Dirt as a Carbon Sink?

Yves here. Grist has an optimistic house style, so one needs to read through that gathering information from their posts. Nevertheless, I’m skeptical of carbon sinks as a magic bullet for greenhouse gasses, and the idea that dirt might work better due to supposedly positive side effects (we need even more cultivation!) seems questionable. Human food needs are the overwhelming cause of species loss, via habitat destruction. And fewer species means a much less stable, meaning more disaster-prone, ecosystem.

Another concern is that energy costs and side effects (carbon emissions), food, and water need to be addressed in an integrated manner. I cringed when I see the post use rice as a model crop. Rice is water-intensive to grow and clean water is going to be one of the first resources to become scarce.

All that said, this is a very well-reported post, so readers should be able to form their own views.

By Nathanael Johnson. Originally published at Grist

What Jonathan Sanderman really wanted was some old dirt. He called everyone he could think of who might know where he could get some. He emailed colleagues and read through old studies looking for clues, but he kept coming up empty.

Sanderman was looking for old dirt because it would let him test a plan to save the world. Soil scientists had been talking about this idea for decades: farmers could turn their fields into giant greenhouse gas sponges, potentially offsetting as much as 15 percent of global fossil fuel emissions a year, simply by coaxing crops to suck more CO2 out of the air.

There was one big problem with this idea: It could backfire. When plants absorb CO2 they either turn it into food or stash it in the ground. The risk is that if you treat farms as carbon banks, it could lead to smaller harvests, which would spur farmers to plow more land and pump more carbon into the air than before.

Back in 2011, when Sanderman was working as a soil scientist in Australia (he’s now at Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts), he’d figured out a way to test if it was possible to produce bumper crops on a piece of land while also banking carbon in it. But first, he needed to get his hands on that really old dirt.

Specifically, he needed to find a farm that kept decades of soil samples and precise records of its yields. That way he could compare the amount of carbon in the soil with the harvest and see if storing carbon kneecapped production.

Sanderman’s office was in the southern city of Adelaide, directly across the street from the Waite Agricultural Research Institute. The researchers there supposedly had the soil and records that Sanderman needed, dating back to 1925. But no one had any idea where to find the dirt. After numerous dead ends, a chain of clues led Sanderman into the basement of a big research building down the road, covered in greenhouses.

The basement was a big, dimly lit room full of floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed with boxes in various stages of disarray. He walked the rows slowly, scanning up and down until they were in front of his nose: scores of gallon jars made of thick, leaded glass with yellowing labels. “Like something you’d find in a second-hand store and put on your shelf,” Sanderman says.

He felt a rush of excitement. Then he squinted at the labels. There were no dates or locations. Instead, each bore a single series of numbers. It was a code, and Sanderman had no clue how to crack it.

* * *

The question that Sanderman wanted to answer was laid out by the Canadian soil scientist Henry Janzen. In 2006, Janzen published a paper, “The soil carbon dilemma: Shall we hoard it or use it?” Janzen pointed out that since the dawn of agriculture, farmers have been breeding crops that suck carbon out of the air and put it on our plates, rather than leaving it behind in the soil.

“Grain is 45 percent carbon by weight,” Janzen told me. “So when you truck away a load of grain, you are exporting carbon which, in a natural system, would have mostly returned to the soil.”

Janzen has the rare ability to explain complicated things with such clarity that, when talking to him, you may catch yourself struck with wonder at an utterly new glimpse of how the world works. Plants, he explained, perform a kind of alchemy. They combine air, water, and the sun’s fire to make food. And this alchemical combination that we call food is, in fact, a battery — a molecular trap for the sun’s energy made of broken-down CO2 and H2O (you know, air and water).

Sugars are the simplest batteries. And sugars are also the building blocks for fat and fiber, which are just bigger, more complicated batteries. Ferns, trees, and reeds are the sum of those parts. Bury these batteries for thousands of years under conditions of immense heat and pressure, and they transform again — still carrying the sun’s energy — into coal, oil, and gas.

To feed our growing population, we keep extracting more and more carbon from farms to deliver solar energy to our bodies. Janzen pointed out that we’ve bred crops to grow bigger seeds (the parts we eat) and smaller roots and stems (the parts that stay on the farm). All of this diverts carbon to our bellies that would otherwise go into the ground. This leads to what Janzen dubbed the soil carbon dilemma: Can we both increase soil carbon and increase harvests? Or do we have to pick one at the expense of the other?

* * *

Sanderman thought he could help answer those questions if he could crack the codes on those glass bottles. But the codes on the labels didn’t line up with the notes that Waite researchers had made. After a flurry of anguished emails, Sanderman tracked down a technician who had worked at Waite 25 years earlier, and she showed him how to decode the numbers. Finally, after a year of detective work, he could run his tests.

In January, Sanderman and his colleagues published their results. Carbon wasn’t simply going into the ground and staying there, they found; it was getting chewed up by microbes and floating into the air again. Fields with the biggest harvests had the most carbon turnover: more microbes chewing, while carbon gas streamed out of the soil.

Bizarrely enough, these same fields with the biggest harvests also had the most carbon in their soils. How could this be?

To answer that, it helps to think of carbon like money. We have an impulse to hide our savings under a mattress. But if you want more money, you have to invest it.

It’s the same with carbon. Life on earth is an economy that runs on carbon — the conduit for the sun’s energy. You have to keep it working and moving if you want your deposits to grow. The more busily plants and microbes trade carbon molecules, the more prosperous the ecological economy becomes.

That’s the key — you’ve got to use carbon to store carbon. By amping up harvest and turning up the volume on the microbes, sure, you get higher carbon emissions, but you also get more vigorous plants sucking up even more carbon. That, in turn, gives the plants enough carbon to produce a big harvest with a surplus left over to feed the dirt.

“You can have your soil carbon and eat it, too,” Sanderman says.

* * *

Is all this too good to be true? Soil scientist Whendee Silver at U.C. Berkeley had some reservations about Sanderman’s methods. She wondered if the Australian soils that he studied might have changed during decades of storage, and if the results would have been different if researchers had looked at more than just the top 10 centimeters of soil.

