Soil is the Solution

A crucially important trend in climate change news focuses on soil.

In the United States, the greatest contributors to climate change have been the energy and transportation sectors, so federal responses have focused on emissions that result from burning fossil fuels. The resistance to regulated changes has come from private interests with business models that depend on fossil fuels (and politicians that support them).

The U.S. priority on fossil fuels makes sense, and it engages a good fight, but it’s not the entire story.

For at least the past ten years, public interest organizations have been pointing to Nature’s plan for moderating climate change. That plan depends on forests and soils, both of which are very good at absorbing and storing (sequestering) carbon.

Climate change has been accelerated by cutting down vast areas of forest to free land for agriculture. The negative effects of deforestation have been recognized, and initiatives (never enough) have been launched to control this practice and let the trees do their work.

Nature’s plan also as been compromised by agricultural practices, beginning with deforestation and continuing with a variety of poorly conceived land-use and land-management practices.

The good news on this front is that almost all the countries that have joined in the Paris Climate Agreement have stated that they will improve agricultural practices in their efforts to curb climate change.

According to the World Resource Institute, agriculture contributes 13 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and, with land-use changes, 24 percent of net emissions.

Agriculture is not as important as a climate change factor in the U.S. as I developing countries, but it’s still a significant contributor. California, which has a huge role in agriculture, has recognized this reality and initiated the Healthy Soils Initiative, discussed in a recent column (see ongardening.com/?p=2680) .

In this regard, California has been well ahead of the federal pace: U.S. Department of Agriculture has recommended that farmers voluntarily adopt carbon-capturing practices, but has done little more in deference to policies on energy and transportation.

In more good news, the U.S. position is changing, In December of 2016, the National Science and Technology Council (NTSC) released the report, “The State and Future of U.S. Soils: Framework for a Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science.” The NTSC is “is the principal means by which the Executive Branch coordinates science and technology policy across the diverse entities that make up the Federal research and development (R&D) enterprise.”

To see this report, visit www.whitehouse.gov and search for “soils.”

In related actions, on January 11th, Regeneration International, a coalition of consumer groups, launched its “Soil is the Solution” briefing for members of Congress. A team of experts will seek opportunities to talk to our elected policy-makers (or their staffs).

Also, on January 19th, Former Vice President Al Gore will unveil a sequel to “An Inconvenient Truth,” his 2006 climate-change documentary. The new film surely will emphasize the role of agriculture in climate change. The sequel will debut at the Sundance Film Festival, and will be released in theaters later in 2017.

Efforts to control climate change must begin with large-scale actions, but they are also appropriate for home gardeners. We all have a stake in the future!

Future Uncertainty

As the inauguration of Donald Trump approaches, we enter a historically extraordinary period in which a single political party controls the House, the Senate and the White House.

“Control” should be taken with a grain of salt, because little is absolute in our nation’s capital.

While absolute control doesn’t happen in Washington, the political arena does have constants. During the past several years, a great constant has been the confrontation between opposing perspectives.

Under the new administration, that confrontation focuses on the struggle over the separation of power written into the U.S. Constitution. The incoming political majorities seem determined to reduce the power of the executive branch of government, meaning to constrain the president’s ability to use executive orders and the authority of administrative offices to write and enforce regulations based on legislation.

The lobbyists are out in great numbers, speaking on behalf of either public or private interests.

There are many issues on the table. A recent report in the New York Times observed, “The most powerful and ambitious Republican-led Congress in 20 years…plans to leave its mark on virtually every facet of American life…”

With that in mind, we examined the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s December 2016 report, Free to Prosper: A Pro-Growth Agenda for the 115th Congress. This 193–page report addresses many aspects of American life, and consistently calls for the reduction of federal regulation with the intention to “unleash America’s entrepreneurial, wealth-creating potential.”

In this column, we focus on issues related to gardening, a topic that easily includes food, so we will comment on only this report’s section, “Food Drugs, and Consumer Freedom.”

Due to space limits, we can only list the report’s food-related objectives:

  • Ensure consumer access to genetically engineered (GE) foods
  • Streamline (“fast-track”) regulation of (GE) plants and foods
  • Repeal the national standards for labeling GE foods
  • Oppose overregulation of food additives (particularly trans fats)
  • Oppose recommended limitation of sodium (salt) content of foods

This section also contains objectives to reduce or roll back federal regulation of (a) drugs, medical devices, and treatments, especially the new and experimental, (b) tobacco substitutes, (c) soft and pliable plastics (phthalates), (d) flame retardants (organohalogens), (e) online gambling, and (f) sports gambling.

