Tapping potential of soil carbon

| | in Oped

Given the many benefits of SOC, which forms the basis of soil fertility, it is essential that India invests on soil carbon. Gains to the environment or to food security will not flow unless a comprehensive research on this is done

The carbon cycle is a fundamental and indispensable aspect of life on earth, of which, ‘soil organic carbon’ (SOC) forms an integral part. SOC is a component of soil organic matter — plant and animal materials in the soil that are in various stages of decay and represent the amount of carbon stored in the soil.

SOC is also the basis of soil fertility as it releases nutrients for plant growth, promotes soil structure and contributes towards the biological and physical health of the soil by acting as a natural buffer against harmful substances.

Soil organic carbon constitutes a very crucial and predominant part of the natural carbon cycle. According to studies, the total amount of carbon in world’s soil is estimated to be 1,500 PgC, this translates to the fact that the world’s soils hold nearly twice the amount of carbon that is found in the atmosphere and in vegetation.

SOC has the innate potential to significantly reduce the amount of carbon that is present in the atmosphere, and this precisely is the change-mitigating potential of SOC. The process of storing carbon in soil, usually referred to as ‘soil carbon sequestration’, is a simple yet powerful way to reduce global warming. Soil management practices, that enables soil carbon sequestration, also provides the twin advantage of improving crop and pasture yields.

However, anthropogenic activities off late have wrecked havoc on the soil quality and, as a result, soil carbon levels have dropped by up to half of pre-agricultural levels in many parts of India because of fallowing, cultivation, stubble burning or removal and overgrazing.

Furthermore, the brick kilns operating across India  with impunity have resulted in the permanent loss of topsoil in the area where the kiln is situated. The loss of topsoil not only renders the land unfit for cultivation but also makes it unsuitable to sequester carbon as well.

As climate change continues unabated, coupled with land degradation and biodiversity loss; soils have become one of the most vulnerable resources in the world; more so in India.

These conditions are being made worse, thanks to the lack of a clear cut action plan that is backed by effective on-the-ground policy design and regionally adapted implementation strategy — all of which can help protect and monitor national SOC stocks.

Given this scenario, India must utilise the enormous scientific progress that has been achieved globally in understanding SOC dynamics to decipher and manage its soil organic carbon reserves.

Efficient management of SOC dynamics can help sequester large amounts of carbon in soil, thus contributing to climate change mitigation and adaptation, besides reducing green house gas emissions. Efficient carbon sequestration in the soil can also play a major role in ensuring food security as climate change possesses a major threat to food security through its strong impact on agriculture.

Climate change negatively affects crop, livestock and fishery production through yield reductions, biological migration and loss of eco-system services, which ultimately lead to a reduction in agricultural incomes and an increase in food prices.

SOC sequestration can support the mitigation of these issues while offering a sustainable solution to a warming climate. In order to achieve this, a number of suggested SOC conserving practices need to be implemented, so that the maximum potential of climate change mitigation and adaptation of food productivity can be leveraged from SOC.

However, a number of barriers exist in India, that impede the adoption of best practices for SOC sequestration. When these hurdles, such as financial, technical, logistical, institutional and socio-cultural barriers, are combined with abiotic factors, which restrict SOC build-up, they prevent the adoption of climate change mitigation and adaptation practices.

Despite the availability of some recognised solutions to overcome human-induced barriers, the adoption pace for sustainable soil management practices remains relatively low, currently in India; this must be overcome on a priority basis.

India needs to invest much more research capital on soil carbon than it presently does. The benefits cannot be harnessed for the betterment of the environment or for ensuring food security without undertaking a comprehensive research on SOC that is India specific.

Additionally, it is crucial to identify and collate a data bank of SOC hot-spots in India as this will not only ensure an improved understanding of their potential to mitigate climate change but will also help raise the awareness on the necessity to sustainably manage them.

(The writer is an environmental journalist)

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