How Carbon Farming Can Reverse Climate Change
Are there agricultural practices that might offer more potential than the ones commonly discussed in the “carbon farming” conversation? In a companion post, I wrote about what the science tells us about cover cropping and reduced tillage, two practices getting a lot of attention in what I’ve called the “carbon farming” rage. Here I want to address some more agroecological practices, those that incorporate ecological principles and what is known from field research about their ability to add carbon to the soil.
What Do We Know About Soil Carbon Potential Beyond the Basic Conservation Practices?
There is less research on the relationship of agroecological practices, such as crop rotations, agroforestry and improved grazing-based systems, with soil carbon—but what is known is very positive. A synthesis paper of global field studies found that crops in rotation plus cover crops increased total soil carbon by 8.5 percent. Some estimates have suggested that when land is shifted from use for growing agricultural crops to pasture for livestock, carbon increases significantly (by 19 percent, according to one study synthesizing several research sites). The same analysis found that returning some cropland to forest could lead to even larger soil carbon gains (up to 53 percent).
On grazing lands, which cover around 25 percent of lands globally, changes to management (for example, compost additions or improved grazing practices such as fertilizer additions or the use of native plant communities) can increase soil carbon such that small changes make a big difference when scaled up. Further, on the option of integrating of trees into agricultural lands, scientists have estimated the potential of agroforestry systems to increase soil carbon to be approximately 95 times greater than the conservation practices of no-till, cover crops and crop rotations (as estimated by one analysis that looked at many studies in the tropics).
This is quite impressive untapped potential, particularly when considering that many of these ecological practices receive a fraction of public research dollars. Of course, some of these practices require taking a small amount of land out of production, but if done strategically on low yielding unprofitable sections of a field, such diversification practices could offer a “win-win” in the form of cost savings for producers and environmental benefit for all.
Even With Complexities in the Science, Carbon Farming Deserves the Attention
Carbon farming is a topic of growing interest for both the research and policy communities. The science is complex. Researchers in the fields of ecology, agronomy, forestry, soil science and biogeochemistry, among others, dedicate entire careers toward this area. It can take a lot of soil sampling to detect changes, which is expensive and potentially difficult. Soils are highly variable from one location to another. The initial carbon content of soil heavily influences how much carbon can be increased.
It is important to note that there are other emissions linked to agricultural management decisions, so any net change in the carbon sink is just one piece of the overall greenhouse gas emissions picture. One example of this from my own work is that cover crops may lead to small increases in nitrous oxide emissions, depending upon management.
Finally, something else I found in my research was that the warmer temperatures resulting from climate change may drive increased carbon decomposition—all the more reason to get started sooner rather than later growing the soil carbon sink.
It is important to conclude explicitly that not all carbon farming practices are equal. Many equate to working around the edges rather than systemically changing our design of agricultural systems and landscapes. As I’ve discussed here and in a companion post, the current science indicates that the approaches offering the greatest opportunities to increase soil carbon are those which increase the amount of crops covering the soil in both space and time (which would increase the total carbon input to the soil “budget”) and/or incorporate multiple carbon farming principles. If the agriculture sector is going to get serious about soils as a sink for carbon (and agriculture as a net sink of greenhouse gas emissions), more comprehensive research, combined with appropriate policy and economic incentives, will be necessary.
Andrea Basche is a Kendall Science Fellow in the Union of Concerned Scientists food and environment program.
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The leaves on this cherry tree have suffered damage from a late frost. Richard Primack, CC BY-ND
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By Jeff Masters
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave America's infrastructure a C- grade in its quadrennial assessment issued March 3. ASCE gave the nation's flood control infrastructure – dams and levees – a D grade. This is a highly concerning assessment, given that climate change is increasingly stressing dams and levees as increased evaporation from the oceans drives heavier precipitation events.
Figure 1. Debris fills the Feather River from the damaged spillway of California's Oroville Dam, the nation's tallest dam, after its near-collapse in February 2017. The Oroville incident forced the evacuation of nearly 190,000 people and cost $1.1 billion in repairs. California Department of Water Resources
Figure 2. The L-550 levee on the Missouri River overtopping during the spring 2011 floods. USACE
By Jacob Carter
On Wednesday, the Department of the Interior (DOI) announced that it will be rescinding secretarial order 3369, which sidelined scientific research and its use in the agency's decisions. Put in place by the previous administration, the secretarial order restricted decisionmakers at the DOI from using scientific studies that did not make all data publicly available.
