Can Soil Solve the Climate Crisis?
When Rattan Lal was awarded the Japan Prize for Biological Production, Ecology in April—the Asian equivalent of a Nobel—the audience at Tokyo's National Theatre included the emperor and empress. Lal's acceptance speech, however, was down-to-earth in the most literal sense.
Carbon, in its proper place, holds landscapes and ecosystems together.
"I'd like to begin, rather unconventionally, with the conclusion of my presentation," he told the assembled dignitaries. "And the conclusion is four words: In soil we trust."
That statement could serve as the motto for a climate crisis-fighting strategy that has gained remarkable momentum over the past five years or so—and whose rise to international prominence was reflected in that glittering award ceremony. Lal, a septuagenarian professor of soil science at Ohio State University, is one of the foremost exponents of carbon farming, an approach that centers on correcting a man-made, planetary chemical imbalance.
A Solution to Several Problems at Once?
The chemical in question is carbon. Too much of it in the atmosphere (in the form of carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas) is the main driver of global heating. Too little of it in the soil is the bane of farmers in many parts of the world, and a threat to our ability to feed a ballooning global population. Advocates say agriculture can mitigate both problems—by adopting techniques that keep more soil carbon from escaping skyward, and draw more atmospheric carbon down into fields and pastures.
The potential impacts go beyond slowing climate change and boosting food production. "There are so many benefits," says Lal. "Water quality, drought, flooding, biodiversity—this is a natural solution for all these problems." That's because carbon, in its proper place, holds landscapes and ecosystems together. Plants extract it from the air and convert it into sugars for energy; they also transfer it to the soil through their roots and in the process of decomposition. In the ground, carbon feeds microbes and fungi that form the basis of complex food webs. It helps soil absorb and retain water, resist erosion, and hold onto nitrogen and phosphorous—keeping those nutrients from running off into waterways and creating toxic algal blooms.
Government and private support for research into carbon-conscious agriculture is on the rise, and growing numbers of farmers are exploring such methods. How much difference these methods can make, however, remains a matter of debate. Lal sees carbon farming as a way to buy time until CO2 emissions can be brought under control. Skeptics insist that such projections are overly optimistic. Some allies, meanwhile, think Lal's vision is too timid. "Farming can actually fix the climate," says Tim LaSalle, co-founder of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture at California State University, Chico. "That should be our only focus."
Yet Can soil solve the climate crisis? may be not be the key question in assessing the promise of carbon farming, since it implies that action is worthwhile only if a solution is ensured. A more urgent line of inquiry might be: Can the climate crisis be solved without addressing soil?
A Chance Meeting Leads to the Mission of a Lifetime
Lal was among the earliest scientists to grapple with that question. Born in Pakistan, he grew up on a tiny subsistence farm in India, where his family had fled as refugees. The only one of his siblings who learned to read and write, he attended a local agricultural university, then headed to Ohio State on scholarship for his PhD. In 1982, he was working at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria, trying to develop sustainable alternatives to Africa's traditional slash-and-burn farming, when a distinguished visitor dropped by: oceanographer Roger Revelle, who 25 years earlier had published the first paper warning that fossil fuel combustion could throw the climate dangerously off-kilter.
Rattan Lal, Distinguished University Professor of Soil Science at Ohio State, received the Japan Prize at a ceremony in April.
(Photo: Ken Chamberlain. CFAES.)
Lal showed Revelle the soil in his test plots—hard and reddish, like much of Africa's agricultural land. Then (as described in Kristin Ohlson's book The Soil Will Save Us), he led the visitor to the nearby forest, where the soil was dark, soft, and wriggling with earthworms. In the forest, the soil's carbon content was 2 to 3 percent; in Lal's plots, it had dwindled to 0.5 percent. When Revelle asked him where all that carbon had gone, Lal confessed he didn't know. Revelle suggested that much of it might have floated into the atmosphere, adding to the burden of greenhouse gases. "Since then," Lal told me, "I've been looking for ways to put it back."
Back at Ohio State, Lal found that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were also interested in the connection between soil carbon and climate change. With a small group of other scientists, he began investigating the dimensions of the problem, and how it might be solved.
Comparing carbon in forested and cultivated soils around the globe, the researchers calculated that about 100 billion tons had vanished into the air since the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago. The culprits were common practices—including plowing, overgrazing, and keeping fallow fields bare—that exposed soil carbon to oxygen, transforming it into carbon dioxide. Yet the process could also be reversed, Lal and his colleagues argued. Although there was a limit to the amount of carbon that soil could hold, they theorized that it would be possible to sequester several billion tons of global CO2 emissions each year for decades before reaching maximum capacity.
