Industrial agriculture has removed massive amounts of valuable carbon from land, transferring it into air and water
Soils can hold vast amounts of carbon, and it can sequester it for long periods of time. In the soil, carbon contributes to improved soil and plant health
One of the easiest ways to improve soil health and help sequester carbon in your soil
Challenges to implementing carbon sequestration on a more widespread scale include policy and corporate challenges, as there are big companies that profit from practices that don’t improve land health
Returning to more sustainable organic farming methods is also necessary in order to support the regeneration of soils, which, ultimately, dictates how nutritious the food grown in it will be
Global hunger, pollution, and water scarcity – how are these interrelated? Courtney White, a former archaeologist and a Sierra Club activist, connects the dots for us in his book Grass,Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country.
Growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, he first became concerned about some of the environmental issues going on in the 1990s, at which time he joined the Sierra Club.
“I met a rancher at a Sierra Club meeting in 1996. His name was Jim Winder… This was back in the mid-’90s when ranchers and environmentalists were going after each other in court, in public opinions, in newspapers, and all kinds of things.
Jim said, ‘Let’s find some common ground between ranchers and environmentalists.’ He said, ‘I ranch differently. I move my cows around the ranch in a certain way trying to mimic natural grazing behavior of wild animals – bison, for example.’
I said, ‘That’s interesting.’ I went to his ranch and saw what he was doing. He’s growing grass. He had water, wildlife, and all these things.”
The Quivira Coalition
In 1997, the activist and the rancher formed a non-profit organization called The Quivira Coalition, along with conservationist Barbara Johnson. Together, they advocated land management practices that help restore land back to health.
One of the keys to land restoration is carbon sequestration. Carbon is the most abundant element on Earth after oxygen. Dark, rich soils contain high amounts of carbon. This element is the tie that binds grazing management, land health, food, water, and rising pollution levels together.
Courtney says, “We have too much of it right now.
Through plants, through photosynthesis, and into the soils through the roots, we can actually store the carbon in the soils. I didn’t know that. We had been involved in land management practices for about 10 years up to that point.
All the practices these ranchers, gardeners, restorationists, and farmers were doing all have a positive impact potentially on the climate. They also could produce more food and more water.”
The Carbon Cycle
There are four large “carbon sinks,” which refers to the carbon cycle—how carbon moves around the earth in different forms:
- When fossil fuels (hydrocarbon) are burned, the carbon enters the atmosphere
- Carbon is also absorbed by the earth’s oceans
- Next are trees and green vegetation, primarily tropical forests, which absorb carbon through photosynthesis. Oxygen (which we need to breathe) is then released back into the atmosphere
- Soils can hold some of the greatest amounts of carbon, and it can sequester it for long periods of time—hundreds of years according to some estimates. In the soil, carbon contributes to improved soil and plant health
Wood Chips, Compost, and Biochar Are Valuable in Home Gardening
One of my new passions is integrating wood chips into the growing process. Traditionally, landscapers typically have to pay to dump this typical “waste product” at a landfill, so home gardeners can usually get truck loads of wood chips for next to nothing, or free.
Once in a landfill, these wood chips get converted into methane, which is a far worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. On the other hand, when you add them to your garden, as cover mulch, not as compost, they can dramatically improve the health of the soil by nourishing soil microbes and mycorrhizal fungal filaments. Adding biochar and compost also promotes soil health.
The wood chips are a magnificent source of carbon, which is the lifeblood of the soil microbes. They crave it. This is one of the most important elements of the soil and is typically measured as total organic content of the soil.
“Anything that covers the soil over time – wood chips, plants, or anything green or brown that keeps the microbial life covered and not respiring CO₂ up in the atmosphere – it’s a good thing,” Courtney notes.
One of the things they found scientifically is that when you increase the carbon content of the soils – and wood chips are a form of carbon – the capacity of the soil to hold water goes way up. When it rains, it goes in and soaks rather than runs off… Anything that can help hold water in soils makes microbes happy and can sequester carbon, too.”
Environmental and Economic Challenges That Prevent the Implementation of Widespread Carbon Sequestration
As explained by Courtney, there are a number of challenges, not the least of which is making it all work economically. First and foremost, though, we need to figure out the proper practices. Here, there’s plenty of hope.
“Over the last 30 years or so, through a lot of hard work by a lot of smart people, the toolbox of how to sequester carbon in soils has been well-developed,” Courtney says. “Of course, at the beginning, no one was thinking about carbon; they were just trying to be more productive…
Now, we’ve been involved [in] a lot in creek restoration. When we do that, plants grow, they put down deeper roots, and more carbon gets sequestered. Beavers are part of the answer. Beavers are great carbon engineers—the dams they build. If you go back 25 years ago, the toolbox was largely undeveloped. We didn’t know how to fix creeks very well. We didn’t know how to do local food systems – grass-fed and all that kind of stuff. We do now. We’ve got some good science to go with it.”
Another hurdle is making it work for large-scale operations. It needs to be economically feasible. Challenges include policy challenges and corporate challenges, as there are big companies that profit from practices that don’t improve land health. What’s needed is a business model in which landowners can actually profit from increasing soil carbon.
Well-Managed Livestock Are Part of the Solution
While confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are a part of our environmental problem, well-managed grazing livestock are part of the solution.
“There’s an old saying in organic agriculture that nature never farms without animals, meaning that nature always has some kind of animal involved in the ecosystem,” Courtney says. “There’s a relationship among grass, things that eat it, and the roots [and soil]. The practices that we advocate are the ones that promote grass growth and roots, which also means they got to have animals in there.
