Sticking Carbon Where The Sun Don’t Shine
I was nine years old, standing face to face with a pine tree, taking long deep breaths.
“Breath in…. And out….In…. And out”
As far as field-trip activities go, it wasn’t the most thrilling, but it stuck with me. I was breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide. The pine tree was breathing in carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen. The earth’s systems are perfect.
But, there was something else that tree was doing with my carbon dioxide that I didn’t understand then. That tree was taking my carbon dioxide and using the carbon to actually build its mass. Yes, the mass of a tree does not come from the soil, but from the air, from the breaths we take.
Underground something even more mysterious and groundbreaking was happening. The tree was taking carbon compounds it didn’t need for growth and exuding them through its roots to feed soil microorganisms (bacteria and fungi). These microorganisms, in exchange, were bringing hard to access water and nutrients to the tree’s roots. The soil microorganisms were taking the carbon that the tree had pulled from the air and humifying or stabilizing the carbon in the soil. This relationship has been evolving for 500 million years.
One Hell of a Lot of Carbon
We are all aware that there is too much carbon in the atmosphere. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago (when we began burning enormous amounts of fossil fuels) we have released 350 gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere.
There is another, less talked about release of carbon into the atmosphere. According to Rattan Lal, a soil scientist at Ohio State University, we have released 500 gigatons of carbon dioxide from the soil into the atmosphere since the beginning of agriculture 10,000 years ago. This is largely a result of the agricultural practice of tilling the land.
Even if we stopped burning all fossil fuels today, there would still be too much carbon in the atmosphere. This carbon contributes to climate change and is acidifying the earth’s oceans (the carbon released by the Industrial Revolution has caused the world’s oceans to become 30 percent more acidic).
Sticking Carbon Where the Sun Don’t Shine
Elaborate engineering ideas are being put into practice to remove carbon from the atmosphere. In Iceland, engineers are using geothermal energy to pump carbon into underground rocks. But, where does it make the most sense to store atmospheric carbon? Currently, there are approximately 2,300 billion tons of carbon in the soil, 750 billion tons in the atmosphere and 550 billion tons in plant and animal life. Soil holds and has the capacity to hold, the bulk of the world’s carbon. It is time we bend down and kiss the ground.
Learning About Regenerative Agriculture in a Venice Garage
It is difficult to guess what an organization named “Kiss the Ground” does. Kiss the ground celebrities walk on perhaps?
It is a Tuesday night and I am in a garage in Venice, California. I consider myself well educated on issues of environment and sustainability but I’m beginning to question this education as I listen to Finian Makepeace and Don Smith of Kiss the Ground. Until taking Kiss the Ground’s Speaker Training Course, I had never considered the potential for soil to store atmospheric carbon.
From the Fertile Crescent to the American Dust Bowl, agriculture has been destroying the soil and environment for 10,000 years. Once an area was desertified, we moved somewhere else. But, there is nowhere left to go.
Kiss the Ground’s Speaker Training Course educates and advocates farming that builds healthy soil. At the same time, this farming pulls carbon from the air, reduces erosion, builds the water holding capacity of the soil, restores small water cycles and grows healthy food. This type of farming is called regenerative agriculture.
Some of the methods used in regenerative agriculture include:
Managed Herd Grazing
The world’s grasslands have co-evolved with enormous herds of large mammals grazing these lands (American Buffalo for example). Typically, the large mammals graze the grasslands and constantly move because of pressure from predators as well as to find new food. The large mammals leave behind partially trampled manure and urine, both of which feed soil microbes which in turn feed the grassland’s plants. The land is never left bare and soil is continually built.
Ranchers can mimic this system by creating a pasture rotation system where livestock are moved constantly and do not return to a pasture until the grass has regrown.
We are familiar with the image of large swaths of bare farmland and think that is normal. But it should rarely if ever, be bare! The goal with cover crops is to have a living root in the ground at any time of the year that you aren’t growing a crop that you are going to harvest.
Soil covered in plants prevents erosion, holds water, provides habitat, cools the air and pumps carbon back into the soil.
We have been dragging plows through soil since the beginning of agriculture. And, since the beginning of agriculture, we have been turning fertile land into dust and deserts.
When a plow cuts through the soil it provides a shot of oxygen to the soil microbes. These microbes quickly multiply eating up the carbon in the soil and releasing it into the atmosphere, the opposite of carbon sequestration. They quickly eat up the carbon and die off which also provides a shot of nutrients to the soil (this is why we do it). The problem is that soil food webs, especially those of mycorrhizal fungi, are continually disturbed and can never establish themselves.
A no-till or minimal tillage system disturbs the soil as little as possible, which means the biological systems that help maintain and build soil can function properly, especially when coupled with other regenerative practices.
No herbicide/fungicide/synthetic fertilizer
Herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and synthetic fertilizers all kill soil microbes. Without these microbes, the soil weakens and becomes more reliant on these same chemicals. There is a large “crop protection” industry producing fertilizers, GMO seeds, and chemical pesticides that is fighting hard to keep agriculture reliant on its products. This industry brings in about $350 billion in annual sales.
Healthy agriculture that works with soil life, on the other hand, creates soil that will grow plants that will be resistant to pests and diseases. These plants will, in turn, be healthier for us. We cannot have healthy food without healthy soil.
How the Home Gardener Can Support Regenerative Agriculture
Soil carbon sequestration largely lies in the hands of farmers but that does not mean that we don’t play a role in it. Michael Pollan likes to say “we vote three times a day.” Our food choices not only affect our health but the health of our planet. I recently asked Kiss the Ground’s, Don Smith, how our food choices can support regenerative agriculture:
Buying food at a farmers’ market lets you meet the farmers and ask them questions about how they grow their produce and take care of their soil. You are trying to avoid supporting degenerative agricultural practices, and increase your support for farmers and businesses that care about improving soil health and human health. Try to buy fresh produce from a local source. Avoid processed foods as much as possible. If you are buying any meat, dairy, or eggs, make choices where the animals have been raised out on pasture, fed organic feed, and been humanely treated. No antibiotics or growth hormones. Remember, you are what you eat, and your food choices shape the future that you and your children and future generations will inherit.
And of course, there is no better way to eat clean, regeneratively grown food than growing it yourself. You can apply the same principles of regenerative agriculture in your own yard by utilizing small livestock like chickens as well as by cover cropping, not tilling and avoiding all man-made chemical inputs.
The health of the soil and atmosphere is inextricably linked with our own health. We do not need to accept the idea that humans are only capable of destroying land or at best “sustaining” it. We can farm in a way that regenerates land and in the process improves our own health.