The Carbon Coalition Against Global Warming is an alliance of farmers, land managers, and soil scientists. Formed in late 2005, its mission is to campaign for the right of farmers to access the trading value of the carbon they can grow in their soils.
The Carbon Coalition welcomes this opportunity to reveal to the Committee the soil carbon phenomenon and the dramatic potential it has for addressing Natural Resource Management and Climate Change issues simultaneously.
Information about soil carbon and the Carbon Coalition can be found at the following sites:
Scope of Submission
The Carbon Coalition Against Global Warming wishes to submit relevant information to address the following terms of reference of the enquiry:
b) Options for ensuring ecologically sustainable natural resource use, taking into particular account the impacts of climate change;
(c) Approaches to land and water use management practices on farms and other natural resource management practices, having regard in particular to the role of such practices in contributing to climate change or as a tool in helping to tackle climate change;
(d) The effectiveness of management systems for ensuring that sustainability measures for the management of natural resources in New South Wales are achieved, having particular regard to climate change; and
(e) The likely consequences of national and international policies on climate change on natural resource management in New South Wales.
The “Soil Carbon Solution” provides answers for these challenges:
b) achieving ecologically sustainable natural resource use in a climate change environment
(c) identifying land and water use management practices as a tool to tackle climate change;
(d) choosing management systems for achieving sustainability measures for natural resources in New South Wales
(e) consequences of national and international climate change policies on natural resource management in New South Wales
Soil Carbon and Climate Change
Climate Change is expected to mean the following for Australian landscapes:
1. General increases in temperatures – hotter summers, warmer winters
2. Less rainfall particularly in the south during winter and spring
3. Increased frequency of dry seasons
4. Increased evo-transpiration
5. Greater frequency and intensity of extreme weather events
6. Reduced flows in inland waterways.
The Carbon Coalition contends that increasing soil carbon levels and the processes required to do this are an effective strategy for adapting to and compensating for these conditions.
Increasing soil carbon levels in the 450m Ha of agricultural soils in Australia and the 5.5bn Ha of agricultural soils in the world is also an effective strategy for absorbing excess CO2 from the atmosphere and reducing the severity of Climate Change.
What is Soil Carbon?
Soil Carbon is one of the many resting places of Carbon as it cycles throughout the biosphere (the liveable area on the planet). Carbon is the basic chemical building block of all life on Earth. It also resides in mineral form in rock formations and in fossil fuels, coal and oil as well as in the ocean. The amount of Carbon on Earth is fixed. So the many processes that use it need to access a supply of it and have somewhere to get rid of it. The result is a cycle as Carbon moves between the oceans, rocks, soil, and atmosphere.
There are 33,000 Gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon stored in the oceans, 2500 Gt/C in soil, 750gt/C in the atmosphere, and 650 Gt/C in forests, grasslands, and other vegetation. (The “Greenhouse” effect is caused by the cycle getting out of balance, resulting in the atmosphere housing more on a rolling basis than it was designed to hold in order to manage stable weather patterns.)
Photosynthesis is a process that cycles Carbon out of the air and into plants, to be eaten by animals and humans as well as being deposited in soils. Photosynthesis is the only process that can take CO2 out of the atmosphere. It separates the C atom from the O atoms, releasing the Oxygen and incorporates the C in the plant, or transfers it to the soil where it becomes humus or other forms of Carbon. Some of it is released into the air if plants die and oxidize or dry out, or rot, releasing C in the form of methane.
Soil Carbon takes two main forms: 1. All the decomposed bodies of microbes such as bacteria, fungus, nematodes and root systems that die when plants are grazed as well as other decomposed plant residues. These forms of Carbon can be cycled quickly, within weeks. 2. The Carbon which is incorporated into the soil itself, such as humus. In these forms it can remain stable for thousands of years.
Total Organic Carbon is the amount of C stored in the soil of whatever type, source, or location. It can be measured very accurately. While soil carbon is subject to “flux” – different amounts can be measured according to time of day, time of year, and weather conditions – averaging techniques make assessing the amount of increase or decrease in soil C percentage possible.
The Benefits of Soil Carbon
Soil carbon improves the fertility and health of soil which is the source of life.
Soil carbon increases soil’s ability to transfer nutrients to plants, for greater productivity which can improve farmers’ incomes.
Soil carbon increases soil’s water-holding capacity, holding the water until it can be used by the plants rather than letting it run off into waterways.
Soil carbon increases soil stability which means greater resistance to erosion, which in turn means cleaner waterways.
