To weather the worsening drought, California needs healthy soils

By Ellie Cohen, The Climate Center, and Torri EstradaCarbon Cycle Institute

This opinion piece was originally published on February 11, 2021 in CalMatters.

California is in the early stages of a severe multi-decadal drought, exacerbated by the climate crisis. As Dan Walters pointed out in his recent op ed, we must move quickly to prepare for water shortages and wildfires.

A potent strategy to improve the state’s water storage capacity involves an ancient technology so ubiquitous that it is often overlooked: soil. The urgency of California’s drought and wildfire risks require that we invest in soil health now. Demand action.

California is an agricultural powerhouse in large part due to its fertile soils. But historical agricultural practices have depleted their organic carbon content and diminished their water holding capacity. When soil’s carbon is restored through regenerative agriculture, it absorbs and retains more water, restores aquifers, draws down and stores more carbon from the atmosphere, sustains biodiversity, yields more and healthier crops, and increases farm profitability.

The ability of carbon-rich soils to store water and be more resilient to drought and extreme weather is well-documented. For every 1% increase in soil organic matter (a key indicator of soil health), an acre stores an estimated 20,000 gallons of additional water. In one experiment, covering the soil surface with a mulch of crop residue, a regenerative practice that protects soil and reduces evaporation, resulted in a 29% reduction in crop irrigation needs compared to uncovered soil. Another study found that covering soil increased its water retention by 74%.

Compost by Karen Preuss

Compost by Karen Preuss

In California, applying compost to soil has been shown to significantly increase water holding capacity and carbon sequestration on rangelands, and is a recommended practice by public resource management agencies. Combining compost application with cover crops boosts carbon sequestration on croplands.

Restoring soil health is a vital component of a climate agenda to ensure a livable climate for future generations. Nearly every climate modeling scenario that limits warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius includes carbon sequestration with soils. Globally, soils have lost about 135 billion tons of carbon. If this process were reversed – taking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it in soil – about 14 years of our global carbon footprint would be negated. Worldwide, soil carbon sequestration could remove 110 parts per million of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over 50 years, studies show.

Soil health makes good business sense. When soils’ natural functions are restored, they require less fertilizer, pesticide, and chemical inputs. As such inputs shrink, costs fall. At the same time, increased resilience of soil means that crop yields are less variable from year to year. All this is good for farmers’ bottom line.

Improving soil health can improve the resilience of rural farming communities, many of which dwell at the margins of economic viability. Case studies of two California almond farms, Okuye and Rogers, found that after adoption of soil health practices, their net income increased by $657 and $991 per acre, respectively, providing a vital boost to these farmers’ livelihoods.

Action is needed now to provide farmers, ranchers, and other land managers with the support they need. We call on California policymakers to:

  1. Rapidly and significantly increase funding for soil restoration by significantly increasing investments in current efforts such as the Healthy Soils Program and by developing new initiatives to meet the growing demand.
  2. Establish an ambitious and urgently needed target for nature-based sequestration on natural and working lands to 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent or an amount of sequestration greater than emissions by 2030 annually in California.

Demand action from your policymakers today.

As the science and climate reality require, California must not only cut emissions further and faster but also start now drawing down emissions we have already dumped into the atmosphere using nature-based approaches, while also providing multiple additional benefits.

To reduce worsening droughts, wildfires, and other devastating climate impacts, it is time for state leaders to step up and take bold action. Improving the health of our soils is key to securing a climate-safe future for all.

Endorse Climate-Safe California today and support our work.

Regenerative agriculture’s climate mitigation potential: a California perspective

from CalCAN


  • Changing agricultural practices can allow soils to become regenerative, which can help California reach negative emissions
  • Regenerative Agriculture helps farmers sequester carbon from the atmosphere and bury it deep below ground, directly helping to slow the climate crisis
  • Cap and Trade funds in California help to financially support regenerative ag programs within the state
  •  World Resources Institute (WRI) released a report saying that regenerative agriculture has little actual climate change mitigation potential. However, scientists and case studies around the world prove how effective regenerative ag is for sequestering carbon
  • Public policies that remove regulatory barriers and provide more incentives could create a major transition toward regenerative agriculture in the state
  • Regenerative practices in the Sacramento Valley and Central Valley have demonstrated increased carbon soil stocks
  • To successfully mitigate climate change in the agricultural sector, we need scalable solutions that have positive impacts on farmers, water resources, and soil health

Accelerating sequestration is critical to achieving drawdown greater than emissions by 2030 for a climate-safe future. We know today how to manage natural and agricultural lands for sequestration through proven carbon farming practices.

