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The Science Behind 'Carbon Farming' To Combat Global Warming

Leafy green collard plant in the ground surrounded by hay.
Jessica Meszaros
Plants grab carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and through photosynthesis, they transform the greenhouse gas into carbon and keep it locked in the soil. Public and private entities are planning to pay farmers to sequester carbon in this way to reverse the effects of climate change.

How does carbon sequestration work, and will it really reverse the effects of climate change? One soil scientist calls this is a "turning point" for Florida growers.

Florida farmers could be joining the fight against climate change. President Joe Biden, Florida's agriculture commissioner, and even private businesses want to pay growers to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Farmers do this by planting crops to trap carbon dioxide and by using other techniques to keep from releasing CO2 that is naturally in the soil.

WUSF's Jessica Meszaros spoke about "carbon sequestration" with Jehangir Bhadha, a soil scientist at the University of Floridawho works hands-on with Florida growers.

What exactly is carbon sequestration?

I guess in simple terms, carbon sequestration is a process whereby you can immobilize some of that carbon, which is in the atmosphere, into a system. In this case, we are talking about farming, and so you can fix some of that atmospheric carbon in your plants.

RELATED: 'Carbon Farming' Could Soon Be New Cash Crop For Florida Growers

Do all plants do this?

All plants do it, but they do it at different rates. So some plants can do it a lot faster, a lot quicker, and some plants can take a lot slower in order to fix carbon in the system. And also, the growth rate. It depends on the growth rate, as well.

There are certain times in the lifecycle of a plant where it will fix more carbon than maybe at a later time, or at a very early germination time. It’s typically, during its grand growth period where it tends to kind of take up a lot more of that CO2.

So right now the majority of farmers are sequestering some carbon through practices like planting cover crops in the off-season, because it benefits their soil, right? Climate change is not necessarily on the forefront of their minds at this point?

Right. So actually, we are right at the cusp of this conversation. This is a turning point with our growers. These practices, our growers, our stakeholders, have been doing it for a long time. And they've been doing it as good stewards of their own farms of the land that they produce on. Not with the mindset of carbon credits or trying to see which way the budget is going as far as carbon is concerned, but clearly now is the time when there's so much information about this.

And we can see this even with our growers wanting to understand: what is carbon credits? What is the carbon footprint of some of the practices that they are doing? What is the return on investment? If they go in and try to do some of these practices, is there a trade off in cost? “Let's talk about that.” You know, they may be open to some of that, but all that started from the point that they have been doing these practices as good stewards of their land. And now they are open to even the idea of carbon credits.

I know you're not a climatologist, you're a soil scientist, but in your opinion, if farmers across the country all start to intentionally sequester carbon, do you think this could reverse impacts of climate change?

Well, the short answer would be: I don't know. I'm an optimistic person, so I would want to say yes, but it will have some effect on it- it would have a positive effect, in fact. Whether it would entirely resolve the whole climate change issue, who knows. I think we would be moving in the right direction, as you say, if all the growers in the entire country start to do this, but it's not just the growers.

I think us, the general public also should be as good stewards towards climate change. We've got urban farming now that folks have started to take on. We've got green pavements that we can put in our urban areas. We've got backyard farming practices. So all those put together, we will definitely be able to make some strides towards climate change.

Do you find any issues with focusing too much on carbon sequestration for farmers to reverse the effects of global warming?

You have to take it on a case-by-case basis. We have to be very cautious in making these broad overarching statements because in some cases, certain practices may work, and you may yield profits from it- not just financial but even environmental benefits from it. And in certain cases, that may not work and you may have to rely on conventional practices to keep the wheel moving.

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative formed to cover the impacts of climate change in the state.

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.
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