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New Research Highlights Role of Agriculture in Climate Change

Researchers have estimated the amount of carbon lost worldwide through agricultural practices to be 133 billion tons.

Sep. 11, 2017
By Isabel Putinja

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A new study by a US research team at Woods Hole Research Cen­ter, a cli­mate change research orga­ni­za­tion in Mass­a­chu­setts, has revealed that agri­cul­tural prac­tices have changed the car­bon bal­ance of the earth’s soil.

See more: Arti­cles on Cli­mate Change

While global warm­ing is pri­mar­ily blamed on increased car­bon diox­ide emis­sions through the burn­ing of fos­sil fuels and defor­esta­tion, this study, Soil car­bon debt of 12,000 years of human land use, pub­lished in Pro­ceed­ings of the National Acad­emy of Sci­ences has exam­ined the role of agri­cul­tural prac­tices in cli­mate change.

One of the research aims was to esti­mate the size and spa­tial dis­tri­b­u­tion of car­bon loss from the soil as a step in under­stand­ing whether soil car­bon seques­tra­tion can effec­tively mit­i­gate cli­mate change.

The researchers were able to quan­tify the amount of car­bon lost world­wide from the soil through the use of agri­cul­tural land for grow­ing crops and graz­ing live­stock. They found that this amounts to 133 bil­lion tons of car­bon loss.

The impact of the so-called car­bon debt” on cli­mate change is nearly as much as that of defor­esta­tion, which has con­tributed to the loss of 140 bil­lion tons of car­bon from soil over the same period.

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The study’s find­ings also show that the earth has the poten­tial to absorb car­bon and mit­i­gate global warm­ing through the adop­tion of bet­ter agri­cul­tural prac­tices. Such prac­tices could address the cur­rent car­bon debt by allow­ing the soil to nat­u­rally absorb car­bon and keep it from accu­mu­lat­ing in the atmos­phere.

One of the study’s researchers and an asso­ciate sci­en­tist with the Woods Hole Research Cen­ter, Jonathan San­der­man, told the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion that car­bon loss from the soil can be mit­i­gated through bet­ter land stew­ard­ship, more exten­sive ground cover to min­i­mize ero­sion, bet­ter diver­sity of crop rota­tion and no-till farm­ing.”





The researchers were also able to iden­tify hotspots around the globe where car­bon loss is espe­cially sig­nif­i­cant and where tar­geted efforts should be made for soil car­bon restora­tion. They include major crop­ping regions and graz­ing lands in the range­lands of Argentina, south­ern Africa, and Aus­tralia.

Accord­ing to the Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change’s pol­icy paper on agri­cul­ture and its role in cli­mate change, green­house gas emis­sions can be mit­i­gated through crop and graz­ing land man­age­ment (e.g., improved agro­nomic prac­tices, nutri­ent use, tillage, and residue man­age­ment), restora­tion of organic soils that are drained for crop pro­duc­tion and restora­tion of degraded lands.”

The paper also rec­om­mends the plant­ing of trees to cap­ture and store car­bon, and empha­sizes that soil car­bon seques­tra­tion has the high­est poten­tial to con­tribute to the mit­i­ga­tion of green­house gases.



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