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Soil professor receives $250k prize for helping farmers fight climate change

by Jessica Craig, NPR


Rattan Lal, professor and director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University, has been recently named the 2020 World Food Prize Laureate for his research on healthy soils.

  • Lal has been the champion of farming techniques that keep and add nutrients in the soil and his “soil-centric” methods help prevent deforestation, mitigate climate change, and increase biodiversity
  • Important nutrients such as carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen are key to healthy soils, but erosion and unsustainable farming practices have stripped soils of these nutrients
  • About one-third of the world’s soil has been degraded, according to the United Nations
  • Carbon sequestration from conservation agriculture and land restoration could remove 2-3 billion tons of carbon dioxide, offsetting 15% of global carbon emissions
  • Currently, a little over a quarter of farmers practice some version of no-till and crop cover agriculture today
    • Farmers would have to invest in planting seeds that would not be harvested and sold, putting them at a loss
  • Lal advocates for governments to fund farmers of “ecosystem services” such as producing healthy soils with sustainable farming practices
    • This payment would be $16 per acre a year, totaling $64 billion globally

Implementing bold and equitable policies that will catalyze carbon sequestration through building healthy soils and restoring healthy habitats will be key to achieving drawdown greater than emissions (net-negative emissions) by 2030 for a climate-safe California.

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Let’s harness the proven benefits of regenerative agriculture for a climate-safe future

Many California lawmakers understand the connection between energy use and the climate crisis. However, they are much less familiar with the vast potential for carbon sequestration in our soils. Healthy soils are a critical component of achieving the urgent goals of net-negative emissions by 2030 (drawdown of emissions already in the atmosphere greater than new greenhouse gas emissions) and increased resilience to climate-driven extremes like drought, heat, and floods.

Sequestration in soil represents up to 25% of the total global potential for absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. In California, rangelands cover about 56 million acres, half of the state’s overall land area, and according to recent research, could be a less vulnerable carbon storage option than fire-prone forests.

Regenerative ranching is a key component of this approach and provides multiple benefits to human communities, wildlife, ecosystems, and the climate.

Regenerative ranching can cost-effectively reduce fire-prone vegetation while also helping to build soil organic matter, reduce soil compaction, and improve land fertility. It can also improve healthy water cycle functioning and support beneficial populations of native plants, songbirds, pollinators, and other wildlife.

Progressive grazing practices can sequester carbon from the atmosphere and transform it into productive carbon in the soil. Improved management on grazing and croplands can offset 14% or more of current annual global CO2 emissions. Managed grazing and silvopasture (integrating trees, pasture, and forage) are recognized by Project Drawdown as among the top 20 most effective solutions to climate change.

According to a recent poll, ranchers using regenerative practices reported improved resilience to extremes, operational profits, and personal well-being.

While California lawmakers have already launched a suite of innovative climate-smart agriculture programs for farmers and ranchers, we urge them to build on these programs to sequester an additional 100+ million metric tons (MMT) of carbon dioxide equivalents annually by 2030. But we must start soon.

Accelerating sequestration is critical to achieving drawdown greater than emissions by 2030 for a climate-safe future. We know today how to manage natural and agricultural lands for sequestration through proven carbon farming practices.

With climate impacts rapidly worsening, the time is now to dramatically increase investments in regenerative agriculture and healthy soils!


Many thanks to Wendy Millet of TomKat Ranch for providing some of the content and inspiration for this week’s e-mail content. 

Please endorse Climate-Safe California and support our work today for a vibrant, healthy future for all.

COVID, the California legislature, and climate policy for healthy soils

by Renata Brillinger, CalCAN


The coronavirus pandemic is affecting farmworkers, food system resilience, and climate change impacts.

