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Climate Leader Profile: Soil Carbon Challenge

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By Renata Brillinger

The Soil Carbon Challenge digs directly into the ground with the farmers, ranchers, and landowners who can manage land to improve soil health. Peter Donovan, a leader in demonstrating the connection between land management practices and increased soil carbon, founded the Soil Carbon Challenge—“an international prize competition to see how fast land managers can turn atmospheric carbon into water-holding, fertility-enhancing soil organic matter.” Peter has established an approach to scientifically showing (not just telling) the nexus of appropriate land management, soils, and carbon sequestration.

When managed correctly, soil can become a “sink” for atmospheric carbon while also providing benefits such as increased water holding capacity, decreased erosion and runoff, and improved health, productivity, and resilience due to enhanced populations and diversity of soil microorganisms.

Peter believes in showing possibility by measuring change over time, and recognizing actual results. As such, The Soil Carbon Coalition supports “a different kind of science”, believing science is “based on shared evidence, open participation, specific locations and situations, and on learning to manage wholes more than parts.”

With these guiding principles, the Soil Carbon Challenge is based in participatory research motivated by healthy competition among landowners to cultivate healthy soils capable of capturing and storing carbon from the atmosphere. To implement this “citizen science,” Peter travels around the United States (in an old school bus) helping landowners set up monitoring plots to measure how soil carbon changes both over time and with different management practices.

The program has established over 290 baseline plots on farms, ranches and other private lands in North America alone. With increased attention on healthy soils from the United Nations, the Paris Climate Summit, and California policy, to name a few, presently, there is more demand than the Soil Carbon Coalition is able to fill.

Peter believes his participatory (and competitive) approach shifts people from asking the skeptical question about storing carbon in soil, “Can it be done?” to instead asking, “How well, and how fast?”

Tackling climate change requires multiple approaches from multiple actors. Peter Donovan’s participatory, citizen-led soil carbon research plays an important piece of the climate solution.

This article originally appeared on the California Climate and Agriculture Network website on Sept. 20, 2016. 

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