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Forests, Farms, and the Global Carbon Sink: It’s Happening

Forests, Farms, and the Global Carbon Sink: It’s Happening

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says we need carbon sinks if we’re to meet the climate challenge, and farmers have the ability to turn forests, fields, and farms into just that. Unfortunately, they’ve been slow to embrace the global apparatuses for meeting the climate challenge, until now. Here’s how that changed, and why it matters.

9 January 2019 | Arthur “A.G.” Kawamura’s family has been growing fruits and vegetables in the US state of California for three generations, but they’ve never seen heat like this. “We’ve had two once-in-a-millennium heatwaves in the past two years,” says Kawamura. “The climate is changing, and farmers have to change with it.”

Over in Ohio, Fred Yoder agrees. His family has survived four generations of Midwestern farming – in part, he says, because they’ve always been willing to roll with the changes. “Farmers are nothing if not adaptable,” he says. “We’ve all been adapting to a changing climate, whether we admit it or not.”

But farmers aren’t just adapting to climate change; they’re also key to reversing it, as a 2017 summary of existing research and practices made clear.

Entitled “Natural Climate Solutions,” that summary identified 20 existing practices that can be scaled up to turn the world’s forests, farms, and fields into a massive sponge for absorbing greenhouse gasses and infusing them into soil, where they act as fertilizers – something the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identified as key to preventing global average temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.

Yoder started advocating many of the practices 15 years ago, when served as president of the National Corn Growers Association and started experimenting with “no-till” farming.

“Some people call it ‘slot farming’,” he explains. “They call it that because you just cut a hole in the surface of the soil big enough to put the seed in, but leave the bulk of the soil intact.”

That’s “climate smart” because it both reduces greenhouse-gas emissions and fortifies crops against climate change. More specifically, it locks carbon and nitrogen in the soil, which prevents them from blending with oxygen to form carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide – two powerful greenhouse gasses. Left in the ground, they act as fertilizer, reducing the need for fertilizers derived from fossil fuels, while no-till preserves an entire web of crop-sustaining life.