Finally, this section recommends federal defunding of “activist research,” such as research on the safety hazards of BPA (bisphenol a) lining of metal food containers.

These are industry-sponsored objectives, not actual legislation. Their basic message is expressed in the report’s title, which translates to Make Money.

At the same time, consumer groups are vigorously organizing their defense of regulations that are intended to protect public health and safety. In California, the governor and attorney general are prepared to resist federal actions that would obstruct the state’s progress on several important issues.

The debate over the appropriate balance between public and private interests will continue during the coming four years, with an opportunity at the mid-point of this period to review the actions of some of our elected representatives.

Meanwhile, the political environment must be regarded as unsettled at best.

Biochar: Ancient Soil Amendment

As we continue to learn about gardening, we are often reminded of nature’s essential role in the process, and, by extension, the wisdom demonstrated by historical gardeners as they worked in concert with nature.

We have countless examples of the benefits of “gardening with nature,” and ample evidence of the short-sightedness of technology-based agribusiness.

”Technology” as used here encompasses monocropping, animal feedlots and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, as well as more constructive activities such as the use of drone aircraft to monitor crops.

One fascinating historical instance of natural gardening is biochar. The briefest definition of biochar is organic matter that has been heated to high temperatures with limited oxygen to produce charcoal. This process (pyrolysis) also produces gasses that can be burned to produce electricity.

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 12.08.40 PM

Biochar is very similar to charcoal, which is made principally from wood, and used in backyard barbecues and a variety of industrial processes. Biochar, by contrast, is made from all kinds of organic waste, particularly garden or agricultural waste, and is used as a soil amendment, adding carbon to the soil.

 

Note: The biochar photo is from a good article by Jeff Cox in Rodale’s Organic Life.

Biochar apparently has been produced and used for thousands of years by early gardeners in Brazil’s Amazon River Basin to improve their rather poor soils. In 1870, an American geologist and explorer discovered and reported areas of dark and highly fertile soil. Researchers puzzled over the origin of this unusual soil, called “terra preta” but recognized that it has strong benefits for agriculture.

During the past twenty years or so, scientists have attributed several valuable properties to biochar, beyond improving crop yields. The additional benefits include increasing water-holding capacity of soil, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers, reducing natural emissions of greenhouse gasses (nitrous oxide and methane) from agricultural soils, increasing soil microbial life, resulting in carbon sequestration, avoiding the natural decomposition of agricultural and forestry waste and thereby decreasing carbon dioxide emissions.

These benefits are stimulating great enthusiasm for uses of biochar in both gardening and agriculture. For example, scientist James Lovelock, author of The Gaia Theory, has written, “There is an outside chance that one procedure could really turn back the clock on Global warming and that is burying carbon. All you have to do is get every farmer everywhere to make a profit by turning all his agricultural waste into char and burying it.”

This success story has only an outside chance because it assumes universal participation by the world’s farmers, but does reflect the genuine value of biochar.

Still, individual gardeners could help to reverse global warming by using biochar. This material is available commercially, but it’s costly. A quick survey of sources on the Internet shows a typical price around $30 per cubic foot, enough to amend a garden bed of twenty-four square feet.

A gardener could produce biochar with little or no expense. Here are brief directions from Barbara Pleasant, Mother Earth News (2009): “Pile up woody debris in a shallow pit in a garden bed; burn the brush until the smoke thins; damp down the fire with a one-inch soil covering; let the brush smolder until it is charred; put the fire out.”

For more on this topic, visit the International Biochar Initiative.

Biochar could increase dramatically the fertility of your soil, and help you to rival the successes of ancient gardeners of the Amazon Basin.

More

A reader’s query and my reply.

Q: I read your article in Friday’s Sentinel about biochar. I am wondering if I can put used, regular, charcoal from the grill in the garden. There is always some left over. Can I break it up and put it in my garden?

It seems like I read somewhere years ago I could, but I can’t remember.

A: By “used charcoal” do you mean ashes?

I have attached a short article that is about Colorado’s soil, but California soil also tends to be alkaline, so the article has relevance in our area as well.

Charcoal is Not a Good Soil Amendment in Colorado

The bottom line is that charcoal ash, which is alkaline, would have some value when added to very acidic soil, i.e., low pH, but doesn’t add any fertility to the soil.

