If we stopped releasing carbon from the soil into the atmosphere and captured it instead then the serious problem of global warming could be solved.
International soil scientist, Dr John Baker, says, in relation to soil, there’s more “carbon going out than coming in” and the world has reached a stage where the process must be reversed. When it is, there won’t be a problem with climate change.
Dr Baker points out we recycle bottles and plastics but not carbon and the time to start recycling carbon is long overdue.
“There’s more CO2 in the atmosphere and less in the soil than ever before,” he says. “While the first crucial step is to grow more plants, it’s even more important to ensure the carbon that existing plants absorb from the atmosphere through photosynthesis remains in the soil.”
At the moment carbon is squandered. About 50 percent is lost when food is harvested but Dr Baker says that’s acceptable because it’s why we grow food in the first place.
But as much carbon again remains as straw, stubble and roots after harvest and, if this is removed, burnt or incorporated, then most of it gets back into the atmosphere where it contributes to global warming.
“Instead we must retain the crop residue after harvest and offer the carbon to the soil microbes. They decompose it and earthworms and other fauna take it into the soil which enriches it,” he says.
“The future of mankind depends on harnessing the biology in the soil and making it work for us. The impact would be massive if the uneaten carbon that food crops gather globally was transferred into the soil and stayed there.”
The good news is that the world doesn’t need to invent new technologies to make it happen. New Zealand already has the machinery to work through the crop residues and thereby transfer the carbon into the soil and lead the world in solving this particular climate change issue.
Dr Baker explains that only four percent of the world’s surface can grow crops. The rest is water, mountains, highways and the ever increasing urban sprawl so it’s important to maximise the land that’s available.
“New Zealand is very effective in growing crops but ineffective in recycling the carbon that the crops gather. By releasing it back into the atmosphere through tillage or burning we contribute to climate change and destroy the nutrients,” he reiterates.
“What we have to do is stop ploughing and burning and instead use low-disturbance no-tillage. It’s a no-brainer, especially when we already have the best low-disturbance, no-tillage machines in the world.”
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) predicts there are only 60 harvests left in the world. After that there’ll be widespread famine with insufficient food to feed a population that will increase by 50 percent within 40 years.
“In fact the lack of carbon in the soil is more scary than its presence in the atmosphere. If carbon-out continues to exceed carbon-in, some people are eventually going to starve,” Dr Baker says.
“Far too often man seems to be such a stupid animal.”
The technology, already researched, tested and built in New Zealand, is being sold to 20 countries where centuries of traditional methods of cultivation have raped the soil, making it no longer able produce enough food.
John Baker’s low disturbance no-tillage drills penetrate through the residue or vegetation on top of the soil to create seed slots beneath it. They sow the seed and fertiliser in separate bands at the same time. The process traps the humidity, preserves the micro-organisms and soil life and prevents the carbon from escaping.
“What we’re doing is swapping the balance so there’s more carbon-in than carbon-out. The method confronts climate change and increases the amount of food that the world produces at the same time,” he says. “It’s a win-win if ever there was one.”
“The side benefit will be food that’s less expensive and land that is more sustainable. Good quality soil can produce food indefinitely because we’re recycling the carbon and enriching the soil.”
Dr John Baker is taking his crusade to New Zealand politicians. The government has an important role to play in educating people, investing in awareness campaigns and showcasing the technology to the world.
“In doing so New Zealand also starts meeting its treaty obligations reached at the Paris Climate Change Conference last December,” he says.