In early May, I represented the Land Stewardship Project at “Sequestering Carbon in the Soil: Addressing the Climate Threat,” an international conference held in Paris and organized by Breakthrough Strategies and Solutions. The conference convened 200 scientists, governmental leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations from around the world. Attendees included farmers from the Global South as well as Iowa, Britain, Europe and Australia. We spent three days discussing how to move forward on a critical issue: utilizing our soil's biology to head off a climate catastrophe.
Cover, Carbon & Farmers
Promoting farming systems that protect our precious soil has been a focus of LSP's work since we were founded 35 year ago. More recently, we've been doing some exciting work with farmers in southeastern and western Minnesota who are utilizing cover cropping, managed rotational grazing and other methods to build their soil's organic matter content. Since building organic matter helps sequester greenhouse gases, farming systems that support healthier soil aren't just good news for creating a more resilient and profitable agriculture; they can also be key players in developing long-term climate change solutions.
LSP’s work with farmers and efforts to promote public policy changes that build soil health, address racial equity, advance continuous living cover farming systems and train beginning farmers resonated strongly with many of the conference attendees I had conversations with. Our goal of helping farmers build soil health in ways that are good for their financial bottom lines as well as beneficial to the environment and local communities is shared by advocates around the world.
A significant number of experts in attendance talked about how well-managed rotational grazing of livestock can provide healthy food and livelihoods for farmers while pulling carbon out of the atmosphere. Scientists such as Richard Teague, Jason Rowntree and Christine Jones , along with Iowa farmer Seth Watkins, made it clear that getting livestock out on the land in well-managed grazing systems could be a key strategy for mitigating climate change. Together with cover crops, diverse crop rotations that include legumes, agroforestry and silvopasturing (integrating livestock and forestry), managed rotational grazing falls under the overall banner of "agroecology."
This method of protecting and building the soil is reliant on what we like to call "continuous living cover"—a combination of perennial pasture grasses and annual cover crops grown in-between the regular cash crop growing seasons. LSP, along with partners such as Green Lands Blue Waters, has been working the past few years to get more continuous living cover on farmland in the Upper Midwest. The University of Minnesota's Forever Green initiative is a prime example of how the public can support the establishment of continuous living cover through land grant research.
Whatever the farming system is called, the point is that carbon sequestering happens because of living cover on top of the soil, as well as living roots and active microbes below. And that can only happen on a consistent basis when farmers are able to make a livelihood from growing food and thus have an economic incentive to build soil health. Policies such as U.S. federally subsidized crop insurance must be reformed to prioritize soil building and getting more people on the land instead of maximizing production of a few commodities that degrade soil over time.
On the last morning of the conference, those working with small landholders, women and indigenous people around the world delivered a powerful statement to the other conference attendees. These leaders and farmers cautioned that too narrow of a focus on carbon sequestration could lead to commodification of soil and land grabbing by corporate interests and wealthy landholders looking to cash in on gaining financially from sequestering greenhouse gases. They called for a focus on equity and promoting practices and policies that put more farmers on the land and that don't displace the small landholders who are so key to the long-term viability of food production and carbon storage.
The problem of concentration of farmland ownership is often raised by LSP members—everyone from livestock producers who lost rented pasture during the years of high commodity prices to organic farmers, beginning farmers and those with diversified rotations, as well as grain crops, who want to expand but have a hard time getting land at reasonable prices. The need for land reform is an issue that's as pertinent here in Minnesota as it is in Mozambique.
An Urgent Issue Here & Abroad
Although I've long studied the issue of climate change, this conference drove home the urgency with which we need to pursue lowering greenhouse gas emissions as well as sequestering as much carbon as we can in the soil. An average global temperate rise greater than 1.5 degrees Celsius will literally put the Marshall Islands under water. Here in the Midwest, we are already seeing significant impacts from high intensity storms, droughts, strains on water resources and increased soil erosion resulting from climate change. Most scientists and the insurance industry itself believe a temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius would lead to flooding, fires, droughts and other impacts that will become so severe that damage from them will be virtually uninsurable.
Building soil health is not a magic bullet in fighting climate change. But it is one strategy that, along with promoting renewable energy, energy conservation and energy efficiency, along with leaving more fossil fuels in the ground, gives us a real shot at successfully battling this problem. Many businesses around the world are already undertaking practices to help mitigate climate change while developing more resilient financial bottom lines.
Utilizing continuous living cover and other innovative strategies to build soil organic carbon provides agriculture an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of this exciting area of ecological restoration. As was confirmed to me in Paris, the Land Stewardship Project has an important and significant role to play in meeting this challenge.
Former LSP executive director George Boody is now the organization's lead staffer working on science and special projects. He can be reached at 612-722-6377 or via e-mail.