Experts weigh in on carbon sequestration in soil at COP 21


Hans ? presents at a conference focused on agriculture and soil health on Thursday, Deceember 10, 2015 as part of COP 21 in Paris France. (KC McGinnis/CGRER)
Hans Herren presents at a conference focused on agriculture and soil health on Thursday, December 10, 2015 as part of COP 21 in Paris France. (KC McGinnis/CGRER)
Nick Fetty | December 10, 2015

PARIS – Experts from around the world weighed in on the importance of carbon sequestration and other sustainable agricultural practices during a conference Thursday morning.

The United Nations General Assembly declared 2015 “the International Year of Soil” which was the focus of the “Agroeology and Soil Solutions” conference in the Green Zone at COP 21. The event featured a four-person panel with each participant having expertise in a different aspect of agriculture or soil science. Before the panel gave their individual presentations, the approximately 50 attendees were shown a four-minute documentary produced by the Center for Food Safety and narrated by food journalist Michael Pollan.

“In one handful of soil there are more organisms than there are humans on earth and we are only beginning to understand the vast network of beings right beneath our feet,” Pollan said in the film’s opening scene.

The short film discussed the impact of over-farming and other unsustainable practices that remove carbon from the soil and release it into the atmosphere, contributing to rising temperatures and other effects of climate change.

Hans Herren – President and CEO of the Washington D.C.-based Millennium Institute – was the first panelist to present. Herren holds a PhD in Biological Control from the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland and part of his presentation focused on the science behind carbon sequestration as he emphasized the need for dietary changes to improve soil health.

“If you don’t change the diet farmers can’t change the way they produce. People’s behavior in terms of diet is essential,” he said.

Kristine Nichols – Chief Scientist for the Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute – was next to take the podium as she focused on research her center had done on a farm in Ohio. Nichols – who holds a PhD in Soil Science from the University of Maryland – said the carbon problem can actually be part of the solution.

“Really what we’ve got is a carbon problem and the problem is that we don’t have carbon in our soil.”

Nichols also addressed the negative effects of synthetic fertilizer and ways in which agriculture has become less efficient over the past half century.

“It takes more synthetic nitrogen fertilizer now to grow a ton of grain than it used to take in 1960,” she said. “Our systems are becoming far more inefficient because we’re not utilizing the biology.”

Nichols concluded her presentation with an interactive demonstration of the ability of different soils to retain water, showing that healthy soil can more easily retain moisture and filter excess liquid down to groundwater. Water retention not only helps soils to be more healthy but it also mitigates erosion and nutrient run off, both of which are concerns for farmers in Iowa.

The last of the panelists to speak was Precious Phiri, founder of the Zimbabwe-based EarthWisdom Consulting Co. Phiri focused on ways that grasslands, waterways, and livelihoods can be improved for African farmers and ranchers through better livestock management practices.

“We depend on livestock to get back our grasslands,” she said, adding “Overgrazing is an issue of time and not numbers.”

Phiri pointed out several examples in her homeland where proper grazing and agricultural techniques led to more permanent vegetation and waterways in the arid region.

The event concluded with a short question and answer session. During this time Nichols addressed the need for good research and the dissemination of information as well as strong policy that can lead to improved conditions.

“We needs to provide consistent and good information to people,” she said, adding “It is policies on the departmental level that would be beneficial.”

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