Re-Carbonizing the Planet

| 1/9/2013 8:42:07 AM

Scientists and MOTHER EARTH NEWS's readers know that our climate is changing rapidly. We tend to blame our cars, factories and all that burning of fossil fuels. Most of our efforts towards improving the situation so far have also been directed towards reducing those same fossil fuel-generating sources.

BUT, while these goals are necessary and valid, we are mostly ignoring the production of carbon dioxide from natural sources. Jim McNelly, president of Renewable Carbon Management, and founding member of the US Composting Council, calculates that of the increased CO2 in our air, roughly half came from fossil fuel burning and HALF has come from vaporizing biomass. 

Here's another way to think about this. Since the start of the industrial revolution until now all the coal, oil and natural gas burning we've done is roughly equalled by all the deforestation and vaporization and erosion of organic carbon that was in or on the soil. This is huge, yet we never hear about this "other half" of the story. Also telling is that while cutting emissions of CO2 is critical, a huge potential exists to remove carbon from the air and sequester it back in the soil. While cutting emissions is linear, putting carbon back in the soil works geometrically because more organic matter in the soil means that plant growth is more vigorous which fixes more carbon in the plants. 

Compost Hands 

While Midwest farmers have made some progress with carbon management, (using no-till techniques does raise organic matter levels in the soil) there's no coherent strategy or program in place. The good news is that organic farming techniques build better, more carbon rich soils. The better news is that high carbon soils tolerate stress better and have higher production in drought conditions. The best news is that commercial agriculture learns fast and is working to respond to this rapidly changing situation. Only the recent high prices for their grain have compensated for the loss of production they've seen from these recent dry years. Cow calf operations are also under stress. Lack of water and forage has caused herds in the South and West to be reduced and have put a premium on hay. Again, rotational grazing, better forage management and more grass-fed beef will cut costs, improve soils and cut emissions of CO2 and methane from the animal industry. Nature and economics seem to be conspiring to produce a teachable moment for the agricultural industry.

Our family farm is leased to a farmer with a huge operation across multiple properties in western Missouri. He manages operations so that he makes a minimum of visits to each farm. This year for the first time he made a special trip to plant a rye cover crop to protect and build the soil over the winter. He's betting that protecting the current organic matter and building more of it will improve his bottom line this year. That's a bet we all can breathe a little easier about.

t brandt
1/11/2013 12:39:05 PM

MEN really needs to get a science editor who can at least remember what he learned in high school....It has become a fad in green popular literature to talk about putting carbon into the soil. But that's poetry, not science. That's an example of synecdoche, using a part for the whole, as in " a hired hand" instead of "a hired man."... Plants get their carbon for metabolism from the air, not the soil. Soil is benefited by putting fiber into it, improving aeration, hydration and nutrient access- just the opposite of compaction. That fiber is cellulosic, carbon based, but it's not the carbon that's important.. ...It's true that fossil fuel is not the sole source of our increasing atm co2: as the planet naturally wams, coming out of The Little Ice Age, The oceans give up more co2 to the air, just like a warm beer has a bigger head than a cold one....And BTW- nobody sees any "rapid climate change." Nothing is happeneing now that hasn't happen every 60 yrs cyclically, naturally..When you've lived more than a small portion of one of those cycles, maybe you'll catch on.

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