Lal set up projects on five continents to explore practices that could help accomplish that goal, such as minimizing tillage, planting cover crops, and leaving residue on fields after harvest. He organized conferences, pumped out papers and books. As other researchers launched similar efforts, policymakers worldwide took notice.
But before long, recalls Colorado State University soil scientist Keith Paustian (a fellow carbon-farming pioneer, who served with Lal on the UN's International Panel on Climate Change), official attention "kind of faded away. The bigger imperative was to cut emissions." And because agriculture accounted for only about 13 percent of greenhouse gas pollution, Paustian says, the sectors that emitted the most—energy and transportation—got the bulk of funding.
A Movement on the Rise
In recent years, however, carbon farming has begun to look like an idea whose time has come. One factor is that efforts to reduce emissions haven't worked; in 2018 alone, global CO2 output rose by an estimated 2.7 percent, according to the Global Carbon Project. Last month, researchers from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography reported that atmospheric CO2—under 350 ppm when Lal began his quest—had reached 415 ppm, the highest in 3 million years. And with the world's population expected to approach 10 billion by 2050, the need for sustainable technologies to augment food production has grown increasingly pressing.
Today, carbon-conscious methods are central to the burgeoning movement known as "regenerative agriculture," which also embraces other practices aimed at improving soil health and farming in an ecologically sound (though not always strictly organic) manner. In the United States, the latest Farm Bill includes $25 million to incentivize soil-based carbon sequestration. State and local governments across the country are supporting such efforts, as are at least a dozen nonprofits. The Department of Energy's Advanced Projects Research Agency (ARPA-e) is working to develop crops and technologies aimed at increasing soil carbon accumulation by 50 percent. General Mills recently announced plans to advance regenerative farming on 1 million acres by 2030, and many smaller companies have made their own commitments.
The toughest challenge, Lal suggests, may be persuading farmers to change their ways.
Internationally, the biggest initiative is the French-led "4 per 1,000" initiative, which aims to increase the amount of carbon in the soil of farms and rangelands worldwide by 0.4 percent per year—a rate that the project's website contends would "halt the increase of CO2 (carbon dioxide) concentration in the atmosphere related to human activities."
Given the current pace of research, Lal believes that goal—which equates to sequestering 3.6 billion tons of CO2 annually, or 10 percent of global emissions—is doable. The toughest challenge, he suggests, may be persuading farmers to change their ways. Although carbon farming can reduce costs for chemical inputs such as herbicides and fertilizers, while building rich topsoil, agriculturalists tend to be a conservative lot.
And getting low-income farmers to leave crop residue on fields, instead of using it for fuel or animal feed, will require more than speeches about melting glaciers. Lal proposes a $16 per acre subsidy, totaling $64 billion for the world's 4 billion acres of cropland. "That's not a very large amount," he says, "if you're investing in the health of the planet."
Experimental Methods Attract Supporters and Skeptics
Some experts question whether enough CO2 can be stashed in the soil to prevent the rise in average global temperature from surpassing the 2º C mark—set by the 2016 Paris Agreement as the limit beyond which climate change would become catastrophic. But others insist that carbon farming's goal should be to reverse climate change, not just to put it on pause.
"That's the only way out of this predicament," says Tim LaSalle, whose Center for Regenerative Agriculture supports the use of experimental methods ranging from multi-species cover cropping to fungal-dominant compost solutions. Using such techniques, a few researchers and farmers claim to be able to transfer carbon to the soil at rates many times higher than with established practices. Although several of these methods have yet to be documented in peer-reviewed studies, LaSalle believes they point the way forward. "We can't fix the climate, or even come close to it, using Rattan's numbers," he says, referring to Lal. "If we can replicate these experiments, we can fix it."
Even scientists sympathetic to regenerative ag warn that relying on unproven techniques is risky. "Some of these claims are beyond anything we've seen in agricultural science," says Andrew McGuire, an agronomist at Washington State University. "They could be right, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
Still, the assorted methods currently being tested—which also include amending soil with biochar (made by heating agricultural wastes with minimal oxygen), planting long-rooted perennial crops instead of short-rooted annuals, and deploying grazing animals in ways that enrich soil rather than depleting it—offer a catalogue of hope at a time when environmental despair is all too tempting.