Science Rising at Interior<p>The rescinded secretarial order is not the only notable victory we have seen from the DOI recently. The Biden administration has moved swiftly to <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/02/climate/biden-interior-department-haaland.html" target="_blank">restore consideration of climate change</a> in its decisions, <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/biden-expected-to-reverse-trump-order-to-shrink-utah-national-monuments" target="_blank">reverse assaults on our public lands</a>, and <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/biden-halts-trump-rule-gutted-landmark-bird-protection-law" target="_blank">taken actions to protect our nation's wildlife</a>. These decisions, unlike many made at the DOI over the past four years, have been informed by science—and President Biden's pick to lead the DOI, Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico, has <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/22/politics/haaland-confirmation-remarks/index.html" target="_blank">promised in her confirmation hearing</a> to continue to make decisions that are guided by science.</p><p><strong>Saving Migratory Birds</strong></p><p>One of the parting gifts of the prior administration was a <a href="https://blog.ucsusa.org/jacob-carter/outgoing-administration-gave-thumbs-up-to-migratory-bird-massacre-its-time-to-reverse-the-damage" target="_blank">reinterpretation of a long-standing rule that protected migratory bird species</a>. For decades, the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/birds/policies-and-regulations/laws-legislations/migratory-bird-treaty-act.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Migratory Bird Treaty Act</a> (MBTA) had protected migratory bird species, which are in decline in the US, by allowing the DOI to fine industries that failed to take proper precautions to protect migratory birds. For example, <a href="https://www.fws.gov/birds/bird-enthusiasts/threats-to-birds/entrapment-entanglement-drowning.php#:~:text=An%20estimated%20500%2C000%20to%201,trays%2C%20and%201%25%20spills." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">not placing proper netting over oil pits</a>, which can result in the death of migratory birds. The rule, however, was reinterpreted by the prior administration such that industries could only be fined if bird deaths were "intentional" and not if they occurred incidentally due to a lack of precautions.</p><p>The prior administration, in its final days, also <a href="https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2021/03/endangered-species-recovery-interior-deb-haaland/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eliminated protections for the northern spotted owl</a>, which is currently listed by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) as a threatened species. More than 3 million acres of the owl's habitat were removed from protection to pave way for timber harvesting. Susan Jane Brown, a staff attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/02/climate/biden-interior-department-haaland.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stated that she had received</a> "…several calls from wildlife biologists who are in tears who said, 'Did you know this is happening? The bird won't survive this."</p><p>The Biden administration, following the best available science, has delayed the implementation of both rules.</p><p><strong>Restoring Public Lands</strong></p><p>In 2017, two national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante of Utah, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/04/us/trump-bears-ears.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">were reduced in size by some two million acres</a>, the largest reduction of federal land protection in our nation's history. Later, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/02/climate/bears-ears-national-monument.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">internal emails at the DOI</a> would show that these actions were not a product of following the best available science, and were instead guided by a push to exploit oil and natural gas deposits within the boundaries of the protected land. In particular, the decision did not consider the archaeological importance of the protected lands or their cultural heritage. Sidelining these facets of this decision is likely what <a href="https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2021/02/biden-orders-review-of-trumps-assaults-on-americas-natural-treasures/?utm_source=twitter&utm_campaign=naytev&utm_medium=social" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">prompted a review of the reductions</a> by the Biden administration.</p>
Bringing Science Back Across the Administration<p>Beyond the Interior department, the Biden administration has taken quick steps to bring science back to the forefront of decisionmaking across the federal government. In January, President Biden signed a <a href="https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/27/memorandum-on-restoring-trust-in-government-through-scientific-integrity-and-evidence-based-policymaking/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">presidential memo</a> to strengthen scientific integrity and evidence-based decisionmaking. The memo, among many other positive steps for science, has initiated a review process on scientific integrity policies that should be finalized toward the end of the year. Given the <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/attacks-on-science" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">unprecedented number of times we documented political interference in science-based decision-making processes</a> over the past four years, such a review, and the subsequent recommendations arising from it, are clearly warranted.