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The Murky Promise of Carbon Farming

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To understand what a carbon farmer is, you have to get pretty abstract.

Instead of spending their time producing an actual, physical good like corn or wheat or a whole bunch of beef, what carbon farmers "produce" is mostly invisible: It's the act of offsetting carbon dioxide that's been released into our atmosphere, the excess of which has been proven to lead to greenhouse effects and ocean acidification, both of which then ultimately lead to that nastiest of nasties known as "climate change."

Which all sounds like a great idea. But is it actually worthwhile?

Last week, Australia announced they'll start giving farmers incentives to use a portion of their land to "farm" carbon. Sometimes that takes the form of planting trees that suck out the carbon dioxide that's already been released. Other times it's the procuring and releasing of dung beetles, which chow down on cow patties, drying them out and lowering the amount of CO2 they release into the air. The list of what could be considered carbon farming is actually pretty extensive.

Unfortunately, the science supporting it as a cure for climate change is not.

Back in 2013, a few German researchers crunched the numbers and proposed that if farmers began planting tons of acres of Barbados nuts -- a little shrub that grows in coastal areas -- the "current trend of rising atmospheric CO2 levels" could be halted:

If a large enough portion of the Earth were blanketed with carbon farms, they say, these local effects could become global, capturing between 17 and 25 metric tons of CO2 per hectare each year over a 20-year period.

The problem is that the "large enough portion" is, well, quite large. As in, 730 million hectares of land. What's a hectare? Oh, just 10,000 square meters. Meaning, in order to halt the current amount of carbon dioxide being shot off into our atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels and factory farming methods that aren't far removed from full-blown scorched earth military strategies, the planet would have to find a space roughly three-quarters the size of the continental U.S. to farm these nuts.

That's a lot of nuts.

Not to mention the fact that the amount of CO2 absorbed back into the ground using these carbon farming methods may actually decline over time, giving this move the feeling of a band-aid solution rather than one to get psyched up about. And then, there's the cost:

The other finding - published by Kirkby - was that incorporating organic matter alone is not enough to build carbon. Farmers need to add building-block nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and sulphur as well as organic matter to build soil carbon. If just one element is out, the magic carbon building process does not happen. Implications? Farmers can add nitrogen for free with crop rotations but phosphorus and sulphur are expensive and becoming harder to get.

Newer research by an Australian government inquiry actually points to this "barrier to participation" as a reason that it's not a feasible prospect for large-scale operations. And further research by the American Institute of Biological Sciences warns that carbon farming will "have harmful effects, such as impairing ecosystem services, reducing biodiversity, and reducing food supply" unless people really know what they're doing.

Which certainly isn't to say that farming with a carbon footprint in mind doesn't have benefits. The image above -- from Marin County's Nicasio Farm, who are part of a consortium of farmers and researchers looking into the best methods for expanding carbon farming -- certainly looks way better on a simple aesthetic level that any factory farm you'll ever see. And the biodiversity that comes with carbon farming can more fully enrich a farm's soil to help grow the next crop. It's just that the move in Australia -- a move, mind you, put forth by a Prime Minister who more recently tried to get rid of the country's tax on carbon output, a proposal that was boisterously blocked by the country's Senate -- isn't a cure-all for climate change.

The idea itself may even be a bit backwards. Instead of trying to lower the output of carbon dioxide, carbon farming proposes that the solution is to try counter the output by producing more input. It's almost like spending money to stock up on Gatorades and aspirin and bandages because you know you're going to get hammered that night. That may seem forward-thinking. But also, you know, maybe just try not to drink that much in the first place?

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