carbon

Carbon Farming to Reverse Climate Change

This paper outlines the global threat from Climate Change and proposes a simple economic model as a practical solution through which land use innovation can drive behaviour change and reverse global warming. The planet is warming, we are losing the race to save all the inestimable physical wealth and cultural value that humankind created over the centuries and yet we have singularly failed to use the most efficient tool for reducing carbon dioxide levels: photosynthesis. Nothing else comes close to sucking carbon out of the atmosphere, yet we neglect it.Two decades of policies to address the rising threat of catastrophic climate change have focused on reducing emissions. They failed, however, to slow the increase in greenhouse gas levels. Instead, directly and by default, government policies have brought about continuing increases instead.

Forestry and farming are the cheapest and most effective ways to take carbon out of the atmosphere, sequestering it in the vast unexploited reservoir of the soil and trees. Yet instead of actively pursuing these low-cost options we have deforested and degraded forest carbon and soil sinks.  How can we fix this?

The “4 per 1000” (‘Quatre pour Mille’) initiative launched at the Paris COP21 aims to do just that, by rewarding carbon farming.vBritain is a signatory and a Forum and Consortium member.  “4 per 1000” states that, if farming and forestry increased soil organic carbon annually by four parts per thousand per year, that would be enough to totally offset the annual 16 billion tonnes increase in greenhouse gas levels.  With carbon a marketable crop, we could stop worrying about global warming.

In 2015, the French National Assembly responded to ‘4 per 1000’ by setting a €56 (£50) a tonne carbon tax to comes into effect in 2020.

Carbon emissions reduction policies have failed so far:  

  • HM Govt has spent over £1.5 billion supporting Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), the idea that you can capture CO2 emissions and bury them securely in the ground. For CCS to work and be effective it would cost at least €70 per tonne CO2 stored and require an increase in fossil fuel use of 35%.

  • The voluntary market has created credits for 1 billion tonnes of CO2 in the past 10 years. That’s a mere 1/500 of emissions. Cap and trade is subject to political vagaries. The European Climate Exchange and the Chicago Climate Exchange went bust in 2010 when EU political decisions led to a gross oversupply of carbon allowances.

  • The EU Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation requires mixing sugar beet ethanol, rapeseed oil or palm oil with petrol or diesel. 7 million tonnes of the world’s annual palm oil production of 66 million tonnes is burned as biodiesel, much more than is consumed as food in the EU. Land across the EU is degraded by intensive production of sugar beet and rapeseed for biofuel use, with negligible reductions and, even in some cases, increases in CO2.

The “4 per 1000” initiative is predicated on there being a price on carbon, whether emitted into the atmosphere or removed from the atmosphere. The Government sets a price for carbon and all emissions of CO2 are paid as part of a company’s tax bill, declared as part of its annual returns.  If a company can purchase carbon offsets for less it can deduct these offsets from its tax bill from carbon aware farmers. 

What would happen if there were a £50 per tonne CO2 price?

  • Nitrates, pesticides and herbicides would become uneconomic in many applications and farmers would minimise or abandon these inputs

  • Farmers would increase soil carbon by the use of grass leys and compost. They would minimise tillage and grow green manures to keep ground cover all year round

  • Carbon from straw, sawmill waste and forestry arisings would be converted into biochar (agricultural charcoal) then added to the soil to permanently enhance fertility and increase the carbon in the soil ‘carbon bank.’ Biochar is 80-90% pure carbon and stays in the soil for centuries.

  • Farmers would plant trees and hedgerows instead of growing rapeseed for biodiesel.

  • Wood burning would 10.5 billion be disincentivised. Wood would replace steel and concrete in buildings and homes. Wood is carbon negative. Modern cross lamination technology produces wood that equals or exceeds the strength, durability and load bearing capacity of concrete and steel.

  • The £1.5 billion Government subsidy to date wasted on carbon capture and storage research would be saved.

  • Peat use would end overnight - peat bogs capture more carbon than any land use other than salt marshes.

  • The sea would be more productive. Reduced fertiliser use and reversal of soil erosion would herald the end of harmful algal blooms that damage coastal ecosystems and fish stock populations.

Soil is the world’s most important and valuable commodity.  With a realistic carbon price, we would not suffer the resource misallocation of agricultural subsidies such as in the Common Agricultural Policy. 

Wind and solar are getting cheaper, but are nowhere near as competitive as 4/1000.  Money has been poured into supporting wind energy.  Every tonne of CO2 saved by onshore wind costs €162, from offshore wind £267.