</p><p>The Biden administration also has formed multiple scientific advisory groups to help make choices informed by the best available science to protect public health and our environment. This includes advisory groups on critical issues such as <a href="https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/27/memorandum-on-restoring-trust-in-government-through-scientific-integrity-and-evidence-based-policymaking/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">scientific integrity</a>, <a href="https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2021/02/10/president-biden-announces-members-of-the-biden-harris-administration-covid-19-health-equity-task-force/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">COVID-19</a>, and <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/reports/2021/02/04/495397/mapping-environmental-justice-biden-harris-administration/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">environmental justice</a>. The administration also is moving quickly to <a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/biden-transition-updates/2020/12/17/938092644/biden-to-pick-north-carolina-regulator-michael-regan-to-lead-epa" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">appoint qualified leaders</a> at science-based agencies and has asked the heads of agencies to expeditiously establish scientific integrity officials and chief science officers.</p><p>In addition to rescinding the secretarial order at DOI, the Biden administration has also rescinded several other anti-science actions taken over the past four years. Among the <a href="https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/02/24/executive-order-on-the-revocation-of-certain-presidential-actions/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">many anti-science executive orders reversed by President Biden are </a>an order that directed agencies to arbitrarily cut their advisory committees by one-third and another that required agencies to cut two regulations for every new regulation they issued.</p><p>There has been a lot of progress for science-based decisionmaking over the past six weeks, with more expected as qualified individuals are appointed to head science-based agencies. And yet we know through our research that <a href="https://www.sciencepolicyjournal.org/uploads/5/4/3/4/5434385/berman_emily__carter_jacob.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">every administration has politicized science-based decisionmaking to some extent</a>.</p><p>We will continue to watch, demand, and ensure that science guides the critical decisions being made by the Biden administration. Our health, our environment, and our safety depend on it.</p><p><em><a href="https://blog.ucsusa.org/author/jacob-carter#.YED_bRNKjt0" target="_blank">Jacob Carter</a> is a research scientist for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from the <em><a href="https://blog.ucsusa.org/jacob-carter/science-wins-at-the-interior-department" target="_blank">Union of Concerned Scientists</a>.</em></em></p>
At first glance, you wouldn't think avocados and almonds could harm bees; but a closer look at how these popular crops are produced reveals their potentially detrimental effect on pollinators.
Migratory beekeeping involves trucking millions of bees across the U.S. to pollinate different crops, including avocados and almonds. Timothy Paule II / Pexels / CC0<p>According to <a href="https://www.fromthegrapevine.com/israeli-kitchen/beekeeping-how-to-keep-bees" target="_blank">From the Grapevine</a>, American avocados also fully depend on bees' pollination to produce fruit, so farmers have turned to migratory beekeeping as well to fill the void left by wild populations.</p><p>U.S. farmers have become reliant upon the practice, but migratory beekeeping has been called exploitative and harmful to bees. <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/10/health/avocado-almond-vegan-partner/index.html" target="_blank">CNN</a> reported that commercial beekeeping may injure or kill bees and that transporting them to pollinate crops appears to negatively affect their health and lifespan. Because the honeybees are forced to gather pollen and nectar from a single, monoculture crop — the one they've been brought in to pollinate — they are deprived of their normal diet, which is more diverse and nourishing as it's comprised of a variety of pollens and nectars, Scientific American reported.</p><p>Scientific American added how getting shuttled from crop to crop and field to field across the country boomerangs the bees between feast and famine, especially once the blooms they were brought in to fertilize end.</p><p>Plus, the artificial mass influx of bees guarantees spreading viruses, mites and fungi between the insects as they collide in midair and crawl over each other in their hives, Scientific American reported. According to CNN, some researchers argue that this explains why so many bees die each winter, and even why entire hives suddenly die off in a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder.</p>
Avocado and almond crops depend on bees for proper pollination. FRANK MERIÑO / Pexels / CC0<p>Salazar and other Columbian beekeepers described "scooping up piles of dead bees" year after year since the avocado and citrus booms began, according to Phys.org. Many have opted to salvage what partial colonies survive and move away from agricultural areas.</p><p>The future of pollinators and the crops they help create is uncertain. According to the United Nations, nearly half of insect pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, risk global extinction, Phys.org reported. Their decline already has cascading consequences for the economy and beyond. Roughly 1.4 billion jobs and three-quarters of all crops around the world depend on bees and other pollinators for free fertilization services worth billions of dollars, Phys.org noted. Losing wild and native bees could <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/wild-bees-crop-shortage-2646849232.html" target="_self">trigger food security issues</a>.</p><p>Salazar, the beekeeper, warned Phys.org, "The bee is a bioindicator. If bees are dying, what other insects beneficial to the environment... are dying?"</p>
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