How Carbon Farming Can Help Stop Climate Change in Its Tracks

How Carbon Farming Can Help Stop Climate Change in Its Tracks

How Carbon Farming Can Help Stop Climate Change in Its Tracks

New agricultural methods offer hope of restoring ecological balance.


Ninety people are gathered along a trench—maybe 20 feet long, five feet deep, and three feet wide—in the Montana prairie. It’s an overcast spring day, with a cool breeze stirring the grass. Children clamber around the edges of the trench while the adults crouch or stand, listening to a woman pacing at the bottom, pointing out roots and different layers of exposed earth, talking about how the soil can save us from a climate catastrophe. The speaker is Nicole Masters, an agroecologist from New Zealand, conducting a workshop on soil health for this audience of ranchers, farmers, and conservationists.

“Even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tonight,” Masters says, “we’d wake up tomorrow and still have 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.”

That figure has risen from approximately 280 parts per million in 1780, when the Industrial Revolution kicked in and burning coal became the way to power factories and trains. Over time, the use of such fossil fuels has triggered a greenhouse effect, trapping heat in our atmosphere and raising Earth’s surface temperatures to a level not experienced for some 150,000 years. Masters’s message is that while replacing fossil fuels with clean energy from the sun, wind, flowing water, and the planet’s own heat is certainly necessary, it is not enough. To stop runaway global warming, tame the fierce extremes of weather we are now experiencing, slow down and eventually reverse the melting of icecaps and glaciers, rescue drowning islands, and revive dying coral reefs, we must also find a way to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil.

“How do we get greenhouse gases out of the air?” Masters asks the people at this workshop.

Our host, a rancher named Steve Charter, answers, “Photosynthesis.”

“Right,” she says. Plants not only take in carbon dioxide but also create ground cover—and this gets carbon back in the soil.

“You are solar ranching,” Masters continues as she writes the chemical formula for photosynthesis on a whiteboard: sunlight + 6CO2 + 6H2O (water) = C6 H12 O6 (basic sugar) + 6O2 (atmospheric oxygen). “Everything that grows here starts with sugar. Soil microbes eat sugar.” And feeding these soil microbes builds soil and sequesters atmospheric carbon in the ground “at a rate previously thought impossible.”

The workshop at the Charter Ranch took place in May 2015. Four years later, our climate situation has grown more dire and the carbon-sequestration message even more urgent. The levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have risen to 410 parts per million. The California fire season has expanded from a seasonal phenomenon into a year-round reality. Meanwhile, the dwindling Colorado River has become less and less reliable as a water source for the cities downriver—and for the irrigated agriculture that supplies food for much of the United States. Canada’s permafrost has already warmed enough to begin melting, which, if left unchecked, will release huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. And the same holds true for the vast Siberian permafrost.

In December 2018, the Global Carbon Project—an international collaboration among scientists, governments, and industries to track greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide—reported that in 2017, carbon emissions rose 1.6 percent and were likely to reach 2.7 percent by the end of 2018—two straight years of growth after a brief period of relatively stable emissions.

In 2018, China, the biggest carbon polluter on the planet, was on track for its biggest increase since 2011, 4.7 percent, and the United States is on track for its largest increase since 2013, 2.5 percent. The US increase coincided with the second year of Donald Trump’s presidency, after he began rolling back pollution controls in an effort to strengthen the faltering coal industry while opening up large tracts of public land for oil and natural-gas drilling. Adding to this surge were the massive summer fires on the prairies and in the mountains of my home state, Montana, followed by giant blazes in other Western states.

Last year, a snowy winter and wet spring, with rains extending well into the summer, kept the fires down in Montana, but they blazed anew in other Western states, and one conflagration almost completely destroyed the town of Paradise in Northern California.

Katharine Hayhoe, the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, remarks that 2018 showed “how climate change loads the dice against us by taking naturally occurring weather events and amplifying them.” Wildfires in the West, she says, “now burn nearly twice the area they would without climate change.” She adds that “almost 40 percent more rain fell during Hurricane Harvey than would have otherwise.”

