You should know about Soil Carbon Farming
Louise Edmonds, CEO. Published in Symbiotica on Medium.com, May 2023
Humanity’s need for food security is more important than ever before. Our food begins at the farm gate, and the agricultural industry is a critical component of the global food system. At the same time, climate change is causing significant challenges for agriculture, including unpredictable weather patterns, droughts, fires and floods. Farmers across the globe are having to face the unpredictability of nature and their farm businesses are suffering as a result of climate-related challenges.
The United Nations predicts that the Earth’s population will grow from the current 8 billion to 9.7 billion by 2050. It follows that the global demand for food will continue to increase alongside this population growth. The challenges of climate change threaten agriculture’s sustainability and farmers’ ability to meet the growing demand for food.
In addition to facing the challenges that climate change is forcing on their agricultural enterprises, farmers are also coming to terms with the impact their farming practices are having on the climate. According to Crippa et al. (2021), global food systems are responsible for 34% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Soil degradation, water scarcity, and biodiversity loss are other well-recognised results of our industrialised agricultural systems.
To address these issues, various forms of regenerative agriculture practices have surfaced over recent decades. Soil carbon farming is one such regenerative agricultural practice. In this article, I will discuss what soil carbon farming is, its potential contribution to the environment, the economy, farming communities and human health, and how it can support global food systems and food security.
What is Soil Carbon Farming?
Soil carbon farming is an agricultural practice that involves adoption of regenerative farming practices to increase the amount of carbon stored in the soil. In a nutshell, it enhances the ability of plants to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (via photosynthesis) and store it in the soil as organic matter. This process ultimately sequesters carbon in the soil but in the process of doing so, it promotes soil health and structure, water retention and biodiversity, and can reduce soil erosion, pests and disease.
Soil carbon farming involves various practices, including:
- Cover Cropping, where cover crops are grown to protect and improve the soil between cash crop seasons. These crops are grown during fallow periods and can double as forage crops;
- Crop Rotation and Intercropping, which involves planting different crops on the same land in sequential or simultaneous seasons, respectively. These practices help to increase soil carbon levels by promoting the growth of plants with different root systems, which improves the soil structure and increases the amount of organic matter in the soil;
- Agroforestry, which involves growing trees and crops on the same land. Agroforestry is another method of increasing soil carbon levels by promoting the growth of plants with different root systems, root bacteria and fungi, leading to improved soil health; and
- Conservation Tillage, which involves reducing or eliminating the amount of tillage performed on the soil. Reduced tillage helps decrease the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere during ploughing or cultivating.
Farmers can implement these practices in different combinations depending on the specific conditions of the farm and the crops being grown. Soil carbon farming is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and farmers must choose practices appropriate for their particular situation.
Compost and Manure
In addition to these practices, soil carbon farming can promote soil health through the use of compost and manure. Compost and manure are rich in organic matter, which decomposes into humus, a stable form of organic carbon. When applied to the soil, they increase the soil’s organic carbon content. The soil organic matter provides a food source for soil microbes, which in turn release nutrients and help to form soil aggregates. Aggregates are clumps of soil particles held together by organic matter and microbial by-products. Better soil structure enhances water retention, nutrient availability, and gas exchange, all of which promote plant growth and improve soil carbon sequestration.
This healthier plant growth leads to increased photosynthesis and the capture of more atmospheric carbon dioxide. Some of this carbon is then stored in plant roots and residues, which, when decomposed by soil microbes, contribute to the stable carbon pool in the soil.
Soil carbon farming also involves measuring soil carbon levels to monitor whether the practices used are effective. Farmers monitor their soil by taking soil samples at various depths and analysing them for carbon content. By monitoring soil carbon levels, farmers can adjust their practices to ensure that they are effectively sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere and into the soil.
Contribution to the Environment
As mentioned above, soil carbon farming has numerous environmental benefits. One of the most significant benefits is its potential to mitigate climate change. Carbon sequestration in the soil removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which, as mentioned above, is one of the main greenhouse gases responsible for climate change. According to a study by the Rodale Institute, if all the world’s cropland and pastureland were managed using regenerative methods, it could sequester over 100% of current annual carbon dioxide emissions.
The improvement in soil health that soil carbon farming delivers can lead to increased productivity and biodiversity. Moreover, soil carbon farming can reduce the need for synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, which can negatively impact the environment, including contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.
In addition, soil carbon farming can contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG 2: Zero Hunger; and SDG 13: Climate Action. Soil carbon farming can be undertaken in developed and developing economies. It is a nature-based solution that supports environmental justice, equity, and social cohesion.
Economic, social and health benefits
Soil carbon farming can also have economic, community and human health benefits. The improvements in soil health, increases in crop yields and productivity can enhance farm profitability. In addition, it can create new revenue streams by enabling farmers to sell their carbon credits, which they can earn through the sequestration of carbon in the soil.
Soil carbon farming can help reduce the cost of inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides, improving the financial viability of farming operations. It can also create jobs in the agricultural sector, particularly in soil health assessment, monitoring, and carbon credit trading.
Soil carbon farming and its practices such as regenerative agriculture can contribute to the regeneration and nurturing of farming communities in several ways. First, these practices can help to promote sustainable and resilient agricultural systems that benefit farmers, their families, and their communities.
“We’ve got to nurture the land, nurture ourselves and nurture each other.” – Louise Edmonds
In addition to reducing input costs and improving farm profitability, soil carbon farming can lead to increased biodiversity. Intercropping and Agroforestry, as mentioned above, help to create more diverse ecosystems on farms, supporting a more comprehensive range of plants, soil bacteria and fungi, beneficial insects, birds, and other wildlife. The increased biodiversity creates a more resilient and healthier environment for farming communities.
Soil carbon farming can help farmers access new markets, such as those that value sustainably-produced food or those interested in purchasing carbon credits. These markets can provide additional income streams for farmers, which can help to improve their economic stability and support their families.
Community resilience can be strengthened by promoting local food systems and reducing the dependence on global food supply chains. The reduced reliance on distant food supply chains can help to increase food security and provide economic opportunities for farming communities.
The opportunities for farmers to work together and learn from one another can increase social cohesion. By promoting a shared sense of purpose and community, these practices can help to build stronger and more resilient farming communities.
Soil carbon farming can have benefits for human health. Promoting regenerative agriculture practices, such as cover cropping and crop rotation, as mentioned above, can help reduce the need for synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, which can negatively impact human health. In addition, it can help to improve the nutritional quality of food by increasing the nutrient density of crops. Furthermore, soil carbon farming can help to improve the health of farmers and farm workers by reducing exposure to chemicals and promoting a safer working environment.
Soil carbon farming is a regenerative agricultural practice that has the potential to improve soil health, increase biodiversity, mitigate climate change and create economic, social and human health benefits. Promoting regenerative agriculture practices can lead to a more sustainable and resilient agricultural system that is advantageous for the environment and society.
As we face the challenges of a changing climate and increasing food demand, soil carbon farming offers a viable solution for a better world. By supporting global food systems and food security and contributing to the achievement of the SDGs, soil carbon farming has the potential to transform agriculture and create a more sustainable and equitable future for all.
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