Soil Carbon and Its Disincentives

“The most meaningful measurable indicator of the health of the land, and thus the long-term wealth of the nation, is whether soil carbon is being accumulated or lost.” —Courtney White, from his book Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country.

3710702365_ab030b381a_b tractor plowing cropped

Plowing is, by many accounts, soil-carbon destruction in action.

Courtney White has written an interesting book. Here’s a very short overview—plowing is destructive to soil. It exposes it to erosion from water and wind, ruins its structure, kills microbial life, and burns up the carbon. The more we plow, the worse the soil gets. Add chemical inputs, as modern industrial farming does, and the problem worsens still further. As White puts it, “Turning soil into dirt . . . is quick and easy. Just follow the recipe: Plow. Add chemicals. Mix well. Repeat.” With less carbon and microbial life, soil loses much of its ability to support plant growth and to absorb and retain moisture. In addition, minerals leach away and become less bio-available. Worse, all of that carbon goes into the atmosphere (30% of recent centuries’ increase in atmospheric CO2 is from human changes in land use—deforestation and plowing). Carbon isn’t inherently bad, as White points out repeatedly—carbon is absolutely vital for life; “carbon IS life”. But, we’ve gotten our carbon cycle out of whack, and conventional agriculture is making the situation worse, year after year, plow pass by plow pass. We’ve got too much carbon where we don’t need it, in the sky, and too little where we do, in the soil. It’s quite an insiduous feedback loop—when farmers degrade the soil, the result is that even more soil-killing applications of chemicals become required, just to get the land to produce. The longterm implications of this are somewhat dire; it’s a situation that might imperil humans’ very survival.

So if plowing isn’t a good idea, then how do we grow food? Isn’t plowing “how it’s done”? Well, it turns out that there are indeed other ways to produce food, and the bulk of White’s book is in the form of a travelogue, as he goes from place to place and meets farmers and restoration specialists who are doing things differently. He call them all “carbon farmers”, and some of them aren’t growing food—some restore riparian areas, or wetlands, or mangrove swamps, or beaver habitats, all in ways that increase soil carbon and improve environmental health. But many of them are farmers and ranchers, who have learned to produce food in ways that also improve the soil. Their techniques include rotational grazing, the use of native or perennial grasses, grazing herds of mixed animal types, carbon-zero farming with biofuels made on-site, year-round cover cropping, pasture cropping, organic no-till, composting to recycle nutrients, and edible forest gardens, among others. As White says, many of these ideas aren’t new. In fact, the idea that plowing damages soil isn’t new, either; White discusses Edward Faulkner’s 1943 book, “Plowman’s Folly”, that warned (and was ignored) of soil depletion caused by plowing (and this was largely before the problem was made that much worse with pesticides, herbicides, and harsh chemical fertilizers).

plowman's folly cover

First published in 1943, and still in print.

Trying to increase soil carbon and humus isn’t a new idea either, and has been practiced since Roman times. Today, farmers like Joel Salatin and Mark Shepard, and organic farmers everywhere, are using many of the same techniques as the farmers in White’s book, and for the same reasons (see my post about Mark Shepard’s work, “An Important Piece of the Puzzle”). Unfortunately, a great many more are plowing ahead (pun slightly intended) with business as usual.

White concludes with a somewhat radical idea—since more carbon in soils can only be attained by regenerating the land, and increasing carbon in soils has the potential to be a huge step in reducing atmospheric CO2 as well as safeguarding our ability to feed ourselves, why not pay landowners to increase the carbon content of their soils? The money could come from something that I, and White, and nearly all environmentalists think is a good idea—a carbon tax. (See post: “A Price for Carbon: Ask and You Shall Receive”). Such a tax would let market forces reduce carbon pollution on one end, and the revenue that would result could be used to provide incentives to restore the land and sequester carbon on the other end. And according to White, soil carbon is relatively easy to measure, and the numbers don’t lie; you can’t fake it. Doing the right things for the soil increase soil carbon, and abusing the land decreases it.

Compare this system to what we have now in the U.S.– agricultural subsidies that incentivize farmers to do just the opposite—in effect, we pay farmers to plow more, by rewarding short-term production over long-term stewardship of the land. (Some quotes from Earl Butz, the architect of many of  today’s agricultural policies- “What we want out of agriculture is production…” and “Plant fencerow to fencerow, boys…” )This results in cheaper food, but at the expense of the environment and nutrition. And, as a result, too many farmers are following White’s soil-to-dirt recipe as fast as they possibly can– plow, add chemicals, mix well, repeat. For now, chemical inputs mask the gathering problems, but the time will come to pay the Piper. (Typical article in this vein, “Loss of Soil Threatens Food Production, UK Government Warns”).

So, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—fix energy, and we’ll fix half the planet, fix agriculture, and we’ll fix the other half. And to fix agriculture, we could do worse than go down the path that Courtney White outlines. We can all do our part, by supporting organic agriculture with our food dollars, by composting, by planting trees, or by refusing to put chemicals on our land, lawns, or gardens, and by voting for representatives who hold land stewardship in high regard.

grass book cover

(Courtney White also has a blog, “The Carbon Pilgrim” , that has a great deal of additional information about “carbon farming”.)

Top image credit: “Tractor Plowing Fields” by Sam Beebe, Flickr Creative Commons at Image has been cropped.