Science Has Found a Brilliant New Use for Your Kitchen Scraps

Turns out, dumping compost on grasslands can do a surprising amount for the planet.
Steve Russell/The Toronto Star/ZUMA

Steve Russell/The Toronto Star/ZUMA

When John Wick and his wife, Peggy Rathmann, bought their 540-acre ranch in 1998, it was in bad shape. Located in California’s Marin County, a windswept region northwest of San Francisco Bay, the land had been worn down by overgrazing; the grass was gone and the soil was degraded. Neither Wick nor Rathmann knew how to fix it because the couple didn’t have any ranching experience—Wick worked in construction management, and Rathmann wrote children’s classics like 10 Minutes till Bedtime and Good Night, Gorilla.

So Wick consulted his friend Jeffrey Creque, a rangeland ecology expert. Creque helped Wick repair the soil by bringing back some grass—which gave the two an idea: They knew that in addition to enriching the soil, healthy grass, through photosynthesis, could remove carbon from the atmosphere. So was there a way, they wondered, to grow more grass on Wick’s land and slow global warming at the same time?

The theory made sense: Carbon that is absorbed by grass can be stored for hundreds of years in the grass’ roots and surrounding soil—a much better spot for it than in the air, where it warms the planet in the form of carbon dioxide. Carbon-enriched soil, in turn, feeds grass so it can grow taller and suck down even more carbon. In rangelands, this cycle takes place on a massive scale: Between the grass and the soil, a third of the world’s carbon is stored in these expanses. But tilling and overgrazing unleash that carbon. These practices also cause topsoil erosion, which compounds the problem by making it hard for grass to grow. To make matters worse, rangelands are often home to cows, and manure releases methane and nitrous oxide gases into the atmosphere. In fact, livestock are responsible for nearly one-fifth of the globe’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Read the rest at Mother Jones.



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The Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact—human, environmental, economic, political—of a changing climate. The partners are The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Mother Jones, Slate, and Wired.