September 1, 2021

Soil Health, Climate & Carbon: Heavy Hitters Weigh In

Meet Trace Genomics special advisors Dr. Jerry Hatfield and Dr. Rob Myers, two heavy hitters when it comes to soil health, climate change and carbon. In the following Q & A, they weigh in on the importance of carbon to growing healthy crops, potential opportunities for growers and technology that makes it all possible.  

Dr. Jerry Hatfield, an affiliate professor in the Iowa State University Department of Agronomy, previously served as a USDA plant physiologist and for 31 years directed the USDA ARS Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, Iowa. During the last decade in that role, he was USDA’s point person for climate impacts on agriculture. He’s also the lead author of “The Effects of Climate Change on Agriculture, Land Resources, Water Resources and Biodiversity,” which received the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.  

“I’ve really worked very extensively on what we do in our cropping systems to enhance that soil resource. How does that contribute to water availability? How does that contribute to nutrient cycling? How does that build that climate resilience as well as alleviating risk factors?”  

 

Dr. Rob Myers is a faculty member in crops and soils at the University of Missouri where he directs the MU Center for Regenerative Agriculture. He’s also the North Central Regional Director of Extension programs for the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Myers serves as the SARE national liaison on cover crops and soil health.         

“A lot of my work is around the cover crop and soil health topics, and I’m very interested in what’s going on with carbon sequestration and some of the different conservation practices that contribute to it.”        

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Why is the conversation about carbon important?  

Dr. Hatfield: Carbon is our energy source. To put it in human terms, we eat carbon-based carbohydrates and derive energy from that. The soil relies on that energy, too. CO2 is captured from the air through plant photosynthesis and transported to the root system where it feeds the microbial system, or what we call soil biology, which is essential to plant health. It’s a very active process and capturing carbon requires growing plants. By sequestering carbon in the soil we see improvements in terms of water availability, nutrients and soil structure that gives the plant more support because it can root down deeper. It’s all interrelated.      

Dr. Myers: If we can take excess carbon out of the atmosphere where we don’t want it and get more of it into the soil, that’s a plus. When we think about the impacts of climate change and dealing with weather extremes, if we have more carbon in the soil that makes our soils more resilient and better able to deal with some of those weather extremes, whether it’s more prolonged droughts or more intense rain storms. There’s an underground carbon economy where carbon is being traded back and forth all the time in the soil ecosystem that our crop roots and cover crops are part of. As we’re getting a better understanding of what’s happening in microbial interaction with plants, whether they’re ones that we’re harvesting for grain or for other foods, that’s helping us realize that this overall carbon cycle is incredibly important to life on our planet.   

What are your thoughts on the conversation around agriculture and carbon markets? 

Dr. Myers: Farmers definitely have a lot of questions about carbon markets because they’re reading about them on a weekly basis. How does this work? Can I get a payment for the long term or is this just a short-term thing? How do I know that the price I’m being paid for carbon is fair? Farmers wonder how this whole carbon market is going to affect the way they do business and whether it’s going to be profitable for them to engage in it. Whether a farmer gets a carbon payment or not, there’s a positive benefit to practices farmers should be thinking about incorporating anyway, whether it’s cover crops, no-till or diversified rotations.  

Dr. Hatfield: The amount of CO2 in the air is trending upward and agriculture is only one component of emissions. When you think about carbon, it’s simply a commodity being traded like anything else – corn, soybeans, wheat. It’s out there for the trading. Let’s take utility companies for example. They are big carbon emitters and are saying, “Can we use agriculture and its ability to sequester carbon in the soil as a trade-off for the emissions we’re creating?” Airlines have done the same thing in terms of looking at their carbon footprint.  

So if we really look at it, carbon is part of the global economy and we’re going to see trades going back and forth. In the end, we can change the upward trajectory of where we are with CO2 going into the air that’s influencing temperatures and this variation of weather. Agriculture is being asked to play a part.     

Ag is often blamed for being the problem, but it sounds like it can actually be part of the solution.    

Dr. Hatfield: It’s probably much more of a solution than it is a problem because if you take a look at global emissions, agriculture is only about eight percent of our global emissions. It could be 20 to 30 percent of the solution just because of the dynamics of soil. That’s why a lot of companies are looking to agriculture.     

What’s the state of soil today?  

Dr. Hatfield: Let’s just take the Midwest as an example. When we first put the plow to the Midwest, our organic matter were running six to ten percent in our soils. They rapidly dropped down. As we began to till the soil, we began to release a lot of that organic matter into the atmosphere. So we had a big flush going on.  

We’ve now come down and we’ve stabilized somewhere in the two to four percent range. But the bottom line is that when agriculture first began, we took a lot of carbon out of the soil and then put it into the atmosphere. And over time, where we intensively till we still see a continuous loss of organic matter.  

In our measurements that we’ve made across Central Iowa, we emit a half a ton per year. That’s not a big percentage change in the upper foot of soil, but it’s a continuous loss. We see a reduction in our ability to maintain stable aggregates at the surface, so we see crusting, we see poor infiltration rates. With low infiltration rates, if we get a rainfall of two to four inches an hour we only can infiltrate the first inch. We can get up to three inches of runoff because the soil can’t absorb anymore.  

So the one of our biggest challenges is to not think exclusively about carbon, but to think about carbon relative to water and to nutrients as well because plants require all with that to grow. It begs the question from farmers, “What can I do in my production system to understand what carbon is doing for me?” Increasing carbon has major benefits. 

Dr. Myers: Another thing I think farmers should be thinking about with soil carbon and carbon payments is if they can add more carbon to their soil,  it’s another way of getting crop insurance. It’s helping you in these drier periods or wetter periods. Most of our corn and soybean, cotton farmers are taking crop insurance to help them get through unpredictable times with the weather and so on. Even without getting paid from a private or public entity for carbon payments, it just makes good long-term farming sense to have more carbon in the soil. As Jerry said, we’ve lost a lot of that soil organic matter over time. And I think more and more farmers are realizing there are benefits to rebuilding that soil carbon, and making that a goal for their farm.    

How do you see Trace Genomics playing a role in this space?         

Dr. Myers: The company has a unique ability to provide analytics that are not available through some of the other soils labs in the country. Trace Genomics can better profile what’s going on with the soil biology and the impact that also has on some of the chemical and physical properties. Their advanced techniques are helping us more effectively and rapidly understand how management is impacting soil health.  

Dr. Hatfield: This is a biologically driven process. And I think where Trace is uniquely positioned is the library that’s being developed in terms of looking at DNA and profiles. And as far as indicator species, are some more prevalent than others and will they respond differently than others? Trace can utilize those capabilities. They understand the dynamics of that. So as we begin to change the system, and we see shifts in these populations, can we detect those.      

We’ve had a lot of work in chemistry. We’ve had a lot of work in physics. But soil biology is a relatively new component that we’re bringing in here. And yet, we’re discovering that it is the hinge pin that that’s driving soil health, the whole process in terms of carbon sequestration and climate mitigation. It’s contributing to regenerative agriculture. We’re being asked to look at this whole system from an entirely different lens now realizing that it all hinges on the biology.  

 

Trace Genomics is currently engaged with numerous ag projects to understand how products and practices impact carbon sequestration. Contact us for details on how we can help with your products and practices: support@tracegenomics.com.  

You might also be interested in: Soil Intelligence Helps Farmers on the Front Lines of Soil Health