That said, Silver thought Sanderman’s conclusions made sense: Grow more stuff, and you get more carbon left behind in the soil. Rattan Lal, director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State, also gave the study his seal of approval.

The implications are huge. The study suggests we can slow climate change simply by feeding people. But there’s a gap between discovering something and putting it to use.

Solving one puzzle often opens up many, many more. Humphry Davy invented the electric light in 1802, but lightbulbs weren’t available for regular use until Thomas Edison’s day, 75 years later.

In this case, Sanderman’s sleuthing provides a proof of concept. To apply it, farmers would have to get more plants turning carbon to sugars on every acre of land. Now scientists and policy makers just need to find the barriers that prevent farmers from putting this knowledge into practice.

One issue is that the high-yield Australian fields in Sanderman’s study were growing grass, not wheat or corn. Grass directs its carbon into roots that stay in the soil, while grains are bred to shove carbon into their seeds. That doesn’t compromise the point of the study; the grass was still able to produce tons of hay for harvest while also making the dirt carbon-rich.

But it does add a new riddle: How do we get food crops to act like grass and spend more of their carbon budget on their roots, while still producing bountiful harvests?

The simplest answer, Janzen says, would be to boost yields. Anything farmers can do to allow more plants to thrive — like improving nutrition, irrigation, and protection from insects — will mean more carbon flowing into the soil. And in the long run, breeding for more roots as well as more grain will be a key to getting carbon into the ground without losing food production. Ultimately, that requires improving on photosynthesis, which is as difficult as putting a man on the moon (yep, scientists are working on it).

Another approach is to grow plants on fields that would otherwise be bare. By rolling out a carpet of green during the winter, farms could suck more carbon from the air into the soil. Some farmers are already doing this — growing cover crops like clover and ryegrass and experimenting with a suite of techniques often called “climate-smart agriculture.”

But there’s yet another barrier here: money. For farmers, the costs of planting cover crops often outweigh the immediate benefits. That’s why Ohio State’s Lal argues that farmers should get some help. “We have to recognize that farmers are making an investment that benefits society as a whole,” she says. “They should be compensated. My estimate is $16 per acre per year.”

Some companies have already started paying farmers to employ these techniques, says Roger Wolf, director of the Iowa Soy Association’s environmental programs. These corporations see a trend toward sustainability, with more of their customers pushing for environmental stewardship, and are trying to get out in front of it. The food and cosmetics giant Unilever and the grain trader ADM offer farmers a premium price for adhering to practices that accrue carbon.

Ever since people began pushing seeds into the dirt, we’ve been eating away the carbon from our topsoil. Now we’re finally developing the knowledge necessary to pump that carbon back into the ground. We have a proof of concept and Sanderman has taken the next logical step: He’s working on creating the tools farmers need to put this knowledge into practice. It’s one more link in the chain humans are forging to hold back the worst ravages of climate change.

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  1. Alex

    The main thing to always remember about climate change: there is no one solution or magic bullet – there are many solutions, each appropriate to the local context. This could be one of them, but we need many more. And technology by itself will not save us; political will is in many ways the only barrier to fixing the problem.

    1. polecat

      By ‘solutions’ do you infer instead to ‘mitigations’, or do you really think humanity can stop climate from ANY change whatsoever ??

      1. redleg

        Humans have contributed to changing climate already, so of course human activity can change it again.

        1. polecat

          What does your statement imply, redleg ? That we can alter a vastly chaotic closed planetary system to our specific choosing ?? … a few tweeks here and there ? …
          riiiight … ‘Just use these 7(pick a number,any number) simple dial-back measures to bring the atmosphere/climate into equilibrium’ ?? If you meant that humanity will continue to unwittingly cause atmospheric changes, then I would agree … Please state with more clarity what you mean !

          1. pretzelattack

            we can affect it, yes, i don’t think anybody said we can micromanage it. if you push a boulder off a cliff, it’s going to hit somewhere, you don’t know exactly where. so, we need to stop pushing.

            1. earthling1

              Google biochar. It stays in the soil forever.
              “The Biochar Debate”, James Bruges.
              “The Biochar Solution” Albert Bates.

      2. different clue

        i remember reading somewhere that starting after the Genghis Khan conquests of much of Asia and East Europe . . . that weather and climate got cooler for a while. The reason offered is that so much farming was exterminated and so much forest re-took over from the shut-down farmland that enough carbon got sucked down out of the sky to measurably de-warm the global. After populations recover and the farmland was re-claimed from the forest, the de-warming stopped.

        Apparently an even bigger early-post-medieval cooling happened after the Explorer Diseases killed so many Indian Nations in the Americas that several million square miles of live-in farmland went back to forest. That was an even bigger man-made global de-warming event.

        So we have seen man warm the global and de-warm the global based on whether human activities are net skydumping carbon or net skydraining it. So we know we can have a crude form of control based on what we push the skycarbon level up to or down to.

  2. MoiAussie

    There is a lot of optimism and even hype that carbon sequestration in soils may be a cost-effective way to mitigate global warming, but I suspect, as with Carbon Capture and Storage, it’s largely misplaced.

    A meta-analysis of 30 years worth of Australian studies reported in Agricultural carbon sequestration not viable in Australia is not encouraging.

    “We found that a 10 per cent increase in soil carbon is observable, but only in the top 10 centimetres of soil.

    “In the deeper layers it is not significant. And the effect of this increase is more profound in the first 10 years of management practice. Which in the end is not enough to make a significant impact on climate change.”

    The researchers also did a simple economic assessment of the benefit to farmers of carbon farming by calculating the cost of adding nitrogen fertiliser to stabilise the additional carbon in soils.

    “If you don’t have the extra nitrogen to stabilise it, the carbon will just go back to the atmosphere,” Dr Lam says.

    Once again the findings were not good.

    “We found that if we include the cost of nitrogen to stabilise the carbon, compared with the carbon credit the farmers can earn from the Carbon Farming Initiative, there is a net financial loss.

