One possible way that subsurface microbes can combat climate change is by capturing carbon and converting it to limestone.
These microbes use chemicals from rock as an energy system to feed themselves far underground, in the absence of sunlight. In doing so, they can produce organic matter that fuels the growth of other organisms, they can convert CO2 to fuels and other chemicals, and they can enhance the efficiency of solar panels (“photon-to-fuel efficiency”).
At the Washington State Soil Health Committee, we wonder what relationship these microbes have to topsoil?
UPDATE: Both bills mentioned below passed the House and the Senate and were signed by Governor Jay Inslee of Washington State.
Two bills have made it past the Senate and House in the State of Washington. These bills show that the soil health campaign started by Roylene Comes at Night, Washington State Conservationist, in 2014 has real traction and a new and exciting life of its own. A very special shout-out to Gary Farrell, the benefactor of the original Soil Health Committee, without whom it would not have lived and breathed and made a multitude of successful grants that have provided the groundwork, literally, for a new Soil Health Movement in our state.
As co-chairs, Lynn Bahrych and Gary Farrell led a volunteer committee of producers, conservation district staff and supervisors, educators, and state and federal agency representatives to invest grant funds from the state Conservation Commission and the federal NRCS in dozens of innovative soil health practices across the state from 2015 until today. The results of those experiments will be published by the end of 2020 and so far have been truly remarkable, thanks to the hard work and inspiration of those receiving the grants. The successes and lessons learned during these five years will be passed along to the committee in its next home at the Washington State Conservation Commission.
First is SB 5947 – 2019-20 which establishes the sustainable farms and fields grant program.
“The legislature finds that Washington’s working agricultural lands are essential to the economic and social well-being of our rural communities and to the state’s overall environment and economy. The legislature further finds that different challenges and opportunities exist to expand the use of precision agriculture for different crops in the state by assisting farmers, ranchers, and aquaculturists to purchase equipment and receive technical assistance to reduce their operations’ carbon footprint while ensuring that crops and soils receive exactly what they need for optimum health and productivity. Moreover, the legislature finds that opportunities exist to enhance soil health through carbon farming and regenerative agriculture by increasing soil organic carbon levels while ensuring appropriate carbon to nitrogen ratios, and to store carbon in standing trees, seaweed, and other vegetation. Therefore, it is the intent of the legislature to provide cost sharing competitive grant opportunities to enable farmers and ranchers to adopt practices that increase appropriate quantities of carbon stored in and above their soil and to initiate or expand the use of precision agriculture on their farms. This act seeks to leverage and enhance existing state and federal cost-sharing programs for farm, ranch, and aquaculture operations.”
UPDATE: This bill passed the Senate on March 12, 2020, and the House on March 12, 2020. It was signed by the Governor on April 3, 2020.
The second is SB 6306 – 2019020 which creates the Washington soil health initiative.
“The legislature finds that healthy soil is a cornerstone of a high quality of life on earth and that soil health is integral to supporting agricultural viability, promoting positive environmental outcomes, and ensuring the long-term availability of nutritious food.
It is the intent of the legislature that the mission of the Washington soil health initiative be the promotion of collaborative soil health research, education, demonstration projects, and technical assistance activities designed to identify, promote, and implement soil health stewardship practices that are grounded in sound science and that can be voluntarily and economically implemented by farmers and ranchers across Washington’s diverse agricultural communities, climates, and geographies.”
UPDATE: This bill passed the Senate on March 9, 2020 and the House on March 10, 2020. It was signed by the Governor on April 2, 2020.
This exciting article from Fixing the System discusses soil as the engine of our planet’s cooling and carbon capture system.
Here’s an excerpt from the article:
“Rich soils exponentially increase the capture of water and carbon
What is powerful about healthy soil, and it really is the central element of the whole sponge discussion, is that now we have 66% of the volume of the matrix which is available for infiltrating and retaining water. That retained water is what can sustain plant growth. Because of these voids, and the increased surface area exposed by them, this healthy soil can vastly increase the availability of nutrients. Now we have the phosphorus, the calcium, and the zinc all exposed for microbial activity.
So the bio-productivity of that soil increases exponentially, simply by creating those voids. The rootability of these soils vastly increases, that is the roots can grow, and penetrate and proliferate. Instead of 6 inches, they can grow down to 6 feet, or 20 feet, so the volume of soil resource that is now available for plant growth, and the drawdown of carbon that we mentioned earlier, is exponentially increased.
Soil formation is the engine of nature’s cooling and carbon capture system
So the whole bio-productivity of these healthy soils, the resilience of those soils, the capacity to infiltrate, to buffer, to extend life vastly increases. This process is what nature did to create the biosystem, to create the hydrology, and in very simple terms, that is all we have to do.
