This month, a group of Democratic lawmakers called for an ambitious plan for the United States to reach net-zero carbon pollution in 10 years. While experts debate whether the proposal is technologically or politically feasible, the so-called Green New Deal is about more than shifting to cleaner, more advanced forms of energy sources. It's also about shifting to more traditional forms of agriculture.
While farming generally takes a back seat to energy in discussions of climate, it accounts for up to a third of carbon pollution, by one account. Tractors and trucks that harvest and transport our food burn gasoline and diesel, generating pollution. Synthetic fertilizers derived from fossil fuels spur the release of heat-trapping gas from the soil, and cows and sheep emit large volumes of planet-warming pollution. Then there is the matter of agricultural giants burning forests to clear land for farming and grazing, thereby releasing carbon stored in trees into the atmosphere and reducing the capacity of the land to store CO2.
And yet, while agriculture is a big part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution. Smart growing practices can help soak up pollution and store it in the ground — what's known as carbon farming.
Plants scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their leaves and branches. When those plants shed their leaves and die, that carbon enriches the soil, where it's gobbled up by insects, fungi, and microbes, and then exhaled back into the atmosphere. If more carbon goes into the soil than comes out, the process helps to eliminate atmospheric carbon dioxide, cooling the planet. Carbon farming also helps guard against climate change, as soil that is rich with microbes and fungi holds more water, which protects it from drought and mitigates the impact of floods.