On the other hand, unburned, or partially burned charcoal briquettes (made from wood) could be useful as a soil amendment, although they have less nutrient value than biochar, which is made from a range of vegetative materials.

Charcoal briquettes usually contain cornstarch as a binder, and might include coal, lime and other ingredients, none of which would be harmful in the garden. Soften them in water to break them down, then dry the result to mix into fertilizers or directly into the soil.

I hope this is helpful

Another reader’s comment: 

Dylan Gillis

Fine article, though it sort of glosses over the fact that biochar itself is 99% carbon that stays in the soil for hundreds if not thousands of years. While compost only costs $3 or more per cubic foot (depending on quality, volume you buy and packaging/marketing variables) it needs to be replaced every year, forever, to result in similar levels of carbon sequestration and fertility. Of course the best is to add biochar, once to satisfactory levels, and then amend with compost for the nutrients and energy feeding the soil life, every year. In this approach you would use less compost to get the same or better results and your carbon sequestration would be more or less permanent!

Gardening to Reverse Climate Change

The threat of climate change has become a concern among scientists, environmentalists and gardeners (who might wear all three of these hats, of course). In the search for solution to this problem, these three interested parties have common ground, as we explore in this column.

As background, our climate is changing as a result of a disruption of the Carbon Cycle.

On Plant Earth, a fixed amount of carbon cycles through different forms: liquid, solid, or gas.

Carbon enters the atmosphere from several sources, including respiration of animals and plants, decay of animals and plants, eruptions of volcanoes, and releases of dissolved carbon dioxide (CO2) from the oceans.

Plants absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, and use photosynthesis to release oxygen back into the atmosphere and convert carbon into sugars that support the plant’s above-ground growth. At the same time, up to 40% of the CO2 goes to the plant’s roots, to feed soil microbes. The microbes assist the plant to acquire nutrients through its roots, and lock (“sequester”) carbon into the soil for very long periods.

The Carbon Cycle supports Earth’s climate and enables the growth of plants and literally all other living things.

Carbon Cycle

Credit: NASA/Globe Project

In the diagram above, notations in blue indicate pools of carbon and notations in red indicate fluxes of carbon, both quantities are measured in petagrams.

This complex natural process balances the amount of carbon in liquid, solid and gas forms. Vast amounts of carbon are stored in the soil and fossil fuels, and much smaller amounts are stored in the atmosphere, the oceans, and plants.

During the Industrial Revolution (1760 to c. 1830), humans began burning fossil fuels, cutting down forests, draining wetlands, converting grasslands to large-scale crops, paving paradise, and applying synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These activities have been disrupting the Carbon Cycle and altering this important balance.

The consequences include degraded soil with reduced ability to capture carbon, an excess of carbon in the atmosphere, the acidification of the oceans, and other effects, none of which are beneficial to living things (including us).

The broad term, climate change, encompasses all these negative effects.

Restoring the natural Carbon Cycle could reverse climate change.

Restoration requires feeding the soil with organic matter and planting cover crops to protect the soil from temperature extremes and erosion. In short, the solution is based upon regenerative, organic agriculture.

This strategy must be employed on a global scale, but we all should understand the Carbon Cycle and support this process of soil restoration in our own gardens and in our individual contributions to relevant public policy. Substantial private interests are invested in fossil fuels, “conventional” monoculture agriculture that depends upon synthetic chemicals, and other industrial methods that are changing our climate. They can be expected to resist this strategy of working with nature, so eventual success requires our vision and long-term commitment.

Each gardener could participate first in his or her own garden. That would be a fine way to celebrate our independence from, in this context, commercial interests.

Continue reading

More Interesting Than Dirt

Gardeners should refer correctly to the essence of our gardens, which is soil, and avoid calling it “dirt.”

Most soils consist of three groups of particles: sand (the largest in size), (clay (the smallest in size) and silt. The percentages of sand, clay and silt determine the texture of the soil. The best soil for gardening, called loam, has nearly equal parts of sand, silt and clay. Soil with this texture has good balance between retaining and draining moisture.

St another level, garden soil is a living environment, an ecological system, with microorganisms, decaying organic matter, earthworms and other insects. Each of these components contributes to the soil’s habitat for flora and fauna. Living soil involves a vast number of interdependent activities, which combine to create a complex and dynamic environment. These functions are enough to keep soil scientists studying for their lifetimes and motivate gardeners to at least appreciate what is going on under the surface of their gardens.

