, last year:

"We cannot continue in this impasse of an oil dependent food production system. … Agroecology is really common sense. It means understanding how nature works, to replicate the natural workings of nature on farms in order to reduce dependency on external inputs."

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Director-General, José Graziano da Silva, has also said:

"Agroecology continues to grow, both in science and in policies. It is an approach that will help to address the challenge of ending hunger and malnutrition in all its forms, in the context of the climate change adaptation needed."

At present, most governments around the world are subsidizing and/or promoting a food production system that is unsustainable. Moreover, it's done at the cost of both human and environmental health.

As noted by Professor Crawford, modern crop breeding and genetic engineering is also exacerbating malnutrition and hunger rather than alleviating it. Take wheat for example, which today contains half the micronutrients of older strains. The same goes for fruits and vegetables of all kinds. Most are bred or engineered to withstand pests. Very little attention has been paid to the nutrient content, which has precipitously fallen. In a previous interview with Dr. August Dunning, he presented data showing that in order to receive the same amount of iron you used to get from a single apple in 1950, by 1998 you had to eat 26 apples!

The reason for this is in part due to the excessive use of glyphosate. The United States alone applies 200 million pounds of glyphosate to croplands each year. Worldwide, more than one billion pounds of glyphosate are used each year. This broad-spectrum herbicide effectively chelates minerals from the soil, making the minerals unavailable for plants. It's also a potent antibiotic that decimates crucial soil biology responsible for nutrient uptake. As stated by Professor Crawford:9

"The focus has been on breeding high-yield crops which can survive on degraded soil, so it's hardly surprising that 60 percent of the world's population is deficient in nutrients like iron. If it's not in the soil, it's not in our food...Significant progress is technically quite straightforward... First-off I'd focus on getting carbon back into the soil, by reversing bad farming practices like tillage, nutrient mismanagement, removing stubble and over-grazing...

In the longer term, breeding targets need to focus more on human nutrition as well as productivity, and on traits that improve the soil... From a policy standpoint, probably the most important thing is to find pricing mechanisms that take into account the environmental, health and other costs of a broken system. Farmers need to be appropriately rewarded for regenerating the environment and producing food that supports a healthier society."

The Solution for Reversing Soil Degradation

A recent paper in the journal Sustainability10 presents "an optimistic strategy" for reversing soil degradation. By examining how soil biology influences soil quality, and how biological properties and processes contribute to agricultural sustainability, the authors discuss how, by focusing on soil health, a number of pressing problems can be successfully addressed:

  • Nutrient availability in soil can be increased, producing high yielding, high quality crops
  • Crops can be naturally protected from pests, pathogens, and weeds
  • Factors that might otherwise undermine production, such as drought, can be ameliorated

According to a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) 2012 report11 titled: Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States, our current agricultural system, which is dominated by corn and soy, is unsustainable in the long term. Should temperatures rise as predicted, the US could expect to see significant declines in yields by the middle of this century. We do not have the time to ponder these problems much longer. We must begin to address the health and quality of our soils, as this can solve virtually every single dilemma we're currently facing.

In the featured lecture, Judith Schwartz discusses the transformative effects of various water management approaches around the world. While many claim that climate change is responsible for droughts and land masses turning into desert, Schwartz notes that one can easily argue that our agricultural methods have also contributed to this change in climate. Arguing about which came first, the climate change or the environmental destruction, is pointless. Instead we need to focus on strategies that will bring us closer to a system that works.

And restoring the water cycle in our environment—by sequestering carbon in our soils—will not only make our food supply more secure, it can also help moderate changes in climate. Sequestering carbon in the soil will not only lessen the carbon dioxide load in the atmosphere. Once in the soil, the carbon does many beneficial things, including holding water. A mere one percent increase in organic soil carbon means an acre of land can hold an additional 20,000 gallons of water. "If water can be kept in the soil, that land is supporting life," she says. Moreover, any rain that falls will also be more effectively absorbed and used, rather than evaporating into the air or eroding away the soils by rapid runoff.

Reducing the Environmental Hoofprint of Feedlot Operations

Holistic grazing is a crucial part of regenerative land management. Done properly it can radically increase cover crop diversity, top soil and soil microbes. At present, a staggering two-thirds of the landmass on earth is turning into desert, and cattle grazing is part of the answer to stop and reverse this loss of land. It's also an important principle that improves the nutrition of our food.

Not only do pastured animal foods (meat, eggs, dairy) have a superior nutrient profile, they also do not contain many of the contaminants associated with poor health and disease, found in CAFO-raised animals. This includes antibiotics and other growth promoters, and genetically engineered feed grains and the pesticides associated with them. According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC):12

"The US beef supply chain suffers from poor management practices that impact our climate and degrade our grazing lands while adversely influencing public health, animal welfare, and worker safety...

Fortunately, an extensive body of science has shown that improving supply chain management has the potential to dramatically benefit ecosystem health across the country. This is because, for example, well-managed grazinglands provide society with economically valuable "ecosystem services," including biodiversity, sequestered carbon, filtered nutrient runoff, recharged ground and surface waters, recreational opportunities, and scenic landscapes."

According to the NRDC, there's only one comprehensive program serving American beef producers, and that is Food Alliance, which is still quite small. To strengthen efforts, the NRDC has partnered with Food Alliance, Rainforest Alliance, and a number of other stakeholders to create a new, more comprehensive program to help improve beef production in the US. According to the NRDC:

"This new program will account for the health of America's grasslands and other grazed ecosystems, how ranchers and farmers grow grass and feed crops, how feedlots are managed, and whether cattle are treated humanely and workers are treated fairly."

You Are What You Eat... And Health Begins in the Soil

Aside from the environmental harm being done by confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and chemical-dependent agriculture, the current food production system also takes an incredible toll on human health. Many kids are not getting the nutrients they need in order to thrive, especially in the US where nearly 40 percent of children's diets come from added sugars and unhealthy fats.13 Only 21 percent of youth aged 6-19 eat the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day.

Ingredients that are of poor nutritional quality to begin with, and often contaminated with hazardous chemicals, are being further destroyed via extensive processing. Sugars, harmful processed fats, and chemicals are then added for taste. And people wonder why diseases that once appeared only in middle-age and beyond, such as severe obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and even liver disease, are now so prevalent among our youth...

Processed foods, which were once seen as a godsend for busy parents are now one of the leading causes of disease, and there's nothing convenient about that!

The sustainable solution for good human and ecological health is to focus on carbon sequestration. It's a solution that can address most of the pressing problems we currently face, including climate change, water shortages, and lack of food security. So why don't major climate activists get on board with regenerative farming enthusiasts? I hope in 2015—the International Year of Soils—they will.