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Conservation Science for a Healthy Planet

Climate change solutions – the role of healthy soils

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There’s too much carbon in the atmosphere and not enough in the ground where it’s useful. Healthy soil can help flip the picture.  Full article here

May 17 2017 UC Davis via Washington Post

…Scow—a microbial ecologist and director of this experimental farm at the University of California, Davis—sees a living being brimming with potential. The soil beneath this field doesn’t just hold living things—it is itself alive. Scow likens soil to the human body with its own system of “organs” working together for its overall health. And, like us, it needs good food, water and care to live up to its full potential...

…Soil can potentially store between 1.5 and 5.5 billion tons of carbon a year globally. That’s equivalent to between 5 and 20 billion tons of carbon dioxide. While significant, that’s still just a fraction of the 32 billion tons of carbon dioxide emitted every year from burning fossil fuels. Soil is just one of many solutions needed to confront climate change. But the nice thing about healthy soils, Scow said, is that creating them not only helps fight climate change—it also brings multiple benefits for agricultural, human and environmental health….

there are more microbes in one teaspoon of soil than there are humans on Earth. Many of them lie dormant, just waiting to be properly fed and watered. A well-fed army of microbes can go to work strengthening the soil so it can grow more food, hold more water, break down pollutants, prevent erosion and, yes, sequester carbon….

Soil sequesters carbon through a complex process that starts with photosynthesis. A plant draws carbon out of the atmosphere and returns to the soil what isn’t harvested in the form of residue and root secretions. This feeds microbes in the soil. The microbes transform the carbon into the building blocks of soil organic matter and help stabilize it, sequestering the carbon….

…There’s too much carbon in the atmosphere and not enough in the ground where it can be used. A new effort in California aims to flip that picture. The state’s Healthy Soils Incentives Program is considered the first in the nation to provide state funding to help farmers and ranchers enhance their soils to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The $7.5 million program, expected to launch this summer, encourages farming practices known to boost microbial communities underground and sequester carbon….

…Stone is as much a natural resources manager as a rancher, with a protective eye on the ranch’s watersheds, trees, pasture and grass-fed cattle, and a genuine desire to leave the land better than he found it. He rotates his cattle frequently across the pasture to avoid overgrazing. Most of the ranch—7,000 acres—is in a conservation easement. He avoids fertilizer. And, increasingly, he composts.

….California loses about 20,000 acres of rangeland each year, much of which become greenhouse-gas-emitting housing developments, shopping centers, roads and parking lots. The remaining 63 million acres of rangeland in the state—part of the 770 million acres nationwide—represent significant opportunities for additional carbon storage, and can help offset some of the emissions for which the meat industry is often criticized.

Scientists estimate that U.S. rangelands could potentially sequester up to 330 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in their soils, and croplands are estimated to lock up more than twice that amount—up to 770 million metric tons. That’s the CO2 emissions equivalent of powering 114 million homes with electricity for a year.

When you look at the cow, you think of emissions,” Stone said. “But the whole system is actually sequestering carbon. There are so many opportunities in agriculture to move the needle on climate change.”

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