They’re part of the mix, but in a productive way…These are models of herbivory that have been around for a long time. They work and they create healthy grass. Allan Savory is an important part of this – his ideas of how animals group together and move… But there are other ways of growing green things. I mentioned the creek work, for example, growing riparian vegetation, and that kind of stuff. But nature never farms without animals.”
While it’s easy to think of food production and land restoration as something restricted to farmers and environmental activists, everyone is included in this web of life, no matter where you life or what your profession. Everyone eats food. But where does it come from? Being selective about your food sources plays an important part in the food system we have today, and what it can be tomorrow. Particularly if you eat meat, is it coming from a ranch that is carbon-friendly? Are the vegetables that you eat from a farm that’s trying to sequester carbon?
“I got an email yesterday from somebody who said, ‘Is there labeling yet?’ Is there a climate-friendly label they can put on food that the public could look at and say, ‘Hey, this is a carbon-friendly ranch?’ Now, I thought that was an interesting idea. I don’t know anybody doing it yet, but that might be coming soon.”
Six Eco-Friendly Strategies
- Build soil carbon. Any practice that builds soil carbon, including in your garden or yard, will benefit the soil, plants, your health, and the health of the planet
- Climate-friendly livestock management. That means managing animals in the way that nature would, which helps improve soil health and plant growth
- Repair damaged ecosystems
- No-till farming. Many assume that it’s critical to till your soil and that you can’t farm without a plow. However, it turns out that plowing is terrible for life underground. Tilling, which turns the soil over, actually kills the microbes and fungi needed for healthy soils and plant growth. It does this by exposing them to air, heat, sun, and wind. The mycorrhizal fungal filaments are particularly vulnerable. This is the fungi that sits on the roots of plants, transferring water, carbon, and minerals back and forth
- Grassland restoration
- Local food systems. Eating foods grown locally contribute to the overall positive carbon effect of these operations. Getting involved in the organic local food systems either as a grower or as an eater is part of the solution
Carbon Sequestration in Soil Improves Food Quality
When carbon is sequestered in the ground, it becomes part of a very beneficial cycle. Unfortunately, decades of soil mismanagement has led to demineralization and reduced nutritional content in food. It’s important to understand that all the trace minerals found in food, the copper, phosphorus, zinc, and much more, all come from the soil, and are dependent on the presence of beneficial soil microbes and fungi. By increasing the amount of carbon in the soil, you support soil microbes that allow minerals to be pulled up into the plant.
“It’s called the mineral cycle. Minerals get pulled up from deeper in the soil profile. They’re available to healthy plant roots. The minerals then get pulled into the plant. If you’re a vegetarian, you eat the plant. If you’re a meat-eater, you eat the animal that eats the plant. There’s an old saying that if it’s the feed, it’s in the food. If the minerals are in the feed, whether it’s the plant or the animal, then it’s in you.”
This mineral cycle has been largely decimated by our industrial food system. That’s why chemical fertilizers are used. But you actually don’t need chemicals to grow food. All you really need to do is restore the soil’s health, which is done through organic processes, of which carbon sequestration is an integral part.
The Importance of Buying Pasture-Raised Beef, Chicken, and Eggs
I’ve often said that the differences between organic, pastured beef and chicken and that from animals raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) is so great that you’re really talking about two completely different animals.
The same applies to other animal meats, and animal products such as dairy and eggs.
In the grand scheme of all that is wrong with modern agriculture, the unnatural transition that turned cattle, which naturally eat only grass, into grain-eating ruminants is definitely toward the top of the list.
By mimicking the natural behavior of migratory herds of wild grazing animals—meaning allowing livestock to graze freely, and moving the herd around in specific patterns—farmers can support nature’s efforts to regenerate and thrive. This kind of land management system promotes the reduction of atmospheric CO2 by sequestering it back into the soil where it can do a lot of good. Once in the earth, the CO2 can be safely stored for hundreds of years, and adds to the soil’s fertility.
When shopping for food, be informed regarding where that food was produced. A guide to help you can be found by clicking here. If you take advantage of the farm-fresh sustainability that’s becoming more prevalent as people take control of what they’re consuming, you’ll realize many benefits. First, you’ll know where the foods you and your family eat come from, ensure optimal nutrition, and protect the health of future generations.
Wool is a sustainable, ecologically-friendly resource. Sheep live long, healthy lives after shearing and can freely roam on pastures.
One of my next books is going to be how to garden with minimal effort. I believe that once you know what to do, it becomes effortless. Just as there are basic guidelines for optimal health—and these are very simple things like eating whole, organic foods—maintaining good health becomes effortless. The crux is that these foundational keys are often at odds with conventional ideas, which are tainted by bias that helps maintain the status quo of the food and medical industry. As Courtney says, “nature has been at it for a long time,” and manages itself flawlessly when left alone. It would behoove us to take notice and pay attention to its cues.
“Photosynthesis has been around for a couple of billion years. We, as humans, tend to think, ‘Oh we can make it better than that.’ A lot of this is going to back to kind of natural principles. Effortless Gardening would be like that, using natural principles. I see a lot of farmers and ranchers going back to the natural models of land management – animals, cover-cropping, and all those kinds of things,” Courtney says.
To learn more about how permaculture can address many of our most pressing environmental issues, I highly recommend picking up Courtney White’s book, Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country. It contains plenty of resources for gardeners and farmers alike. Even more resources can be found on the publisher’s website.1
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