By Hannah Prensky
With the rapid progression of climate change, scientists envision two different versions of the future. In the first, humans adopt sustainable, eco-friendly technologies to promote living in a green, flourishing environment. In the second, we don’t tackle climate change and pollution aggressively enough and suffer in a desolate dust bowl, like the Earth depicted in Wall-E or Interstellar. Interestingly, based on new theories proposed by microbiologists, both versions of the future may depend almost entirely on the health of the soil.
Microbiologists are investigating how agriculture can either accelerate or mitigate the harmful effects on the environment of greenhouse gas emissions. Their research can improve human health, reverse climate change, and change our future.
Today, modern farming practices contribute around 20 to 40 percent of all atmospheric CO2, but research is showing that simple changes in the way we treat fields will allow soil to remove 100 percent or more of all global human-made carbon emissions from the atmosphere. This suggests that the answer to climate change isn’t as complex as developing elusive multi-billion-dollar air-cleaning machines: it’s actually as simple as changing the way we treat dirt.
Around 6 billion microorganisms live harmoniously in a single teaspoon of healthy soil, almost the same as the number of people who live on all of Earth. These populations, including bacteria, fungi, protists, archaea, and nematodes, all feed on the same carbon sugars that we find in our Valentine’s Day chocolates. We get our sweets at Mondel, but they get their sugars from plants, which get theirs from the CO2 in the air. During photosynthesis, plants convert atmospheric CO2 to sugar, but they can’t retain any of this sugar without organic soil, so they use their roots to store it in the ground. In this way, plants feed the soil microbiome, though not for free. In exchange, microorganisms provide the plant roots with the necessary nutrients with which to grow, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
Because of how robust this plant-root ecosystem is, ecologists have begun to think of healthy soil as living tissue, similar to the tissue that makes up our organs. Modern farming techniques that smooth out fields, like power tilling, abruptly and violently disrupt these communities in a manner akin to passing a steel blade through any tissue. Importantly, tilling releases the carbon stored underground into the atmosphere, which is why agriculture contributes so much to the increase of greenhouse gases. Tilling isn’t the only issue: harsh pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, and other synthetic chemicals poison those communities and cause long-lasting damage too.
While several feet of topsoil could be killed within minutes during tilling, it takes over one hundred years to re-create just one centimeter. Current farming practices cost us 24 billion tons of our top layer of organic soil per year. Without a global transition to more sustainable farming practices, there could be no more soil left to grow anything within the next 60 years.
On the other hand, regenerative farming practices often involve no-till, organic growing, relying on crop rotation to continuously enrich and fertilize the healthy soil. The game-changer is that using these techniques, farmers create two centimeters or more of new topsoil in a single year—200 times the rate of conventional farming—even in arid desert ecosystems. Regenerative farming is a revolutionary climate change-mitigating technology for several reasons. Healthy soil can extract all the man-made CO2 emissions from the atmosphere, it can save water by absorbing it more efficiently, and it can even prevent disease.
Economically, organic farming is significantly more profitable and creates 30 percent more jobs per hectare compared to non-organic farms. Yields for corn, soybeans, and wheat, three of the most commonly grown crops in America, are the same at organic and non-organic farms. Genetically modified seed companies have influenced conventional wisdom to dictate that lab-designed crops are the only way to get high yields when in reality, better soil means healthier, more plentiful plants.
If regenerative agriculture is so great for the environment and economy, why isn’t it more widespread? While it is getting more mainstream, implementing regenerative practices can be a major financial risk for farmers. The hands that feed us also need to feed themselves, so farmers often buy crop insurance in case of drought, fire, freezes, or sudden price changes. The insurance plans with the highest payouts are corn and soybean insurances, the two crops that deplete the soil the most.
To be sure, the implementation of regenerative practices does not come without challenges. There is still a lot of work to be done to determine how these tools can be put into place on a widespread scale, including teaching farmers new protocols and supporting new legislative policies. Collaborations between soil scientists, farmers, and food producers should be encouraged in order to ensure that we take advantage of the opportunity to reverse climate change before it’s too late.