A new website promises to help rebalance our climate — using dirt
Ranchers, farmers, advocates, and policymakers now have a hub for the most current information on soil health policies and resources for regenerative agriculture.
by Vanessa Suarez
A new website is tracking soil health policy across the US, with the goal of supporting state healthy soil activities and helping enact state policy. Launched by volunteer organization Nerds for Earth and climate-focused nonprofit Soil4Climate, and with support from the Carbon Project, the site is built on crowdsourced data, with curators from each state serving to update and maintain it. With the stroke of a mouse, one can find healthy soil and agriculture policies broken down by each state, a legislative database for the 2019 session, and other related resources — policy guidance, technical guidance, agricultural markets, scientific papers, grant funding, and more.
The timing of this new resource couldn’t be better. As the conversation about climate change gains momentum, regenerative agriculture is moving into the mainstream. During CNN’s Climate Town Hall in early September, Mayor Pete Buttigieg described the urgency of promoting sustainable agriculture practices to address the climate crisis. At one of the Democratic presidential debates, Congressman Tim Ryan argued for a regenerative agriculture system that actually sequesters carbon in the soil.
As the topics of soil health and regenerative agriculture gain traction, access to reliable information is paramount to farmers and ranchers actually adopting these practices in their own operations. Demonstration projects help bridge the gap: they let agricultural producers see how soil health practices work in the real world. The new website houses “lessons learned” that, in the long run, promote and facilitate these types of projects, so that the successes of one can be shared across the country.
A little background on soil carbon sequestration
The latest IPCC report makes a strong case that addressing climate change will require more than greenhouse gas emissions reductions — we must also work to actively remove carbon from the atmosphere. With no “catch-all” method for carbon removal, both technological and natural pathways must be utilized to draw down carbon.
The land-based climate mitigation strategies at our disposal include carbon sequestration in agricultural soils. The great thing about soil carbon sequestration is that it can provide ecological and economic benefits to farmers and ranchers.
Soil carbon sequestration starts with photosynthesis, in which plants capture carbon dioxide (CO₂) and move it below ground through plant roots, where that carbon is processed by soil microbes and stored. The mechanism works similarly across all terrestrial plant-based systems, including in agriculture.
(You can learn more about soil carbon and agriculture in our previous post.)
Agriculture management & policy
When it comes to climate change, the agricultural sector is both a source of greenhouse gas emissions and a potential pathway for carbon removal.
Agriculture management can reduce greenhouse gases (i.e. CO₂ concentrations) through nutrient management and soil amendments, such as compost and algae; compost additions improve soil aggregation, promote microbial function, and provide slow-turnover carbon, while algae amendments promote coupling of nitrogen and carbon fixation. There’s also an opportunity to bolster carbon sequestration through certain farming and ranching practices, like no- or low-tillage practices, cover crops, crop rotation, and managed grazing.
But slowing climate change isn’t the only upside: managing for soil carbon sequestration in agricultural systems also brings a variety of co-benefits, including increased ecosystem resiliency, nutrient availability, soil water-holding capacity, and in some cases crop yields. Healthier soils are more resilient soils.
In short, our climate benefits and farmers and ranchers benefit. Win-win, right? Or, as Nerds for Earth puts it, “a non-sexy strategy that leads to sexy results.”
Bringing this win-win scenario to fruition will require agriculture policy supportive of practices that bolster soil health and, therefore, soil carbon sequestration. Conservation tillage practices, soil amendments, inclusions of perennial and annual crops into rotations, and grazing innovation can all help build healthy soils, just one component of a new carbon economy.
This is where Nerds for Earth comes in. Working alongside the Carbon Project at the People, Food & Land Foundation, they’ve developed an interactive map using the Soil4Climate’s legislative database to visualize US state healthy soil policies and promote information, participation, and collaboration for regenerative agriculture management and policies. By sharing “frameworks and lessons learned,” it is my hope the new website will accelerate the development of successful soil health policies and projects across the US. The crowdsourcing approach is important to ensure lessons learned from developing and implementing soil health policies in some states are easily accessible in other states.
Carbon180’s work in the West
We at Carbon180 are excited to see a policy tracker that is easily accessible and can’t wait to use the platform. We’ve been helping support soil health science and education as well as develop soil health policies across the Rocky Mountain states, focusing our work in Montana, Colorado, and New Mexico.
Our Leading with Soil initiative brings together education, science, and policy to help scale soil health and soil carbon sequestration in the US agricultural sector. Working closely with local organizations, we aim to create a community-rooted strategy to connect agricultural producers with technical assistance providers who can help them implement soil health practices, scientists who can help measure soil carbon outcomes, and the policy and business incentives that can bring these practices to scale.
In order to do that, we have to understand the obstacles that limit widespread adoption of soil health practices and work with farmers and ranchers and local organizations to co-create solutions.
Soil action for the future, now
As urgency to take action on the climate crisis grows, carbon removal solutions continue to gain recognition as vital for mitigation. With the launch of their new website, Nerds for Earth and Soil4Climate can help facilitate access to one set of climate solutions: soil carbon sequestration in agricultural systems in the US. On top of that, the “lessons learned” from each state and other resources will support the development of efficient policies and initiatives going forward.
Rebalancing our climate is a critical outcome that, if we hope to achieve, must incorporate healthy soils and agriculture. An agriculture sector that promotes healthy soils also promotes a sustainable system for the future, one that positively impacts ecosystems and people and nudges us closer to an economy that sequesters more carbon than it emits.