    I think the summary might be that it can increase carbon levels in carbon-depleted topsoils rather quickly but increased absorbtion can’t be sustained over the longer term, so it can’t have much impact, and the economics isn’t attractive.

    That said, any sustainable practices that help improve soil health should be encouraged, and the cost may still constitute a reasonable public investment given the future costs of doing nothing. The money might be better spent on compensation to avoid destruction of carbon sinks by land clearing, which is rampant in Australia, driven by the beef export $.

    1. MtnLife

      Why are we importing nitrogen in this scenario? What’s wrong with growing nitrogen fixing plants? Maybe we all need to get a little more fond of legumes.

      1. ClearCreek

        Yes, exactly. There are perennial legume species as well, from the clovers to large leguminous trees like the locusts, mimosa, etc. for no-till ag systems. We grow polyculture systems on our farm with a primarily leguminous groundcover under fruit and nut trees and shrubs. Interspersed within the fruit/nut trees are legume trees that capture nitrogen from the air and bring it into the micorrhizial layer where the micorrhizial network distributes the nitrogen into the roots of the trees. Legume trees also provide fodder for pigs and goats through the large seed pods they produce.

        1. polecat

          The insect beneficials & pollinators would likely appreciate the legume floral displays as well …. or ANY floral displays for that matter !!

        2. Oregoncharles

          Which explains why you don’t have time to comment very often. Thanks for making the effort.

      2. different clue

        And legumes are not the only plants which support biofixing of nitrogen in plants/soil. Here is a little paper about nitrogen fixation by non-rhizobial bacteria supported by non-legume plants.

        The paper looks sort of long so I haven’t really read it yet. But I bet it mentions some of the non-legume N-fixers which off the top of my head I remember as: Sea buckthorn, autumn olive, casuarina, azolla ( a little floating fern in the water of tropical-zone rice paddies). There may be others. And how many soil-living free bacteria and fungi fix their own nitrogen if they are given the carbo-sugar molecule energy-sources to be able to do it with? I have read, for instance, that actinomycetes can fix their own nitrogen. Got actinomycetes?

        Here is a paper about a genus of free-living in-soil bacteria called Paenibacillus. They are nitrogen fixers. Some of them can be significant nitrogen fixers, enough so to where the authors felt they were worth a paper.

        So, no. Legumes are not the only plants which fix nitrogen or support nitrogen fixers. So the picture is even brighter than what legumes imply.

    2. Oregoncharles

      See Judith’s comment, below somewhere, and mine, once it gets out of moderation. There’s some very practical, long-term work on this.

      Australia may have special problems because it’s so dry; you may wind up mostly growing pasture, where Alan Savory’s work applies. But higher carbon levels make for much more drought resilience, an important economic safeguard. Anyway, it’s an excuse to eat meat, if it’s grown sustainably.

      1. different clue

        It may be more than just an excuse to eat meat. If . . . if . . . IF! . . . . pasture and range under livestock net-net sequesters carbon sucked down from the air, then eating meat becomes a duty . . . a willing acceptance of the lesser ethical mark of cain in order to serve the greater ethical good of net skycarbon suckdown.

        But only IF! . . . pasture and range under livestock sucks down and sequesters more net skycarbon than what the whole process emits. Someone needs to start doing real science about carbon re-buildup in and under pasture and range . . . . starting with globally acceptable and reliable ways to MEAsure it.

        1. Mel

          I’m kind of skeptical. As I see it, the food cycle goes:

          CO2 + H2O

          goes into plants, producing

          carbohydrates + O2

          which go into animals, producing

          CO2 + H2O

          and so on. The petroleum and coal we’ve been burning contains carbon that’s been kept out of the food cycle for hundreds of millions of years, and now, added to the atmosphere, is coming back into play. Holding back any amount of carbon in the soil is of some value, and I applaud, but it will be a limited amount, I think. We won’t stop this new greenhouse gas, but we can perhaps slow it down.

          1. different clue

            The plants use sunlight to join CO2 and H2O to produce carbohydrates and O2.
            Only SOME of the carbohydrates and O2 goes into the animals and then right back into CO2 and H2O. The REST of it goes into . . . plant mass ( till the plants burn or die and rot) ANDDDD . . . root-nectar sugar-juice which the plants sweat out of their roots into the soil right around the roots. Root-associated microbes burn some of that sugar for the energy to survive and grow and also to extract minerals from the soil beyond the root hairs’ reach. They then send those minerals back up into the roots and the plant, which lets the plant turn more airborne CO2 than it would otherwise. And SOME of the root-nectar sugar-juice which the root-zone microbes burn down for energy is burned down into semi-stable carbon-chain molecules which stay in the soil.

            The question is . . . . is how MUCH of the of the plant-mass, the dead roots, the humus-genic sugar root-juice residue, etc. really remains to build up carbon-chain humus levels in the soil? Enough to measure? Enough to matter? Some genuine science would be nice to have. Meanwhile we have bunches of hopeful-seeming anecdata.

            Carbon farming can’t hurt. It may help. It deserves to be tried just in case, and also studied to see if it is really working to phyto-pedo-sequester carbon.

    3. different clue

      I am just a total layman in this whole field. I have a tiny garden. I read some stuff and try to follow developments. With that in mind, I read the article.

      I am puzzled by the statement that “nitrogen is necessary to stabilize carbon.” I thought adding nitrogen DEstabilized carbon by giving microbes more nitrogen to make their own body mass out of and thereby stimulating the growth of more microbes who would oxidise more carbon to get the energy to use all that nitrogen to be able to grow and multiply still morer more and thereby oxidize still morer more carbon and round and round ever downward to a carbon free sterilized neo-parent material equivalent.
      The colloquial term for this in America is “burning out the soil”. So why does this article claim that nitrogen is needed to STAbilize the in-soil carbon?

      Further, I wonder who/what farms were studied into this meta-study? I know there was ( and maybe still is) a biodynamic farmer and consultant in Australia named Alex Podolinsky. At one time I read that he was a paid consultant for about a million acres worth of farmers scattered around Australia. If any of those Podolinsky-consulted-for farms still operate, is there any knowing what their soil was like “before” and “after” the Podolinsky program?

