Kansas State University professor fights climate change with soil, carbon sequestration

By: - October 19, 2021 9:31 am

Charles Rice explains his soil research in his lab in Throckmorton Hall. (Julie Freijat for Kansas Reflector)

MANHATTAN — Two carts nestle in a corner of Throckmorton 2209. As she lets the door close, Tiffany Poydras, a master’s student in agronomy at Kansas State University, stops speaking abruptly.

“I almost said the D-word,” she said.

Dirt. The carts were filled with small, round, foil containers holding what many people would call dirt. When Charles Rice, distinguished professor of soil microbiology at Kansas State, is asked about the D-word, he laughs.

“I guess to give it greater respect, we call it soil,” he said. “I kiddingly say that dirt is misplaced soil.”

Rice has been at Kansas State for 33 years, during which he has researched soil microbes and their effect on soil health and the environment. Much of his work involves carbon sequestration, the action of capturing and securing carbon dioxide.

“Carbon is really key for soils — soil health and fertility productivity,” Rice said.

Rice described what he calls the “Holy Trinity” of soil health: More carbon in the soil means more food for the microbes that live in the soil. Good microbial activity produces nutrients that increase plant productivity while also promoting good soil structure. Soil structure is important in ensuring soils can better withstand weather extremes.

But storing more carbon in the soil doesn’t only help soil health and structure. It also plays a role in climate change.

“If we can store more carbon in the soil, then that’s offsetting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so we’re trying to find ways to sequester carbon in soils,” he said.

Rice became involved in climate change when he first started at K-State in 1988.

“Dr. Clenton Owensby, the range scientist here, was looking at how rising CO2 affected the prairie,” he said. “He was an above-ground person working on the grasses, and when I got hired at K-State, he gave me the opportunity to work [on] how CO2 affected the grass … below ground, so that is how I started working on carbon sequestration.”

Since then, Rice has worked on a number of climate change-related initiatives. In 2000, former U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts helped fund a consortium of 10 universities to investigate how agriculture might help mitigate greenhouse gases — a consortium Rice led.

Small containers of soil used for research sit on trays in Throckmorton Hall. (Julie Freijat for Kansas Reflector)

His work with the consortium led him to collaborate with countries including Australia and Brazil. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report Rice to which Rice contributed. Later that year, the IPCC, along with former Vice President Al Gore, won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Rice said he wanted to study how agriculture can help the environment while sustaining productivity. More recently, he said, there’s a new component.

“Back in the 90s, and even early 2000s … it was all about how can we mitigate climate change,” he said. “And then in next decade — 2010-2018 period — the realization is that climate change is already happening. We need to work on adaptation as well as mitigation.”

This year, Valent BioSciences LLC approached Rice to see how microbes, particularly mycorrhizal fungi, could benefit soil health and carbon sequestration. In September, Valent BioSciences and Rice announced a formal agreement. 

“A lot of companies are getting interested in both topics because [it] promotes soil health, but then sequestering carbon has an environmental benefit,” he said. “… they set up an agreement where they would fund some research on the mechanisms for carbon sequestration, between the plant roots and the mycorrhizal fungi, and then that would benefit agriculture” and the environment.

Rice’s international work has allowed him to take students to Brazil, where he has an adjunct appointment at the Federal University of Santa Maria. Students are exposed to tropical agriculture, giving them a better idea of how systems work around the world, Rice said. 

Currently, several students are working with Rice on agronomy research. Poydras decided to stay at Kansas State after spending the summer there doing research and ended up working with Rice. She said she got into agriculture because of her interest in climate change.

“There’s such a mindset around climate change, where a lot of people don’t believe that it can get better,” Poydras said. “But the thing is, of course, we can always fix something, even if we break it. It might not be perfect, but if we put enough money and effort into it and actually try, then we can do it. And that’s what I’m trying to do, I’m trying to put my effort in.”

A family initiative 

In 2016, Rice’s daughter and Kansas State alumna Sarah McGinnity started the Fight Climate Change Fund at Kansas State with her husband, Shea. The two started the fund after climate change research and advocacy began disappearing from government websites five years ago, McGinnity said. 

“It’s such a big issue, and it’s hard to think you’re making a dent by recycling your glass or writing letters to your senators,” she said. “But knowing the research that my dad does, and the graduate students that are coming up that have a passion for using their education and knowledge to address climate change, it felt like we could make a difference in that area.”

So far the fund has financed trips to conferences and supplies for presentations, McGinnity said. The hope is it will grow and support more graduate students. 

“I have visiting scholars that come in from Brazil or other countries, [it] provides them a little bit of salary support, financial support,” Rice said. “So they thankfully saw a need and an opportunity, and their friends were concerned about climate change, and so they started this fund.”

Climate change has been a passion for McGinnity and her husband because of her father’s work. She said they try to encourage caring about the future in their family.

“I think just the emphasis on science and trusting experts was part of my growing up and something I’m carrying into raising my own children,” McGinnity said.

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Julie Freijat
Julie Freijat

Julie Freijat is a senior in journalism and mass communications at Kansas State University, where she focuses on science journalism. She is a former writer and managing editor for the Collegian and has worked in the communications office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.