Back To The Earth: Carbon Farming & The Green New Deal


Agriculture carbon farming

Published on March 5th, 2019 | by Carolyn Fortuna

March 5th, 2019 by Carolyn Fortuna 

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not coal-fired power plants and internal combustion engine transportation that emit the majority of greenhouse gases — it’s industrial agricultural food production. But that could change, as the Green New Deal has major implications for the food system.

When we do a close reading of the full text of the Green New Deal Resolution, we see a “a new national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II and the New Deal.” If the Green New Deal were to spur agriculture to more fully utilize its full potential to pull carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in soil and plants, we could make great strides at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Plants add organic matter to the soil when they decompose, and photosynthesis removes carbon dioxide from the air and pumps it through the roots of plants and into the soil.  We should be doing that kind of carbon-focused farming, right? ‘Cause it makes sense. It does until we look at current industrial agricultural practices, such as the overuse of chemicals, excessive tilling, and heavy machinery use, which disturb the soil’s organic matter and expose carbon molecules to the air. Agricultural practices can change, however, through a series of holistic methods called carbon farming.

carbon farming

What is Carbon Farming?

Carbon farming takes excess carbon out of the atmosphere, where the element causes global warming, and stores it in the soil, where carbon aids the growth of plants.

According to Rattan Lal, director of Ohio State University’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, the world’s cultivated soils have lost between 50 and 70% of their original carbon stock, much of which has oxidized upon exposure to air to become CO2. He adds that bringing carbon back into soils has to be done not only to offset fossil fuels, but also to feed our growing global population. “We cannot feed people if soil is degraded.”

One-third of the carbon in the atmosphere today used to be in the soil, and modern farming is largely to blame.

Studies have shown that cover cropping, crop rotation, and no-till farming could restore global soil health while significantly decreasing farms’ carbon footprint. For example, one approach to carbon farming is to place cover crops in fields, planting grains like oats, rye, and beans between rows of vegetables. This practice keeps carbon, nitrogen, and other organic nutrients in the soil.

carbon farming

What’s the Green New Deal Got To Do with Carbon Farming?

The Green New Deal (GND) has at its core the urgency to develop a carbon-neutral economy. Carbon farming can help to make the GND a reality, as such an agricultural approach might offer a fast, inexpensive, and viable way to reduce carbon emissions. Yes, agricultural subsidies for farming system redesigns would be necessary, but what of it? We’re already subsidizing so much of the agricultural industry! In December, 2018, Congress passed an $867 billion farm bill. There is a growing consensus that government incentives to convert agriculture to a net absorber of carbon would be manageable and welcomed by many farming constituents.

The Marin Carbon Project‘s scientists have found that applying a single layer of compost, less than an inch thick, to rangelands stimulates a burst of microbial and plant growth that sequesters dramatic amounts of carbon in the soil — more than 1.5 tons per acre. Additional carbon in the soil means more grass for cattle and more profit for ranchers. If the practice were replicated on half the rangeland area of California, it would sequester enough carbon to offset 42 million metric tons of CO2 emissions. The vision is for landowners and land managers of Marin’s agricultural ecosystems to serve as stewards of soil health and to undertake carbon farming in a manner that can improve on-farm productivity and viability, enhance ecosystem functions, and stop and reverse climate change

Labor intensive carbon farming would also meet the GND’s objective to create millions of green-collar jobs. It would stimulate economic activity that will put less carbon into the atmosphere instead of more.

US farm size distribution in agricultural production is highly skewed, according to a report titled “Three Decades of Consolidation in US Agriculture.” You know those idyllic pictures of family farms with three generations working shoulder-to-shoulder with pride and determination? Give it up. Yes, there are many very small farms in the US, but most agricultural production is concentrated among a small number of much larger farms.

The US Department of Agriculture reports that 51% of the total value of US farm production in 2015 was generated by large farms with at least $1 million in sales each year. In 1991, that number sat at 31%.

It’s all about Big Ag, baby.

carbon farming

The farming envisioned within the GND would likely return to small, diverse farms where a tightly managed integration of livestock, perennial forages, and tree crops is maintained. One possible scenario is a post-high school Ag Corp that trains and subsidizes young people to spend time working in agriculture graduation before expanding into career.

A GND’s explicit underpinning is to obtain a carbon-neutral national economy through social equity. Economic and racial justice would be consistent with carbon farming practices, as all intersect with sustainable agriculture’s tendency to nutritious food. The GND intends to enhance healthy, responsibly produced food as a norm rather than a niche. In that way, prices become streamlined across groceries and restaurants.

carbon farming

Five Tenets of Carbon Sequestration

Modern Farmer suggests that, in carbon farming, farmers switch from a reliance on “chemical crutches and pulverizing the soil with constant tillage.” Instead, they enrich the soil with compost and rotate a diverse array of food and cover crops through the fields each season. Here are 5 ways that carbon sequestration can occur on farms.

No Tilling: Instead, focus on perennial crops that don’t require tillage, or use a no-till seed drill for large-scale annual plantings.

Carbon-farming-mulch: Cover the soil around small-scale plantings with a wood chip or straw mulch to prevent carbon losses. On large plantings, leave crop residue in place as mulch. As it decomposes, the residue fuels the carbon cycle in the soil.

Compost: Compost is rich in a stable (not easily oxidized) form of carbon. Carbon farmers recommend dusting it over the surface of the soil – you can spread it directly over the grass in your pasture – rather than tilling it in.

Livestock rotation: Moving concentrated herds and flocks of animals through a series of small paddocks on a regular basis is preferable to letting the animals forage continuously over a single large area. Many carbon farmers move their animals every day and try to let each paddock “rest” as long as possible between grazings.

Cover crops: Fast-growing species such as clover and vetch keep the soil covered and enriched with carbon through the winter and may also be planted together with cash crops during the growing season to compensate for carbon lost when those crops are harvested.

Some scientists project that 75 to 100 parts per million of CO2 could be drawn out of the atmosphere over the next century if existing farms, pastures, and forestry systems were managed to maximize carbon sequestration. That’s significant when you consider that CO2 levels just passed 400 ppm. (Scientists point to a safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as 350 ppm.)

carbon farming

Final Thoughts

Climate change, quite simply, cannot be halted without fixing agriculture. Human activity has turned the living and fertile carbon system in our dirt into a toxic atmospheric gas. It’s possible to stop and even reverse this process through better agricultural policies and practices.

Knowing that food production follows general economic principles of supply and demand, we see contemporary industrial agriculture is a significant means to create employment, earn trade revenues, and generate what is often considerable profits. But tillage and synthetic fertilizer emit copious quantities of carbon into the atmosphere.

So why aren’t we instituting policies to encourage this kind of carbon farming? Most of the incentives built into America’s agricultural policies are based on maximizing yield, often at the expense of robust soil. Current federal policy, for example, limits the growing season for cover crops, with the thinking that all crops should produce profit. We can’t waste time and money on plants that can’t be sold, can we? We need to build in farming that insures full crop insurance, price supports, and subsidies during the time that cover crops are grown.

We need an administration with policies that are climate smart, like carbon farming.

Hope for a hot planet — that’s what carbon farming has been termed. Let’s speak up for the GND so that we can replenish the soil and capture carbon in our soil as we did 100 years ago.

Images copyright free from Pixabay

Shout-out to reader Ken Anderson for sending the original story lead. 


Tags: carbon farming, Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, green new deal, Marin Carbon Project

About the Author

Carolyn Fortuna Carolyn Fortuna, Ph.D. is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. She’s won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. She’s molds scholarship into digital media literacy and learning to spread the word about sustainability issues. Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook and Google+

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