Healthy Soils: A Climate Change Solution

Agriculture is in a unique position to climate change. Our current agricultural system produces 9% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s latest report from 2017. Globally, this sector alone produces almost a quarter of emissions.

Healthy soil graphic by Rodale Institute

While our farming system contributes to our changing climate, it also has the opportunity to assuage its impact and even reverse climate change. Enter: regenerative practices. Regenerative practices refer to a farming system that works with nature to utilize photosynthesis and healthy soil microbiology to pull carbon from the atmosphere and store (or sequester) carbon emissions. According to the Rodale Institute, “recent data from farming systems and pasture trials around the globe show that we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices.”

Building healthy soil on farms will require a shift away from practices that release carbon from the soil back into the atmosphere, such as tilling the soil, monoculture systems that promote planting the same single crop year-after-year, and using fossil fuel based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, according to the Carbon Cycle Institute. Clear-cutting forests, a practice in many locations around the world to establish new fields for planting, also releases carbon. The net effect of these practices has been the release of more carbon than is being stored.

Regenerative practices for maintaining healthy soil and carbon sequestration defined by the Rodale Institute and the Carbon Cycle Institute, among others, include:

  • Planting cover crops – These are temporary crops planted between cash crops or perennial “living” mulches. Among the myriad benefits of cover crops, they protect the soil from the sun and conserve water, as well as prevent erosion of soil and leaching of nutrients. Most importantly, they increase soil carbon.
  • Utilizing organic no-till practices – Tilling breaks down the soil structure, allowing soil carbon to be released into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases. To have the greatest impact, no-till practices are encouraged within an organic system. 
  • Rotating crops – Best practice is moving away from monocropping, to ensure fields are not left fallow and to increase the soil microbial biomass that stores carbon. Research has shown, for instance, that “switching a wheat-fallow rotation to a wheat-sunflower or wheat-legume rotation was found to increase soil organic carbon stocks significantly,” according to Rodale.
  • Mulching and composting crop residue – In some areas, farmers have burned crop residue (post-harvest organic matter), which releases valuable soil carbon into the atmosphere. Organic principles recommend leaving residue as a natural mulch on the soil or composting it to enhance soil fertility. Composting is a controlled decomposition of organic matter.
  • Managing grazing and animal waste – Pasture lands can also contribute to climate change solutions. Rotational grazing allows recovery of forage plants, so that root systems can become more resilient to store carbon. Excess waste removal from pasture lands also supports healthier soil.

Research suggests that with a high adoption of regenerative, organic practices globally, farming can have an immediate impact on mitigating climate change, going beyond net-zero impact to reversing the impacts of other non-agricultural activities. 

Agriculture that sequesters carbon successfully not only addresses climate change; as the Rodale Institute establishes, it also “addresses our planetary water crisis, extreme poverty, and food insecurity while protecting and enhancing the environment now and for future generations.” 

The best way for consumers to support regenerative, organic systems is to engage producers at farmers’ markets, and even local grocery store managers, in discussions about what they are doing to promote soil health and to mitigate the effects of farming on climate. 

Fair Farms is involved with policy solutions that incentivize and promote a more equitable food system focused on soil health. Regenerative, organic farming systems is better for food equity and food quality, and research is proving it more than beneficial to the environment. Stay tuned for ways you can support these policies that build a more sustainable food system!