A regenerating degraded forest can profitably generate CO2 savings for a cost of less than £5 tonne CO2.  Forestry management costs of planting, then thinning are minimal. Forests, pasture and arable farmland can easily sequester “4 per 1000 per annum.”  Yet we still lose 31 football fields per minute globally of productive agricultural land because industrial farming methods need take no account of carbon emissions.

How does a Carbon Price affect Fossil Fuel Prices?

A carbon tax would add $10 to a barrel of oil.  That is well within the range of fluctuations in the oil price (e.g. recent OPEC decisions).    

There is a financial opportunity. The Government simply establishes a tax that can be offset by carbon credits.  This then puts carbon dioxide, like any other valuable commodity, in the hands of markets.   

Fossil fuel emissions are 33 billion tonnes CO2 a year globally. At £50/tonne the market for carbon credits would be more than £1.5 trillion. If Britain leads on this by example then London would be the financial hub for carbon trading . The City of London has the depth of liquidity and the reputation for integrity that a global carbon market will need to succeed. 

The flow of cash into sequestration will be transformative.  Agricultural subsidies can fall away without impacting on land values.  Rural economies will be invigorated and farming can begin to remediate the misallocation of resources that current CAP policy encourages.

Auditing, validation and certification of carbon sequestration represents an opportunity for the certification industry, much of which operates out of the UK.

What is the scale of the opportunity?  Carbon sinks are primarily forests, fields and meadows.

The world has 1.5 billion hectares of arable land, 4 billion hectares of forest and woodland and 5 billion hectares of grassland, a total of 10.5 billion hectares that can be put to work removing CO2 from the atmosphere.  The annual net increase in CO2 levels is 16 billion tonnes.  If every hectare of our available land annually removed 4 tonnes CO2 then we would remove 41 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere every year, which would get us back to pre-industrial levels in just 35 years.

Is 4 tonnes CO2 per hectare realistic?

La Vialla, a biodynamic family farm in Tuscany, comprises 1440 hectares including arable, pasture, woodland, vines and olives. Taking this as an example and microcosm of the global distribution of land use types, the University of Sienna, using IPCC methodology has evaluated La Vialla’s annual carbon cycle for the past eight years. Calculations show that 4.24 tonnes of CO2e per hectare have been captured every year for the past eight years. 

 An obvious criticism of soil and forest sequestration is that it can be reversed through human and natural impacts.  A farmer can plough up the soil, a forester can chop down the trees and then much of the carbon captured is released back into the atmosphere.  An additional risk is that fire, war, flood or hurricane can reduce the carbon store.

A two-part payment can address this by providing:

  • a payment for the annual increment of CO2;

  • an additional ‘interest’ payment on the carbon that is stored in the carbon ‘bank.’

Soil is the foundation of our natural capital.  In a capitalist system it should be valued.

Farmers can insure against loss of carbon. Banks will advance loans against land to farmers who operate best practice carbon farming in the knowledge that the asset that is loaned against is increasing in value as its carbon content increases.

The cost of low carbon food would come down and the cost of high carbon food would go up. No longer would price be a barrier to eating food that is rich in nutrients, low in pesticide residues and which delivers tangential social and environmental benefits.

Carbon sequestration in farmland, pasture and forests is a cheap and effective way of reducing greenhouse gas levels.  Compliance with agreed Paris COP 21 targets will be unlikely if we continue to depend on technological solutions and biofuels to reduce emissions.  Using up precious soil and forests for the production of biofuels is wasteful, uneconomic and does nothing to help mitigate climate change. An economic incentive to maximise soil and forest sequestration of carbon dioxide is the most effective, practical and low- cost solution to achieving greenhouse gas reduction.

InfographicCraig.png

Harmony in food and farming

The groundbreaking Harmony in Food and Farming Conference explained why a sustainable food culture sits naturally at the heart of an inspiring philosophy for harmonious living, says Craig Sams

In 2010 a book called ‘Harmony – A New Way of Looking at Our World’ was published. Written by HRH The Prince of Wales along with Tony Juniper and Ian Skelly, the book set out a coherent philosophy of harmonious living for communities and society, along with inspiring examples and a roadmap to a better future. It was inspired by the philosophy of the Stoics of Greece, while acknowledging Taoism, Zen and the Vedic texts. The book aims to re-engage the thinking that sought harmony with the order of the cosmos and a reconnection with Nature. It covered subjects like architecture, urban design, natural capital, deforestation and farming.

