While humans struggle to emit less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, microbes in the soil need more. These microbes use carbon for energy – and keep it underground. But most commercial agriculture – with empty fields between crop cycles and heavy plowing – reduces the amount of carbon captured in the soil by plants, and releases much of what is already there into the atmosphere.

Now research by David Johnson of New Mexico State University suggests that growing crops year-round can provide microbes with a continuous source of energy – improving the soil and retaining carbon.

Johnson: “It’s an elegant system when you allow it to work.”

Cover crops, which are grown when fields are usually idle, can also be chopped and lightly worked into the top layer of soil – returning even more carbon to the ground. Johnson says this method can capture almost fifteen tons of carbon dioxide per acre.

Johnson: “About fourteen percent of the world’s cropland, if they adopted this approach to agriculture, you could capture all anthropogenic CO2.”

Johnson says sequestering carbon dioxide with this method would be relatively easy to implement and would cost about seventeen dollars per ton – less than other carbon capture techniques.

Reporting credit: ChavoBart Digital Media.
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More Resources
Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education, New Mexico State University

David Appell

A regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections since 2012, David Appell, Ph.D., is a freelance writer living in Salem, Oregon, specializing in the physical sciences, technology, and the environment. His...