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Are Healthy Soils Our Salvation?

Renewables are Gaining Rapidly, But Reforestation and Regenerative Farming Are Equally Important for a Livable Future

Photo: Gabriel Jimenez

Solar, wind, flowing water, and other sources of renewable energy are ready, both technically and economically, to supplant fossil fuels. The speed of replacement will soar as the storage of energy from these sources becomes more reliable and affordable. Shifting to clean energy is necessary, but it is not enough. Ways to remove excess carbon already in the atmosphere also need to become mainstream. Ending deforestation, replanting trees, and recharging our farm, ranch, and garden soils with carbon offer some of the best strategies for pulling carbon emissions back into earth’s storage systems.

Humans have known for a long time that soil is alive and teeming with bacteria, fungi, algae, mites, nematodes, earthworms, and the roots of plants. Most of our agricultural history over the past 10,000 years has been a steady depletion of soil health. The development, however, of large-scale, industrial farms and their shift to monocultures, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides has accelerated this degradation in the past century — turning soil into sterile dirt. 

Agroecologists around the world are promoting polyculture farming, using regenerative practices. Based on extensive research, they have documented that one acre of polyculture farming produces as much food as one and a half acres that employ monoculture practices. In many ways, regenerative farming mimics natural ecosystems. 

Before 1940, farmers produced six units of food energy per one fossil fuel unit. Today, 10 units of fossil fuel energy are required to produce one unit of food energy. This is not sustainable.

Twenty to forty percent of the carbon absorbed by a plant is released into the soil as “liquid carbon” or sugars through the plant’s roots. These sugars feed billions of soil microorganisms, which lock the carbon in the soil at a rate previously thought impossible, even by scientists. This process improves the soil’s structure, its sponginess or ability to hold and filter water, while also creating nutrients for plant growth. Holding water in the ground turns out to be as important as keeping carbon in the ground. Rapidly evaporating water from nonporous soil becomes water vapor in the atmosphere. This water vapor combines easily with carbon dioxide, becoming the most abundant greenhouse gas. 

Agroecologists, soil scientists, and advocates of regenerative agriculture are working in all corners of the globe to convert farmers to their carbon-sequestering practices, with growing success. From recent news, we learn that increasing numbers of young people have taken to the streets, demanding urgent action on climate change. They want to do work that matters, and the work that matters now is on the land. Both the fossil-fuel industry and the agro-industrial complex will fight this, but they will be pushing against a swelling current.

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