This month, a group of Democratic lawmakers called for an ambitious plan for the United States to reach net-zero carbon pollution. While experts debate whether the proposal is technologically or politically feasible, the so-called Green New Deal is about more than shifting to cleaner, more advanced forms of energy sources. It’s also about shifting to more traditional forms of agriculture.
While farming generally takes a back seat to energy in discussions of climate, it accounts for up to a third of carbon pollution, by one account. Tractors and trucks that harvest and transport our food burn gasoline and diesel, generating pollution. Synthetic fertilizers derived from fossil fuels spur the release of heat-trapping gas from the soil, and cows and sheep emit large volumes of planet-warming pollution. Then there is the matter of agricultural giants burning forests to clear land for farming and grazing, thereby releasing carbon stored in trees into the atmosphere and reducing the capacity of the land to store CO2.
And yet, while agriculture is a big part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution. Smart growing practices can help soak up pollution and store it in the ground — what’s known as carbon farming.
Plants scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their leaves and branches. When those plants shed their leaves and die, that carbon enriches the soil, where it’s gobbled up by insects, fungi and microbes, and then exhaled back into the atmosphere. If more carbon goes into the soil than comes out, the process helps to eliminate atmospheric carbon dioxide, cooling the planet. Carbon farming also helps guard against climate change, as soil that is rich with microbes and fungi holds more water, which protects it from drought and mitigates the impact of floods.
There are steps farmers can take to make sure the soil retains as much carbon as possible, namely disturb the soil as little as possible. Till the earth only where necessary. Keep the soil covered in a diverse array of deep-rooted crops. Rotate between cash crops, like wheat, and cover crops, like ryegrass, which nurture the soil and can be fed to livestock. Avoid the use of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. Protect areas that are rich in plant-life — and therefore carbon — such as forests, wetlands and peat bogs.
“What we’re learning is that the soil is a living organism. It’s full of life,” said Betsy Taylor, the president of Breakthrough Strategies, a consulting firm focused on carbon farming. Farmers can keep soil healthy by nurturing the growth of fungi and microbes. Healthy soil will store more carbon, which is good for the climate and good for crops. Unfortunately, the widespread use of chemical fertilizers is killing the soil.
“It’s possible to grow crops and plants of all kinds in soil that is biologically dead, in soil that — through the use of chemical fertilizers, through the use of herbicides and pesticides and fungicides, and through compaction and erosion and other loss of living topsoil — has become just a mineral medium,” said Connor Stedman, an agricultural consultant at AppleSeed Permaculture. “That’s what a lot of industrial agriculture practices are based on. They treat farms and crop growing almost like a factory.”
Taylor compared the use of reliance on chemical fertilizers to a bad diet. “I can eat my doughnuts and chocolate and beer and take a vitamin and pretend like I’m going to be okay, but under the surface, things are really getting damaged,” she said. “If we eat a healthy diet and try to eat an organic diet — that’s the latest science — then we’re more likely to be healthy. And it’s the same with the soil.”
Adopting sustainable farming practices will improve soil health. However, Stedman said, “There are costs and risks to transitioning to new practices. So that’s where the private sector, the NGO sector and the public sector all have a really big role to play in helping farmers to diversify and intensify and perenniallize their production.”
Taylor said philanthropists can help by bankrolling programs that educate growers about carbon farming. Policymakers can help by funding conservation efforts and by ending subsidies that incentivize monoculture, meaning the planting of one of just a few crops, like corn and soybeans, robbing the soil of essential nutrients.
“There is a real desire among, I think, all farmers to have healthy soils but they have been in a system that has actually subsidized them to do the opposite,” she said. “You have got to shift the way you farm to build healthy soil, and I would say, right now, that’s becoming a growing consensus across the political spectrum, which is exciting,” she said.
The resolution on a Green New Deal calls for the federal government to work with farmers to cut pollution and invest in sustainable farming, which could “really bring jobs into communities that are losing people to opioids and to collapsing farms,” Taylor said. She suggested that, as part of a Green New Deal, the federal government might also resurrect the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was created as part of the original New Deal. During the Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps planted trees and worked to slow soil erosion. A modern-day incarnation could do the same, in addition to promoting carbon farming.
“I think we would be making a huge mistake if we thought of the Green New Deal strictly in terms of the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy,” Taylor said. “That’s essential, but it’s no longer enough.” A recent UN report on climate change finds that to prevent catastrophic warming, countries will need to remove huge sums of carbon pollution from the atmosphere, and currently, planting forests and farming carbon are the cheapest ways to do that.
“The only way to get [carbon dioxide] out of the atmosphere in great quantities and into the soil is by changing our farming and ranching practices. And a large part of that is we have to grow more things,” said Gabe Brown, 58, who deploys carbon farming techniques at his farm in Bismark, North Dakota. “We have to get away from monoculture production.”
Brown believes the government should curtail incentives for industrial farming and educate growers about carbon farming. “The more carbon a farmer or rancher can take out of the atmosphere and put in his or her soil, the greater the potential for profitability of their operation,” he said. “I am way more profitable than the average conventional producer… And I’m doing it without any government subsidies of any kind.”
John Norman, a retired University of Wisconsin soil scientist, studied Brown’s farm, which he said is storing around 80 tons of carbon per acre. He noted that a typical farm stores around 10 to 20 tons of carbon per acre. “We scientists must humbly go to the farming community and seek their guidance for what we can do to help them grow deep, healthy topsoil,” he said. “We need to stop catering to the big-agriculture-big-government money machine and put our hearts into healing our environment, like many — if not most — farmers truly want to do, but can’t because they are indentured to a brutal economic system.”
For Brown, the embrace of sustainable farming represents a return to more traditional practices. “I don’t care what you call it. It’s just farming and ranching in nature’s image. We have to get back to the basics,” Brown said. “We just follow the template nature provided, because it was a wonderful template. It’s only when man tries to impose his or her will on nature that we run into these issues.”