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Deep-rooted crops can significantly improve soil carbon storage

A recent study reveals that deep-rooted crops, AI, and gene editing significantly enhance soil carbon storage. Soil carbon enhancement is crucial in the battle against climate change, a fact underscored by the agricultural sector’s significant contribution to global carbon emissions.

In 2020 alone, agriculture was responsible for emitting a staggering 16 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, marking a 9% increase since 2000. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has highlighted these figures, pointing to the urgent need for innovative agricultural solutions.

In this context, a recent article titled “Going deep: Roots, carbon, and analyzing subsoil carbon dynamics,” offers a promising strategy.

Written by Angela Fernando and her team at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, the article highlights soil carbon enhancement as a versatile solution. It improves food production, aids in achieving net-zero agricultural emissions, and tackles climate change effects.

Deep roots in soil carbon storage

Fernando’s mission is clear: to compile existing methodologies and insights in a singular, comprehensive resource for experts to leverage effectively.

At the core of their findings is the significance of deeper root systems in crops. Traditional practices often result in carbon release into the atmosphere, due to deep tillage and the decomposition of shallow roots. In contrast, Fernando supports the use of crop varieties that have deeper roots.

She metaphorically describes soil organic carbon as “a cushion hidden in the soil,” emphasizing its resilience against microbial decomposition at depths around two meters and its vital role as a nutrient and water reservoir, especially during droughts.

Deep root’s DRO1 gene in soil carbon

The discovery of the DRO1 gene, responsible for controlling root angle, represents a significant breakthrough. This advancement allows for the creation of crop and forage varieties with roots that extend downwards to a meter or more.

“There’s no new biomass; the roots are simply oriented to grow vertically down, thus safeguarding soil carbon,” said Fernando.

Joe Tohme, director of the Alliance’s Americas Hub, shares this excitement, calling the DRO1 discovery a major leap forward. He highlights its importance for adapting food crops to withstand water stress by tapping into deeper subsoil moisture.

The shift to AI and remote sensing

Yet, the quest to harness soil’s carbon sequestration potential encounters significant hurdles, primarily in its measurement.

Michael Gomez Selvaraj, a digital agriculture scientist at the Alliance, highlights the drawbacks of traditional soil core analysis for large-scale studies, noting its labor intensity and limited representation. He advocates for combining remote sensing and artificial intelligence (AI) for quicker, more accurate soil carbon assessments across extensive areas.

Gomez describes the Alliance’s efforts to fine-tune an AI model for precise organic carbon measurement across large areas. “We are on the cusp of revolutionizing how we measure soil carbon,” he says, envisioning deeper, non-intrusive methods in the pipeline.

Merging genetics, AI, and sustainability

Looking ahead, the researchers are optimistic about the broader implications of their work. Enhanced soil carbon measurement techniques could facilitate farmers’ entry into carbon markets. Specifically, this is achieved by providing the accuracy necessary for carbon certification.

Moreover, creating deep-rooted crops and forage varieties could increase carbon storage in the soil. Gene-editing technologies, such as CRISPR, are key to speeding up the development of these resource-efficient plants.

This innovative approach blends genetic discoveries with AI and remote sensing technologies. It meets global climate goals and brings real advantages to farmers globally – setting the stage for a future of sustainable, carbon-efficient farming.

Deep-rooted crops and soil carbon measurement

The research heralds a new era in agriculture, promising tangible benefits for farmers and the environment. Here’s how these innovations could manifest in real-world agricultural settings:

Drought resistance and reduced water usage

Deep-rooted crops can access water from deeper soil layers, making them more resilient during drought conditions. This trait could significantly reduce the need for irrigation, lowering water usage and costs for farmers in arid and semi-arid regions.

The adoption of these crops can ensure stable yields even in challenging weather conditions, securing food production and farmers’ livelihoods.

Soil health and fertility

By promoting the growth of crops with deeper root systems, farmers can enhance soil structure and fertility. Deep roots help in aerating the soil, reducing erosion, and facilitating the cycling of nutrients. This natural process can diminish the reliance on chemical fertilizers, leading to healthier soils and reduced input costs.

Carbon sequestration and financial incentives

The use of advanced soil carbon measurement techniques can accurately quantify the carbon sequestered in farmlands. This precision opens doors for farmers to participate in carbon markets, earning carbon credits for their sustainable practices.

By providing a financial incentive for adopting carbon-friendly farming methods, this approach not only combats climate change but also enhances farmers’ income streams.

The study is published in the journal Molecular Plant.


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