Soil carbon effect on soil’s ability to hold water reduces recharge to groundwater and can reduce or eliminate salination
Soil carbon also has a direct relationship with biodiversity: soil organic matter contributes to the health of soil microbial ‘wildlife’ and micro-flora which are the very start of the food chain. Greater diversity at this level translates into greater diversity above and below the ground.
Carbon is a major component of soil and catchment health.
Soil Carbon and Natural Resource Management
The greatest interaction between Humanity and Nature takes place in the field of Agriculture.
Farmers control around 65% of the terrestrial surface of the Earth. The land management approach they take has a profound effect on the natural resource base.
Traditional European farming practices were not sympathetic to conditions in the Southern Hemisphere and the result has been losses of productive resources. Eg. Australia is said to have lost at least 50% of its topsoil and that soil has lost 70% of its organic matter in 200 years.
There are two theories for restoring the natural resource base to health:
1. Remove stock and lock it up.
2. Move stock and build it up.
The first theory is popular with those who believe in the possibility of returning to an ‘arcadian past’ when everything was ‘native’ to the environment. But which past and which environment? Tim Flannery in The Future Eaters revealed that the first human invasion of the continent of Australia dramatically changed the flora and fauna by the farming techniques employed.
“Firestick farming” by Indigenous people burnt many species of plant to extinction and hunting saw the disappearance of the megafauna. However, some commentators claim that, prior to 1770, this race of farmers lived in a way that was more sympathetic to the landscape. But which landscape? They were not sympathetic to the landscape they found when they arrived 40,000 years before white settlers. However they lived in harmony with the landscape as they had changed it to suit their practices. They achieved a state of sustainability. But only after a period of disruption.
In following the pattern set by their Indigenous forerunners, White European settlers are still in the disruption stage of their occupation. And now they are seeking to achieve a state of sustainability. Returning to the state of balance that existed in 1770 is not possible. A new state of balance must be sought, that is sympathetic to the natural resource base.
Locking up land and removing stock can lead to ‘bare earth’ and desertification because it ignores the symbiotic relationship between plants and animals. Native grasslands – which covered vast areas of Australia in 1770 – need to be grazed and disturbed by stock, then given time to recover, in order for the mechanism of soil carbon manufacture to operate. Grasses left to go rank “oxidize” (emit Carbon) as they dry out and their shadows keep the sun away from new shoots. Consequently groundcover reduces. And deserts begin.
Instead, a new sustainability which includes increased biodiversity and native species can be achieved by the change to Carbon Farming. Carbon Farmers report increases in species of insects, birds, marsupials, and lizards as well as increase numbers of species of native plants as they transition to the new way of farming.
Allan Savory, winner of the 2003 Banksia Environmental Award, discovered the symbiotic relationship between grazing animals and native grasses. The key to increasing soil carbon is biological activity in top soil. Soil carbon is created by insects and microbes living and dying. They do a lot of living and dying when there is a lot of root activity in the soil – vigorous growth and regular decaying of rootmass. Roots that are continually reaching down deep into the soil and then dying back and retreating. Their rotting remnants feed the microbes which produce the soil organic carbon. This activity is encourage when the plant is grazed, but not entirely, then disturbed and fertilized by the action of grazing animals, and then given a lengthy time to recover its foliage. With this recovery comes the recovery of rootmass and so the cycle goes on. Savory invented a grazing management system to encourage this activity. By “moving” the stock in concentrated groups relatively quickly through a large number of small paddocks, grazing management encourages the growth of plants, soil and soil carbon.
Grazing management is one of the fundamental techniques that make up a new approach to agricultural landscape management known as Carbon Farming.
Carbon Farming and Natural Resource Management
Carbon Farming is not a new practice. It is a new way to describe a collection of techniques which can increase soil organic carbon in agricultural land.
Land management practices that encourage healthy, growing soil microbial communities and, in so doing, create soil organic carbon and strengthen the natural resource base, include the following:
100% groundcover 100% of the time - This is a Carbon Farmer’s goal. Soil covered by plants cannot be blown or washed away. It is cooler and more attractive to microbes than if it was exposed to the sun. Therefore over-grazing (“flogging the land”, in Australian parlance) and burning grasses and stubble and ploughing are anti-carbon actions. In fact, they release tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. These practices, along with clearing native vegetation, have put Agriculture in 2nd place, behind coal-burning power stations, as the biggest source of Australia’s Greenhouse Gas emissions.
Grazing management – Stock are concentrated in small paddocks for short periods (days) so that they graze evenly and at the same time ‘til’ the soil with their hooves, stomping old grass and manure into it. The plants are then left to grow a full head of foliage so that their roots go down as far as possible into the soil. When they are grazed, the roots die back upwards in proportion to how much of the foliage was eaten. Overgrazing can cause the roots to shrink so short they struggle to get started again. So short grazing periods and long periods of rest are best.