Inspired by the book, Patrick Holden, former director of the Soil Association and founder and Director of the Sustainable Food Trust, organised a conference in Llandovery Wales on July 10-11. The aim of the conference, entitled ‘Harmony in Food and Farming‘ was to put meat on the bones of the Prince’s book and to map out a way forward for agriculture and food production that resonated with the principles of harmony.

The conference kicked off with an inspirational keynote speech and then looked at a range of subjects, with key speakers from all around the world. Rupert Sheldrake led a session on ‘Science and Spirituality,’ Prof Harty Vogtmann moderated a session on ‘Farming in Harmony with Nature.’

A session on ‘The Farm as an Ecosystem’ saw Helen Browning, director of the Soil Association, describing her new agroforestry project that encourages happy chickens to range free in a productive orchard of apple trees.

A session entitled ‘Sacred Soil, Sacred Food, Sacred Silence’ highlighted the extent to which faith communities put harmony first in developing their food production systems.

A session on ‘Agriculture’s Role in Rebalancing the Carbon Cycle’ was my opportunity to shine with a presentation entitled ‘Capitalism Must Price Carbon – or Die’ in which I showed that if carbon emissions were priced into farming organic food would be cheaper than industrial food and we’d get the extra benefits of biodiversity, cleaner water and regenerating soils – all themes familiar to readers of my column in NPN. Then Richard Young set out the case for livestock farming that could operate harmoniously within our climate constraints and Peter Segger described his carbon-sequestering vegetable growing operation, which was a fascinating field trip that afternoon.

A session on animal welfare sought to see a way forward to keep animals happy during their short lives and to make that final moment of betrayal as pleasant as possible, with reference to examples and a deepening of the understanding of the sacred relationship between the animals we rear with care and then kill.

Patrick Holden learned his farming at Emerson College and is empathetic to biodynamic principles. A session on Harmony and Biodynamic Agriculture showed how the ideas of Rudolf Steiner resonate with the Harmony philosophy. At a reception the evening before the conference I mentioned to HRH that our original Zen Macrobiotic company was called Yin Yang Ltd and that our brand was Harmony Foods and that we had taken our philosophical guidance from Zen Buddhism and Taoism, unaware that the Stoic philosophy or Greece was on the same page. He commented that the Egyptians had laid the philosophical foundations for the Stoics. I wondered at how a way of thinking that had arisen simultaneously in China, India, Greece and Egypt was now guiding the effort to restore balance to our dysfunctional and unsustainable world.

The conference was attended by delegates from every continent and the closing plenary session included individual delegates describing how the conference had affected them. It was very moving stuff and helped us realise how much we all had been changed by two days in Wales. Patrick stood up to finalise the session and received a prolonged and much-deserved standing applause. The conference was a remarkable achievement. It is now the job of the Sustainable Food Trust to build on its relationships with the organisations that were represented at the conference, capture the momentum of the gathering and give impetus to the movement for harmony, regeneration and an end to the war on Nature that has brought us so dangerously close to disaster.

The proceedings of the conference, filmed and edited, can be seen on the Sustainable Food Trust website.

Capitalism Must Price Carbon - Or Die

This was a speech I gave at the Harmony in Food and Farming conference in Llandovery, Wales in July 2017.

Please click here to see video clips of the Prince of Wales, Patrick Holden and myself during the conference, which was organized by The Sustainable Food Trust. It aimed to develop an agricultural perspective on the ideas propounded in the book 'Harmony' by HRH The Prince of Wales and Tony Juniper.

In 1967 Joni Mitchell wrote a song called Woodstock that included these lines:

“We are stardust, We are golden

We are billion year old carbon

And we got to get ourselves

back to the garden”

We are indeed ‘billion year old carbon’ – the average person of about 80kgs/176lbs  contains about 15kgs/33lbs of carbon.  That ancient carbon is in our bones, our muscle, our fat and our bloodstream, as carbohydrate, fat, protein and other compounds.  The carbon in our bodies may have been previously in soil, in trees, in charcoal, in dinosaur turds, in mosquitoes, in honey...  It was everywhere before it ‘reincarbonated’ in us.  Carbon is immortal.   And it is stardust.

A billion or so years ago a very hot star kept getting hotter.  As it got hotter, it formed hydrogen, then carbon, then oxygen and then the other elements that we know.Sir Fred Hoyle, the great astrophysicist, described this as ‘stellar nucleogenesis’ – stars creating atoms.