  • The legislative session will be more constricted and fewer bills will be advance, but partners such as the California Climate and Agricultural Network will continue to work for healthy soils initiatives.
  • Two bills are key: AB 1071 (agriculture adaptation tools bill) and AB 2482 (bill to reform the water efficiency programs). These bills are sponsored by CalCAN.
  • A record amount of money is available through the Healthy Soils Program this year ($25 million). This program offers producers incentives to adopt GHG-reducing soil health practices.
  • The Agriculture Resilience Act (Rep. Pingree, D-ME), recently introduced in Congress, lays out a path to net-zero emissions and enhanced resilience in the U.S. agriculture sector. 

Implementing bold and equitable policies that will catalyze carbon sequestration through building healthy soils and restoring healthy habitats will be key to achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 and net negative emissions by 2035 for a climate-safe California.

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Todd and Arliss Nielsen inspect their ryegrass cover crop in Wright County, Iowa. USDA photo.

Cargill-led fund to pay U.S. farmers for carbon capture, exchange credits

by Karl Plume, Reuters


Cargill Inc is paying farmers to sequester carbon in their soils and prevent fertilizer runoff, becoming the first effort to monetize environmentally friendly farming practices. 

  • The Soil & Water Outcomes Fund, a partnership with the Iowa Soybean Association and third-party verification company Quantified Ventures, will sell the environmental credits created through the fund to polluters such as cities and companies, including Cargill itself
  • The program is welcomed by farmers who have been financially struggling after last year’s trade war and from economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Iowa is the first state to pilot the program and farmers have enrolled almost 10,000 acres and are expecting to profit $30 to $45 per acre
  • Cargill estimates the practices would prevent runoff of 100,000 pounds of nitrogen and 10,000 pounds of phosphorus this year and sequester 7,500 tons of carbon in soils

Implementing bold and equitable policies that will catalyze carbon sequestration through building healthy soils and restoring healthy habitats will be key to achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 and net negative emissions by 2035 for a climate-safe California.

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As Congress debates an economic stimulus, where should the money be spent?

by Ken Kimmel, President of the Union of Concerned Scientists


  • Current situation: Federal government response to COVID-19: In Washington DC a bi-partisan effort to help the country cope with COVID-19 is underway. So far, one immediate emergency bill appropriated approximately $8 billion designed to treat and prevent the virus. A second bill has also passed that provides for extended sick leave and free testing for the virus. A third bill is also being debated to stimulate the economy by providing cash to many who are losing or will lose their jobs and helping states to cope with growing unemployment rolls.
  • A unique moment: Estimates of unemployment may be as high as 30%. It seems likely that these initial bills will fall far short of the stimulus needed to prevent an economic freefall. And so there will be pressure to do more to stimulate the economy, create jobs and consumer demand, either through direct government expenditures, tax credits, loans, or other means. This means the government will be directly and massively guiding the direction of the economy—a circumstance that may not happen again for years or decades.
  • The COVID-19 stimulus will likely not include the funds for the entire mobilization needed to address climate change. However, the stimulus can be a substantial down payment for the transition to a clean energy economy
  • Cleantech woes related to COVID-19: The solar industry is projecting to lose as much as thirty percent volume with job losses as high as 120,000 (almost half their workforce), and the wind industry estimates that 35,000 jobs and $43 billion in investments are at risk. Electric vehicles, which were starting to finally catch on, may stall as consumers hesitate to pay the higher up-front costs for an EV. These industries had robust job growth prior to the pandemic and supported the direction the world needs to move to avoid catastrophic climate tipping points. Thus, any government stimulus needs to support these industries, while moving away from fossil fuels.
  • Sustainable agriculture issues: Sustainable practices that build soil health and resilience to climate impacts are proving profitable for farmers and their communities. Thus, if the economic stimulus includes funds for farmers, the focus should be on incentivizing farmers to adopt sustainable practices. Once they take hold, they will flourish, but they need an economic nudge now.
  • Requirements of a bailout: In any bailout of industries, there must be strings attached to protect the public interest. For example, any bailout of the airlines should include a requirement to decarbonize over time.
  • Costs of a bailout: It is immoral to place the entire cost of this stimulus on future generations. This stimulus will be financed mainly through debt, but there are ways of paying for some of it now. For example, a concerted effort can be made to cut federal spending on things we don’t need and which do not generate jobs or stimulate the economy. A poster child example of this is the proposed trillion-dollar plan to rebuild the US nuclear arsenal.
  • Moving fast and in the public interest: COVID-19 is rapidly accelerating the usual timetable of congressional legislation. It is likely that in the next few weeks Congress will approve trillions of dollars in new spending. There will not be time for hearings, expert testimony, and vigorous public debate. Lawmakers must focus on the long-term direction of the economy, placing public interest conditions on bailouts to industries, and refraining from unnecessary spending to keep the debt in check.

