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Why Is Carbon So Important to Agriculture and Society?

Updated September 08, 2022
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Anthony Bly

SDSU Extension Soils Field Specialist

Healthy soil with ample organic matter throughout.
Carbon is the main part of microbial glues that helps build soil structure, which is important for soil resiliency. Courtesy: U.S. Department of Agriculture

The South Dakota Soil Health Coalition’s 2022 Soil Health School was held from August 31 to September 2 near Garretson, South Dakota. Many speakers and field activities were conducted that focused on soil health. The school is the best value for the time and money invested. Many well-known, educated and experienced people working with soil health attended over the three days. Those participating in the school could walk side by side and strike up meaningful conversations with the experts in attendance.

The school is leading the way in providing soil health education and information to those attending. This school is highly undervalued and a gem for those that find it and attend. One of the speakers was Dr. Don Reicosky, a leading scientist in agricultural carbon research. Dr. Reicosky presented a seminar that focused entirely on carbon and linked it to many valuable services that it provides. The following list is adapted from his presentation.

Carbon is Crucial Because…

  • It’s captured in plants’ photosynthetic process by using sunlight and air to release oxygen.
  • It’s nature’s free energy source for soil microbial processes and to other animals as feed.
  • It’s our free energy source provided through the plants and animals we consume as food.
  • It leaks from plant roots as food for soil microorganisms that bring nutrients to the plants.
  • It’s contained in plant roots that provide foods for soil microorganisms.
  • It provides structure in regenerating soils to help resist against soil erosion.
  • It increases the cycling of plant nutrients back to newly growing plants.
  • It's the main part of microbial glues that help build soil structure, which is important for soil resiliency.
  • It improves water infiltration and water holding capacity.
  • It improves plant water use efficiency.
  • It improves soil health through all of the improved soil parameters.
  • It enhances human health, because plant and animal health are improved.
  • It enables soil ecosystem services through all the soil health improvements.
  • It’s the “C” that permits “Conservation” to exist.
  • It’s the foundation for food security.

This list is too important for society to ignore the carbon element. In the not-too-distant past, hardly anyone had heard, spoke of, or thought about carbon. Today, it’s at the top of the list, because carbon is so vital to every biochemical process that we know. Maybe this list will help create an understanding as to why there seems to be so much focus on carbon.