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Oct. 20, 2021

Measuring and predicting soil carbon to offset climate change

MSU receives a $3.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency to study possible climate outcomes

Swaths of land with soil that no longer can support farming has a new purpose with climate benefits: storing carbon through the Conservation Reserve Program. The CRP pays farmers enrolled in the program to remove depleted land from agricultural production and instead plant native vegetation that will improve soil health. Now, an MSU professor will help answer how much carbon is in these unproductive lands now and how much carbon the soil can hold.

Bruno Basso in a cornfield, courtesy of Val Osowski
Bruno Basso

Bruno Basso, an ecosystems scientist and MSU Foundation Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences in the College of Natural Science, has received a $3.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency to answer these questions. Basso and his team will sample, measure and model soil carbon in CRP areas, focusing on the Great Plains, Midwest, Mississippi River Valley, the Pacific Northwest, Southeast and Northwest. Additional collaborators on this project include Taylor Lark at the University of Wisconsin, Christopher Mathis at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Scott Jackson at Deveron, Will Brinton at Woods End Laboratories and Matthew Gammans, Andrew Finley and Steve Hamilton at MSU.

“We need land to continue to produce food for a growing population, but our research has shown that cultivating unproductive lands causes great environmental impact,” Basso said. “CRP allows unproductive land to return to native vegetation and hopefully to increase the amount of carbon to be stored in the soil while reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agrochemical applications to mitigate climate change.”

Using strategic sampling design based on satellite imagery, Basso and his team of collaborators from Deveron, an agriculture data collection company based in Toronto, will identify about 600 sites to sample top and bottom layers of the soil. The samples will be sent to Woods End Laboratories, where technicians will quantify the pounds of carbon present in the soil volume.

Basso’s lab will model soil carbon dynamics under different CRP management scenarios to evaluate the effects on the carbon stored in the soil. The research will continue over the next five years, and possibly longer, to provide monitoring of soil carbon in CRP land.

“This is important for looking at potential future climate outcomes,” Basso said. “This information can help farm managers and policymakers better plan for the future of our soils and natural resources in general and to use them effectively against climate change threats.”

By: Emilie Lorditch