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In addition to the compost study, the group is also looking at how cattle pasture can increase soil carbon; properly managed, cattle can help grasslands thrive and increase carbon uptake in the soil. Jeff Creque, rangeland ecologist and cofounder of the Marin Carbon Project, said the results are very promising.
"Our soils are a huge potential reservoir," he said. "Soil carbon offers the most hope."
Once the carbon project's work has been published, the group wants to distribute its findings to landowners, farmers and ranchers. A delegation of Chinese officials has already visited West Marin to tour the project. China, by the way, has the world's largest grasslands, in Mongolia. Given that one-third of the earth is covered with grasslands, the potential to scale up the project is vast, said Torri Estrada, consulting director of the project.
"You start to think of the scale of rangeland in California alone, and it starts to make a big dent in reducing metric tons of carbon."
How much carbon needs to be removed from the atmosphere to roll back climate change is a key question, and one that doesn't have a definitive answer yet. But data shows capturing carbon in the soil can be the way to do it, Estrada said.
"We know technically it can work. The scale is the issue."
The research team is lead by UC Berkeley scientist Whendee Silver, and is a collaboration among the UC Cooperative Extension, Marin Organic, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, the Marin Resource Conservation District, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and Nicasio Native Grass Ranch.
If the science bears out and the group's methods are repeatable, the implications are potentially huge. Industrial, chemical-intensive agriculture is responsible for as much as one-third of climate-changing gasses. But by focusing on practices that sequester carbon, agriculture can become a big part of the solution. Farmers who increase carbon in the soil may be able to tap into the emerging carbon market. The production of compost, which in itself performs a huge service by diverting green waste from landfills where it can emit climate-warming methane gas, will become a growth industry of green jobs.
And we may not leave a smoldering globe to future generations—or this generation.
"Anywhere you have a piece of soil, you can sequester carbon," said Jeff Creque, agro-ecologist and cofounder of the Marin Carbon Project. "To me that's a wondrous thought. Anyone can do it."
For more, see www.marincarbonproject.org.