The process is taking sunlight, carbon dioxide and water to produce plants, using photosynthesis to create sugars, and fungi and microorganisms that convert those sugars into stable soil carbon, which is just the carbon based organic detritus or ‘bed springs’. This process is how the Earth ran 95% of its heat dynamics and its natural hydrological cooling.
So, if we have to draw down 20 billion tonnes of carbon, if we have to rebuild this soil-carbon sponge, we simply need to copy nature, and speed up the soil formation process.”
Last week, Lynn Bahrych delivered 30 living tardigrades to the science classes at the Friday Harbor High School on San Juan Island. The tardigrades will be studied and hopefully “cultured” in the classroom as part of a campaign to have the tardigrade designated as Washington State’s “Micro-Animal.”
On November 12, 2019, following the delivery of the tardigrades, Lynn and a volunteer marine biologist and videographer, Dr. Michael Noonan, joined Sam Garson, the Friday Harbor High School science teacher, to introduce the project to his science class. Mr. Garson had prepared slides for the classroom microscopes, as well as a worksheet (titled “Behold the Mighty Water Bear”) and video introductions of the tardigrade and the research being done on it now to study evolutionary development (”evo devo”).
Not much is known for sure about tardigrades, so these students might be able to contribute something new to the field. Tardigrade ecology is in its “infancy,” according to experts. Exciting new ideas may come from the three classrooms across the state participating in this project. In addition to the Friday Harbor High School on San Juan Island, the Riverday School in Spokane, and the Roosevelt Middle School in Olympia are studying the enigmatic “moss piglet” or “water bear.”
For the state designation of the tardigrade, there are three state legislative sponsors at this time; Representative Jeff Morris of District 40, who is the primary sponsor, Senator Debra Lekanoff also from District 40, and Representative Marcus Riccelli from Spokane. Once the bill is filed in Olympia, other legislators will be invited to sign on.
This is the education and outreach project for the Soil Health Committee for 2019-2020. The goal is to raise awareness of soil health across the state by focusing on a charismatic animal that lives in soil and, in ways we are only beginning to understand, contributes to soil health.
A few fascinating facts about tardigrades:
In 2008, two “super-predator” Tardigrade species were discovered that suppress nematode communities despite being greatly outnumbered by the nematode populations. This may be very good news for producers with nematode issues. That is, unless the tardigrades also eat beneficial critters, which is why more research is needed.
In 2015, Japanese scientists found “high expressions of novel tardigrade-unique proteins,“ including one that suppresses radiation damage When inserted in human cultured cells, this unique tardigrade protein suppressed X-ray damage to human cells by 40%.
Tardigrades work as a “pioneer species” by inhabiting new developing environments and attracting other invertebrates, including predators looking for food.
Tardigrade species have been found in fossils 530 million years old and are often described as the champions of climate change, having survived the last five mass extinctions.
Our friends at NRCS Pullman have been doing cover crop trials. The NRCS Pullman Plant Materials Program staff started a forage cover crops field trial in the Columbia Hills on a dryland wheat/fallow cropping system. They were evaluating cover crops planted in fall or late winter of the fallow year for establishment, growth, forage production and weed control. A Great Plains no-till drill was used to plant several cover crop mixes and several varieties of winter peas. The winter planting was done on March 7, 2018, and the fall planting was done on September 11, 2018. Monitoring was conducted periodically throughout the growing season.
Click here to read the full report. Below are some pictures from the trials. A special thank you goes out to Soil Health Committee Member Allen Casey for sharing.
At the end of July, more than 130 soil health experts convened in Louisville, Kentucky to brainstorm about the future of soil health research. Of the many scientists, university specialists, farmers, experts, and NGO leaders in attendance, the WA State Soil Health Committee was the only state soil committee invited to attend!
Ultimately, the conference aimed to identify key areas of research and standards of measurement that could then form convincing, relevant, scientifically grounded recommendations for policy makers and agricultural producers.
The convention marked the first annual meeting of the Soil Health Institute, an organization headed by Dr. Wayne Honeycutt whose mission is “to safeguard and enhance the vitality and productivity of the soil.”
WA State Soil Health Committee representative Gary Farrell was thrilled to be among the ranks of soil health advocates unifying behind basic soil health goals. Those goals include conducting a national assessment of soil health, identifying research gaps regarding the relationship between crop rotations and microbial soil health, creating a “digital decision support tool that enables growers to anticipate which soil amendments and crop rotations will have the greatest impact on a field’s annual return.”
For more information about the Soil Health Institute and their first annual meeting, check out their press release about the event, here.