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Agriculture

Let’s Get Down & Dirty — Soil Needs Cleantech

Climate change is influencing soil negatively, and cleantech can provide the tools for innovative soil management.

Soil is the foundation of the most basic of ecosystem functions. An dispensable natural resource, it provides essential nutrients to forests and crops and helps regulate the Earth’s temperature  — as well as its many greenhouse gases. But how can land managers and planners determine the net effect of specific land use practices? How can policymakers and other stakeholders provide reliable data and tools to support informed decisions aimed at soil mitigation practices and industrial adaptation? The effects of the climate crisis make it clear: soil needs cleantech and its innovation. Our planet’s soil abundance cannot survive without cleantech’s help.

Soil is amazing. Why is soil so important?

  • Soil is the basis of food systems as well as the place where all plants for food production grow.
  • Soil hosts a big community of diverse organisms that improve its structure, recycle essential nutrients, and helps to control weeds, plant pests, and diseases.
  • Soil is essential for water filtration.
  • It stabilizes a landscape against the impacts of drought, flood, or fire.
  • When soil is healthy, it contains and even increases organic carbon, and it stores more carbon than all of the world’s forests combined.

Soil is an important regulator of the planet’s climate and is foundational to human life on Earth.

Did you know that:

  • Archaeologists now accept the demise of the Mayans of Central America and the Harappan of India as a direct result from the mismanagement of their soils?
  • There are more living individual organisms in a tablespoon of soil than there are people on the earth?
  • Almost all of the antibiotics we take to help us fight infections were obtained from soil microorganisms?
  • Soil is a nonrenewable natural resource?

The planet depends on soil so that biodiversity creates a richly interwoven ecosystem. Yet we don’t treat soil as kindly as we should. Scientists say a third of the world’s soil has been harmed through erosion, deforestation, pollution, built structures, and damaging agricultural practices.

Soil takes time for nature to create it, and land sometimes needs to rest to stay healthy. Changes in land use and soil can either accelerate or slow down climate change. Industrial agriculture, timber harvesting, and construction material manufacturers — and many other industries that deplete soil — need to rethink and adapt how they treat soil. In an ideal world, preserving and restoring key soil ecosystems and letting nature capture carbon from the atmosphere would take precedence over natural resource harvesting.

The Mystery of the Soil Microbiome

A “microbiome” is the combined genetic material of the microorganisms in a particular environment. It’s clear that we really don’t have enough collective knowledge about the soil microbiome so that we can understand and predict the impact of climate change on the ecosystem effects it provides.

Soil microbiomes can be harnessed to help mitigate the negative consequences of climate change. Communities of soil microbiomes play a major role in biogeochemical cycles and support of plant growth. Highly diverse and heterogeneous soil microbiomes are likely to be negatively affected by climate change, as will soil carbon cycling by the soil microbiome.

Soil microbiome stability is a key metric to understand as the climate changes, and its stability, resistance, resilience, and functional redundancy need more emphasis from the cleantech community. Sophisticated cleantech can help decode the soil microbiome through graph data structures and AI-based analytics, opening new windows of insight to assist climate change scientists, soil experts, and agri-manufacturers.

Capitalism, Soil, & Nature

As our awareness of the value of natural and managed ecosystems services grows, new biodiversity, carbon, and water innovations focus on enhancing soil ecosystem attributes that protect human and environmental health.

“Natural capital” is a term that refers to the soil, air, water, and other assets that nature has to offer. As a conservation model, it is rooted in the idea that nature has a measurable value to humans and that protection efforts must go far beyond walled-off reserves and be broadly integrated into development practice and planning. The Natural Capital Project combines research with mapping data in software called InVEST, which stands for Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Trade-offs. It can help guide policymakers by pinpointing where, and for whom, conservation efforts can have the greatest payoff.

Not everyone agrees that assigning value as capital to nature is the way to go. George Monbiot has argued for years that pricing, valuation, monetization, financialization of nature in the name of saving it, ecosystem services, green infrastructure, and asset classes in an ecosystems market, among other fiscal approaches to nature, tackle little more than the aesthetic value of biodiversity protection.

“You do not solve the problem this way,” he has insisted. “You do not solve the problem without confronting power. But what we are doing here is reinforcing power, is strengthening the power of the people with the money, the power of the economic system as a whole against the power of nature.”

How can this picture take on a new perspective so that a balance of market compatibility and climate crisis applications takes place? Soil needs cleantech and all its associated innovations and resources to become hardy again, but isn’t the effort as much altruistic as revenue producing?

Reforestation’s Synergy & Why Soil Needs Cleantech

The vibrant secondary forest bursts its green leafy shoots upward toward the sky, sequestering more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than other, more established forests. Yes, older forests ultimately store more carbon dioxide than young forests. But hope lingers that deforestation does not have to be an end, but, rather, part of a journey — and that journey can result in more natural carbon capture.

Land-use intensification has led to biodiversity loss, which affects ecosystem properties and services by altering plant functional traits. Studies indicate that maintaining functional diversity of tree height in tropical land use is conducive for soil water conservation to mitigate increased intensity of seasonal drought predicted under climate change. An article in the Washington Post chronicled how, if deforested lands are abandoned, tropical forests can recover naturally and remarkably quickly.

However, just because deforested land can recover doesn’t mean that deforestation should be accepted as a cyclical norm. The recovery of the overall biomass of tropical forests and their ability to store carbon takes a full century, as does the recovery of a forest’s species. Large-diameter trees, variety in tree size, and a large number of species are all indicators of a robust recovery.

Post-deforestation subsurface soil is often resilient, which enables a faster recovery. Seeds, roots and stumps embedded in the soil, or the spread of plants from adjacent forests, kick-start the recovery process. Tropical warmth and humidity spurs fast growth, too, so that some species climb more than a dozen feet per year.

Can cleantech support a nature-based and multi-faceted approach to forest restoration?

Soil Needs Cleantech — What Can Be Done?

Cleantech has the assessment strategies, analytical techniques, and necessary innovations for that’s required for healthier soil. Soil health is about much more than profitability and yield. Farmers who use regenerative agriculture practices find improvements in water quality, superior crop resilience to extreme weather, reduced their fertilizer needs. Soil carbon sequestration and nature-based cleantech solutions like soil mapping technologies may have potential.

More cleantech standardized tools are needed to assess the benefits of climate smart soil management and land use, as well as precision soil measurement, monitoring, reporting, and verification capacities.

 
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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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