Harvey settled over southeastern Texas from August 25 to 28, 2017, and drenched the region, resulting in disastrous flooding in Houston. Why did it not wreak havoc for a few hours, then move on? One factor is more water vapor in the atmosphere (a result of hotter temperatures) to feed such extreme weather events. A second is that many storms seem to be moving more slowly these days.

And take note: The Global Carbon Project predicts that when all the data are in, 2018 will have seen another rise in carbon emissions, to 41.5 billion tons.

Donald Trump isn’t the only national leader who ignores or openly scoffs at these realities. The newly elected president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, began his reign by welcoming multinational corporations to resume the large-scale clear-cutting of the Amazon basin’s carbon-sequestering trees to open the land for industrial agriculture. And Trump joined leaders from three other oil-exporting nations—Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait—in refusing to acknowledge the validity of a report by climate scientists to the United Nations, which described an impending crisis these leaders do not wish to see. And these prominent deniers of climate change have been joined by many of our neighbors, who also do not wish to see.

But three things have changed, one quite recently. Increasing numbers of young people, faced with an intolerable future, have taken to the streets. Their hope for strong action to address climate change, including what some have called a Green New Deal, is buoyed by a second, relatively recent development. Solar, wind, and other sources of renewable energy are poised, both technically and economically, to replace fossil fuels in uses like generating electricity, for travel, and for heating and cooling buildings—particularly as the battery storage of energy becomes more reliable and affordable.

And the third change? The message of agroecologists like Masters is taking root around the planet with the rapid growth of regenerative agriculture: creating the conditions for plants to retain as much carbon in the ground as possible. “Carbon farming” is one term for this effort, and we can add “carbon ranching” and “carbon gardening” because, to succeed, this practice must occur on many levels.

The key insight of regenerative agriculture is not new. Humans have long recognized that the soil is alive, teeming with diverse, interacting creatures: bacteria, fungi, algae, mites, nematodes, earthworms, ants, spiders, the roots of plants. Soil flourishes in that narrow zone between rock and air, transforming mineral to vegetable, inanimate to animate.

But for far too long—at least 8,000 years—we human beings have treated the soil badly in many parts of the world: setting fires to drive wild animals or to clear land; overgrazing grasslands with domestic animals; plowing, planting, and harvesting crops, then leaving the ground denuded and vulnerable to wind and water erosion.

Central Australia, the Sahara, and various deserts in Asia and the Americas were once semiarid grasslands. Old-growth forests have dwindled and, in many places, disappeared. Over the Great Plains of North America, vast herds of bison and elk roamed, spurred by predators (primarily wolves and, after we arrived, human beings) to bunch up in herds for self-defense, then move on, leaving urine, saliva, and dung to revitalize the land. In some places, the topsoil was six feet deep. Within the last century, however, this topsoil has been exhausted by farmers deep-plowing and planting grains, primarily corn and, more recently, soybeans.

In an interview with Acres USA magazine, David Johnson, a soil scientist (and master composter) at New Mexico State University, was asked how we went so wrong. By adopting the wrong model of farming, he replies:

where agriculture extracted nutrients and carbon out of soils and then farmers moved on to areas with undisturbed soils to repeat these soil-degrading practices. Then in the early 20th century came the Haber-Bosch process for manufacturing nitrogen fertilizers. Before 1940, you could produce six units of food energy for one fossil fuel unit. Now it takes 10 units of fossil fuel energy to produce and deliver one unit of food energy, even though the solar energy to grow the plant is free.

This has implications not only for the health of the soil but also for the health of the people and animals consuming the food grown in it. Yet today’s industrial agriculture continues to treat soil as an inert medium full of irrelevant life forms, plowing it to plant seeds, applying synthetic fertilizers—primarily the trio known as NPK: nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium—and spraying pesticides and herbicides (often derived from fossil fuels) to destroy what they dismiss as pests and weeds, deliberately creating monocultures.

