Ohio State leading new $15 million project to study carbon farming as climate change solution

Rattan Lal examines soil.

Taking excess carbon out of the atmosphere, where it is driving climate change, and locking it into the soil, where it improves its health and agronomic productivity, is the impetus behind a new five-year, $15 million project at The Ohio State University.

Funding for the project comes from a $5 million grant from the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research and about $10 million in matching contributions from Ohio State, commodity groups, industry and other donors. The project will measure how much organic and inorganic carbon gets sequestered in the soil under different farming practices in key regions across the western hemisphere.

What science knows about carbon sequestration, says Rattan Lal, Ohio State Distinguished University Professor of Soil Science, has mostly come from simulation modeling carried out on computers, along with a limited number of experiments in the field.

Lal, who is a faculty member in Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES), will help to change that.

As principal investigator of the project titled “Enhanced Soil Carbon Farming as a Climate Solution,” he and other researchers will take measurements directly on hundreds of farms in Ohio, other states and even other countries under real-world farming practices and conditions.

“Biologic carbon sequestration through farming is a potent tool in the battle against climate change, and this generous grant from the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research and matching donors will fund critical work to demonstrate how to deploy this practice to its full effect,” said Ohio State President Kristina M. Johnson. “The Ohio State University greatly appreciates this significant show of commitment to our land-grant tradition of service to our state and nation by identifying solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems – including preserving the food supply.”

The project will generate valuable information on how carbon farming can mitigate climate change, improve soil health and make crops more productive, said Cathann A. Kress, Ohio State vice president for agricultural administration and CFAES dean. In turn, she said, it will provide that information to farmers, land managers, OSU Extension personnel, policymakers, stakeholders, the private sector, nongovernmental organizations and the public.

“Through this work, we will impact policy and agricultural practices on a national and worldwide level,” Kress said. “Under the guidance of Dr. Lal, working with other highly regarded faculty members and researchers, we’re proud to lead this vitally important initiative.”

Lal and his team will measure carbon sequestration on croplands, rangelands and grasslands, including soils used to produce a wide and representative range of crops and animals, and soils being managed through both traditional and enhanced carbon-farming methods.

“We want to generate actual primary data on productivity, on the efficiency of inputs, on the benefits of conservation agriculture and sequestering carbon, and on savings of nitrogen, water, pesticides and energy,” Lal said. He founded and directs the CFAES Rattan Lal Center for Carbon Management and Sequestration.

“We’re also going to focus on evaluating and developing technology for farming carbon, where carbon stock can be used as a farm commodity that will enable farmers to be rewarded for strengthening  critical ecosystem services,” he said.

Lal said the project, among other things, will find out how much carbon dioxide produced by farming can be offset by sequestering carbon in the soil. It will determine which practices and technologies do that best for farmers. And it will provide science-based input to policymakers on matters such as standardizing carbon-credit pricing.

“The goal is to make agriculture a solution” in fighting climate change  and other environment crises, Lal said.

The project will also make agriculture more resilient in the face of these crises, he noted. Soil contains more carbon than plants and the atmosphere combined. And more carbon in the soil means stronger crops and a healthier environment.

“The idea is that even as the climate is changing, agriculture will have a buffer – better soil health,” said Lal, who has received the World Food Prize, World Agriculture Prize, Glinka World Soil Prize and Japan Prize for his decades of research on how soil health impacts crop productivity.

Research for the project will take place on farms in Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina, Kansas, Utah, Arizona and South America. Study sites will be chosen to represent a range of crops, climates, soil types, input levels of water and fertilizer, farming systems and ecological regions.

In addition to Ohio State, three other universities, three federal agencies and international collaborators are involved in the project. Within Ohio State, collaborators include Cinnamon Piñon Carlarne, associate dean of the Moritz College of Law; Marilia Chiavegato, assistant professor of agroecosystems management; M. Scott Demyan, assistant professor of soil and environmental mineraology; Klaus Lorenz, assistant director of the Center for Carbon Management and Sequestration; Virginia Rich, associate professor of microbial ecology; Jackie Kirby Wilkins, director of OSU Extension; and Roger Williams, associate professor of forest management.

Additional project co-sponsors and collaborators include the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, FONTAGRO, Bayer U.S. – Crop Science, Microsoft, Cotton Incorporated, Corteva, Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association, Ohio Soybean Association, Kansas Corn, United Sorghum Checkoff Program, National Sorghum Producers, Utah Department of Agriculture & Food, Kansas State University, Michigan State University and Utah State University. The project will also be supported through scientific collaborations with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, Sandia National Laboratories, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Agricultural Research Institute of Uruguay. Further project support is provided by Ohio State’s Office of Research, Graduate School, and the CFAES Office for Research and Graduate Education.

Learn more about the CFAES Rattan Lal Center for Carbon Management and Sequestration at cmasc.osu.edu.

Sherrie R. Whaley
For more information, contact: 

Gary Pierzynski
Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Education