It is now widely understood that the world has a problem with the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by the burning of fossil fuels. What is less widely talked about is the way that human activity has added to the excess of carbon dioxide in another way, namely through the destruction of soils.
Soil is one of the major carbon stores for the earth and significant amounts of CO2 have been released into the atmosphere by the way soil has been treated. Practices including clearing, ploughing, tillage, and the use of chemicals and artificial fertilisers, have degraded the soil resulting in it being demineralised, eroded and lacking the life it needs to function. Damaged soil releases carbon into the atmosphere where it becomes carbon dioxide. The lack of carbon in the soil makes it fragile, prone to drought and erosion and even in New Zealand between 200 and 300 million tonnes of our precious topsoil are washed out to sea every year (ref https://teara.govt.nz/en/farming-and-the-environment/)
It is important to understand that carbon is not in itself a problem and is one of the essential building blocks of life. It is the lack of balance in the carbon cycle that is the issue, with way more carbon being in the atmosphere than is healthy and not enough being stored in the ground. Reducing fossil fuel use is clearly important but we also need to find a way to pull the excess carbon back out of the atmosphere and store it in the ground, and soil is a huge potential ally in this.
Soil is amazing and healthy soils are teeming with life – millions of organisms in every teaspoon all existing within a complex living system. Even soil science has largely ignored this living network until recently and we are only just beginning to glimpse the complexity.
Kay’s article talks in detail about the amazing process of photosynthesis where plants capture CO2 in their leaves and pump it down into their roots and then on into the soil to feed the microrganisms living in the soil. Moving carbon from the atmosphere into the soil changes it from a problem to a solution.
Crucial to that process is a living soil. Without soil life the process does not function and carbon cannot be sequestered. So the way we treat our soils is crucial and can either put carbon into the atmosphere or pull it down into the ground. This is the basis of Regenerative Agriculture – agricultural methods and practices that create and support healthy living soils. Not only do carbon rich living soils help with climate change they help us to withstand some of the impacts of climate change with carbon acting like a sponge in the soil, holding water and helping in both flood and drought situations.
Another important part of the solution is the protection and restoration of wild spaces. Healthy functioning ecologies, which of course are founded on healthy living soils, can also suck carbon out of the air. Most people understand that trees are important, turning carbon into wood. However healthy forest ecologies are hugely better than mono-culture pine plantations that will, in any case, be clear felled in the not too distant future. Salt marshes, wetland and mangroves are even better than forests, storing carbon at a much faster rate. So nature can also be our ally.
The regeneration of our soils and eco-systems is a the defining task of current generations and one which we can all be involved in by understanding and promoting its importance, and by adopting regenerative practices to create healthy, living soil regardless of the size of the land we have access to. We don’t need risky new technology – just healthy living soils and healthy plants. Living systems are amazing and can reverse much of the damage humanity has done – we just need to regain our humility and work with these systems rather than against them.
Healthy Soils = Healthy Planet!
by Gail Aiken
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This article was published in our 2019 Seed Catalogue. Download the catalogue here