Soil Carbon Sequestration: a Surprising Opportunity to Heal Ourselves and the Planet at the Same Time

  • Within the planetary carbon cycle, soil is the second largest carbon sink on the Earth after the oceans. As a part of this cyclical process, plants take atmospheric carbon dioxide and convert it into biomass (their bodies) through photosynthesis and send the remainder down into the soil, where it feeds micro-organisms.
  • Soil provides habitat to an extremely complex and diverse microbial ecosystem. To cite one example, Dr. James Tiedje at Michigan State University’s Center for Microbial Ecology estimates that a 1/4 acre woodlot would have about one million species of bacteria, a teaspoon of that soil housing between 600 million to 1,000 million individual bacteria. Fungus is also a key component in soil. Vast mycorrhizal networks of fungi connect individual plants together and play a critical role in the storage and distribution of nutrients and water. These networks are integral with the carbon cycle and the health of above-ground plant life (see interview with Elaine Ingham here).
The basics. See here for image source and more information.
  • While scientific consensus is emerging on the potential amount of carbon that can be sequestered in soil, various reports as listed in this recent article from the Guardian offer news to be optimistic: a study by Rattan Lal estimates that soil carbon sequestration could offset 5 to 15% of annual fossil-fuel emissions; the National Academy of Science offers a more conservative 3% of annual emissions; and a report from the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania claims more than 100% of global CO2 emissions could be sequestered through what they refer to as regenerative organic agriculture.
  • And finally, in addition to this carbon sequestration potential, improving soil health has the following additional benefits: the ability to hold more water to hedge against drought, increase biodiversity and plant pest and disease resistance, grow healthier food through boosting nutrient density in plants, and increase productivity, or crop yields. Simply put: increasing carbon content in soils lifts many boats at the same time and is the right thing to pursue regardless of its impact on the climate.
Wes Jackson and peers at the Land Institute have been working on breeding perennial grains for decades; here the difference between the root systems of the annual (left) and perennial (right) varieties are striking
The multiple benefits of agroforestry. Image from Vi Agroforestry
Patagonia Provisions’ new Long Root Ale is a beer partially brewed with Kernza, the Land Institute’s perennial wheat. Image Source.

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Writer, Educator, and Consultant working in Food, Fermentation, and Regenerative Agriculture. See about.me/MarkjPHL for writing and affiliations.

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Mark Phillips

Mark Phillips

Writer, Educator, and Consultant working in Food, Fermentation, and Regenerative Agriculture. See about.me/MarkjPHL for writing and affiliations.