Soil's Underground Fight Against Climate Change

At a time when there’s a lot of bad news when it comes to the state of our land, spending a bit of time in the company of optimists can be good for the soul. And there’s no doubt Kristin Ohlson and Courtney White have a positive message to relay in their new books about the benefits to be had from building healthy soil. The titles alone—The Soil Will Save Us (Ohlson) and Grass, Soil, Hope (White)—tip off the reader that these works are not dwelling on how our monocultural, industrialized farming system has all but decimated the very soil that supports us. Their books are rooted in showcasing remedies.

White and Ohlson approach the subject matter in different ways, but their overall premise is the same: we have the ability here and Imagenow to rebuild the life in the soil, recapturing its ability to do everything from generate its own natural fertility to sequester greenhouse gases. These books are no pie-in-the sky fantasies. Both writers combine the latest in soil science with practical examples of farmers and others who are on-the-ground proving that yes, we can rebuild our underworld to the point where it becomes a positive force on the surface.

White, a former archeologist and Sierra Club activist, abandoned what he calls the “conflict industry” to co-found the Quivira Coalition, a New Mexico-based nonprofit group that is attempting to bring ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists and others together around issues of land health. Such an area of agreement White calls the “radical center.” It’s clear from the stories he relates in Grass, Soil, Hope that White sees soil as the perfect medium for that “center” to germinate in.

While working with innovative livestock producers out West, he has seen firsthand how systems like managed rotational grazing can not only heal the land, but also improve it significantly. In a kind of travelogue type format, he provides some inspiring, firsthand accounts of rangelands that had been all but destroyed by overgrazing —or just as badly, were suffering from benign neglect—and have been reclaimed by a careful use of animal impact, grassland reclamation, an avoidance of tillage and, in some cases, use of compost.

The results have been healthier livestock, less erosion, more wildlife and cleaner water, among other things. It was while visiting one of these innovative operations in 2010—the Nicasio Native Grass Ranch in California—that White had his eyes opened to another major benefit to building the soil: it can take a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere and lock it up, thus helping reverse the greenhouse gas effect that is dramatically changing our climate. One estimate is that poor farming, ranching and other land practices have caused 80 billion tons of carbon to be released from our soil into the atmosphere. It was announced in September that during 2013 alone, the burning of coal, oil and gas caused a record amount of carbon dioxide to be pumped into the environment. The result? World carbon dioxide levels are at 400 parts per million, 50 parts per million beyond the level that many experts think can keep the climate stable for human life.

Scientists working with the owners of Nicasio have found that farming practices that build soil biology can make our land a Imagesignificant carbon “sink,” which makes terra firma a potentially huge weapon in the battle against climate change. White’s experience with Nicasio launches a journey that takes him from the West to the Great Plains to the East Coast—even as far away as Australia—in search of other examples of “carbon ranching.” What he finds are people who are using the sequestration of carbon as a brass ring to grab onto in their efforts to improve the land’s health. Despite the title, White doesn’t limit his examples to graziers. The potential of everything from cover cropping and conservation tillage to wetlands and beaver dams also gets covered.

It’s all very exciting, but at times the Optimism Express goes into overdrive. “It’s about the things that nurture life—love, kindness, care, affection, experience, knowledge, laughter, liberty, family, food, and the pursuit of happiness,” White writes in one overly-enthusiastic passage.

But perhaps one can be forgiven for going overboard at times, given some of the impressive transformations witnessed.

The Big Dance

Kristin Ohlson is also quite optimistic (she calls the ability of soil to heal the planet “our great green hope”), and The Soil Will Save Us is also full of firsthand accounts of the real-life wonders produced by healthier soil. But Ohlson, a veteran science writer, brings a journalist’s sharp eye to some of the claims soil health boosters make, and weighs the pros and cons. She quotes one leading scientist on his estimate that three billion tons of carbon can be sequestered annually in the world’s soils, reducing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by three parts per million per year. “The carbon in the soil is like a cup of water,” says the scientist, Rattan Lal of Ohio State University. “We have drunk more than half of it, but we can put more water back in the cup. With good soil practices, we could reverse global warming.”

That’s impressive, and as Ohlson points out, the “further from academia” one gets, the more optimistic the statistics become. We should take some of this with a grain of salt, but what Ohlson discovers is that soil health claims made outside of the research station or laboratory aren’t necessarily without foundation. In fact, in many cases, farmers and ranchers are ahead of the science.

Perhaps the biggest contribution Ohlson makes to the soil health discussion is that she doesn’t shy away from two tricky questions: how will we make building soil health pay, and are promises that soil can sequester all this carbon distracting us from preventing the release of more greenhouse gases?

Offset markets and outright subsidies are being considered as ways to give farmers the economic incentive to transition into soil-friendly practices. It all sounds good, but the amount of carbon stored has to be measurable in order to fit into a consistent accounting system. And the practice being paid for shouldn’t cause “leakage.” In other words, if a farmer builds soil in a way that is less “productive” commodity-wise, the overall benefits are lost if other farmers make up for that shortfall by using even more industrialized practices. And what happens when land that’s managed well changes hands and the new owner plows up all that stored carbon?

The second contentious issue, that sequestration will be a distraction or will serve as a green cover for polluting industries, needs to be addressed if the environmental community is to be brought on board the soil health movement. As the Environmental Defense Fund’s Robert Parkhurst tells Ohlson when talking about soil’s ability to sequester carbon, “It’s not going to work everywhere for everyone, but…the sources of climate change are many, and so the solutions have to be just as many.”

The bottom line is that if the soil health movement is to succeed, it won’t be because of the science, agronomics or markets—although all of those play important roles. It will be because of the people and the relationships they build with the land and in their communities. What these groups of farmers, scientists, conservationists and just plain consumers need to recognize is that sometimes the best thing to do is to allow those countless soil microbes to do what they do best: cook up their own sustainability in what Ohlson calls a “wondrous dance.”

“We can’t keep being the oaf that breaks into the dance, bumping one partner or the other out of the way, thinking we can improve upon their step and sway,” she writes. “We suffer for this clumsiness. We need to stand back, pay close attention to the ways in which these partners need help, and offer it with the greatest respect.”

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter and the author of the LSL series, “Soil Health, Profits & Resiliency.”