Op-Ed: Restore the land, restore the world – New IPCC study

Posted Mar 25, 2020 by Paul Wallis
An IPCC report has identified soil restoration and preservation as a simple, effective fix for managing atmospheric carbon. There’s some very good science and some great economics attached to this idea.
Some communities have been able to regenerate the paramo by replacing cattle with llamas and vicunas...
Some communities have been able to regenerate the paramo by replacing cattle with llamas and vicunas, whose padded feet are kinder to the soil
Pablo Cozzaglio, AFP
The IPCC report got buried in the recent disasters around the world but has received an enthusiastic response from the experts. The idea is strong, with a lot of upside at a time of massive demands on food and water resources.
The basics of soil restoration and preservation
Soils are depleted by agriculture, overuse of some types of commercial fertilizers, desertification, deforestation (forests supply a lot of the organic materials in soils) and urbanization. The net result is to impoverish the soil and place a huge load on agriculture and food supplies.
Soil doesn’t “just happen”. It’s the result of a lot of complex biological chemical, and related processes:
• Microbiota refine nutrients for plants by breaking down organic materials and making them available to crops, trees, etc.
• Loss of top cover and harvesting invariably depletes soil. The soil nutrients go with the crops.
• Land clearing breaks up soil structures, making them vulnerable to nutrient loss through runoff, or simply drying up and blowing away.
• Droughts and other major hits can remove topsoil, also removing the microbiota which support healthy soils.
• There are many other possible problems, too, like pollution which kills soil organisms, etc.
If that sounds like a virtual census of bad land management, it is. Even in the Middle Ages crop rotation was introduced to reduce soil damage and keep it fertile. Later, they introduced special crop planting to reinvigorate the soil with nitrogen and other essentials.
The current situation
Despite many good new and traditional practices and proper land management, global soils are under severe stress. Demand for food and land space has never been so high. Good land has disappeared under cities and industrial buildings. With a rising population, that’s not where the world wants to be.
A further issue is that soil is a massive carbon absorption machine. All plants and all life needs carbon, and it’s usually sourced from the soil or progresses from the soil up the food chain. The key issue, however, is how much carbon it absorbs.
The fix for the carbon problem? Could be.
According to the IPCC, the soil can take about 5 billion tons of carbon per year. That’s roughly the amount of carbon emitted by the United States annually. Instead of going into your lungs, it can go into the soil.
Good deal, some might think. The question of whether the world’s expert-allergic governments get that idea is debatable. Land management regulations and policies are generally pretty lousy, outdated, and definitely nowhere near up to speed with modern science.
The IPCC says, thankfully, that about 40% of the world’s soils don’t need restoration. They can be left alone and will continue to deliver their massive benefits. That, however, means about 60% of the world’s soils may be compromised or in need of repair.
It’s a major task, obviously, but doable. Modern agriculture now uses microbiota as a standard mix with new soil, soil restoration, and excellent soil testing. Any soil can be rehabilitated, pretty easily.
I’m a qualified horticulturalist. The basic principles in this report are 100% right, and the work can be done by almost anyone with the right resources. Traditional or modern methods of soil restoration will both work. Good soil saves water, saves money used/wasted on messy, polluting fertilizers, and can obviously do what needs doing about carbon.
As for getting anything done right about it, I’ll believe it when I see it. It’s easy, relatively cheap, and delivers massive benefits. That usually means it’ll take decades for anyone to do anything about it.
If you can fix your soil, do it. You’ll be doing a lot better, and save a fortune.