1 million species face extinction — soil could be a solution

1 million species face extinction — soil could be a solution
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An intergovernmental science-policy group of the United Nations found — and the United States agreed — that 1 million species are threatened with extinction, and that one factor in that decline was the decline of carbon in soil. Specifically, 5.6 gigatons of annual CO2 emissions are sequestered in marine and terrestrial ecosystems. That’s equivalent to 60 percent of global fossil fuel emission.

The finding released in a report May 6 also found that it is not too late to stop this decline, but action is needed immediately at the local, country, and global level. For soil, it proposed “sustainable agricultural practices that enhance soil quality, thereby improving productivity and other ecosystem functions and services such as carbon sequestration and water quality regulation.”

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Bill Gates highlighted the importance of soil in a recent blog post arguing, “We should discuss soil as much as we talk about coal.” He notes that agriculture’s contribution to climate change (24 percent) is about the same as the generation of electricity (25 percent). What also might surprise you is that “there’s more carbon in soil than in the atmosphere and all plants combined.” Gates identifies several additional technical options he is backing, including developing crops, like wheat, with longer and denser roots so they can store more carbon. 

The importance of soil has long been recognized by some in the public policy community. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself,” in a letter to state governors on the Uniform Soil Conservation Law.

In 2008, the Senate passed a bipartisan resolution “recognizing soil as an essential natural resource.” The bill noted that although “soil affects climate, water and air quality, human health, biodiversity, food safety, and agricultural production” that “there is little public awareness of the importance of soil protection.”

In 2018, Congress passed the farm bill that made a number of important strides regarding soil, particularly in establishing a new soil carbon demonstration project, the final act removed a provision in the Senate version of the bill for a performance-based crop-insurance discount that encouraged conservation practices.

Yet, when it comes to public policy to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, we certainly don’t focus on agriculture as much as we do on electricity generation. Like energy, agriculture is an essential part of the economy. We all need to eat, right? So, what should we do?

One answer comes from Rattan Lal, a renowned soil expert at The Ohio State University and 2019 Japan Prize laureate. He explains soil is like a bank account. In this case, the currency is carbon. Common agricultural practices involve tilling the soil — disturbing the soil after crops are harvested to bring nutrients to the surface for use in the next growing season. This results in the release of carbon — just like taking money out of an ATM. But as is the case with an ATM, at some point your money runs out and you can’t take out any more. With soil, this results in poor crop yields and health.

A better option is to instead make a deposit to your bank account. How do you do this? By practicing “no tillage” agriculture where farmers plant “cover crops” such as sunflowers and spread compost instead of tilling the soil. By taking these actions, farmers can increase the quality of their soil, and their ability to grow crops.

Since soil is like a sponge, more carbon goes back into the soil and less carbon goes into the atmosphere. The better the quality of soil health, the better the quality of plant health. The healthier the plant, the more carbon it absorbs — reducing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, resulting in less climate change impact.

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So, where can public policy help? One way is to provide financial incentives to farmers who adopt these restorative agriculture techniques and practice, sometimes called “carbon farming.” Second, rather than only penalizing agriculture practices that result in greenhouse gas emissions, public policy should also reward farmers practicing carbon farming through tax credits, lower crop insurance premiums or other financial incentives. States are already playing a role and their actions can inform the basis of national-level legislation.

We often think of agriculture as a challenge when it comes to mitigating climate change. Instead, soil, and its ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere via agricultural processes, can be an opportunity. The national public policy debate needs to take this into account. For all those Democratic candidates now out in the nation’s heartland, here’s an important public policy issue to add to your agenda.

Deborah D. Stine is president of Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy Analysis & Education, LLC based in Pittsburgh, Pa.