With so much concern about looming catastrophic climate change, carbon sequestration is crucial to any climate goals. Carbon sequestration is basically the process of pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it natural reservoirs.
Belowground storage of carbon makes up about 46% of total terrestrial carbon sequestration. Yes, seriously. What many call “dirt” is actually capable of reversing climate change…
But first, it has to be transformed back into soil.
Soil Microbes Lock up Carbon
So how does this whole soil drawdown work? The simple answer is: microbes absorb carbon and hold onto it.
Plants are the middle-men. They photosynthesize by “inhaling” carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and using it (along with water, sunlight, and minerals) to make sugars and carbs.
Then, they send 30–40% of their hard-earned sugars down into the soil as offerings their microbial allies.
The microbes (mainly soil fungi, and to a lesser extent, bacteria, protozoa, nematodes) take the carbon and “lock it up” in the form of organic matter.
Or, they store it inside their bodies, mainly in fungal networks.
Through this ancient natural process, carbon is pulled from the atmosphere and stored away in the soil.
If you want to understand more about this process, read my more in-depth article on the science of soil carbon sequestration in plain language.
Paying Farmers to Fight Climate Change?
Soil is finally making headlines these days and I’ve got to say, any ecological farmer or soil scientist is happy to see it.
The problem is that the mainstream public (and apparently the political system) has very little understanding of soil.
The Biden Administration has proposed farm-based carbon credits as a way to encourage reduced carbon emissions and increase carbon sequestration on agricultural land.
Only problem? Scientists haven’t quite mastered a reliable method for measuring soil carbon sequestration over any significant amount of land.
Plus, it is conveniently ignored that the majority of farms (especially industrial monocultures) will have to undertake a MAJOR shift in their farming practices to even “break even” with their carbon emissions, let alone drawdown carbon from the atmosphere.
That’s because most soils have been degraded into dirt. Dirt absolutely cannot sequester carbon.
It Has to be Living Soil, Not Dead Dirt!
Mainstream agriculture is far from sustainable, let alone regenerative.
Widespread dependence on synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, and fumigants kill soil life in mass numbers (not to mention the health and ecological impacts of agrichemicals).
According to the UN, an estimated 30 soccer fields of topsoil is lost every minute globally to erosion, chemical degradation, and tillage. Basically, modern conventional farmers are turning soil to dirt at a rapid rate.
Chemical use, combined with widespread tillage (grinding and churning up soil), could even potentially catapult us into another Dust Bowl.
Not to mention, tillage releases more carbon emissions into the atmosphere. And I don’t mean the fuel of the tractor.. Tillage degrades the microbially-rich organic matter and fungal networks that have “locked up” carbon for centuries, re-releasing them into the atmosphere.
Basically, conventional farming practices like heavy machinery and agrichemicals are destroying soil, turning it into dirt. Dirt cannot sequester any carbon because it is lifeless; there are no microbes there to do the heavy lifting.
That’s why the shift to organic, ecological, and regenerative agriculture is the only way to achieve our carbon drawdown goals.
How Much Carbon Could Soil Hold?
Atmospheric carbon levels are currently at about 410 ppm, the highest they’ve been in the last 450,000 years (based on ice core samples). The United Nations says a “safe” level of atmospheric carbon is 350 ppm.
So, we need to remove about 60 ppm of carbon, or about 450 billion tons of CO2, from the atmosphere. Is soil up for the task?
We don’t really know. Like I said, scientists haven’t precisely mastered techniques for measuring soil carbon sequestration because the soil ecosystem is so dynamic (always changing) and vast.
A 2019 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change claims that global croplands and grasslands could capture and store up to 8.6 gigatons of CO2 per year.
Dr. David Johnson at New Mexico State University has shown that, with biological farming techniques, we could sequester 20 tons per hectare per year with fungal-dominated compost.
Dr. Elaine Ingham’s Soil Food Web, Inc. asserts that we could reverse global climate change via soil carbon sequestration within 15 years if- and only if- there was global adoption of soil regeneration techniques that revitalize soil microbiota.
There is lots of hope in humble soil!
We Just Have to Think Small
Like microscopic. Change is possible, if consumers, scientists, producers, and policy makers can work together for real solutions rather than agrichemical-funded “bandaids”.
Anybody who tries to promote “regenerative” farming that uses tillage or sprays chemicals is either sorely misinformed or peddling snake oil.
Remember that it is absolutely impossible to sequester carbon in the soil if there are no fungi or other microbiota.
Fortunately, regenerating the living ecosystems in soil is fairly quick and simple, if farmers are willing to abandon old paradigms.
Soil scientists and researchers like Dr. Elaine Ingham, Nicole Masters, the Rodale Institute, John Kempf, the Savory Institute, and many others have thoroughly proven and demonstrated that true soil regeneration and carbon sequestration is possible.
Now it’s time to learn, teach, and vote with our dollars. The easiest way is to buy your food from organic regenerative farmers who are putting the life back in our soils.