Editor’s Desk — The climate conservation conundrum

Photo by Jordan Goebig.

As world leaders prepare for the global climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, later this year, we’re getting some grim projections, as Teresa Cotsirilos reports, on what climate inaction means for the future of agriculture. We’re also seeing steady news as the Biden team designs programs to cut agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.

FERN’s Gabe Popkin, in a collaboration with National Geographic, looked at the pressures on a key pillar of the Biden climate program — setting aside land for carbon sequestration. A booming global market for commodity crops, the government ethanol mandate and crop subsidies have all led farmers to go in the other direction and plow up native prairie, putting Biden’s climate and conservation goals in jeopardy. “Every time a grassland is plowed or sprayed with herbicide and planted in crops, hundreds of deep-rooted perennial plants that can suck carbon into the soil and keep it there are wiped out,” he writes.

Leah Douglas earlier in the summer, in a FERN piece with The American Prospect, took a slightly different approach on the same issue, looking at the Conservation Reserve Program, which costs taxpayers $2 billion a year. Although the USDA hopes to make the program a key component of climate mitigation, by taking land out of crop production, Douglas points out that the government contracts run for 10 or 15 years. “After that, the vast majority of the land is tilled again for crop production, causing carbon that was stored in the soil to be released back into the atmosphere. The agency doesn’t take this rather significant flaw into account when calculating the program’s carbon benefits,” she writes.

Finally, in a FERN collaboration with Yale Environment 360, Susan Cosier looked at recent research into rock dust amendments to crop fields. Spreading readily available rock dust, such as basalt, for example, has boosted carbon sequestration. “Adding rock dust to agricultural lands speeds up the chemical reactions that lock carbon up — for thousands of years — in soil. If applied to croplands globally, rock dust could theoretically help suck an estimated 2 to 4 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the air every year, between 34 and 68 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions produced by agriculture annually,” Cosier writes.

These are just a few of the climate stories we’ve done — and you can expect more big projects ahead. If you want to help support this work, please consider a donation to FERN, so we can dig deeper.