Carbon Farming Mitigates Climate Change

While we often hear of new technology to address climate change, it is important to remember that farmers have been keeping carbon out of the atmosphere for countless generations. In what is sometimes called “carbon farming,” carbon dioxide is captured by plants and stored in the soil.

Lots of carbon stored here.

A cache of half-ton round bales of hay bales on our farm.  That’s a lot of carbon storage.

Trees turn carbon into wood. Wheat turns carbon into straw. Grass turns carbon into protein for livestock. When farmers apply manure on the land as fertilizer, or when they turn a cover crop into the soil, or when they leave any plant residue on the land, they are putting carbon back into the soil.

Carbon Farming Can Sequester 650 Million Tons of Carbon Dioxide

In fact, U.S. farmland is capable of sequestering 650 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, offsetting 11 percent of America’s greenhouse gas, according to a report published by the Soil Science Society of America. With so much potential, it is time to greatly expand carbon capture and offset programs in the 2018 farm bill.

The element carbon is found in virtually all forms of life on Earth. It is in all proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and all life’s building blocks. Because of this, scientists call life on Earth carbon-based life forms. Carbon is the same element that binds with two atoms of oxygen to form carbon dioxide (CO2) – what plants “breathe” in and humans exhale.

Methane, (CH4) contains carbon as well. It’s a molecule with one atom of carbon and four atoms of hydrogen.

Carbon dioxide and methane are by-products of how we live. But these greenhouse gases are also causing climate change. When we use fossil fuels for electricity or when we drive our cars, carbon and other pollutants wind up in the air. Too much carbon in the atmosphere causes it to trap too much heat reflected from the earth’s surface.

Carbon Dioxide Levels Highest in 4 Million Years

In September 2016 carbon dioxide levels in the earth’s atmosphere reached its highest level in 4 million years, exceeding 400 parts per million. Reducing this concentration is the goal for a healthy planet for humans. Every nation on the planet except Syria and Nicaragua committed to this goal in 2016 by signing the Paris Climate Accord. The United States intends to withdraw from the Accord, but cannot legally withdraw until November 4, 2020.

There are many ways to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. First, we need to reduce the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere by switching to renewable electric energy and driving more fuel-efficient or electric cars. Reducing methane emissions from natural gas and rice production would also result in less carbon in the atmosphere.

Carbon Farming Captures Carbon and Puts it Back in the Earth

Second, capture the carbon that’s in the atmosphere and put it back into the Earth. Green plants and farmers have been doing this for centuries.

Plants capture carbon

Source: “Climate Change and the Chesapeake Bay, Challenges, Imacts and Multiple Benefits of Agricultural Conservation Work”, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, July, 2007.

Plants are the lungs of the earth. They capture carbon in the atmosphere through photosynthesis. They breathe in CO2, turn it into a sugar, and exhale oxygen. All green plants capture carbon and store it.

Corn “no-till” planted into the crop residue of rye builds soil carbon and reduces soil erosion.

“Every thimbleful of good farmland soil is a small-scale web of biodiversity that includes several miles of fungal filaments, 25,000 or more fungal spores, plus mites, spiders, earthworms, nematodes, single-celled protists and 1 billion bacteria. Soil is not inanimate dirt. It is part of Earth’s living recycling machinery that requires wise and respectful management.

In fact, soils support more life beneath their surfaces than exist above. Furthermore, it is worth noting that one of the earliest soil scientists was none other than Charles Darwin, who made public his discoveries about earthworms and molds in his popular 1881 worm book – 44 years in the writing”,  Dr. H. Bruce Rinker.

Expand Carbon Caps, Credit and Trading Programs

Carbon caps, credits, and trading programs are already in place in several states and in many foreign countries. For example, France’s “4 per 1,000” program intends to pay farmers for increasing soil carbon. And, this year rice farmers in the US were paid for methane reduction techniques.

Carbon farming increases water infiltration into the soil, enhances nutrient cycling, reduces soil compaction and soil erosion, increases crop yields, feeds the soil’s ecosystem and reduces CO2 in the atmosphere.

Expanding efforts in the 2018 Farm Bill and other progams to increase carbon in the soil and reducing methane emissions will help turn the tide against the damage from global warming and resulting climate change.



  1. Sally Mills says:

    Excellent synopsis of how how farmers and their land are critical to the process of carbon sequestration. Also love the opening photo! Thank you, Bobby.

  2. Roger Montague says:

    Interesting article. Amazed at the number for forest buffers

    • Anne Nielsen says:

      Well said, Bobby, and well done, even more so! If every farmer could be as aware as you are of how much can be done just by changing a few habits, I would not be able to contain myself, and would travel the world like the EverReady bunny, beating the drum in celebration of soil carbon capture!

  3. You really know how to talk dirt. Great read.

  4. Heidi & Steve says:

    Steve & I just read your article. Thank you for the education.

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Heidi and Steve, thanks for taking the time to read the article and post your comment. Hope all is well on the other side of the planet.

  5. Donald A Henke says:

    Elimination of animal agriculture would likely reduce CO2 emissions by some 35-50%, thus drastically slowing CO2 emissions. But, it’s hard to change human behavior.

    One scientific fact often overlooked is the role of dead phytoplankton at the bottom of the ocean. Dead phytoplankton supply the bulk of oxygen on planet earth. Vegetation helps, but its not enough to adequately supply modern animal organisms with O2.

    Curiously, phytoplankton are marching down the road to extinction as a result of being unable to form shells from calcium carbonate in the oceans which, in turn, are being threatened by acidification of the oceans from anthropogenic activity. In a nutshell, the pH of the oceans have gone from about 8.08 to 7.9 in the last hundred years. Reliable forecasts of professional oceanographers predict that when the oceans reach a pH of around 7.6, all shell forming organisms will be marched off to extinction: destroying the bottom of the food chain and bringing oxygen content of the oceans (hence atmosphere) below animal respiratory requirements.

    This has happened before. During the Permian extinction, 248 mya, ocean pH fell to somewhat lower values, wiping out the bottom of the food chain, causing mass death of sea and land animal life. It took about 10 million years before the sea and animal life recovered its pre-Permian diversity. Most reliable estimates claim that 97% of all life, including plant life went “south” for those 10 million years. The seas turned purple from hydrogen sulfide, the skys turned a pale green and no living human today would have recognized that planet earth could, or could ever be, an hospitable place for carbon-based life forms.

  6. Jim Snyder says:

    I don’t agree with the chart Bobby. Rotational grazing especially Manged Intensive rotational grazing will sequester more carbon that a forested buffer from my research. It has also eliminated the need for hay on our farm in Michigan by 80%. I would not have to make hay at all in Virginia with my methods and the proper stocking rate with typical normal rainfall. Learned a lot from Jim Gerrish, grazing expert.

    Also, I believe strongly that the govt through the Farm Bills since my experience working with them since 1985 has been ineffective in solving our erosion and water quality issues. I am more effective as an individual and volunteer than the local conservation office. It has always been the spark of an individual to move mankind forward, not the govt. As an example, it was an individual who facilitated the GLRI funding for Michigan while agencies compete for funds just to keep their doors open.

Speak Your Mind