In Masters’s terminology, what remains after all this erasure of life-forms isn’t soil. It’s dirt.

Miguel Altieri is a California-based agroecologist who promotes polycultures. For at least 40 years, he has focused on reversing the loss of agricultural biodiversity and encouraging farmers to use bio-control services, such as birds nesting in fruit trees and eating the insects that prey on adjacent vegetable crops. He has worked with farmers in the Caribbean, Central and South America, and the US.

Based on extensive research, Altieri says, it takes one and a half hectares of high-input monocultural crops to produce the same amount of food as just one hectare of polycultural crops. (A hectare is slightly less than 2.5 acres.) He reports that the agro-industrial sector, as he calls it, uses 80 percent of our planet’s agricultural land to feed just 30 percent of the human population. This, he warns, is not sustainable.

Another agroecologist, Rachel Kastner, was born and raised in rural Oklahoma and spent a year working in South Africa after graduating from college. It was there that she “first experienced agriculture as an avenue for social and environmental change,” she says. She now works for Vía Orgánica, an organization in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, that runs a store and a restaurant and supports the local organic-agriculture movement. She defines organic agriculture as “production systems that do not use synthetic chemicals, fertilizers, and genetically modified organisms.” Regenerative agriculture incorporates these organic practices, then focuses on the “important connections between plants, soil microorganisms and carbon in the atmosphere” to create “productive systems that model natural ecosystems and regenerate their own nutrients.”

Harking back to Masters’s formula for photosynthesis, Kastner says that 20 to 40 percent of the carbon absorbed by a plant is emitted through its root system into the soil as “liquid carbon”—primarily in the form of sugars—which feeds billions of soil microorganisms. These microorganisms, in turn, “stabilize the carbon in the soil and create nutrients for the plants.” Kastner adds that the sugars released by plant roots “help improve soil structure, increasing its capacity to hold and filter water.” Keeping water in the ground, it turns out, is as important as keeping carbon in the ground because too much water is escaping back into the atmosphere and staying there as water vapor. Water vapor, the most abundant greenhouse gas, amplifies temperature increases caused by (for example) CO2; from burning fossil fuels.

In an Acres USA interview, Australian climate scientist Walter Jehne says, “As the planet warms, there is more evaporation from the oceans; so we’re getting more rain, but it’s coming down in extreme, damaging storms…ot equally distributed, so along with more extreme flooding there are also more severe droughts.” How can we ameliorate these extremes? By rebuilding “Earth’s soil carbon sponge,” he says, since “about 66 percent of a healthy soil is just space, air—nothing—that creates massive capacity for the sponge to hold water.” That “beautiful, open, spacey structure” also allows essential minerals and trace elements to become available to plants. According to Jehne, “more than 80 percent of a soil’s biofertility depends on this surface exposure, rather than on the quantity of nutrients we add as fertilizer.”

What Kastner and Jehne are suggesting is that adding manure and compost to regenerative-agriculture systems will become less and less necessary as these systems begin to create their own nutrients. Australian soil scientist Christine Jones agrees. She begins with a big number: 550 gigatons, the weight of all carbon-based life-forms on Earth, of which 450 gigatons are plants. A big slice of the remainder (“more than we realize”) consists of tiny, often microscopic life-forms like bacteria and fungi, leaving only 7 percent of that 550 gigatons for “life in the sea and on land,” she says. Human beings, she adds, account for just 0.01 percent of Earth’s biomass.

“We are embedded in a microbial world,” Jones says, “and it is embedded in us.” She describes trials at farms in North and South Dakota, Canada, Germany, and New Zealand, mostly during low-rainfall years, in which monocultures failed but areas of multispecies mixing thrived. She also points to the grasslands of the North American Great Plains, which once had enormous diversity—500 to 700 kinds of plants, 40 percent grasses, 60 percent forbs—but now grow mostly corn and soybeans. “Simplified systems are degraded systems,” she says. “They can’t function optimally.”