No till cropping – Ploughing disturbs the microbes and dries out the soil. It also releases tonnes of CO2 per hectare. ‘No til’ techniques sow the seed in the top soil without tearing off the existing foliage or applying herbicides which are also bad for microbes. There are several no till techniques, including “Pasture Cropping” and “Advanced Sowing”. The one ‘direct drills’ the seed into pasture while the other slices a line through the pasture and inserts the seed. The crop grows up above the pasture and can be harvested or grazed. The pasture usually thickens and grows more vigorously after such treatment.
Mulching – This takes two forms: 1. Covering bare earth with hay or dead vegetation. This protects the soil from the sun, cools it, and attracts soil-producing microbes. It also holds water where it can be used instead of letting it run off immediately. 2. Cutting down and dessicating tall, dead plants and thistles to form a layer of litter on the soil and allow the sun to penetrate and foster plant growth. Gardeners know the value of mulching.
Water management systems – Water is essential to the carbon growing process. Several systems have emerged for maximising us of water that falls on a farm. Two names are prominent: Natural Sequence Farming (NSF) and Yeoman’s Keyline System. NSF slows the flow of water through the landscape by returning eroded gulleys and creeks to swampy meadows and chains of ponds that they were when white settlers arrived. The water stays long enough to make more grass and plants grow, rather than rushing down widening gullies carrying the topsoil away. NSF is based on the natural topography of the land. So is Keyline planning. It uses the shape of the land to determine the layout and position of farm dams, irrigation areas, roads, fences, farm buildings and tree lines. Both methods increase soil fertility and carbon
Biodynamics – This is a method of treating soil, based on the theories of mystic and theorist Rudolf Steiner. He postulated that vital forces or energies flowed throughout the universe and that these can be harnessed to increase plant growth. Biodynamics adopts a homeopathic approach to preparing natural fertiliser and times activities to align with cycles of the moon and the stars. Many ordinary, sober farmers report great results with biodynamic preparations
Biological Farming – This is the umbrella term for the use of natural compounds to stimulate biological activity in the soil. These compounds range from compost teas (concocted after an analysis of the soil for deficiencies), worm ‘juice’ (active enzymes created from worm castings), Biosolids (human effluent which needs to be plowed into the soil for hygene and odour reasons (not a favourite of carbon farmers), Nitrohumus (treated human effluent, needs no ploughing) etc.
Composting - This largely involves breaking down manure into a rich humus ready to spread on the fields. There is also a growing movement for recycling green wastes from cities for use on agricultural lands.
Trees – Trees scattered across grasslands (“Grassy woodlands”) provide shelter for stock and wildlife and also have the effect of causing the soil adjacent to be richer in carbon. They can also assist in the management of water movement. And they contribute directly to increase yields and productivity in both livestock and crops, with reported increases of between 20% and 40%. (3)
1. Dr Christine Jones,, “Aggregate or aggravate? Creating soil Carbon”, YLAD Living Soils Seminars: Eurongilly - 14 February, Young - 15 February 2006
2. There are cities and towns and villages, whole societies living down under the soil. They are connected by highways and contain millions of creatures just trying to make a living, from one-celled bacteria, algae, fungi, and protozoa, to nematodes and tiny microscopic spiders, to earthworms, insects, and ants. Dr Jill Clapperton, “Managing the Soil as A Habitat,” Canadian Rhizosphere Ecologist, South Australian No Till Farmers’ Association Conference, February 2007.
3. Gillespie, R. (2000) Economic Values of Native Vegetation, Background Paper Number 4, Native Vegetation Advisory Council, Sydney. Lockwood, M., Walpole, S.C. and Miles, C.A. (2000), Economics of remnant native vegetation conservation on private property, LWRRDC Research Report 2/00, LWWRDC, Canberra. Miles, C.A., Lockwood, M. Walpole, S., Buckley, E. (1998) Assessment of the on-farm economic values of remnant native vegetation. Johnstone Centre Report No. 107. Johnstone Centre, Albury. Walpole, S.C. (1999), Assessment of the economic and ecological impacts of remnant vegetation on pasture productivity, Pacific Conservation Biology, 5: 28-35.
Carbon Farming and Climate Change
Scientists now believe that Carbon Farming can reduce CO2 in the atmosphere fast enough to avert the very worst consequences of Global Warming. (5)
5. Lal, Dr. Rattan, “Farming Carbon”, Soil & Tillage Research, (6 (2007); “soil Science and the Carbon Civilization”, SSSAJ Vol 71 No. 5 Sept-Oct 2007; “Soil Carbon Sequestration Impacts on Global Climate Change and Food Security”, Science, Vol 304, 11 June, 2004. Dr Lal is President of the American Soil Science Society.
