Soil could hold key to climate adaptation

A plant begins and ends its life in the soil, which could be the key to climate adaptation (Flickr). 

Julia Poska| September 20, 2018

Climate change models predict decreased crop yields as temperatures rise, but new research from Michigan State University says our soil can save us.

If yields go down, the amount of carbon returned to the soil will too, creating a feedback loop that would only accelerate crop loss.  The study, published in Agriculture and Environmental Letters, found that certain soil management and conservation practices can compensate for crop loss by keeping carbon in the soil.

Practices like cover cropping and conservation tillage, encouraged by the researchers, benefit the environment in other ways as well. Especially in Corn Belt states along the Mississippi River, these practices are encouraged to keep soil nutrients out of the water.

Lead scientist Bruno Basso said soil may be our most important resource for adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change in an MSU media release about the study. “The soil that we’ll deal with in 2050 is surely to be different than it is now, so recognizing how to manage it today -along with adaptation strategies for tomorrow — is critical,” he said.


Scientists find that less tilling means more earthworms

Anecic earthworms live deep in the soil and emerge at night, providing a helpful mixing of soil in agricultural fields. (The Earthworm Society of Britain)
Jenna Ladd | May 16, 2017

Wriggly earthworms are the unsung heroes of agricultural fields around the world. Their tiny bodies make it easier for water and air to enter the soil, transform organic matter into nutrients that is available to plants and can improve crop productivity by more than 50 percent.

A study recently published in the journal Global Change Biology sought to better understand which agricultural conditions are optimal for worms. Dr. Olaf Schmidt and Dr. Maria Briones analyzed 215 studies from over 40 countries that explored the relationship between tilling practices and worm population health.

The meta-analysis showed that disturbing the soil less (i.e. no-till farming, conservation agriculture) resulted in significantly more abundant earthworm populations. For example, no-till farmland saw a 137 percent increase in worm populations and a nearly 200 percent increase in soil biomass. Those areas of land in reduced-till for more than ten years saw the most earthworms return to the soil. In contrast, those field that were heavily plowed lost half of their original worm population.

Researchers observed the affect of tilling on 13 species of worms and found that the largest species were most heavily impacted. These creatures, called anecic earthworms, live deep down in the soil. At night-time they wriggle up a single channel, grab food, such as plant matter or manure, and then slide back down the same permanent burrow.

The researchers write that restoring earthworm populations through practing reduced-till or no-till farming “will ensure the provision of ecosystem functions such as soil structure maintenance and nutrient cycling by “nature’s plow.””

UI Climate Narrative Project fellows focus on soil

The fall 2014 Clime Narrative Project fellows. From left, Erica Damman, Jeffrey Ding, Jenna Ladd, and Sarah Nagengast. (Photo by Nick Fetty)
The fall 2014 Climate Narrative Project fellows. From left, Erica Damman, Jeffrey Ding, Jenna Ladd, and Sarah Nagengast. (Photo by Nick Fetty)

Nick Fetty | December 12, 2014

The fall 2014 fellows with the UI’s Climate Narrative Project presented their work Thursday night in the University Capitol Center in Iowa City.

Through various mediums (film, radio, visual arts and creative writing) the fellows shared the research and interviews they have compiled over the past fourth months. The theme was “Semester in the Soil: Regenerative Agriculture, Urban Farms and Food.”

Jeff Biggers – writer-in-residence for the UI Office of Sustainability – worked with the students throughout the semester and introduced each presenter Thursday night. He mentioned the relationship between climate change and soil conservation stating “we have science coming out of our ears yet we’re doing very little.”

Erica Damman – an artist and researcher in the Interdisciplinary PhD program focusing on Environmental Humanities – presented her project which was entitled “Soil Testimonies.” The project included sped up video of Damman creating a large charcoal drawing of a sow bug, a crustacean that lives beneath the soil. While the video played Damman also had an audio track of her conducting a fictional interview with a sow bug as it told her about life underground. The project integrated humor with lines like “everything down here is eating everything else” but also discussed the impacts of soil tilling for agriculture which destroys the homes of bugs, worms, and other parts of the soil ecosystem. Damman and the bug also discussed the effects of soil deep freezes which has been as deep as 15 nightcrawlers (or roughly 50 inches) during recent winters. The Ohio native concluded her presentation by stating that “[We need] to think of soil as our companion species.”

Jenna Ladd – an undergraduate majoring in sociology and minoring in Spanish – presented “Immigrant Seeds and Stories” which examined the availability of garden plots for immigrants in Iowa. She began her presentation by stating that “access to local and healthful food is a right not a privilege.” She then showed a photo slideshow with an audio narrative telling the story of immigrants from Mexico and Africa who came to Iowa as climate refugees because the effects of climate change have hampered their ability to farm and garden in their homelands. She cited data from the American Red Cross which shows that the number of climate refugees in the United States is greater than the number of political refugees. Some of the immigrants lack resources to consume “expensive good food” when coming to Iowa and this has led to an increase in obesity rates for some immigrants.

Actors playing farmers were part of Jeffrey Ding's interactive presentation. (Photo by Nick Fetty)
Actors playing farmers were part of Jeffrey Ding’s interactive presentation. (Photo by Nick Fetty)

Jeffrey Ding – an undergraduate triple majoring in political science, economics, and Chinese – presented “Dispatches from the Land” which looked at farmers and the future of agriculture in Iowa. He also weaved some humor into his interactive presentation by reminiscing about the days when Hawkeye football was one of the passions in his life instead of “an exercise in mediocrity tolerance.” However most of the presentation was focused on serious issues facing Iowa farmers.  He discussed the UI’s Biomass Fuel Project with specific focus on miscanthus – an Asian perennial tallgrass – which is being grown on plots in Iowa and which he referred to as “the field of the future.” Ding also discussed the importance of soil conservation, citing  that farmers should “leave the land better than you got it.” He looked at the future of agriculture in Iowa citing that a quarter of farmland is owned by people over the age of 75 and that with Johnson County being the second-fastest growing county in the state it has created a rift between rural interests and urban development. He concluded his presentation by stating “before regenerative agriculture can save us, we have to save us.”

Sarah Nagengast – an undergraduate majoring in environmental policy and planning with a minor in geography and a certificate in sustainability – presented a video documentary entitled “Recipes in an Age of Climate Change.” She focused on the importance of food availability as well as proper food disposal. Approximately 40 percent of food is wasted and when this food is dumped in conventional landfills as opposed to being composted it creates environmentally-damaging greenhouse gases. Not only do consumers contribute to the high amount of food wasted in the United States but often times farmers and producers will dispose of crops that they feel doesn’t meet their standard for selling.

The Climate Narrative Project was sponsored by the Office of Sustainability and the Office of Outreach and Engagement in the Office of Executive Vice President and Provost.

Check out The Daily Iowan for additional coverage of the event.