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How Dirt Could Help Save the Planet

Farming practices that retain carbon in the soil, or return it there, would limit both erosion and climate change

The American dust bowl of the 1930s demonstrated the ruinous consequences of soil degradation. Decades of farming practices had stripped the Great Plains of their fertile heritage, making them vulnerable to severe drought. Ravaging winds lifted plumes of soil from the land and left in their wake air choked with dust and a barren landscape. Thousands died of starvation or lung disease; others migrated west in search of food, jobs and clean air.

Today, we again face the potential for extreme soil erosion, but this time the threat is intensified by climate change. Together, they create an unprecedented dual threat to the food supply and the health of the planet—and farmers can be key partners in averting the catastrophic consequences. Both erosion and climate change can be mitigated by incorporating more carbon into soil. Photosynthetic carbon fixation removes carbon dioxide from the air, anchoring it in plant material that can be sequestered in soil.

This process reduces atmospheric greenhouse gases and reduces soil erosion by enriching soil with carbon that feeds hungry microbes that produce sticky substances, which in turn bind soil particles into clumps that are less vulnerable to movement by wind and water. The Biden administration has the opportunity to avert both crises through domestic policy for U.S. agriculture and international policy that would restore U.S. leadership in the battle against climate change. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the central feature of most plans to slow climate change. Much less attention has focused on sequestering atmospheric carbon in soil.