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.
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 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.
“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 programs 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.