      I read there was someone in Australia named Dick Yeomans who developed a method for keeping falling skywater on the farmland it fell onto for the longest time possible to increase falling skywater insoak and decrease falling skywater runoff. He did other things which were supposed to enhance root growth and bio-activity way deeper into the soil then 10 centimeters. He wrote a book about it called Water For Every Farm. Supposedly his son carries on the consulting bussiness. Are there any farms in Australia currently managed according to the Yeomans program? Could they be studied to see how much the carbon rose and how deep the carbon increase penetrated?

      There is a researcher named Christine Jones in Australia with a website called Amazing Carbon. She is claiming serious soil carbon increase by some farms she has been working with in Australia. Can this be studied?

      Purely as a layman now . . . I look at all that and I have to wonder, is somebody’s “metastudy” really the last word in actual carbon-capture farming on certain elite-knowledge/ best practices farms scattered around Australia?

  3. Plutoniumkun

    The frustrating thing about this is just how little research has been done into this. Soil science has always been something of a poor relation to more glamorous research areas. When Chernobyl blew the British government predicted no impact on farming, and were shocked when sheep on upland fields started glowing. Turned out the science committee advising the government was entirely made up of physicists, with no soil scientists, so they overlooked the possibility of bioaccumulation of radioactive isotopes in acid soils.

    Years ago I was involved in putting together a research proposal to look into using waste derived mulch on arable fields as an alternative to broad spectrum weedkillers. We were looking more from the waste management side of things than climate change, but I suspect this would have been highly beneficial. The research was never funded unfortunately.

    There is ongoing research with biochar, essentially charcoal, as a soil stabilizer and co2 repository. I think it’s very promising, but there is a crucial lack of real knowledge on long term impacts.

    1. different clue

      If it can be PROVen beyond a reasonable doubt that the Terra Preta do Indio soils in Amazonian Brazil got that way from bio-char management by the Indians a thousand years ago, then we actually DO have an example of what the long term effects are.

    2. meeps

      Independent research is scant, but the Rodale Institute has been around since 1947 with a research emphasis.

      The Dirt as Carbon Sink post oversimplifies a bit. This Rodale White Paper addresses soil carbon sequestration in Regenerative Organic Agriculture and the issue of yield. There are citations regarding biochar.

      Extractive agriculture, like extractive economics, is sowing the seeds of its own demise. Something must be given back. It’s possible to obtain adequate yields and restore soil fertility–it’s just not being done as a matter of policy in Ag any more than it is in other industries.

      Thanks, Yves, for returning with regularity to this point.

    1. Oregoncharles

      Where are they going to get all that seaweed?

      In general, cows produce less methane if fed intelligently – people, too.

      1. different clue

        Find shallow-sea near-shore areas to grow it on huge rack-complexes in somewhat the way the Japanese grow seaweed now. Only make sure to do it beyond reach of the Fukushima glowing plume.

          1. different clue

            Well, still on the East Coast. And still on the Euro Coast. ( The Japanese are awfully polite and obedient people, by the way. I wonder why they haven’t risen up and mass-slaughtered many thousands of their Fukushimagenic leadership elites over what those elites have done to them. Though I suppose the same question could be asked here in this country. Part of the answer in this country might be police forces, Blackwater/Academi/Xe/whatever-alias-comes-next, etc. Part of the answer might be that only the heavily armed Deplorables are really both armed enough and numerous enough to do such a thing, and they are not emotionally ready yet.)

  4. Darius

    This may help. As may biochar. Without a carbon tax, or other incentive, we’re giving a huge passive subsidy to fossil fuel burning, implicitly telling people, “please use as much fossil energy as you possibly can.” In the US, token individual sacrifices in the name of climate change mitigation are used to signal virtue. But since American society is built on a firm foundation of exploitation, racism and virtue signaling, that’s all to the good!

    1. different clue

      Visibly onerous carbon dieting on the part of the virtuous individual is not virtue signalling. It is virtue practicing. And if it is a real personal sacrifice, then bragging about it is virtue horntooting. ( Virtue signalling refers to talking virtuous positions and beliefs without doing anything real about them).

      So why bother virtue practicing so one can do virtue horntooting? Secondarily because if 50 million people all practice carbon virtue in their personal lives, they collectively reduce carbon output a little bit.
      Primarily because 50 million people all virtue practicing have earned themselves the credibility to advocate for a Carbon Tax. When the sneering cynic asks them ” oh yeah? What’s in YOUR footprint?” the 50 million virtue practicers are able to virtue horntoot and then ask back: ” now, what’s in YOUR footprint yourSELF?” And 50 million virtue horntooters with personal lifestyle credibility can be a powerful lobby for FORCing a Carbon Tax into existence.

  5. Arizona Slim

    I guess it would be very naughty to suggest that humans have fewer children. Or to be child-free.

    1. HBE

      Shh… You can’t say that!

      In seriousness though, try bringing up overpopulation and population control (even among those on the left) in a conversation. Eyes will either hit the ground and stay there until the conversation is over or someone will lose it and sputter something about technology or how the third world won’t have population controls so neither should we.

      If you ever want to ruin a party or any other social gathering, bringing up overpopulation is the surefire solution (unfortunately).

      1. craazyboy

        Well, in Japan and the western world, population growth by childbirth is happening at a very subdued rate. In the western world, most growth is “immigration”.

        Then, we still get to hear our Dear Leaders and economists go into a tizzy about the ballooning retiree to worker ratio, our hair turning grey, or even falling out, and robots taking all our jobs…oh wait….

        P.S. Then this article tells us we need to grow Frankenfood faster.

    2. different clue

      If a country achieves ZPG, and then permits immigrants in, then that country has wasted all the effort it took to get to ZPG. So rigid immigration prevention into the successful ZPG zones will have to be part of the population-control answer.

  6. HBE

    I like reading these types of optimistic climate change and environmental articles, thanks for posting.