When that star got too hot it exploded, became a ‘supernova’ and blasted its carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and rock into space.  Those chunks of rock and elements consolidated to form our solar system, with a sun that is still burning today with the remaining heat of the star that formed it a billion years ago.

Carbon is a promiscuous atom, it has 4 points where it can ‘mate’ with other elements.  That’s why there are so many carbon-based molecules and why carbon is the foundation of all living things.  Where there’s life, there’s carbon.

 According to Hoyle, life, in primitive form, was everywhere. This was called ‘Panspermia.’

Life in rock was called ‘Lithopanspermia.’

Life was fungi. That life bumbled along, depending on acid rain from the very CO2-rich atmosphere a billion years ago to break down carbon that was stored in rock. Then a miracle happened that changed everything.

Bacteria called cyanobacteria became able to combine carbon dioxide CO2 from the atmosphere with H2O water, using sunlight energy, to make carbohydrate C6H12O6, whilst excreting oxygen.  That carbohydrate was the sugar that is the basis of all living energy in plants and, eventually, in animal life too.

Once this happened, one can speculate that the rock-eating fungi saw their chance and organised the cyanobacteria into chain gangs, maximising their potential to capture carbon from the carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere, then at about 95% CO2.

These became algae, then simple plants, all busy making sugar to feed their own growth and, more importantly, to nourish the growth of the fungi that created them.

The fungi worked with other microbes in the soil, thriving on the sugar coming from the plants and delivering back to 'their' sugar-making plant all the mineral nutrients that they needed to grow.  Plants died and decomposed.  Fungi and bacteria died and decomposed. The carbon-rich detritus of their existence rotted down to become what we know as ‘soil’ – a most precious resource because it is the perfect habitat for fungi and bacteria and a rich source of recycled nutrients for plants.

This soil built up over millions of years, producing rich plant growth that eventually could support the large life forms such as dinosaurs and brontosaurs that existed in the ‘Carboniferous’ age.

This was the soil that early pioneers found in the American Midwest, rich in organic matter that ran very deep thanks to the 3 metre roots of prairie grasses.

When my great grandfather began to plough virgin prairie in Nebraska back in 1885, the soil on our farm contained over 100 tonnes of carbon as organic matter (organic matter in soil is approximately 50% carbon).  By the time I was born in 1944 this was down to about 20 and now it is closer to 10, totally dependent on fertilizer and pesticides.

Farmers are frugal, on our farm we grew and processed almost all the food that we ate, only buying in commodities like flour, salt, sugar and soap that we couldn't make on the farm.  Old calico flour sacks were washed and recycled as clothing, overalls for the boys and dresses for the girls.

Some enterprising flour companies printed pretty patterns on their flour bags when they realised this was happening.  My mother and her sister Thelma wore Nell Rose flour sack dresses.

The men were frugal too, but they were unwittingly wasting the most precious resource on the farm, the soil.  As the poet Wendell Berry put it:

 "We didn't know what we were doing because we didn't know what we were undoing." 

What we were undoing was all the decomposed plant matter that had been accumulating ever since those first Cyanobacteria sped up the process of life on Earth.

The destroyed soil lost its water holding capacity and lost its structure and integrity.  The result was the great Mississippi floods of 1927 when the river was 60 miles wide from April to October, sparking the Great Migration of African-Americans to northern cities as their farms were submerged for half a year.

Then in the 1930s the Dust Bowl triggered another migration, of "Okies" from their farms in Oklahoma, Kansas and western Nebraska as their farms became submerged in dust and dirt.  Richard St. Barbe Baker, an Englishman who founded Men of The Trees in 1926 and was a founder member or the Soil Association, helped restore the broken soils of the Midwest.  Operating under the banner of President Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps he oversaw 3 million men who planted 10 billion trees between 1933 and 1940.  (These men also made good soldiers in WW2).

Tractors also played a destructive role, they could plough twice as deep as a horse-drawn plough, bringing up fertility and carbon from deeper in the soil.  My Uncle Floyd (pictured with me in 1947) still used horses to draw his 8-row planter because horses didn't compact the soil. Tractors did, weakening soil structure.

This experience alarmed people in Europe.  In Britain Eve Balfour wrote "The Living Soil" which proposed a new approach to agriculture that worked with nature and became known as 'organic farming.'

Eve Balfour collaborated with Dr. Innes Pearce who had shown at the Pioneer Project in Peckham that low income families did much better if they understood the basics of good nutrition and domestic hygiene.