Kids Pat Down Soil Image

Kids pat down soil around a navel orange tree they planted

By comparison, dirt might contain a good mix of sand, silt and clay, but lacks any of the organic components of good garden soil. Dirt can be regarded as raw material for conversion to garden soil by adding organic matter (compost); this process will provide food for beneficial microorganisms and support the eventual development of the ecological system.

Dirt with a less than ideal mix of sand, silt and clay often can be improved by adding compost. Adding sand to a clayey soil, or clay to a sandy soil, might seem like a good idea, but it very difficult to create a good mix and usually results in something like concrete. Just add compost.

When we think of things that we cannot live without, many people will list sunlight, air and water, but not include soil, which is the essential fourth contributor to life on earth.

With this in mind, soil scientists from around the world have joined to name 2015 as the International Year of Soils, with the goals to educate the public about the importance of healthy soils. The Global Soils Partnership, which includes the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, The Soil Science Society of America, and many other groups, is spearheading these efforts. We are pleased to support this educational initiative.

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 2.44.53 PM

The Partnership has identified a theme for the educational activities of each month during 2015. The theme for April is “Soils Clean and Capture Water,” which is timely during California’s current severe drought conditions. As a group, the monthly themes provide an overview of the many ways in which soils support the quality of life on Plant Earth.

  • January – Soils Sustain Life
  • July – Soils are Living
  • February – Soils Support Urban Life
  • August – Soils Support Health
  • March – Soils Support Agriculture
  • September – Soils Protect the Natural Environment
  • April – Soils Clean and Capture Water
  • October – Soils and the Products We Use
  • May – Soils Support Buildings/Infrastructure
  • November – Soils and Climate
  • June – Soils Support Recreation
  • December – Soils, Culture, and People

Each gardener can support the International Year of Soils, in these ways:

All plants respond to good soil!

More Interesting Than Dirt

Gardeners should refer correctly to the essence of our gardens, which is soil, and avoid calling it “dirt.”

Most soils consist of three groups of particles: sand (the largest in size), (clay (the smallest in size) and silt. The percentages of sand, clay and silt determine the texture of the soil. The best soil for gardening, called loam, has nearly equal parts of sand, silt and clay. Soil with this texture has good balance between retaining and draining moisture.

St another level, garden soil is a living environment, an ecological system, with microorganisms, decaying organic matter, earthworms and other insects. Each of these components contributes to the soil’s habitat for flora and fauna. Living soil involves a vast number of interdependent activities, which combine to create a complex and dynamic environment. These functions are enough to keep soil scientists studying for their lifetimes and motivate gardeners to at least appreciate what is going on under the surface of their gardens.

By comparison, dirt might contain a good mix of sand, silt and clay, but lacks any of the organic components of good garden soil. Dirt can be regarded as raw material for conversion to garden soil by adding organic matter (compost); this process will provide food for beneficial microorganisms and support the eventual development of the ecological system.

Dirt with a less than ideal mix of sand, silt and clay often can be improved by adding compost. Adding sand to a clayey soil, or clay to a sandy soil, might seem like a good idea, but it very difficult to create a good mix and usually results in something like concrete. Just add compost.

When we think of things that we cannot live without, many people will list sunlight, air and water, but not include soil, which is the essential fourth contributor to life on earth.

With this in mind, soil scientists from around the world have joined to name 2015 as the International Year of Soils, with the goals to educate the public about the importance of healthy soils. The Global Soils Partnership, which includes the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization <http://www.fao.org/soils-2015/en/>, The Soil Science Society of America <www.soils.org/iys>, and many other groups, is spearheading these efforts. We are pleased to support this educational initiative.

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 2.44.53 PM

The Partnership has identified a theme for the educational activities of each month during 2015. The theme for April is “Soils Clean and Capture Water,” which is timely during California’s current severe drought conditions. As a group, the monthly themes provide an overview of the many ways in which soils support the quality of life on Plant Earth.

  • January – Soils Sustain Life
  • July – Soils are Living
  • February – Soils Support Urban Life
  • August – Soils Support Health
  • March – Soils Support Agriculture
  • September – Soils Protect the Natural Environment
  • April – Soils Clean and Capture Water
  • October – Soils and the Products We Use
  • May – Soils Support Buildings/Infrastructure
  • November – Soils and Climate
  • June – Soils Support Recreation
  • December – Soils, Culture, and People

Each gardener can support the International Year of Soils, in these ways:

All plants respond to good soil!