Last October, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued a report acknowledging that it was too late to stave off apocalyptic overheating just by reducing CO2 emissions; removing carbon from the atmosphere would be necessary as well. The document laid out several options for doing so—most of which, it cautioned, had serious limitations.
"Soil is a bridge to the future. We can't do without it."
One possibility was planting more forests. To absorb enough carbon dioxide, however, trees might have to replace areas of farmland, reducing the food supply. Another option was creating biomass plantations to fuel power plants, whose emissions would be stored underground. But land use would be a problem: "You'd need to cover an area the size of India," explains Paustian, who was a co-author of the report. Yet another alternative was direct-air capture, in which chemical processes would be used to extract CO2 from the air. The technology was still in its infancy, though—and the costs and power requirements would likely be astronomical.
The report took up agriculture-based methods on page 95. Those needed further research as well, the authors wrote, to determine which approaches would be most effective. But of all the alternatives, this one seemed the least problematic. "Soil carbon is probably what you can do first, cheapest, and with the most additional co-benefits," says Paustian. "If we can make progress in that area, it's a huge advantage."
In any case, he and other researchers agree, we have little choice but to try. "Soil is a bridge to the future," Lal says. "We can't do without it."
Inside the Atlantis Space Shuttle, astronauts waited for liftoff. At T-minus six seconds, the main engines ignited, rattling the capsule “like a skyscraper in an earthquake,” according to astronaut Tom Jones, describing the 1988 launch in Air & Space Magazine. Liftoff came with what felt like “a massive kick in the back,” he recalled, along with more shaking. As the rocket accelerated to three times the force of gravity on Earth, “It felt as if two of my friends were standing on my chest and wouldn’t get off!” Finally, at 25 times the speed of sound, Atlantis reached orbit. The main engines cut off, and the astronauts were weightless.
Since 1961, NASA has sent hundreds of astronauts into space while working to making their voyages safer and smoother. Yet, challenges remain. Weightlessness may look amusing when watched from Earth, but it has myriad effects on cognition, movement and other functions. When missions to space stretch to six months or longer, microgravity can harm astronauts’ health and performance, making it more difficult to operate their spacecraft.
Yesterday, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio returned to Earth after over one year, the longest single spaceflight for a U.S. astronaut. But this is just the start; longer and more complex missions into deep space loom ahead, from returning to the moon in 2025 to eventually sending humans to Mars. Understanding how spaceflight affects the body is vital to success. By studying these impacts, NASA aims to help astronauts perform in space as well as they do on Earth.
The dangers of microgravity are real
A NASA report published in 2016 details a long list of incidents and near-misses caused – at least partly – by space-induced changes in astronauts’ vision and coordination. These issues make it harder to move with precision and to judge distance and velocity.
According to the report, in 1997, a resupply ship collided with the Mir space station, possibly because a crew member bumped into the commander during the final docking maneuver. This mishap caused significant damage to the space station.
Returns to Earth suffered from problems, too. The same report notes that touchdown speeds during the first 100 space shuttle landings were “outside acceptable limits. The fastest landing on record – 224 knots (258 miles) per hour – was linked to the commander’s momentary spatial disorientation.” Earlier, each of the six Apollo crews that landed on the moon had difficulty recognizing moon landmarks and estimating distances. For example, Apollo 15 landed in an unplanned area, ultimately straddling the rim of a five-foot deep crater on the moon, harming one of its engines.
Spaceflight causes unique stresses on astronauts’ brains and central nervous systems. NASA is working to reduce these harmful effects.
Space messes up your brain
In space, astronauts face the challenges of microgravity, ionizing radiation, social isolation, high workloads, altered circadian rhythms, monotony, confined living quarters and a high-risk environment. Among these issues, microgravity is one of the most consequential in terms of physiological changes. It changes the brain’s structure and its functioning, which can hurt astronauts’ performance.
The brain shifts upwards within the skull, displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes.
That’s partly because of how being in space alters blood flow. On Earth, gravity pulls our blood and other internal fluids toward our feet, but our circulatory valves ensure that the fluids are evenly distributed throughout the body. In space, there’s not enough gravity to pull the fluids down, and they shift up, says Rachael D. Seidler, a physiologist specializing in spaceflight at the University of Florida and principal investigator on many space-related studies. The head swells and legs appear thinner, causing what astronauts call “puffy face chicken legs.”