The major cause of CO2 release from land management in farming is opening the soil to the air, by clearing native vegetation, by ploughing, by burning, and by over-grazing.
Substituting other methods for these practices prevents CO2 emissions. (It was Australian farmers’ ceasing to clear native vegetation that enabled the PM to boast that Australia has met its obligations under Kyoto.)
But these other methods are not only useful in cutting emissions. They can turn agricultural soil into a massive carbon sink, capable of’sequestering’ millions of tonnes of carbon beneath the ground. (
Already the soil is the biggest carbon sink on earth, holding more carbon than the air and the vegetation combined. Grazing land makes up 60% of the earth’s surface. Most of it is degraded by years of poor management. Degraded soils can store up to 5 times more organic carbon in their surface layers that they currently hold if the soil management approach changes.
Increased soil carbon also has the effect of absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere. Soil can absord vast amounts of carbon. It has been estimated by soil carbon specialists that close to 200 tonnes of CO2 can be absorbed in a single hectare with only a 1% increase in soil carbon in the top 30cm.(4) An increase of 2% would double the amount of CO2 absorbed. “These levels of increase in soil carbon are achievable, and have already been achieved, by landholders practicing regenerative cropping and grazing practices,” says Dr Christine Jones.
DESERT OR DIVERSITY?
Itâs time to stop seeing what we believe and start believing what we see. By Allan Savory*
This is a global warning. We can turn our lands in seasonally dry climates into lifeless deserts, or we can keep them alive and vibrant, conserving and nurturing every drop of water. Land on the threshold of desertification can become a shining example of biodiversity. It doesnât take any fancy tools or expensive equipment. All it really takes is for ranchers and environmentalists to stop seeing each other as enemies and look critically and dispassionately at examples from around the world. Itâs time to stop seeing what we believe and start believing what we see.
In my homeland of Zimbabwe, there is a worse land degradation, poverty and loss of wildlife situation than in the arid West of the United States. That can be changed. It has already been dramatically changed in one area known as the Dimbangombe Ranch.
My wife and I donated the ranch to the people of Africa to allow them to benefit from Holistic Management practices. The ranch is owned by a local nonprofit organization alongside a community of over 145,000 people living on communally owned land totaling over a million acres. Dimbangombe staff work under a board of trustees that includes all five of the local tribal chiefs and I am the chairman.
The ranch and the adjacent communal land have the same soils and rainfall. The communal land was settled because it held greater potential for agriculture. Everything depends on the rains that fall from November to March. After March, the area gets increasingly hotter and drier until the rains come again. The average rainfall is about 30 inches, but the last two years have been below that.
When we began using Holistic Management on the ranch, its land was in a seriously degraded state as photos illustrate, although not quite as bad as the communal lands. Over the last seven years, the contrast between the two areas has grown increasingly marked.
The pictures here were taken on a single day in March 2004, on both the ranch and communal lands. They show the land at the best it will be all year. After this point, the long, hot dry season will set in and things become progressively worse till the next rains.
At the outset, when we donated the ranch land, it had no elephant and buffalo at all (due to a veterinary fence, since removed), and a sparse, fluctuating population of other game. While the communal land still supports little wildlife, the situation on the ranch is very different today. The ranch now supports significant and increasing numbers of elephants, buffalo, kudu, sable antelope, waterbuck, zebra, impala, giraffe, reedbuck and many other diurnal and nocturnal animals. Widely ranging elephants can on some days number 300 or more and, likewise, buffalo herds from 500 to 1,000.
Clearly there is a lesson in Africa for us in the West. Some will say what works in Africa does not necessarily work here. But as I have pointed out for years, the ecological principles I am suggesting we use are universal. A number of ranchers in the United States as well as many in Australia have adopted Holistic Management and its associated planned grazing. They have shown this principle of using grazing as a tool to reclaim and revitalize the land to be correct wherever properly used. Without adequate animal numbers and biodiversity, water and vegetation decrease. Holistic Management-planned grazing is an ecologically sound tool that can be used in even the most primitive circumstances.
We have a choice: Abundant food and water for a thirsty world or deserts where nothing grows and potentially productive soil becomes windblown dust. It is a matter of life and death.
*Allan Savory is a wildlife biologist and founding director of the Savory Center for Holistic Management in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Zimbabwe-born scientist has won international acclaim for his innovative methods to reverse desertification, now being used successfully around the world. In 2003 he received the Australian Banksia International Award for the person or organization doing the most for the environment on a global scale. Allan’s book, Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making, Island Press 1999, is today in use in a number of colleges and universities.