Farming with crops and rocks to address global climate, food and soil security

Abstract

The magnitude of future climate change could be moderated by immediately reducing the amount of CO2 entering the atmosphere as a result of energy generation and by adopting strategies that actively remove CO2 from it. Biogeochemical improvement of soils by adding crushed, fast-reacting silicate rocks to croplands is one such CO2-removal strategy. This approach has the potential to improve crop production, increase protection from pests and diseases, and restore soil fertility and structure. Managed croplands worldwide are already equipped for frequent rock dust additions to soils, making rapid adoption at scale feasible, and the potential benefits could generate financial incentives for widespread adoption in the agricultural sector. However, there are still obstacles to be surmounted. Audited field-scale assessments of the efficacy of CO2 capture are urgently required together with detailed environmental monitoring. A cost-effective way to meet the rock requirements for CO2 removal must be found, possibly involving the recycling of silicate waste materials. Finally, issues of public perception, trust and acceptance must also be addressed.

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Fig. 1: Summary of the potential effects of weathering of crushed basalt or silicate-rich wastes, such as sugarcane mill ash, applied to croplands.
Fig. 2: Metal and phosphorus concentrations in a range of continental flood basalts (left hand columns) and ultra-basic rocks (right hand columns).
Fig. 3: Net primary production of annual crops and cumulative CO2 emissions by nation.
Fig. 4: Enhanced weathering could address twenty-first century threats to climate, food and soil security.

Change history

  • 25 May 2018

    In the version of this Perspective originally published, ‘acidification’ was incorrectly spelt as ‘adification’ in Fig. 4. This has now been corrected.

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Acknowledgements

We acknowledge funding from the Leverhulme Trust through a Leverhulme Research Centre Award (RC-2015-029). L.L.T. was supported by an ERC advanced grant awarded to D.J.B. (CDREG, 322998). R. Thorley is thanked for assistance with Fig. 1. We dedicate this paper to the memory of Professor William (Bill) G. Chaloner FRS (1928–2016), a passionate scientific polymath and extraordinary mentor to generations of researchers.

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D.J.B. wrote the first draft of the manuscript, with contributions from J.R.L., S.P.L. and J.H. All authors provided input on sections and the addition of appropriate references in later drafts. E.K., L.L.T. and M.K. undertook data analysis.

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Correspondence to David J. Beerling.

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Beerling, D.J., Leake, J.R., Long, S.P. et al. Farming with crops and rocks to address global climate, food and soil security. Nature Plants 4, 138–147 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41477-018-0108-y

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