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How the World's Most Fertile Soil Can Help Reverse Climate Change


How the World's Most Fertile Soil Can Help Reverse Climate Change

David Suzuki

Feeding more than 7 billion people with minimal environmental and climate impacts is no small feat. That parts of the world are plagued by obesity while starvation is rampant elsewhere shows part of the problem revolves around distribution and social equity. But agricultural methods pose some of the biggest challenges.


What is meant by the term “efficiency” in agribusiness terms is “as few workers as possible, paid the least possible”. This might have seemed like a good idea when displaced farm labourers could get factory jobs, but now all this produces is dispossessed former landowners, giant holdings owned by vulture capital, migrant worker/debt slaves, and ghost towns in the hinterland while megacities burst at the seams. With ongoing climate instability, having increasingly large monocultures is a recipe for disaster. What is needed is smaller, more micromanaged acreages with diverse crops – which requires people with local knowledge living and working there. At one time, that might have seemed cruel as rural life was lacking modern conveniences, but nowadays farm workers can have electricity and the Internet and most of the things that urban people have.


Superb for Suzuki to write this about terra preta. Good that he refers to biochar as “one promising development,” because i have talked with numerous “true believer” proponents of biochar who talk as if it they have found a magic bullet, “the only way to sequester carbon” as one person recently stated to me, as if biochar were the only thing that will save the ecology. (Kind of like some “true believer” proponents of hemp as a “savior.”)

Happy that Suzuki includes reference to agroecology, which seeks whole-systems approaches to producing food while simultaneously supporting ecological complexity and resilience. We need to always step back to a whole-systems view. Multiple changes and actions are key, including planting and nurturing trees, and soil-building by many practices - including biochar, but much more broadly understood.

We all need to see ourselves and all humans as ecological stewards, responsible for the living Earth that is immediately at hand, taking direct action to grow food and build soil and ecological health, wherever we live.


There has been talk about using biochar to sequester carbon for at least a decade. I think the biggest obstacle is cost. But it certainly makes sense to include it has part of the solution. Also, planting trees sequesters carbon and that should also be included as another way to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere. James Hansen has been arguing for biochar use for a number of years to get back to under 350 ppm. I think solutions like biochar have been pushed to the background with all the shouting about leaving fossil fuels in the ground. What I think is needed is a truly comprehensive approach that includes reducing emissions and sequestering carbon. It is important to go beyond the anti-corporate leave-it-he-ground rhetoric and include all the useful strategies to fight climate change. And certainly it goes without saying that it is absolutely essential to stop Donald Trump from the being next president or any other Republican climate change denier should the Republicans’ stop Trump movement actually succeed at their convention, which appears to be a realistic possibility.


Make your own biochar:

There are 65 million dead trees from California fires. That could be a lot of biochar.


Boy, I hate to drop the “other shoe” except burning any wood or plant source, even at low oxygen, will still contribute 50% of the carbon from the wood being made into “char” into the atmosphere. The more char you make; the more 50% goes into the atmosphere. Left as standing dead wood; less than 5% goes into the atmosphere… so technically doing this on all of the planet’s tillable ground would impact the carbon more then fossil fuels are today. Oops!


Whoa. I said Whoa there son!
Ummm: the carbon bonded into the lignin and carbohydrates of wood fiber are not being released into the atmosphere…well a tiny fraction is but the rest are all being cycled in the forest soils. So what you are suggesting is trading the fertility of the forest soils, and the trees who sequester carbon dioxide, with adding more carbon to land production soils. However, I notice the author doesn’t make the equation showing the soil carbon being demineralized and released as CO2 during the heat/water/soil reactions.


Biochar doesn’t sequester carbon: it buries the carbon tied up in the lignin and carbohydrates of the wood fiber. Not the carbon we are having trouble with at all…which are fossil fuels.


That sounds like the definition of sequester to me. How is that not sequestering carbon?


First, just because you have an IDEA that, if implemented, might reverse global warming, it doesn’t follow that that idea WILL be implemented. In fact, given the cluelessness of our “leaders,” the probability of implementation is close to ZERO!

Second, one climate scientist wrote in 2013 that he believes that “runaway” is ALREADY occurring. If he’s right, this means that we now have, with global warming, a “gift that keeps on giving—i.e., something that we CANNOT stop.


My understanding also that young, vigorously growing forests are the best carbon sequesters among the forest realm.


Ummmmm: no. Methanogenesis is an anaerobic process that occurs in select situations. Typical recycle of carbon in soils is a process that produces humus. Humus is a long-term storage of carbon from plant materials. 10,000 years or longer.
Methanogenesis is only one of 3 possible carbon cycles and hardly one of importance in aerobic cycles. I have humus samples of tree-related origin that is almost 100% carbon and over 10,000 years old.
According to your comment: there would be no coal, no fossil fuels and no soil humus. ALL the “swamp” carbon, from the Carboniferous Period was formed anaerobic… and it didn’t end up in the sky.
Sorry…it was a good try. And btw: I teach 200 level college cell biology…


Buries 50% of the carbon which is then being released from the soil microbes. So the other 50% is lost to the atmosphere during the carbonification process; making the char. Leave trees to naturally decompose and it only amounts to 7% entering the atmosphere and the rest cycling in the soil.
So speed up making char means speed up that 50% returning to the atmosphere. Do it on a planet wide basis and we are back to CO2 levels similar to the Carboniferous Age again realllll soon.


As I own a fertilizer company, making both organic & conventional fertilizers, the first error is that “industrial” fertilizers are mostly made from mined minerals…not fossil fuels. Only a small percentage of “industrial” fertilizers are made from natural gas: urea being the main one.
Urea accounts for maybe 20% of all nitrogen fertilizers used in the world. Nitrogen fertilizers account for 30% of all fertilizers used period. So 20% of 30%… not a real major number. The misinformation by “techies” is often amazing. Know chemistry & cell biology first: then use Google. (btw: I teach 200 level college cell biology)
The point I was making is that 50% loss to the atmosphere represents a HUGE CO2 spike compared to letting the trees, plants naturally decompose. Huge.
And if this was done over the whole planet we would release enough CO2 to return us to the CO2 levels of the Carboniferous Period. Worse then we are today by about a 1000 fold.


One of the issues with your ‘spike’ comment, is that much of the feedstock that could or would be used for biochar production is already burned. Agricultural wastes are burned in many places around the world. Invasive plants are often controlled by burning as well. Charring these would mean less CO2. Another issue is that other potential feedstocks for biochar (i.e. sewage, animal manures) can cause significant emissions in the form of CH4 which is far worse than CO2, so charring these could result in overall reductions. And finally if done right, the energy generated during biochar production could displace energy production from fossil fuels.