Low-tech: How Rangelands Can Help Fight Climate Change

We all know that we need to reduce the carbon in our atmosphere to 350 ppm to avert climate disaster. To accomplish that, countries need to take large and diverse steps. No one change will solve the problem. But among the many necessary steps is the low-tech adoption of carbon farming, and Congress is taking a swing at it. Haven’t heard of carbon farming?

First, a quick review of plant biology 101

Plant photosynthesis combines sunshine and CO2 from the air with water and minerals from the ground, storing the captured carbon from the CO2 in the soil. When farmers and land managers use carbon farming practices, the healthy soil absorbs carbon from the air and the soil looks like chocolate cake, holding a lot of water and hosting plant-essential microbial life. These practices include no or minimal tilling, compost spreading, and planting cover crops (think trees).

For farmers, carbon farming is a boon since healthy soils yield more crops and hold more water, especially important in light of our extreme drought conditions. For the planet, carbon farming reduces greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere by capturing carbon in soil.  

However, many grazing and farming practices used throughout California, the United States, and the world strip the soil of carbon, releasing it into the air, and resulting in greenhouse gas emissions, top soil erosion, limited microbial life, lower water retention levels, and lower yielding crops.

Poor rangeland practices can be even more detrimental than poor farming practices. Livestock is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, and without carbon farming practices, rangelands can become extreme greenhouse gas emitters since they host so much livestock but have a limited carbon absorbing capacity. However, with proper grazing practices, range lands can be cultivated to grow more grass and cover crops and capture significant amounts of carbon. In light of this growing movement, Congressman Jared Huffman is trying to turn federal range lands into ‘carbon sinks’ in our fight against climate change.

The congressman drew inspiration from a well-known carbon farming advocate: John Wick. Wick started the Marin Carbon Project nestled just outside San Francisco. The organization conducts research and helps farmers and land managers implement strategies to increase the amount of carbon in their soil. Notably, the Marin Carbon Project’s research has found that a light dusting of compost can be one of the more effective ways to reduce atmospheric carbon.

Spreading compost on top of rangelands is a carbon-stable way of increasing carbon storage in soils. The benefits multiply over time. First, compost is deposited and carbon in stored in the soil instead of the atmosphere, then more grass grows and grows taller, absorbing even more carbon from the atmosphere and so on.

Fixing federal rangelands seems widely popular. When asked about this national push toward carbon farming, Jamison Watts, Executive Director of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust said, “Healthy, resilient working lands are key to sustainable food production and carbon farming is integral to that. On our local ranches we see the results: Sequestered carbon, yes, but also taller grasses, better soil moisture retention and an overall healthier, more profitable working landscape.” 

In a time when Tesla and others are looking for technological fixes to climate change, it is nice to see a solution that requires far less engineering and results in so many benefits for so many different people.