“Climate change gives us the opportunity to right all these wrongs that need to be dealt with anyway,” says Eric Toensmeier of Holyoke, Mass. “Carbon farming is a key part of that, and can make big contributions to climate justice.”
He hopes the people of the world will insist that the use of fossil fuels be phased out by reductions of 10 to 15 percent per year, no matter what governments and corporations say.
Having studied perennial plants and their roles in agroforestry systems for over 20 years, Toensmeier foresees a day when we have transformed our agriculture from an industrial to an ecological model, with an emphasis on perennials. He envisions a world where wealthy countries reduce their excessive consumption and the global south has a higher standard of living. He hopes his descendants will see a stable and livable, if slightly warmer, climate.
Toensmeier, who has many previous publications to his credit, has authored a new book, The Carbon Farming Solution, in service of his big vision. He sees this comprehensive work as a toolkit that can be used by farmers, communities and policy makers around the world to transform agriculture, by choosing the right strategies for their particular situations.
He shows how these practices, applied worldwide, can mitigate climate change by building living, carbon-rich soils. In fact, Toensmeier cites a prominent soil carbon scientist who says that, if widely implemented, carbon farming could bring CO2 levels back down to a livable 350 ppm in 30 to 50 years. At the same time, carbon farming can restore healthy ecosystems and provide meaningful work and abundant, locally controlled food for human populations around the earth. (Here’s more information on how healthy soils sequester carbon.)
Carbon farming practices can also help us adapt to the effects of climate change. Increasing organic matter in the soil means that it can hold water longer in dry conditions. And when there is too much rain, carbon-rich soil holds water like a sponge and slowly releases it, reducing the risk of flooding. Other aspects of carbon farming, such as an emphasis on trees and perennial crops, and the use of erosion control strategies, also play a role in conserving soil and farm yields under new climatic conditions.
What are some of the practices that can perform this feat? Toensmeier presents a number of categories of carbon farming practices:
- Better ways to grow annual crops alone: using familiar methods like mulching, cover crops, crop rotation, organic practices, and reducing tillage. These practices build carbon in soil in low amounts, but if widely employed over time, these low amounts could add up.
- Annual crops with perennials: Integrating perennial plants, like trees, with familiar annual crops – for example, in windbreaks or hedgerows. Agroforestry practices in which nitrogen-fixing, timber, or food-yielding perennial plants are inter-cropped with annuals. These systems must be properly designed so perennials don’t compete with annual crops, but Toensmeier showcases examples from around the world where this is being done successfully on a big scale. Practices like this can sequester one to two tons of carbon per hectare per year.
- Better ways of grazing and pasture: Even though ruminant livestock emit methane as part of their digestive process, it is possible to sequester enough carbon by adding trees to perennial pasture (silvopasture), and by practices such as managed grazing, that the net result is the sequestration of 1 to 10 tons of carbon per hectare per year.
- Perennial crops: including practices like coppicing and biomass systems, tree crops, bamboo, multi-level agroforestry systems, orchards, plantations and perennial staple crops.
- Perennial polycultures: Systems where multiple species of plants and trees grow densely together can sequester carbon at the highest level, 4 to 40 tons per hectare per year, often more than nearby natural forests.
In his book, Toensmeier lists 700 species useful for carbon farming, and devotes many chapters to perennial staple crops, perennial industrial crops and agroforestry. He is making some of this information available for free on the The Carbon Farming Solution website, including resource lists and links to videos.
If we are paying attention, we know that our world is facing challenging problems, many of them exacerbated by climate change. It is encouraging to realize that there are safe, elegant and affordable solutions that will make the possibility of good lives attainable for future generations around the globe.
Add carbon farming to the human toolkit as we embark on what could be one of humankind’s greatest adventures: building a better future for our descendants.
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