    One thing, how does this scale when the population is 14billion. It doesn’t. Neither do “green energy” solutions or any other technological wunderenergie, if it doesn’t require massive changes in lifestyle and the structure of society (population controls among others) it’s an ineffective magic bullet.

    I feel like globally it’s kind of like the late 1944 population of Germany hoping for that wonder weapon, (instead of some painful diplomatic solution) that turns the tide of the war that everyone else knows they are well on their way to losing.

    Today it’s wunderenergie, and carbon cap and mitigation that will save us at no individual cost. Keep the suburbs, and the suv, and plan a house for three kids. They’re putting up solar panels, it’s all good. /S

    1. Vatch

      if it doesn’t require massive changes in lifestyle and the structure of society (population controls among others) it’s an ineffective magic bullet.

      No kidding. Human overpopulation is the world’s number one problem, because it contributes to so many other problems, such as

      1. toxic pollution.
      2. greenhouse gas emissions.
      3. poverty.
      4. social stresses that make war more likely.
      5. mass species extinction.
      6. inequality. This might surprise some people, but when there’s a huge supply of potential employees, the average wage is lowered. High population numbers make it easier for the oligarchs to maintain control.

  7. Susan

    Good to see this – we now have (liberals love this word) “professional” proof of concept. In fact it’s been working for years. See Allan Savory, Rattan Lal and Bill Mollison, Masanobu Fukuoka, Sepp Holzer, Elaine Ingham, the story of the Loess Plateau in China, Tamera. I posted three short videos here a while back, but I’ll mention them again for city dwellers. Soil Carbon Cowboys, One Hundred Thousand Beating Hearts and to allay your water fears (I have them, too – stop polluting it with fracking!!!) see Harvest Rain and Selah: Water from Stone. Per concern about an integrated manner – indeed, farmers and growers who are trying to survive, keep their land and feed their children cannot help but live this carbon banking in any way other than an integrated manner. In farming, the water problem is mitigated by carbon rich soils which act as a sponge, as addressed in the linked videos. Out here in flyover country along the souther shores of Lake Erie, I often wonder if anyone has connected the algal blooms problem in the western basin with not only the runoff from industrial grain farms and CAFOs, but also the history of that land in western Ohio and Eastern Indiana; once the Everglades of the north, the mucklands were ditched and drained in the 19th century. No wonder we have an algae problem in the lake. As they say in plumbing, ^%$# flows downhill. Carbon farming, retaining water in the soil, increasing yields and rotational grazing might well help our lake as well. Sigh. Systems thinking can often be found wanting, but not by the researchers and practitioners mentioned above.

    1. Oregoncharles

      I just posted some other relevant links below (once the moderator gets to it),and so did Judith, work of her own. It seems to be a lively field.

    2. rtr

      The linkage b/t soil organic matter and water retention is critical. Raising the soil organic matter of 1 acre 1% retains an additional 15,400 gallons of water in the landscape. Over 40 acres, that’s almost enough to fill an Olympic size swimming pool.

      Adding to your list:

      Colin Seis down under (

      Kevin Woltz created the Savanna Institute to study Mark Shepard’s work with woody perennials.

      The Quivira Coalition in NM

    3. different clue

      If “society” cared to pay enough taxes to offer to buy all that former marshland/swampland at prices so attractive that all its present owners would feel self-compelled to sell, then all that land could be re-flooded and remarshed/ reswamped. All that land would become a net carbon sink, building up millions of tons of peat from the millions of tons of downsucked skycarbon.

      Re-flooding ALL the marshlands and swamplands of the world and letting them resume their traditional role as high-speed high-capacity bio-carbon sinks would allow for a lot of skycarbon suckdown and hence a lot of global warming slowdown and mitigation.

  8. Michael

    Very interesting. In 2009 a paper was published in proposing to use crop residue, dumped into ocean trenches, as a cost effective way for carbon sequestration. To quote the summary:

    “Making bales with 30 percent of global crop residues — the stalks and such left after harvesting — and then sinking the bales into the deep ocean could reduce the build up of global carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by up to 15 percent a year, according to just published calculations.”

    Of course the collectors would have to pay the farmers for the residue, which currently is fed to cattle as silage.

    It’s not the magic bullet, but it’s a start.

    1. polecat

      Why not just till those ‘residues’ back into the ground for improved soil tilth, and to help regenerate more micro-bio flora & fauna ??? Help me out here .. I don’t see any advantage to dumping ANYTHING into any ocean trench ! Seems like just more ‘Progressian’ pie-in-sky turn-a-blind-eye wishful unthinking to me ..

      1. Mel

        Because the micro-bio flora and fauna have seen some of that cellulose as food, metabolized it, and turned it back into carbon dioxide and water. Living processes aren’t going to let those carbon compounds just sit.

        1. different clue

          Some of it, not all of it. Some of it will stay behind in the soil with every turn of the carbon cycle wheel.

    2. Susan the other

      But the oceans are even more maxed out than the atmosphere. The oceans, I assume by wave action, absorb carbon and other pollutants out of the air. Carbon is turning the oceans acidic and all sorts of problems are following. Oceans need to be cleaned up, it’s Catch 22. Maybe wave action is the mechanism that helps deserts absorb large amounts of carbon directly into the sand. Somewhere I read that desert soil (not sand) also absorbs high amounts of carbon without any help from industrialized agriculture. So maybe in those desert soils the wave action is simply the wind without dunes. We really have to face facts and stop producing atmospheric carbon asap. About photosynthesis – it might not be a good idea to mess with it since it is the basis for life as we know it, unless we can isolate our too-clever-by-half synthetic technologies so they don’t manage to screw up the real thing.

      1. different clue

        Indeed. It would be better and wiser to support more of the natural photosynthesis that has proved itself over the last half a billion years.

        I saw a chart in a book somewhere trying to show how much of the visible light that plants see gets net harvested and turned into stored chemical energy ( sugar and more complex plant-stored molecules). The chart was cluttered and unclear with fractional arrows going this way and that , but it seemed to imply that plants net-harvest 5 % of the visible light they see. If plants were better cared for, more consistently right-watered, neither overwatered nor underwatered, supplied with exactly all the minerals they need at every moment to conduct more photo-electric stimulation, more stimulated-electron passdown along the electron transport chain, hence more energized excited electrons available to break more CO2 and H2O bonds, more broken-molecule re-assembly systems to weld more molecule parts into more sugars, etc.etc. . . . plants could get more traditional photosynthesis done.

