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Soil: The Secret Weapon in the Fight Against Climate Change

Climate
Soil: The Secret Weapon in the Fight Against Climate Change
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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.

Eating too much black licorice can be toxic. Nat Aggiato / Pixabay

By Bill Sullivan

Black licorice may look and taste like an innocent treat, but this candy has a dark side. On Sept. 23, 2020, it was reported that black licorice was the culprit in the death of a 54-year-old man in Massachusetts. How could this be? Overdosing on licorice sounds more like a twisted tale than a plausible fact.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

Financial institutions in New York state will now have to consider the climate-related risks of their planning strategies. Ramy Majouji / WikiMedia Commons

By Brett Wilkins

Regulators in New York state announced Thursday that banks and other financial services companies are expected to plan and prepare for risks posed by the climate crisis.

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