The Climate Center’s Climate-Safe California campaign is a powerful solution to the climate crisis. Climate experts have called this a unique, bold, urgently needed and comprehensive campaign that will catalyze similar efforts in other states, the nation, and the world. Endorse the Climate-Safe California platform here.

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Farmers in Rockingham County, Virginia check the results of no-till farming in their fields on September 9, 2008, as part of their participation in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative (CBWI).

CCOF releases roadmap to an organic California policy report

by California Certified Organic Farmers


California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) recently released a Roadmap to an Organic California policy report.  The report highlights the personal and environmental health benefits of adopting 100% organic farming practices:

  • Benefits of organic farming include:
    • Sequestration – organic farming removes 14 times more CO2 from the atmosphere compared to non-organic farming 
    • Building healthy soils that can absorb more water and therefore prevent water pollution- There are millions of microorganisms beneath organic fields hard at work storing carbon in the soil
    • Supporting local farmers and boosting the local economy by providing jobs and keeping the money local
    • Organic produce provides higher levels of nutrients which promote human health and resilience
  • Organic farming helps build climate resilience:
    • Non-organic farms tend to be carbon emitters, while organic farms are carbon sinks
    • The increase of soil organic matter (SOM) creates healthier soil and increased water retention, helping farms produce higher yields under drought conditions by accessing water stored in soils
    • These farms have a reduced reliance on fossil fuel-based pesticides
    • Healthy soils are critical to climate change mitigation with the world’s soils capturing up to 25 percent of annual fossil fuel emissions

Implementing bold and equitable policies that will catalyze carbon sequestration through building healthy soils and restoring healthy habitats will be key to achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 and net negative emissions by 2035. Help The Climate Center reach this goal by endorsing the Climate-Safe California Platform

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Goat herd as ecosystem reclamation tool – profile in land and management

by Gregory Horner, Tomkat Ranch


In Wyoming, goats were used to restore the habitat destroyed by oil well facilities.

  • The company, Goat Green, was hired by Chevron to graze the land after herbicides and machinery failed to help restore the land to it’s previous conditions
  • Over 1000 goats were able to eat the weeds taking over the land and  are able to chew the seeds finely so they do not re-sprout in their manure 
  • The introduction of the goats on the land lasted 10 years and helped the soil regain its health and restored native vegetation
  • Soil testing showed a 25% increase in soil organic matter after the goat experiment ended

The Climate Center advocates for policies to fund and support carbon sequestration through healthy soils to achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions at the speed and scale required by the science.

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Agriculture Resilience Act offers California farmers climate change solutions

by CalCAN


  • The Agriculture Resilience Act (H.R. 5861) addresses the role of agriculture in combating climate change with a comprehensive suite of practical, science-based, farmer-driven policy solutions
  • The bill sets out a national goal for the agricultural sector of net-zero emissions by no later than 2040, as well as strategies to achieve it by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, sequestering carbon, increasing on-farm renewable energy, and reducing food waste
  • The bill focuses on these six important policy areas:
    • Increasing research
    • Improving soil health
    • Protecting existing farmland
    • Supporting pasture-based livestock systems
    • Boosting investments in on-farm energy initiatives
    • Reducing food waste

The Climate Center advocates for policies to fund and support carbon sequestration through healthy soils to achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions at the speed and scale required by the science.

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