The Soil Carbon Olympics
by Peter Willis
Peter Willis (South African, born 1954) is the South African director of the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership and regional chairman of the Prince of Wales’s Business & Sustainability Programme. After a history degree from Oxford he worked in government and started various enterprises before emigrating to South Africa in 1993.
The idea is to hold a global competition every four years to identify, applaud and profile farmers who have sequestered the most carbon in their soil during the preceding period. In true Olympic fashion, medals and renown would go to winners in various categories.
Why? When land is farmed with soil health and carbon content as key goals, its soil can store vast amounts of atmospheric CO2 in the form of carbon, and over relatively short time periods. Set alongside the more traditionally favoured tree-planting, the strategy of sequestering carbon in soil through specific faming approaches (e.g. Holistic Management for livestock and ‘no-till’ for arable land) has the advantage that it raises soil fertility and therefore food production, and in turn rural employment, all with little reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Soil carbon also appears to stay in the soil for longer than carbon sequestered in trees, which typically die or are burnt within 30-80 years. So it has the potential to be a big ‘win-win’ strategy.
However, agricultural orthodoxy still holds sway and tends not to recognise the value of farming in this way. It is time that the evident success of those pioneering farmers who are adopting this approach was given much greater recognition. They are the nodes in the small but growing global movement – mainly at present to be found in Australia, North America and South Africa. Farmers, being very practical people, learn best from observing other farmers’ successes, so broadcasting the stories and the data on improved farm outcomes seems like a good idea.
The Soil Carbon Olympics (SCO) would be run virtually – no expensive stadia are required! A Soil Carbon Olympics Board would be convened, which would have representation from experienced soil and climate scientists, holistic farming experts and the sponsors (see below). The Board would in turn appoint a small Organising Committee to manage the SCO. The Organising committee would send out the competition rules and all other information to farming communities worldwide and then receive entries at the due time, organise adjudication and manage the announcement of winners, despatch of medals and all the surrounding publicity.
The awards ceremony would be held in a different farming town somewhere in the world every four years, using cutting edge technology to beam in winning farmers and show video clips of their farming approaches and their winning statistics. Medals would be presented by globally prominent climate change and farming ‘personalities’.
Soil carbon would be measured in the standard way via soil samples that are taken annually from competing farms, analysed in laboratories and verified by approved auditing firms, representatives of which would need to oversee collection and testing of all the soil samples. Technology for measuring soil carbon is advancing and portable devices are being developed (using either laser or near-infrared spectroscopy) that mean analysis can be done swiftly and relatively cheaply.
It is hoped that one of the Big Four global auditing firms would see this as an opportunity not only to be associated with an initiative with serious potential to reduce atmospheric carbon and improve farm productivity, but also to provide high-quality business leads amongst some of the world’s more far-sighted (and productive) farmers. This hope is based on the enthusiasm shown at an earlier stage (2008) by the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants, for these two very reasons.
In researching this idea, I have re-ignited both my bafflement that the potential of carbon sequestration in soil is so widely ignored by farmers, scientists and governments around the world, and my enthusiasm to change that. If anyone is interested to join me – and the sprinkling of other advocates for a soil carbon revolution around the world – do let me know!
Amazing Carbon: www.amazingcarbon.com (based in Australia)
Jones, C. (2010) Soil carbon – can it save agriculture’s bacon? Agriculture & Greenhouse Emissions Conference, May 2010.
Savory, A. (2013) How to green the world’s deserts and reverse climate change, TED Talk.
Soil Carbon Coalition: www.soilcarboncoalition.org (based in North America).
 See http://cgspace.cgiar.org/bitstream/handle/10568/10279/ccafs-wp-02-soil_carbon_measurement.pdf?sequence=5 for discussion of these technical advances.