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Save the soil and the planet – science fans STEM

As greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, our future depends on our ability to control carbon. It turns out that one of the most important players in the future carbon economy is right under our feet.

Dirt.

We tend to consider our country just as a medium for growing food, but the soil stores more than 3 times More Carbon than that contained in the air. And the soil’s ability to capture and retain carbon from the atmosphere is closely related to agricultural practices such as irrigation and tillage.

Young plants grow

Scientists recognized this carbon capture and storage as a potential climate solution decades ago, but developing devices and strategies to increase carbon levels has remained an academic venture. A bill by Senator Michael Bennet from Colorado and Representative Cynthia Axne from Iowa is to create a new funding agency called “Advanced Research Projects-Terra” (ARPA-TERRA) to bridge the gap between discovery on a laboratory scale and implementation in the real world Close world.

The name “ARPA” may seem familiar to you. Defense-ARPA (DARPA) was founded in 1958 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and ARPA-Energy (ARPA-E) was founded in 2007 by President George Bush. The goal of these advanced research agencies is to identify critical research gaps that are not currently funded by other U.S. agencies and are unlikely to be implemented by industry. For DARPA, this meant taking on unexplored projects to solve big problems like the Global Positioning System (GPS) in the early 1970s. In the energy sector, however, there was a gap between laboratory-scale research and industrial implementation. ARPA-E wanted to advance studies that both explored new ground and reduced uncertainty about the launch of technology. ARPA-Terra tries to apply the same methodology to the agricultural sector, where there is a significant barrier between research and practice.

SoilCarbonIn the past 100 years, farmers have increased crop productivity tenfold. But that has its price. In an article published in the magazine in 2004 scienceRattan Lal, a professor of soil science at Ohio State University, estimated that converting undeveloped land to agricultural land using traditional farming techniques can remove 60% of the carbon from the soil.

Lal describes our land as a bank account. To maintain the production of our plants, according to Lal, we need to replace the nutrients and calories that are extracted from the soil for food production. If we don’t, the ability of the soil to produce nutritious food and resist erosion, referred to as “soil health”, will decrease over time.

Climate models have shown that agricultural practices that reduce energy / material use and restore carbon in the soil will be an essential element in mitigating climate change. Implementing these climate-friendly solutions can also benefit farmers as they can lower their operating costs and increase resilience to extreme weather conditions with minimal impact on yields. To monitor the impact of changing practices, farmers need real-time data. Soil properties can vary considerably over short distances, making manual sampling over many hectares a monumental task. Even when the data has been collected, it is not easy to decide how much water to sow or when.

ARPA-E recently funded nine universities with over $ 30 million to address this problem. The project, known as ROOTS, or Rhizosphere observations to optimize terrestrial sequestrationaims to increase the carbon content in the soil by 50% while reducing the need for fertilizers.

The proposed technologies are based on the development of portable devices that measure soil and plant properties and then link these data to genetic descriptors for water and nutrient fixation. The aim of the initiative is to get a better picture of which practices result in more carbon remaining in the soil. These practices could include direct sowing, where plants are grown without moving the soil, and harvesting, where additional non-food plants are planted in the same field to restore certain nutrients and prevent erosion. Although this program has been successful so far, it is expected to end in May 2020. And ARPA-E does not appear to continue to fund agricultural research outside of its immediate energy applications.

Without further research, farmers would have to take independent responsibility for the restoration of carbon in their country if there was a need to improve yields. This is a big undertaking, especially when the results and the schedule are uncertain. The aim is that ARPA-Terra closes this gap and continues to invest in increasing the ecological and economic potential of agriculture.

“At a time when American farmers and ranchers are facing extreme weather and low commodity prices, it is more important than ever to invest in research that is the building block for major technological breakthroughs to promote American agriculture,” said Bennet in a press release from November 2019.

The language of the draft law is intentionally broad so that a large number of research projects can fit into the law. David Babson, currently Program Director at ARPA-E, presented the idea to Senator Bennet in 2017 as part of discussions on the 2018 Farm Bill.

“You can think of any number of programs that fit into these broad categories, and there will be so many good ideas that need to be considered. I am assuming that new areas of agricultural research that are currently not being extensively investigated by ARS, such as For example, vertical agriculture, carbon farming, and alternative and cell-based meat will be highlighted, ”said Babson in an email.

In order for the law to come into force, it must be brought to the vote by the Committee on Agriculture, Food and Forestry in the Senate and adopted in-house. Despite this long journey, the calculation and the accompanying discussion are a step in the right direction to exploit the unused potential of the floor for climate solutions.

By Jake Kenny

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