        If photosynthesis went from 5% of all light seen to 10% of all light seen, plants would be photosynthing twice as much sugar as they are now . . . sucking down twice as much skycarbon and farting out twice as much oxygen, etc.

    3. Oregoncharles

      Problem one: the stuff floats.

      It would make more sense to fix the carbon on site, via ocean fertilization. I propose this reluctantly, because it has some obvious hazards – it directly alters the ocean ecosystem, and unlike soil storage, it’s completely unproven. Nonetheless, we’re pretty desperate at this point, so it should at least be researched. The oceans are suffering from acidification as well as warming, so sucking the CO2 out of the water itself is important. We’re already altering the ocean ecosystem, in a very bad way.

  9. Judith

    I’m glad soil carbon as a crucible for climate solutions is gaining greater awareness. I’ve written a book on soil and three years ago published an article specifically on soil carbon . There is a growing global movement focused on restoring soil, and last month the FAO held a meeting on its potential. I encourage readers to explore; there are some articles on my website and I can refer people to other resources. It’s about restoring the carbon cycle, as the world’s agricultural lands have lost between 50 and 80 percent of its original carbon stocks over time.

    Given that we’re here at Naked Capitalism I will say this: while bolstering soil carbon has multiple–and multiplying–benefits, unlike, say, geoengineering or carbon capture contraptions, it would be hard for anyone to get extremely rich from it. Rather, small to medium-sized farmers and ranchers, the people they serve, their communities, and all those how rely on functioning natural ecosystems (read: all of us) will see the rewards.

    1. polecat

      On a personal note, I sift through our stove box to collect what charcoal might remain from the previous night’s fire until, when winter’s over, I crush and deposit it into our raised garden beds …. poor mr. polecats bio-char, if you will …

      Doing my tiny part to help a little bit of earth !

      1. different clue

        That biochar can last anywhere up to a couple of centuries. That bio char carbon that you just sequestered will STAY sequestered for some time to come.

    2. different clue

      Ahh . . . if people are not impressed that an author in this field has come to comment at Naked Capitalism, people SHOULD be impressed by that. It shows what reach NaCap is achieving. It shows how far hopefully useful ideas and examples may be spread.

  10. Dikaios Logos

    I’m substantially more sanguine about this stuff than other commenters. This is just the kind of area that gets almost no attention, I’d guess more $$$ was put into social media companies in the last month than research into soil as a carbon sink has gotten in years, though these areas could hold lots of promise.

    I have experience increasing soil organic matter, largely by accident, by 1% in a year, from 10-11%, in a 20cm deep layer of my lawn. Given that this was a quarter acre, adding this much carbon to the soil is, guesstimating from a probable range of bulk densities, something along order of 5-30 metric tons of carbon.

    At the very least, this soil as a carbon sink idea needs some attention!

  11. SittingStill

    While the objective of maximizing the sequestration of carbon by soils is very important and even vital, BEWARE of the means to this end: One of the agricultural techniques that you will often read about that is said to increase carbon soil content is no-till agriculture. What you almost never hear about is what these techniques entail: In an industrial agricultural context, no-till farming techniques are frequently GMO/glysophate dependent.

    Its easy to find industrial ag propaganda that touts the benefits of and encourages the adaption of No-Till GMO techniques as a way of combating climate change. Monsanto et al then does its best to reap greenwashing benefits: a typical piece of propaganda linked here.

    1. different clue

      Rodale Research Institute has been studying methods of No Till farming which involve NO GMO and NO glypho. It may be possible to find them at the Rodale link. Part of their method involves using a physical tool they designed called a crimper to mechanically roll over/ crush down/ physically kill the cover crop. Then a tool with very narrow cutter-wheels for cutting/mixing narrow slot-strips through the crushdowned cover crop mass into the soil below for planting seeds into that mixposed slot-strip. Here are some pictures of the crimper invented for this purpose.;_ylt=AwrBT9ImUfBYuagAUs1XNyoA;_ylu=X3oDMTEyM3F2ZGNtBGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwMxBHZ0aWQDQjM2OTNfMQRzZWMDc2M-?p=no+till+crimper&fr=sfp

      Here is a working commercial farmer in North Dakota who is doing row crops on part of his farm with No Till which is also NO GMO and alMOST no glypho. (At a talk I heard him deliver recently he said he “could” clean up certain problem areas with physical tillage instead of glypho if he could just bring himself to return to spot focus tillage-when-needed after getting so religious about zero tillage anywhere.) Here is the link.

      1. different clue

        About that last link, the link to North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown; the upper-center of the screen offers a little click-to-play video of Gabe Brown describing what and why he does and thumbnail-sketching the results. If left alone, this little video-play screen goes from farmer video to farmer video, all these farmers giving their first-person testimonial anecdata about what they are doing and why they are doing it and what they are getting.

        I doubt any of these farmers would be afraid of legitimate non-profit sound-science scientists studying on their land to look for scientific bases and to see if there are scientific proofs that none of this is actually happening. ( I don’t know if they would welcome special-agenda corporate junk-science scientists onto their land with the same degree of trust.) The videos are worth watching.

  12. Peter Dorman

    I will have a book coming out on this general topic (climate change) next year. The chief problem with carbon sink strategies to avert catastrophic climate change — forests as well as soils — is that they are reversible. They could be reversed by future human activities. Forests obviously have competing uses, and it will almost certainly be the case that there is some tradeoff between crops that maximize carbon sequestration and those that maximize the desired harvest. It’s difficult to predict how people and their systems will respond to the pressures of a climate-impacted world a few decades from now. (And remember there is an approximately 40 year lag between atmospheric carbon concentrations and full terrestrial warming.) Also, climate change itself will have an impact, difficult to determine today, on future sinks. What happens to all that accumulated soil carbon as temperature increases and precipitation patterns change?

