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Al Gore makes case for old-fashioned farming

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Al Gore's family farm. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Emily Chasan.
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CARTHAGE, Tenn. -- Al Gore's 400-acre farm near here has became the site of a training program for aspiring climate activists, and an experiment in what he said is the world's most realistic chance at averting climate catastrophe.

Topsoil, the foot or so of ground underneath your feet, is responsible for almost all food production on Earth. But it also stores more than three times as much carbon as forests. Today, agriculture is a net carbon emitter, contributing about 14% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. But unlike power generation or automobiles, farming can be turned into a net absorber, pulling carbon out of the atmosphere.

If farming practices are changed through the use of cover crops, low-tilling and tree-planting, Gore said, agriculture conglomerates and family farmers alike could theoretically make their farms more productive while fighting global warming. Those changes can also replenish nutrients to the world's soil, of which 33% has already been depleted.

A virtuous circle if there ever was one-and one that's already attracting attention from farmers, consumers and food companies.

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Gore, 71, is preaching the benefits of so-called carbon farming, a form of regenerative farming, at a time when U.S. President Donald Trump has been trying to roll back regulations meant to limit greenhouse gas emissions. And while science-based climate policy has been a prominent topic on the Democratic presidential campaign trail, it's not always seen as a priority.

Gore, who these days is more of a denim-wearing advocate than reserved technocrat, remains undeterred. His laboratory has been the farm where his parents once raised livestock and grew tobacco. Earlier this month, he invited 450 soil experts-farmers, scientists, chefs, food experts, entrepreneurs and investors-to join him there to discuss how to scale regenerative farming into something that might actually slow climate change.

"We've waited so long to start to address the climate crisis," Gore told those gathered. "We will need to both reduce emissions drastically and take as much carbon out of the atmosphere as we possibly can."

Unlike 2006, when Gore's film "An Inconvenient Truth" was met with skepticism in some quarters, 13 years of intensifying storms, catastrophic floods and unprecedented droughts and wildfires have persuaded more Americans that there's a very big problem. The goal now, Gore said, is to get people to start taking carbon farming seriously.

When it comes to actually tackling what may soon become an existential crisis, the numbers are daunting. Trillions of dollars are needed to adapt civilization to the near-term consequences of climate change while tens of trillions of dollars are needed to slow its advance. But Gore said there are still too few plans to reverse global warming that don't rely on technology that has yet to be developed.

"Planting trees and sequestering carbon in soil are likely to remain the two most effective approaches," Gore said in an interview at his Carthage farm. "There's already some indication that farms that operate this way are more resilient in the face of climate extremes."

Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are at their highest in 3 million years. Oceans, the biggest carbon sinks of all, are acidifying because they hold too much of it. Plant life, which absorbs CO2 through photosynthesis, can sink carbon into the soil. Regenerative farming helps speed that along-with the added benefit of producing more nutrient-rich soil.

Rattan Lal, a professor of soil physics and director of Ohio State University's Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, is the key scientist behind Gore's thinking.

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The world's population currently uses more than a third of the planet's surface for agriculture, according to the United Nations. In the U.S., close to 40% of land is farmland. Soil used for agriculture has degraded and eroded over centuries of use, losing between 20% and 60% of its original carbon content.

Lal's research shows that soil can sequester carbon at rates as high as 2.6 gigatons each year. An aggressive, global combination of tree planting and increased vegetation along with soil carbon sequestration, he said, has the "technical potential" to absorb 157 parts per million of CO2.

With about 415 parts per million in the air today -- a huge jump compared with a few decades ago -- removing even a fraction of that could slow the advance of global warming.

Regenerative farming has more costs than traditional methods, especially upfront. Only about 108 million acres cross the U.S. are using some regenerative practices, according to Project Drawdown, a climate research group (as of 2012, the government said there were 914 million acres of farmland in America). The group estimates it would cost about $57 billion to convert another 1 billion acres by 2050, but that some 23.15 gigatons of CO2 could be sucked out of the atmosphere by doing so.

While not a solution to the climate crisis by itself, Lal told the audience at Gore's farm that regenerative farming could be, at the very least, "a bridge to the future."

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