In terms of regenerative agriculture, carbon farming means preserving ground cover, planting seeds with either minimal tilling or individual drilling. It often means planting two or more crops in the same field, to be harvested at different times, and paying attention to how nitrogen-fixing plants like lentils blend well with grains and figuring out how beneficial animal species can fit in. For a longtime organic gardener like me, carbon gardening may mean less digging and more companion planting, plus a renewed reverence for earthworms.

Carbon ranching means managing livestock so that they move through the land in the same way that elk and bison moved though the plains: bunching up in a relatively small area, eating it down, delivering their gifts of natural fertilizer to the land, then moving on to a new place and doing the same there, with each grazed area—paddocks, they are called—allowed ample time to recover before the grazers return. Instead of predators, it may be human herders or solar-powered portable fences that keep the livestock in a particular area. This is a way to reverse the decline of grasslands into deserts, pioneered in the United States by Allan Savory, a wildlife biologist who later became a rancher in Zimbabwe, where he is from.

His method has its serious skeptics, and their research continues, but when Savory showed up in Montana in the 1980s, many ranchers were intrigued by his conviction that using this approach could reverse degradation of their rangelands over time. Charter was one of many early adopters of what Savory calls holistic management.

After her workshop in 2015, Masters gave Charter a bio-stimulant recipe—fish-oil emollient, molasses, and a small amount of sea salt—to spray on a pasture. Assisted by John Brown, a former organic farmer now working with him on carbon-ranching projects, Charter sprayed 80 acres with the bio-stimulant, and several things happened. Horses in another of his pastures smelled the spray and broke through a barbed-wire fence to get to the site and graze the grasses. Then a squadron of dung beetles flew in and went to work so that the horse dung, instead of drying into hard pellets, was buried in the ground by the next day. (This typically doesn’t happen in a climate that averages 10 to 12 inches of precipitation per year.)

By then, Charter and Brown were busy raising worms in shallow, straw-lined trenches, feeding them kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, dried weeds, wood chips, horse manure, sugar-beet tailings from a nearby refinery, pulp from juice bars in town, and sometimes phosphorous (from rock phosphate, broken down by bacteria). The product of this worm farming is vermicast—worm dung—which by itself is a superb fertilizer. And the vermicast produced by the worms feeding on this compost is especially rich in fungi and bacteria.

Spread out to dry, then combined with water, molasses, and fish emollients (Masters’s original ingredients) and sprayed on the land, vermicast is not just a fertilizer: “It’s more a way to inoculate the soil with these microbes,” Charter says. The spray has since been used on 2,000 more acres of the ranch. The cattle and horses are happy, and the bare ground amid the sagebrush and prairie grasses has been filling in with vegetation. More carbon in the soil means more microbial action—so much so that other ranchers and farmers have been buying vermicast from the Charter Ranch and seeing an improvement in their own grasslands.

Along with the work of tending the livestock, these methods are quite labor-intensive. At a time when aging farmers and ranchers are retiring—their land often gobbled up by wealthy out-of-staters—and rural towns continue to lose population, Charter’s daughter and son and their families are back on the ranch, engaged in various activities. There’s a milk cow and gardening and chickens, as well as talk—and plenty of regional action—concerning how to get carbon out of the air and give it a home in the soil.

The fossil-fuel industry will fight this. The agro-industrial complex will fight this. But on the other side are young people who want to change their future, who want a livable climate, and who want to do work that matters. And there are older people who support them.

Since the 1960s, we’ve had the Peace Corps overseas and AmeriCorps (formerly called VISTA) at home. These government programs tapped into youthful idealism. Then in the late ’60s and early ’70s, there arose a decidedly nongovernmental movement called back to the land.

The work that matters now is on the land, drawing carbon back into the ground. Planting trees. Tending the living soil on farms, on ranches, in gardens everywhere.

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