    I’m entirely in favor of research, investment and incentivizing in carbon sinks, but as a complement to quickly phasing out fossil fuels, not as an alternative or offset.

    1. polecat

      ‘to quickly phasing out fossil fuels’ ….

      To what exactly ?? Look, there appears to be no energy panacea on the horizon to allow modern technical society to live as it does, thus being forced into a more reduced lifestyle, utilizing greater amounts of human & animal muscle power, as in centuries past to get things done …. that’s where humanity is headed, not ever-upward ‘progress’ !! people, in the main, will have to get used to, to a great extent, the rhythms of the past, in order to survive this world ! Fossil fuels were/are a one-off for humanity, at least from a geological/geophysical perspective, and nothing, so far, scales to the extent that said fossil fules have, and so-called renewables will not allow us all to live the way/ways we currently do …

      Apologies for the rant … well, sort of ..

      1. Susan


        Can we stop with the “magic bullet,” please? No carbon farmer or soil carbon scientist is saying, keep driving and building high rises in Manhattan, keep flying to and fro in big hulking pieces of metal because – no worries, we’ve gotcha covered. Just try to get a city dweller to imagine living in relation to nature’s cycles. Good luck with that. Oh, no, hydroponics will ensure I have strawberries in January, they’re thinking. Still. After all – technology. Sure. And it’ll all be powered by wind and solar. In your dreams. Best correlate in today’s newsfeed was the Ben Carson rescued from elevator. Elevators – yeah, that’s the future. Maybe powered by garden gnomes pulling ropes in the basement??

        1. William Wilson

          Since there has been no mention of the efforts of Dr. RL Mills’ SunCell development, see:

          following is a link to a lecture and video at Fresno State Univ.:

          Dr. Mills is currently directing the engineering of the final controls of the commercial models of the SunCell and plans to perform field tests later this year. His efforts over the past 20+ years led to the discovery of the hydrino, an allotrope of hydrogen. The accompaniment of light, as hot as that on the surface of the sun (around 3000 degrees), was discovered 4 years ago during that process. His lab has now been able to convert that light into electric current with the aid of his concentrator photovoltaic cells and his genius. Mills has accomplishments would take too long to recite. Short summary, SunCell may have the ability to revolutionize power production and facilitate a better use of fossil fuels.

          1. HBE

            I’m sorry, I’m gonna apologize beforehand.

            HA, how’s that for a magic bullet. Dr. Mills has got us covered with the next great wunderenergie. Move along no need for any changes, carry on as you are! Technology will save us.

      2. Susan the other

        don’t apologize for saying what we’re all thinking… It’s frightening. And we’ve evolved to be the great deniers that we are. Even though none of us like the pace of modern society. I’ve been wondering why there hasn’t been a revival of the 1950s “efficiency experts” telling us how we can synergize ourselves and do twice as much on half as much. Although I’m sure there are yuuge efficiencies to be had if we could only decide on which policy we want ;-)

    2. MtnLife

      Will there be a discussion touching on the negative effects of using our forests as a carbon sink? I’m speaking mostly of the steady crapification of lumber over the last century plus. Increased atmospheric carbon has accelerated growth rates. This can be a good thing if the tree in question is willow being grown for biofuels (This also is not much of a carbon sink unless the biochar is being saved). Foresters often comment about the rate of replenishment of harvestable board feet being better than it was. This is not a good thing for the end user or anyone who lives near trees. The increased growth rate has increased the spacing of the growth rings and consequently reduced the strength of the wood. This results in increased storm induced property damage as the trees are less resilient to high winds and the lumber produced to be of lesser quality (less dense, lower failure benchmarks). The reason we cannot produce another Stradivarius, even if the craftsmanship were present, is that the tonal quality of the wood cannot be replicated. Gone forever, or at least until we return to lower atmospheric carbon levels.

  13. glib

    I am with Susan and PK. Cover crops can make a significant dent in CO2, hopefully not by dumping shipfuls of them in the Marianne Trench (as brain dead a proposal as I have ever seen). Other favorable mechanisms are increasing photosynthesis in arctic waters and the use of C4 plants farther North. And now we have even Monsanto strongly supporting cover crops, since farmers lazily terminate such crops with glyphosate. What’s not to like?

  14. Oregoncharles

    I brought this up in comments quite a while ago. Unfortunately, my reference is a book, so any link is to (curses) Amazon. The book: “the soil will save us,” by Kristin Ohlson. Related articles, from her website:; The website:

    No, she isn’t a relative, though I have heard her speak, as she lives in Portland.

    I believe her work, which involves a number of working farms, answers most of Yves’ questions. There is no conflict with feeding people: yields improve, and so does yield reliability. Many examples are based on grasslands (forage); there’s a whole system for improving those. Incidentally, this is an argument against veganism as an environmental measure, or would be if these techniques were in wide use. Applied to other crops, it depends heavily on covercrops – she describes fields with a lush cover of assorted plants, with corn, etc., growing through them.

    the hard part is convincing millions of conservative, hard-pressed farmers to change the way they operate, against the interests of the chemical companies. Then there’s this:; “This Kansas Farmer Fought A Government Program To Keep His Farm Sustainable” – crop insurance.

    It does make me feel better about the large areas of my property that are just growing grass. It, and the trees, are storing carbon in the soil. It isn’t just the roots themselves – plants, and especially grasses, shed carbon compounds into the soil, apparently to feed the micro-organisms. It’s all very permacultural.

    1. different clue

      A little deeper searching will reveal NON Amazon sources for this book. For example, the author herself has her own website.
      I clicked on it. It has a “buy this book” click-on. Clicking on it calls up 4 choices:
      Amazon ( boo! hiss!)
      Barnes and Nobel ( Meh . . . )
      IndieBound ( Yay?)
      Powells ( Yay!)

      Or you can also get it from a thing called AbeBooks.

