By Mikkela Blanton
As a society, we may be able to move entirely away from fossil fuels, cut out plastics, and perhaps even one day transition to a more minimalist culture, but we’ll never be able to distance ourselves from agriculture. Food and the land on which it is grown are what fuel our lives; eating isn’t optional. Yet the agricultural industry’s impact on climate and the environment is grim: globally, the agricultural sector is one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs); by 2050, emissions from agriculture could increase by up to 58%. In Colorado, agriculture accounts for about 9% of emissions.
As the world’s population grows and there are more mouths to feed, agriculture is expected to have an even bigger carbon footprint – but this doesn’t have to be the case. There may be a way to reduce GHG emissions and negative environmental impacts all while simultaneously sequestering carbon and increasing yields. The solution lies at the heart of what any farmer will tell you is the foundation of life: soil.
Soil As a Solution
Soil isn’t just dirt; teeming with more organisms in a single teaspoon of soil than there are stars in the sky, soil is very much alive. Over the last several decades, industrial agricultural practices intended to increase yields have killed the soil – things like applying synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, tilling, and monocropping (planting only crops of the same species, such as fields of just corn) have led to soil erosion and land degradation, as well as toxic chemicals from fertilizer and pesticide runoff polluting our waterways.
By focusing on soil health through the incorporation of best soil practices – a term that’s sometimes used interchangeably or in conjunction with “regenerative agriculture” practices – the following benefits may be realized:
- Carbon sequestration. Scientists agree that healthy soils sequester more carbon. The Colorado Carbon Fund estimates that regenerative agriculture could remove a whopping 23.15 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by 2050. Some experts say that healthy soils could sequester all annual global carbon emissions.
- Enhanced biodiversity. Carbon sequestration potential isn’t the only thing to get excited about: healthy soils also promote greater levels of biodiversity, as conventional farming practices drastically reduce the number and species of soil organisms. Biodiversity underpins ecosystem resilience, helps to keep viruses and infectious diseases in check, and even has ecotourism benefits.
- Water conservation. The National Resources Conservation Service states that soil that is healthy and high in organic matter can hold about six times its weight in water, which could greatly benefit a drought-impacted state like Colorado. When combined with other regenerative agriculture practices, such as fostering deep root systems, water is also pulled deeper underground, maximizing conservation and combating soil erosion.
- Improved farmer resilience and long-term viability. Focusing on soil health helps farmers, too. Healthy soil makes farmers more resilient in the face of climate change by making them better able to withstand extreme weather events and climate change impacts. Improving soil health also opens up new markets for farmers, including the opportunity to participate in carbon markets.
State of the Policy
It’s not just farmers and scientists who are excited about the climate and environmental benefits of soil health; policymakers are getting in on the action, too. At the state level, HB21-1181 would create an Agricultural Soil Health Program to establish a system for monitoring the benefits of soil health practices, as well as a soil health testing program; create a soil health advisory committee; and provide grants and loans for soil health activities. The bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the 2021 legislative session and is under consideration.
At the federal level, the Growing Climate Solutions Act would help farmers and landowners participate in carbon credit markets by creating a certification program at the USDA aimed to help producers clear hurdles such as lack of access to technical assistance and market information. The bill was originally introduced in 2020; its sponsors plan to reintroduce an updated version of the bill soon. President Biden’s climate plan has also called on farmers to lead the way in GHG emissions offsets – the administration plans to divert $30 billion in farm aid money to help farmers improve soil health and sequester carbon.
The Bottom Line
The scientific community agrees that in order to meet our climate goals, we will not only need to stop emitting GHGs, but we’ll also need to start removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As we explore sequestration options, land-based carbon removal not only has enormous potential, but is already happening, especially as more farmers make the regenerative transition. By investing in our farmers, we can sequester carbon and continue feeding ourselves – a solution that doesn’t require the technological innovation or risky experimentation associated with other sequestration solutions.
- Supporting our farmers and ranchers through a voluntary soil health program
- Agricultural Soil Health Program | Colorado General Assembly
- CO CEWL – Home
- Agriculture is part of the climate change problem. Colorado wants farmers’ soil to be part of the solution.
- Rodale Institute – Pioneers of Organic Agriculture Research