Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems

How Honoring the Living Earth Could Save Us from Climate Change

by Sheryl Karas, RAI staff

Woman in a field of sunflowers

When a person starts to embrace the importance of climate change, the first thing that comes to mind certainly isn’t the earth beneath our feet. It’s about lowering emissions that contribute to global warming—and that’s essential. But we’ve passed the point where that strategy alone will solve the problem. We now need effective ways to to pull excess carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as well.

And that’s where one of the oldest religious concepts—honoring and respecting Mother Earth—meets the most up-to-date modern science and holds hands. Indigenous people the world over have always described the earth as a living organism that must be honored and protected. Now some of the latest research is starting to show that nurturing the living biology of the earth—the biology of the very soil beneath our feet—is exactly what we might want to do to address climate change and the cataclysmic co-catastrophes coming with it: food insecurity and shortages of clean drinking water. 

How Does It Work?

We need to reverse the damage we’ve been doing to our soil.

Normally, CO2 in our atmosphere is cycled back into the land and oceans via natural processes like photosynthesis. But while the organic matter in the land typically holds about three times more carbon than the atmosphere, our topsoils have been rapidly depleting and eroding away. Research by University of Sheffield’s Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures(opens in new window) estimates that the world has lost a third of its arable land just in the last 40 years alone. It is estimated that we lose about 10 million hectares of cropland each year(opens in new window). That’s about 38,610 square miles— an area about the size of Iceland. Each year.

Factors that have created this situation involve a wide range of human activities, particularly deforestation and most conventional agricultural practices (tillage, biomass burning, excessive use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, destructive grazing practices, etc.). As a result our agricultural soils contain 25%-75% less organic carbon than soil in undisturbed or natural environments.

Organic carbon is the measurable component of soil organic matter—a combination of minerals, decayed organic matter, and living organisms like bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa, earthworms, and living plant roots. This matter is essential in creating a soil structure that holds water and is resistant to erosion due to wind and rain. It is also the secret behind having a nutrient-rich enough environment for food crops to thrive without the use of synthetic fertilizers.

Degraded topsoil is actually one of the main reasons farmers have turned to synthetic fertilizers. But, while that works tremendously well to improve crop production temporarily, the microorganisms in the soil that decompose organic matter and help turn it into new topsoil start to die, the soil degrades even faster, and eventually can fall prey to erosion. In other words, the fertilizers that were once believed to be a miracle cure for crop production have become part of the problem.

That’s the bad news but it also the point of opportunity. It means that by adopting farming practices that regenerate the soil by working with nature and mimicking how ecosystems naturally work, we could potentially reverse this situation. 

Saving the Soil to Save the World

In Regenerative Agriculture there are multiple practices that combine to tackle the problem of soil loss and degradation—no tilling, the use of compost and multi-species cover crops, etc.—but Dr. David Johnson(opens in new window) of New Mexico State University believes the key to success is to regenerate the microbiology of the soil as well. In healthy undisturbed natural environments, microorganisms under the ground live in a symbiotic relationship with the plants above. The plants feed them by exuding carbon they draw from the atmosphere out through their roots. The microorganisms in return supply the plants with the nutrients they need and improve the environment by transforming carbon into the organic matter that builds healthy topsoil. By replacing and nurturing the biology of the soil we restore farmland’s ability to nurture itself.

However, what is even more exciting is that these processes result in very high levels of carbon sequestration. In other words, it helps draw down the CO2 contributing to climate change that has built up in our atmosphere and stores it safely in the soil.  

How much COare we talking about? According to David Johnson’s calculations, he saw a 0.24 % increase of carbon in the top foot of soil over the first 4.5 years of his study. That doesn’t seem like a very large number at first glance from a lay person’s point of view, but it’s actually an increase of about 10.7 metric tons of carbon per hectare per year during the early transitional period of the study and as much as 19.2 metric tons after that. That comes to about 37 metric tons of CO2 per hectare that was captured in the soil. Imagine this process utilized by agricultural lands across the globe. That could amount to as much as 184 gigatons (184,000,000,000 metric tons) of COper year! 

Researchers at Colorado State University(opens in new window) found that adding certain microbes into agricultural land can quickly increase the percentage of carbon that is turned into new topsoil. In fact, soil regeneration can happen quicker than typical rates seen in nature. And, through on-farm research for New Mexico State University’s Institute for Sustainable Agricultural Research, David Johnson found that using a specially formulated compost made with a high ratio of fungi to bacteria led to not only high rates of carbon sequestration, it also resulted in a dramatic increase in crop yields. Results were twice the growth of any other compost tested in his area in just one year. He calls his approach BEAM (Biologically Enhanced Agricultural Management).

The BEAM Soil Compost Bioreactor Project

Dr. David Johnson and his wife, Hui-Chun Su, created a bioreactor for producing the fungal-rich compost they’ve been using in their experiments. It is a tall cylindrical container with aerating tubes that improves on most composting systems by allowing the plant material to be composted aerobically without needing to be turned. The intention is have a more complete biological breakdown of compost materials than conventional methods that results in a more vibrant microbially diverse, fungal-dominant product. Johnson is freely sharing instructions for building these bioreactors (JPG) so others can replicate his experiments and see what works best in a variety of environments.

 The Regenerative Agriculture Initiative (RAI) at Chico State is participating in these experiments through a grant from the Cal State Agricultural Research Initiative(opens in new window). The grant will fund a multi-year study on the effects of BEAM compost and compost tea on California rangeland(opens in new window). Additional BEAM studies are also underway, including those testing the effectiveness of using the compost as an inoculate to coat the seeds before planting. RAI is also hosting a Bioreactor Registry where other researchers and farmer participants can share their results.