Welcome news, long overdue, was delivered by “Farms target carbon emissions” (Dec. 27) and the discussion of a pilot project in the new federal farm bill to pay farmers to keep carbon in the soil.
Yet the introductory text included the phrase “harmful carbon,” implying that carbon is intrinsically bad.
Yes, carbon in the form of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate extremes and “weird weather,” according to meteorologist Paul Douglas. On the other hand, most other forms of carbon are critically important in agriculture.
Carbon dioxide and water come together in photosynthesis with energy from the sun to grow plants that use minerals from the soil to produce 95 percent of our food. This carbon is the “backbone of our food security” for many beneficial soil biological properties and processes important in food production and for providing environmental and ecosystem services.
Conventional tillage agriculture, while producing profitable yields, has not done a good job of protecting the environment from soil degradation, as indicated by erosion and algae blooms. Intensive tillage results in a “large burp” of carbon dioxide emitted from the soil that ends up in the atmosphere.
The last 150 years of tillage in U.S. agriculture has resulted in our soils losing between 30 and 70 percent of the soil carbon, which contributes to soil degradation, excessive runoff, erosion, water pollution and costly environmental degradation, including climate change. It is time we develop a “climate smart agriculture.”
The pilot program in the new farm bill enables farmers to try sustainable agriculture systems that employ regenerative soil health principles that are environmentally friendly. Farmers can evaluate on their own land the economics of how healthy soil benefits both their bottom line and our natural resources.
Improving soil health requires less tillage, improved management of crop residues covering the soil and of soil carbon through diverse crop rotations and cover crop mixes. The use of cover crops is increasing because the increased soil carbon enhances and protects the soil from erosion and further degradation.
These soil health concepts are the basic principles rolled into sustainable production called conservation agriculture systems. The early pioneer adapters of conservation agriculture have integrated these principles into a functional system with increases in yields. Their anecdotal data suggest substantial savings from reduced input costs largely attributed to decreased diesel fuel cost, fertilizer, pest control, equipment and repairs.
This says nothing about the economic value of the many environmental benefits, with virtually no soil erosion, decreased water and nutrient runoff, increased water quality and water use efficiency and storage, increased efficiency in nutrient cycling and enhanced soil carbon content so vital for soil health.
Truly, a win-win-win; for agricultural sustainability, for food security and for our environmental quality. Let’s support the pilot program in the new farm bill developing new farming techniques that fight climate change by increasing carbon stored in the soil.
Don Reicosky is a retired soil scientist in Morris, Minn.