“The brain changes at the structural and functional level,” says Steven Jillings, equilibrium and aerospace researcher at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. “The brain shifts upwards within the skull,” displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes. Some of the displaced cerebrospinal fluid goes into cavities within the brain, called ventricles, enlarging them. “The remaining fluids pool near the chest and heart,” explains Jillings. After 12 consecutive months in space, one astronaut had a ventricle that was 25 percent larger than before the mission.
Some changes reverse themselves while others persist for a while. An example of a longer-lasting problem is spaceflight-induced neuro-ocular syndrome, which results in near-sightedness and pressure inside the skull. A study of approximately 300 astronauts shows near-sightedness affects about 60 percent of astronauts after long missions on the International Space Station (ISS) and more than 25 percent after spaceflights of only a few weeks.
Another long-term change could be the decreased ability of cerebrospinal fluid to clear waste products from the brain, Seidler says. That’s because compressing the brain also compresses its waste-removing glymphatic pathways, resulting in inflammation, vulnerability to injuries and worsening its overall health.
The effects of long space missions were best demonstrated on astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly. This NASA Twins Study showed multiple, perhaps permanent, changes in Scott after his 340-day mission aboard the ISS, compared to Mark, who remained on Earth. The differences included declines in Scott’s speed, accuracy and cognitive abilities that persisted longer than six months after returning to Earth in March 2016.
By the end of 2020, Scott’s cognitive abilities improved, but structural and physiological changes to his eyes still remained, he said in a BBC interview.
“It seems clear that the upward shift of the brain and compression of the surrounding tissues with ventricular expansion might not be a good thing,” Seidler says. “But, at this point, the long-term consequences to brain health and human performance are not really known.”
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins conducts a session for the Neuromapping investigation.
Staying sharp in space
To investigate how prolonged space travel affects the brain, NASA launched a new initiative called the Complement of Integrated Protocols for Human Exploration Research (CIPHER). “CIPHER investigates how long-duration spaceflight affects both brain structure and function,” says neurobehavioral scientist Mathias Basner at the University of Pennsylvania, a principal investigator for several NASA studies. “Through it, we can find out how the brain adapts to the spaceflight environment and how certain brain regions (behave) differently after – relative to before – the mission.”
To do this, he says, “Astronauts will perform NASA’s cognition test battery before, during and after six- to 12-month missions, and will also perform the same test battery in an MRI scanner before and after the mission. We have to make sure we better understand the functional consequences of spaceflight on the human brain before we can send humans safely to the moon and, especially, to Mars.”
As we go deeper into space, astronauts cognitive and physical functions will be even more important. “A trip to Mars will take about one year…and will introduce long communication delays,” Seidler says. “If you are on that mission and have a problem, it may take eight to 10 minutes for your message to reach mission control, and another eight to 10 minutes for the response to get back to you.” In an emergency situation, that may be too late for the response to matter.
“On a mission to Mars, astronauts will be exposed to stressors for unprecedented amounts of time,” Basner says. To counter them, NASA is considering the continuous use of artificial gravity during the journey, and Seidler is studying whether artificial gravity can reduce the harmful effects of microgravity. Some scientists are looking at precision brain stimulation as a way to improve memory and reduce anxiety due to prolonged exposure to radiation in space.
To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Additionally, NASA is scrutinizing each aspect of the mission, including astronaut exercise, nutrition and intellectual engagement. “We need to give astronauts meaningful work. We need to stimulate their sensory, cognitive and other systems appropriately,” Basner says, especially given their extreme confinement and isolation. The scientific experiments performed on the ISS – like studying how microgravity affects the ability of tissue to regenerate is a good example.
“We need to keep them engaged socially, too,” he continues. The ISS crew, for example, regularly broadcasts from space and answers prerecorded questions from students on Earth, and can engage with social media in real time. And, despite tight quarters, NASA is ensuring the crew capsule and living quarters on the moon or Mars include private space, which is critical for good mental health.
Exploring deep space builds on a foundation that began when astronauts first left the planet. With each mission, scientists learn more about spaceflight effects on astronauts’ bodies. NASA will be using these lessons to succeed with its plans to build science stations on the moon and, eventually, Mars.
“Through internally and externally led research, investigations implemented in space and in spaceflight simulations on Earth, we are striving to reduce the likelihood and potential impacts of neurostructural changes in future, extended spaceflight,” summarizes NASA scientist Alexandra Whitmire. To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.