Happy Earth Day: Let’s Play Dirty

Happy Earth Day! We’ve come a long way since Earth Day began in 1970, but we still have quite the road to travel. Today the world will be focused on reducing carbon emissions. In the U.S. our primary strategy over the next 20 years is to reduce carbon emissions from our power plants. This is a great step, and going even further by reducing carbon emissions from our cars and other transportation vehicles will also go a long way toward reducing our carbon footprint.

Unfortunately, what we probably won’t hear enough about today is: soil. According to Michael Pollan, “Climate change, quite simply, cannot be halted without fixing agriculture”. And not that he needs my nod... his wisdom and voice quite exceed my own, but he is absolutely correct! The irony is that how we grow our food can actually restore our environment, all the while creating an abundant food supply. But we’ll need a pretty dramatic mind-shift for this to happen. And that mind-shift is sustainable farming.

The Center for Food Safety explains the simple farming techniques being used today, such as crop diversity, rotation, composting, and cover crops, which are key components in adding carbon to the land to make it more productive. “Covered fields keep carbon, nitrogen, and other vital nutrients in soil, resulting in far more photosynthesis than bare fields, increasing carbon sequestration, and lowering the overall carbon footprint of farming.”

Planting cover crops keeps carbon, nitrogen and other nutrients in the soil. Studies have shown that cover-cropping, crop rotation and no-till farming could restore global soil health while significantly decreasing farms’ carbon footprint. Some scientists project that 75 to 100 parts per million of CO2 could be drawn out of the atmosphere over the next century if existing farms, pastures and forestry systems were managed to maximize carbon sequestration. And of course, a nice by-product of treating the soil well: the fertility of the land increases, making it more productive and better able to absorb and hold water, especially necessary in times of climate-related floods and droughts.

Much better said is this excerpt from a Michael Pollan article written right after the Paris climate talks in late 2015:

We think of climate change as a consequence of burning fossil fuels. But a third of the carbon in the atmosphere today used to be in the soil, and modern farming is largely to blame. Practices such as the overuse of chemicals, excessive tilling and the use of heavy machinery disturb the soil’s organic matter, exposing carbon molecules to the air, where they combine with oxygen to create carbon dioxide. Put another way: Human activity has turned the living and fertile carbon system in our dirt into a toxic atmospheric gas.

It’s possible to halt and even reverse this process through better agricultural policies and practices. Unfortunately, the world leaders who gathered in Paris this past week have paid little attention to the critical links between climate change and agriculture. That’s a huge mistake and a missed opportunity. Our unsustainable farming methods are a central contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change, quite simply, cannot be halted without fixing agriculture.

The industrialization of farming has allowed farmers to grow more crops more quickly. But modern techniques have also wreaked havoc on the earth, water and atmosphere. Intense plowing, for example, has introduced more oxygen into the soil, boosting the microbes that convert organic matter into carbon dioxide. The quest to wring every last dollar out of fields has put pressure on farmers to rely on chemical fertilizers. This often leaves fields more bare between growing seasons, allowing carbon to escape into the air. Scientists estimate that cultivated soil has lost 50 to 70 percent of its carbon, speeding up climate change.

That loss has significantly degraded soil health, reducing our ability to grow food. Median crop yields are likely to decline by about 2 percent per decade through 2100, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. At the same time, the world’s population is projected to jump from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050.

Water availability is also at risk. Currently, 1.6 billion people live in regions facing severe water scarcity; that number is expected to rise to 2.8 billion by 2025. Agriculture accounts for a whopping 70 percent of all water consumption. That’s in large part because degraded soil doesn’t absorb water efficiently. Instead, water sits on top of the ground and runs off (along with farm chemicals) into nearby waterways, creating toxic nitrogen “dead zones.”

So... here’s a very simple idea... how about if we’re going to give out farm subsidies, let’s reward those who are actually benefiting our climate, our soil, and therefore our food supply – rather than simply rewarding our most crop-prolific farming practices. Ultimately, it’s the direction we’ll need to go if we really are serious about fixing climate change.

Enjoy this day. Get your hands dirty and plant something! Let’s make sure that the beauty of soil is not just our DIRTY little secret.

Happy Earth Day!