The Solution Beneath Our Feet
By Jessie Haas
Suppose someone told you there was a natural way to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and store it underground—a process that could simultaneously protect waterways from pollution, control flooding, mitigate drought, and produce more, and more healthful food. A process that works so quickly it could pull all excess carbon out of the atmosphere within a decade. The person telling you this might seem a trifle over-enthused. You might edge away or change the subject—or blush, because secretly you’ve been praying for something like this. Solving this problem by austerity seemed so difficult, so unlike us.
But this is pie in the sky, right? Actually, no. The secret is something so ordinary we’ve been standing on it all along. Every day for millions of years, plants have been using sunlight to pull carbon out of the atmosphere, transform it into glucose, and exude 30 to 40% of that carbon-rich material into the soil to feed microbes. The microbes help plants thrive, and in the process create topsoil. And topsoil is one of the four main carbon sinks in the closed system we call Earth.
Currently we have excess carbon in the atmosphere, which is changing the climate. The oceans absorb carbon, but show signs of reaching capacity. Trees, the third carbon sink, are vulnerable to manmade destruction or burning, which releases their carbon to the atmosphere.
Soil is the fourth major carbon sink. Left undisturbed, carbon in the soil is stable and long-lasting, and creates fertility. But in the last 10,000 years, agricultural soils have lost 50 to 70% of their carbon. Plowing is the chief culprit. Unzipping the sod allows carbon to escape back into the atmosphere, overheating the planet and exhausting cropland. We humans have left a long trail of degraded soils behind us. Fertile Crescent, anyone?
The good news? It’s possible to put atmospheric carbon back in the ground where it came from. No new technology is needed—just plants and grazing animals, properly managed. Scientific estimates vary as to how much is possible, but the numbers are staggering. According to recent research, a 2% increase in organic content in the planet’s soils, especially in its grasslands, could absorb all excess atmospheric carbon within a decade. Many American farmers are reporting doing even better than that. Using no-till planting, cover crops, crop rotation, and intensively managed grazing, Gabe Brown in North Dakota has increased soil carbon on his land from 2% to 6% in twenty years.
The benefits are large. Farms’ profits increase as chemical inputs decline (chemical fertilizer and pesticides kill soil microorganisms, so farmers transition away from them). As a result, the soil can absorb more rainfall, mitigating floods and waterway pollution. They retain moisture better during droughts. Biodiversity is increased, and crops contain more micronutrients.
The beauty of this is, well, beauty: green fields, cows on pasture, clean lakes and rivers., less flooding, fewer droughts, and great food you can enjoy with a clear conscience.
Everyone who eats or has control of a piece of land no matter how small can contribute. Buy grass-fed dairy and meat. Mow lawns high and infrequently (or use electric mowers). Keep the soil covered with mulch and cover crops. Make compost and spread it on the land. Support legislation to fund the transition for farmers.
Nature knows how to do this. She’s done it before. Cooperating with plants, animals, and microbes, we can put excess atmospheric carbon back into the soil, creating beauty and abundance as we cool our flustered planet.
Learn more from these books and videos:
Judith D. Schwartz (Cows Save the Planet, Water in Plain Sight) ; Eric Toensmeier (The Carbon Farming Solution); Paul Hawken (Drawdown); David Montgomery (Growing a Revolution); and Courtney White, (Grass, Soil, Hope).
Jessie Haas has written 40 books, mainly for children, and has lived in an off-grid cabin in Westminster West, VT since 1984, www.jessiehaas.com.