Soil Organic Carbon Must Play a Bigger Role in Revitalizing our Nation’s Soils
Guest commentary by Jim Loar, CEO of Cool Planet
Farmers, conservation farming advocates, governments, and even food companies have done an excellent job prioritizing soil health and are starting to educate society on its importance. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) alone has invested millions of dollars into various programs to promote the basics of soil health. Global food and retail companies have joined forces to build the Organic Regenerative Certification program that prioritizes soil health as one of its main pillars. Meanwhile, organizations like the Soil Health Institute and countless Universities around the country are advancing scientific research to broaden our knowledge about the technical aspects of soil health. This momentum is more important than ever before as we face the prospects of feeding a growing population that is projected to reach 10 billion by 2050.
To date when we talk about beneficial soil health management practices, we usually talk about methods to improve Soil Organic Matter (SOM) levels, which is the amount of plant and animal residues, the substances synthesized by the soil organisms, that are found in the soil. This organic matter plays an important role in providing a foundation for the agricultural and food systems to prosper. SOM impacts soil’s natural ability to function properly to provide critical plant nutrients, water infiltration and holding capacity, and support to microbial populations, ultimately leading to productive, healthy crops that are better able to withstand droughts and stressors.
Two of the most common practices for improving SOM levels that have gained the most traction among U.S. farmers are no-till and cover crop farming. No-till, or zero tillage farming, is when a farmer grows crops year after year, without disturbing the soil through tillage. No-till farming practices can help reduce erosion, improve the soil’s retention of organic matter, and support its cycling of nutrients. Retaining carbon in the soil helps to mitigate the amount of greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere by keeping carbon ‘locked’ in the soil. Cover crop farming is when a grower plants a crop to protect their soil after harvesting their cash crop. Cover crops help reduce erosion and their residue becomes an additional source of fertility for the soil. No till and cover crop farming practices both aid in maintaining greenhouse gases, in the form of SOM carbon in the ground. Are you noticing a trend here? Our nations farmers are some of our most fervent practitioners of sustainability, carbon sequestration and GHG reduction!
It’s great to see an increase in the acres of American farmland using cover crops and no-till practices. This is a step in the right direction and will aid in the development of a robust food system that can feed our increasing population. However, if we want to make additional environmental and productivity gains, it is time to consider a third strategy and tool when trying to improve SOM levels – a strategy that is proven and becoming more widely commercially available: adding Soil Organic Carbon (SOC).
SOC consists in three forms – Labile, Humic, Recalcitrant – each complimenting the other to improve soil health. Labile, manure or compost, is rich in nutrients and highly degradable. Humic, such as humic and fluvic acids, are complex organic compounds that are highly degradable, and play a major role in the organic fraction of soil. These carbon sources serve as the food for soil biology and soil “critters” consume them as their energy source.
This brings us to Recalcitrant, also known as fixed carbon and mostly delivered as biochar. Recalcitrant carbon can be added to soils as an amendment to create a beneficial environment for microbial growth (as a habitat), improve the structure of the soil, aiding in water infiltration and retention and nutrient efficiency by helping to hold nutrients in the soil column. Healthy soils around the world have a fraction of labile, humic, and recalcitrant carbon. The proper balance of the three is key to soil health. A number of recent studies, including one in the Journal Nature, are starting to make a clear link that the use of biochar (recalcitrant) can contribute to soil health and help to improve carbon storage in the soil. GHGs stored in our soils and soil health and carbon sequestration. It doesn’t get much better than that!
Creating healthier soils by adding a soil organic carbon material like biochar can provide a tangible, and immediate benefit to farmers and society at large. Specifically, university and independent 3rd party field trials have shown that the incorporation of biochar can have a positive impact on crop yield. Growers are starting to catch on and the early adopters are experiencing favorable results. Yield and profitability increases for farmers, and improved water and fertilizer efficiency, coupled with GHG reduction is a win-win for all.
Cool Planet has conducted over 120 trials of our biochar-based soil amendment called Cool Terra®, and the results for farmers have been almost unilaterally positive. The field trials have occurred over the last four growing seasons and have been conducted on over 40 different crops in a variety of regions and growing conditions. The trials have shown that in addition to benefitting soil health, Cool Terra delivers, on average, a 12.3% improvement in marketable yield when compared to the growers’ standard practices. It’s no wonder our company, and others focused on adding SOC, are seeing increased demand.
The movement toward sustainable agricultural practices will continue to gain steam, and soil health has rightly become more of a priority for the entire agriculture, food, and retail supply chains. In order to continue this progress, and do it faster, it’s important we continue to prioritize beneficial soil health management practices while simultaneously recognizing the value of adding Soil Organic Carbon –for the roll it can play in more rapidly helping build the health of our nation’s soils.
Jim Loar is the CEO of Cool Planet, an agriculture technology company that develops, and markets Engineered Biocarbon™ technology products for soil health. The company’s first commercial product line is Cool Terra® which works to improve key soil performance characteristics for greater productivity and sustainability. Cool Planet is also innovating animal nutrition, microbial delivery, and early plant establishment products to address the growing global concerns of soil health, sustainability and food security.
Photo courtesy of Cool Planet
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