Improving soils to halt climate change ‘costing the earth’

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23 February 2022, Belfast: Investing in the ground beneath our feet could have wide-ranging benefits for the environment, animal and human health – as well as moving closer to Net Zero, according to research led by the Institute for Global Food Safety (IGFS) at Queen’s University Belfast.

Soil acts as a carbon ‘sink’, locking in GHGs that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. Upgrading UK soils, particularly farmland and degraded peatlands, could radically improve their ability to store carbon. Indeed, improved soil and land management could result in the potential to offset between 5-10% of global GHG emissions, the researchers claim.

But improving soils would also create a host of other, ancillary benefits including ecosystem services, making it a ‘win-win’, according to the scientists.

Spinoff benefits could include improved biodiversity; flood and erosion mitigation; increased crop yields (important in terms of a growing global population); better animal health and welfare; a reduced need for artificial fertilisers and therefore less pollution; and enhanced nutritional value of food produced.

These reported benefits map on to many of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, including Climate Action; Life On Land; Zero Hunger; and Good Health and Wellbeing.

In a paper published in Food and Energy Security journal, a multi-disciplinary group of academic scientists along with prominent UK agriculture campaigner, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, suggest that investing in the quality of earth to enhance its ability to ‘lock in’ carbon should be a central pillar in the national and global push towards Net Zero.

Governments, however, need to quickly implement ‘regenerative agriculture’ policies to incentivise farmers to take up the challenge, the researchers argue.

For example, a carbon-credit ‘marketplace’ whereby farmers could ‘trade’ credits would encourage the adoption of more soil-friendly practices. Ways of regenerating soil include less tillage farming and more legume-growing; growing multi-species swards; grazing-land management; and targeted addition of organic matter to improve soils. The researchers advocate these measures in partnership with other strategies on the farm to mitigate climate change, for example nutritional supplements to reduce methane emissions from ruminants.

Away from farms, the scientists argue strongly that peatlands should be restored to maximise on natural capital. Peatlands are the ‘gold standard’ of carbon sequestration, locking in carbon 100 times faster than emitting it, but many peatlands have become degraded through drainage, for example – so much so that they have now become carbon emitters.

The research evolved from a workshop held in 2021, hosted by Food and Farming Futures, a charity chaired by Lord Curry. That event attracted farmers, scientists, the agrifood industry and policy makers to discuss the leading role that soil could play in the journey towards Net Zero.

“Soil has been somewhat overlooked in the carbon debate, to date,” said Dr Ryan Maguire, Research Fellow at IGFS and lead author on the publication.

“There is an urgent need for stronger monitoring, reporting and verification processes in this area and for these to be streamlined by governments. The potential of soil to sequester carbon is huge and should be fully maximised.”

Co-author Professor Pete Smith from the University of Aberdeen and Science Director of the Scottish Climate Change Centre of Expertise said: “There are no magic bullets for tackling climate change, and we must de-carbonise all sectors of the economy as quickly as possible. But soil carbon sinks are an important, natural way of balancing the emissions that remain in 2050 – to help us achieve Net Zero by mid-century.”

Another co-author, Professor Steve McGrath, Head of Sustainable Agricultural Sciences at Rothamsted Research said: “To realise the potential of soils, farmers need to know what is possible with their soil and management combinations and how to manage and maintain any increase in carbon storage over time.”

Lord Curry of Kirkharle added: “The Government’s ambition to achieve Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050 will not succeed unless we optimise the carbon-sequestration potential of our soils. All governments across the UK should regard this as a priority.”

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