The Soil Carbon Challenge
Today we understand as never before the crucial role that carbon-rich soil organic matter plays in the quantity and quality of the food we grow, in moderating flooding and drought, in the quantity and quality of runoff and groundwater, in biodiversity, and in the composition of the atmosphere, especially its carbon content.
However, our institutions and political systems have been largely unable to take advantage of the great opportunity this understanding offers, because like most of us they focus on problem-solving, on managing against threats. For example, since 1900 the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been managing against food contamination, low prices for agricultural commodities, soil erosion, hunger and malnutrition, fire in the forests, nitrate pollution, and on and on. The #1 recommendation to land managers of its small Soil Quality Team is to enhance soil organic matter, yet the overall effect of USDA policies, by fostering tillage, fire, and chemical use, is to oxidize large tonnages of soil carbon into the atmosphere, and limit its replenishment.
Climate policy proposals are even more tightly focused on problem-solving, on threats and risks. Because of the great size of the soil carbon pool compared to atmosphere and vegetation, and the magnitude of its responses to human decisions, the soil carbon factor threatens to reframe the climate debate, discomfiting both climate activists and agribusiness, and increasing the uncertainties all around. Proposals to commodify soil carbon as a potential "offset" to fossil fuel emissions have raised resistance from every sector and stripe, yet such proposals have framed almost all of the recent research on soil carbon.
If you want to find out how fast a human can run 100 meters, do you build a computer model, do a literature search, or convene a panel of experts on human physiology to make a prediction?
No, you run a race. Or many of them.
There’s been tons of talk about soil carbon, but it’s time for motion: to show with good data what’s possible, and recognize those land managers who know how to increase soil carbon.
Where things are stuck or the way forward is unclear, a competition can supply creative and unconventional solutions. A competition can leapfrog the decades-long cycle of research, pilot projects, legislation, and incentives, and can showcase leadership based on knowhow and performance rather than on promises and predictions. A competition can tell the stories of soil carbon to citizens, governments, and farmers better than anything else. Competitions change the question from Can it be done? to How well, and how fast?
The Soil Carbon Challenge measures soil carbon change with permanent plots, field sampling, and dry combustion tests. Three baseline plots make an entry, resampled at years 3, 6, and 10.
It’s not an offset scheme. It’s the next agricultural revolution, and you can bring it to your district, sector, or community.