Silver Lab strikes gold with use of carbon in farming

Whendee L. Silver/Courtesy

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An ongoing collaboration between researchers from UC Berkeley’s Silver Lab and Marin County ranchers has resulted in a simple application for compost in the fight against climate change.

A series of experiments led by UC Berkeley professor and biogeochemist Whendee Silver found that sprinkling a small amount of compost over soil significantly improved the soil’s ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere and retain it as organic material. This could offset greenhouse gas emissions, particularly those from compost, according to Silver.

“Currently … (agriculture) is actually extracting carbon from the soil, through tillage and other practices,” said John Wick, who initiated the research from his Marin ranch. “Our proposal is that there is a whole other paradigm — that agriculture practices can be … the art of transforming atmospheric carbon into biospheric carbon.”

The experiments found additional benefits for the soil when treated with compost, including increased capacity to retain water and nutrients. Food grown in this soil tends to be more nutritious and plentiful. Because compost is a waste source that releases methane, a harmful greenhouse gas in landfills, the technique is doubly effective, according to Rebecca Ryals, who worked as a doctoral student in Silver’s lab and is currently pursuing a postdoctorate at Brown University.

The inquiry into environmentally conscious land management began eight years ago on the Marin ranch of John Wick and Peggy Rathmann, whose father started the Rathmann Family Foundation. The foundation’s working relationship with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory led them to Silver.

Since then, the experiments and findings have unified a diverse contingent of researchers, ranchers and policymakers across the county into a single organization, the Marin Carbon Project.

“There’s more attention being turned to better management of ecosystems in light of climate change,” Ryals said. “(This is) a good example of project that pushes boundaries of science and boundaries of collaboration, that can be translated easily into management solutions.”

Ranchers wishing to implement the practice on a wider scale still face several obstacles, one of which is the cost of purchasing, hauling and distributing compost, according to Nancy Scolari, executive director of the Marin Resource Conservation District, who helps local ranchers implement environmentally friendly practices. Finding enough compost to suit large-acreage farms is another potential setback.

Last week, the American Carbon Registry, a nonprofit organization that creates protocols for carbon usage, approved standards that would reward ranches for land practices that sequester carbon.

Talks are currently underway with officials from Brazil and China, and Gov. Jerry Brown’s office plans to visit the ranch.

“We’ve developed a protocol that people can start adopting globally,” Wick said. “We’ve got every reason to believe this will happen and will have a beneficial impact on scientists.”

Contact Alex Barreira at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @abarreira_dc.