Journal of International Affairs (JIA): What do soil regeneration and carbon farming have to do with climate change?
Eric Toensmeier (ET): Regenerating soil involves increasing the carbon stored in the soil in the form of organic matter, and often increasing the carbon that is held in perennial biomass above and below ground as well. That essentially happens by photosynthesis: excess carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and stored in those soils and biomass. It is a drawdown of atmospheric carbon, which is necessary but it also makes farms and land more resilient to climate change itself. It is an adaptation and mitigation strategy.
Adaptation means surviving our new, changing climate, figuring out how to make your farm able to withstand extended droughts, more intense storms, and greater unpredictability of weather as a result of climate change. That's learning to live with climate change. Mitigation is slowing or reversing climate change by reducing emissions or sequestering carbon.
IA: How does carbon farming tie back to food security?
ET: Food security makes the difference in whether people's children survive or not. There is a certain sense of urgency in understanding what climate change impacts are and will be in certain regions. It's a powerful motivator for doing this kind of work.
If we do carbon farming successfully enough as part of a global effort for mitigation, it might not get so bad that we see major shifts in what people are growing, even though there are changes to some degree in certain places. We are seeing in West Africa that the Sahel savannah region is cutting into the rainforest at a rate of 30-40km a year. Farmers in that region have to learn how to farm like a savannah farmer, instead of a rainforest farmer, so they need new crops and practices. Some countries in the rainforest region are joining the Sahel country's alliance to get access to information and resources on how to farm differently. Perhaps we are more concerned on the day-to-day level with adaptation than mitigation, but again, most of the best practices for adaptation also have powerful mitigation benefits.
JIA: What are some current trends around the world tied to soil regeneration? Have you noticed any new trends since you wrote your book, The Carbon Farming Solution?
ET: There have been huge changes. One big change was the Paris Agreement, which came out since then. It seemed like it was the moment when agriculture became part of the...