      If you hate Amazon with a hatred which is pure and true, you will spend the time to find NON Amazon sources for something. This took me just three minutes on this computer here. Do YOUUUUUU hate Amazon eNOUGH to take the time to find another source for something? Will you be willing to pay an extra dollar-number-ten for it in order to keep dollars number-one-through-nine aWAY from Amazon?
      Do you? Do you?

      Its safe to do. No policeman will beat you. All it costs is an extra dollar or three or five. Its called “shoptivism” and it realitizes the principal that “every dollar is a bullet on the field of economic combat”.

  15. Wisdom Seeker

    I think Nature has already figured this one out, otherwise we wouldn’t have the huge inventory of fossil fuels already under our feet. Perhaps the basic challenge is to keep air (oxygen) away from the reduced carbon, so it can’t re-oxidize back into CO2. And perhaps Water is the answer?

    First: swamps. Anyone who grew up near a marsh (or remembers middle school earth science) ought to know that marshlands “fill in” due to the accumulation of plant remains (=carbon) filling in the bottoms of ponds. This is one place where peat forms, before it turns into coal.

    Next up: rivers. How much carbon is “sequestered” into the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico every year by the dirt and silt carried in the Mississippi river? (Carbon balance in soil is a net balance of production and losses; did the researchers in Australia or elsewhere consider the amount of carbon relocated by storm runoff?)

    Finally: oceans. Isn’t it well established that most of the “fossil fuels” we’re worried about originally came from decomposing plants and animals in shallow seas?

    Bonus: people. The yards of old churches have apparently risen several inches over the centuries, due to the accumulation of material buried in funerals. (Not just corpses, but also coffins?)

    P.S. Perhaps the researchers trying to figure out how to sequester carbon from crops in dry farmland should also (or instead) look at the accumulation of carbon-rich material in forests? Particularly in climates too wet for forest fires, perhaps this might be quite substantial? (Streams and rivers may not carry away all of the carbon-rich forest dirt as runoff.)

  16. Michael

    Heat crop waste (or wood chips from forest fire prevention fuel load reduction programs) without oxygen to make biochar (charcoal) and turn it back into the soil. Once cellulose is turned into charcoal the carbon will be “fixed” in the soil for centuries. If left to rot on the ground most cellulose will turn into carbon dioxide or methane while only a tiny bit will end up as humus fixed in the soil.
    Simple systems for making biochar are inefficient and make tarry char while high tech ones can produce the rough equivalent of natural gas as a byproduct.
    Hemp as a weed control or seed crop produces huge amounts of biomass as a by broduct which could be fixed.
    Green revolution breeding programs favored grain production over stem production leaving less carbon for the soil.

  17. different clue

    The need for riverloads of standing water to grow rice with has been raised as a problem for ricegrowing in tomorrow’s water short future.

    A system for growing more rice with less water involving intensive hand labor by the same huge numbers of live-in-place farmers as are ALREADY THERE ALREADY ANYWAY has been developed. it is called the System of Rice Intensification.

    And I wonder if versions of such systems couldn’t be altered around for growing various food in suburban settings, thereby setting even more broadacre farmland even more free to focus on carbon suckdown and in-soil storage.

  18. IDontKnow

    Interesting units of measure, carbons. Do those charts refer to carbon atoms, carbon containing molecules, grams of carbon? Looks a little quack, quack, but then as noted, it is coming from Gist.

    1. different clue

      Oh I wouldn’t say quack on purpose, just maybe over-sloppy and over-breezily over-happy. Someone somewhere should know just exactly what “carbon” in these charts really refers to. Once an agreed-upon-definition of “carbon” is firmly fixed, then analysis may proceed.

  19. TheCatSaid

    The Savory Institute has done ground-breaking work in this, in which holistic management–including livestock in many cases–builds productivity, biodiversity, and rapidly increasing soil depth and soil vitality. One of the key findings is that “old ways” of doing research didn’t make sense when one was studying impact on the big picture over time. These conventional research methods were not asking relevant questions. Savory found they had to develop new ways of measuring and tracking, and to formulate different research hypotheses.

    Also, holistic management is by definition unique to a given set of circumstances including the relevant human/stakeholder goals. One can use adjoining “conventionally farmed” land as a control, and can thereby demonstrate the success of holistic management in multiple ways (biodiversity growth, animal health, harvest size, root depth, microbial/insect diversity, mineral content of soil–and ECONOMIC success as well).

    There are loads of great videos and materials online. Here’s the main website. However–warning–Savory is an amazing speaker and human being and ditto for speakers at his conferences. On more than one occasion I’ve stayed up all night watching and learning, because I couldn’t tear myself away.

    1. TheCatSaid

      For those not aware of Allan Savory, here’s snippet from the Savory Institute website:


      In the 1960s Zimbabwean wildlife biologist-farmer Allan Savory made a significant breakthrough in understanding what was causing the degradation and desertification of the world’s grassland ecosystems and developed a way to restore the land to health using livestock as his primary tool.

      For centuries we believed livestock were a major cause of desertification, but Savory’s research showed that the cause lay in how those livestock were managed. His solution involved mimicking the behavior of the formerly vast herds of wild grazing animals he had witnessed as a young biologist. He devised a simple method any pastoralist can use to move massive amounts of carbon and water from the atmosphere back to the soil and begin reversing thousands of years of human-caused desertification – on the scale required, which no technology imaginable can accomplish. In the process, we can feed more people and enhance societal well-being.

      While the impetus for Savory’s research was desertification, the principles of holistic management can be applied to any environment, including those with plenty of rainfall. The principles have been successfully applied all over the world, leading quickly to deeper, healthy soils (carbon sequestration!) as well as improved yield (livestock, crops, dairy) and healthier environments, economic regeneration and stability, and more. The specific solutions are different depending on the location and human goals.

  20. pslebow

    I don’t see anything in the report describing the actual size of potential carbon sink compared to what the world experiences now. Of course, the elephant in the room ignored by all main stream progressives is that animal agriculture generates more than 50% of green house gas emissions (Goodland and Anhang –
    World Bank report). Never mind the devastation of the rain forests for feed crop and the rape of our oceans. An acre of animal feed crop can only feed about one seventh the amount of people that same acre could feed if eaten directly.

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