Soil: The Secret Weapon in the Fight Against Climate Change
By Claire O'Connor
Agriculture is on the front lines of climate change. Whether it's the a seven-year drought drying up fields in California, the devastating Midwest flooding in 2019, or hurricane after hurricane hitting the Eastern Shore, agriculture and rural communities are already feeling the effects of a changing climate. Scientists expect climate change to make these extreme weather events both more frequent and more intense in coming years.
Agriculture is also an important — in fact a necessary — partner in fighting climate change. The science is clear: We cannot stay beneath the most dangerous climate thresholds without sequestering a significant amount of carbon in our soils.
Agricultural soils have the potential to sequester, relatively inexpensively, 250 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gasses annually — equivalent to the annual emissions of 64 coal fired power plants, according to National Academy of Sciences.
But we can't get there without engaging farmers, turning a source of emissions into a carbon sink. Here are just a few of the ways the Natural Resources Defense Council works to encourage climate-friendly farming:
- Creating New Incentives for Cover Crops: Cover crops are planted in between growing seasons with the specific purpose of building soil health. Despite their multiple agronomic and environmental benefits, adoption is low — only about 7% of U.S. farmland uses cover crops. NRDC is working to scale up cover cropping through innovative incentives delivered through the largest federal farm subsidy: crop insurance. We've worked with partners in Iowa and Illinois to launch programs that give farmers who use cover crops $5/acre off of their crop insurance bill. And partners in Minnesota and Wisconsin are exploring similar options. While we're delighted at the benefit this program has for farmers in those individual states, we're even more excited about the potential to scale this program to the 350 million acres that utilize subsidized crop insurance nationwide. A recent study suggests that cover crops sequester an average of .79 tons of carbon per acre annually, making cover crops one of the pillars of climate-friendly farming systems.
- Supporting Carbon as a New "Agricultural Product": Championed by Senator Ron Wyden, the 2018 Farm Bill created a new program, the Soil Health Demonstration Trial, that encourages farmers to adopt practices that improve their soil health, and tracks and measures the outcomes. NRDC worked alongside our partners at E2 and a number of commodity groups, farmer organizations, and agribusinesses to secure passage of this provision. The Demonstration Trial will create a new, reliable income stream — farmers will get paid for the carbon they sequester regardless of how their crops turn out, and it builds the data needed for confidence in any future carbon markets. USDA recently announced the first round of awards under this new program, totaling over $13 million in investments to improve soil health. Senator Cory Booker has since drafted legislation that would increase funding for the program nearly 10-fold to $100 million annually; Representative Deb Haaland released a companion bill in the House.
- Scaling up Regenerative Agriculture: Regenerative agriculture is an approach to farming that looks to work with nature to rebuild the overall health of the system. Regenerative farmers use a variety of tactics, including reduced chemical inputs, diverse crop and livestock rotations, incorporating compost into their systems, and agroforestry, among others. Our team is in the midst of interviewing regenerative farmers and ranchers to learn more about what's working for them and what challenges they've faced in their shift to a regenerative approach. We're planning to analyze our interview results and combine them with a literature review to identify what role NRDC could potentially play in helping to scale up regenerative farming and ranching systems. We'll also be sharing quotes and photos from our interviews on social media every Friday starting in January, so stay tuned for some inspiring farm footage!
- Supporting Organic Farmers: Organic agriculture by design reduces greenhouse gas emissions, sequesters carbon in the soil, does not rely on energy-intensive chemical inputs, and builds resiliency within our food system. Practices integrated into organic production will become increasingly more important in the face of a changing climate. NRDC supports organic farmers through policy initiatives like the Organic Farm-to-School program that was introduced in the California legislature last year. In the coming year, we'll continue to work to support organic farmers in California.
- Reducing Food Waste: Food waste generates nearly 3% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., and NRDC is working hard to reduce that number, and improve soil health in the process. Some of our policy proposals include securing passage of date labelling legislation to eliminate confusion about whether food is still good to eat, working with cities to reduce waste and increase rescue of surplus food, and supporting efforts at all levels to increase composting of food scraps. Adding compost to soils improves their ability to sequester carbon, store nutrients, and retain water. Composting food scraps also helps to "close the loop" on organic matter and nutrients by returning them to the agricultural production cycle, rather than sending that organic material to landfills, where it generates methane (a powerful climate pollutant).
Climate-friendly farming also offers a host of important co-benefits. For example, when farmers use complex crop rotations to break weed, pest, and disease cycles, they can reduce the amount of synthetic chemicals they need to use. When they use practices like cover crops, no-till, and adding compost to protect and restore the soil, they reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers that emit greenhouse gasses. And when farmers can reinvest the oppressive amount of money they had been previously spending on expensive, synthetic inputs into the additional labor required to carbon farm, they bring new jobs to economically-depressed rural areas.
Farmers understand better than many of us the harsh realities of climate change, regardless of their opinions about what's causing those changes. And tight margins and trade wars make the potential of new value streams particularly attractive for farmers right now. By working alongside the farmers and farmworkers who tend the land, we can bring new allies into the fight against climate change, restore the health of our soil, and create a healthy, equitable, and resilient food system.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
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The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.