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Rebuilding Healthy Soil for A Changing Climate


Worldwatch Institute

November 30, 2016

To celebrate the recent World Food Day, learn how food production can be transformed from a greenhouse gas emitter to a carbon sink by improving soil biology.

“Climate is changing. Food and agriculture must too.” This year’s message from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization for World Food Day is timely as the planet emerges from yet another summer of record heat. With changing climates and increasingly frequent extreme weather events, the world is facing real challenges with food production, exacerbated by the declining capacity of soils to hold water, buffer temperature shocks, and supply nutrients to food crops.

Agriculture as a Climate Change Contributor

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, over a 20-year period, agriculture accounts for about 22 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. This makes agriculture the largest contributing sector to climate change. In comparison, industry emits 20 percent of greenhouse gases, electricity and heat production 17 percent, and other energy–related activities another 17 percent.

 Agriculture as a Climate Change Solution

There is good news, however. Because the agricultural system is a living community, its capacity for greenhouse gas sequestration can regrow organically under management practices that allow the soil ecosystem to recover and thrive.

To do this, farmers have to switch to methods that minimize soil disturbance, embrace diversity, and mimic natural processes. They can replace pesticides with natural pest control methods such as “beneficial” insects and animal species, use cover crops and microbe-rich composts to improve soil nutrients and biology, maintain soil structure through reduced or no tilling, and implement crop rotation and intercropping, management-intensive rotational grazing, and integrated livestock and crop systems.

Leveraging the Soil Transition

To accelerate the transition toward climate resilience and mitigation, better data monitoring of farms is needed. Many regenerative organic farmers and ranchers have observed soil improvement and ecosystem recovery on their land. However, invaluable long-term data, which can showcase the practices’ real capacity of climate mitigation and adaptation, is currently being lost due to limited resources and time for soil testing and other surveys. Some agricultural extension programs and universities have been providing soil testing services, but the coverage, especially for transitioning farms that are experiencing soil changes, is not enough.

Read more from Wanqing Zhou, research associate in the Food and Agriculture Program at the Worldwatch Institute, originally published in the 2016 October issue on the Worldwatch Institute blog:


Agriculture & Food, Environment & Climate