Together they formed the Soil Association in 1947 on the premise that good farming would produce heathy food to nourish healthy people and create healthy societies.

My introduction to organic food and healthy eating came via the Japanese guru Georges Ohsawa, author of Zen Macrobiotics.  I imported the books to the UK and sold them via various bookshops.

I sold brown rice snacks at the UFO Club, where the Pink Floyd were the house band.  In February 1966 I opened a restaurant in Notting Hill to spread the macrobiotic message.  In 1968 my brother Gregory opened Seed restaurant, our larger restaurant in Bayswater, London.

Getting ourselves back to the garden

ZEN MACROBIOTICS - Taoism

  • Balanced - Yin and Yang
  • Organic - Sustainable
  • Wholegrain
  • Food for health
  • 'Justice' (Fair)
  • Japanese (Miso, Nori, Tamari)
  • No additives, no hormones
  • Avoid sugar
  • Eat only when hungry
  • Exercise and Activity

Like the Stoics mentioned in the Prince of Wales’ book "Harmony" we believed in "an attunement between human nature and the greater scheme of the Cosmos."  We saw this through the prism of Daoist yin and yang philosophy and saw it as the key to a long and happy life ('macro' = 'big, long', 'bios' = 'life').

When we launched a range of macrobiotic food products in 1970 we branded them "Harmony" with a trademark that was a Yin Yang symbol with leaves and roots.

The company went on to become Whole Earth Foods a decade later - unfortunately 'Harmony' was a brand we couldn't register in our key European markets.

When I launched Whole Earth cornflakes in 1997 a friend Dan Morrell, who had founded Future Forests (later to become the Carbon Neutral Company) asked me if I'd like to take the corn flakes 'carbon neutral' -  a term he originally coined. .  He then commissioned  Richard Tipper of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Management to measure the carbon footprint of the cornflakes.

To our pleasant surprise we had to plant hardly any trees to offset the carbon used in growing, shipping, processing, packaging and distributing the cereal because the increase in the organic matter on the farms where the corn was grown almost completely offset the carbon emissions from everything else.  That's when I understood that, if we priced carbon into the cost of food, people would farm in a very different way.  It is now urgent that we do so

The UN has said that we only have 60 years of farming left. Farming generates more than a third of the annual increase in greenhouse gas. 

Volkert Engelsmann of IFOAM has calculated that we are losing farmland at the rate of 30 football fields every minute.  None of these losses come from organic farming, which is restorative and regenerative.

Industrial farming wastes energy.  It takes 12 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of food energy.  A farmer with a hoe uses 1 calorie of human energy to produce 20 calories of food energy.  On a calorie-for-calorie basis a farmer with a hoe is 240 times more carbon efficient than a farmer with lots of equipment and inputs.  More than 30 years of trials at the Rodale Institute farms in Pennsylvania show that organic farming can sequester 1 tonne of carbon per annum.  They have also shown that once the soil is in good shape, the yields match those of industrial farming.

There is an effort afoot to attempt to bring market forces into bringing an end to this potentially disastrous loss of viable farmland.  Part of this is to attempt to appeal to the self-interest of companies like Unilever and General Mills whose supply chain will suffer if farmland becomes unviable and unavailable.

The French National Institute for Agricultural Research published a report in 2015 that stated that if farmers could sequester 4 parts per 1000 of organic matter,  that’s 0.04%, every year in their soil that would be enough to totally offset the annual increase in greenhouse gas emissions that is causing climate change.  That’s without counting any transition to solar, wind or greater energy efficiency.  As a result the French National Assembly voted a carbon price of €65 per tonne to take effect in 2020 and to include agriculture.  French Agriculture Minister Stéphane Le Foll then announced his ‘4 per 1000’ initiative which became part of the Paris Climate Agreement. It was endorsed at COP 22 in Marrakech and  36 countries so far have signed up to participate in restoring soil, the capital base of every nation.

The Prince of Wales co-authored a children’s book called ‘Climate Change’ that shows how carbon goes into the atmosphere and how it comes back into the earth and the sea.  The net annual increase is 16 billion tonnes.

A 3000 hectare biodynamic farm called Fattoria La Vialla in Tuscany Italy has its carbon measured every year by a team from the University of Siena.  La VIalla are sequestering ‘7 per 1000’ every year.  If everyone farmed like those 3 brilliant brothers  in Italy, whose farm is roughly 1/3 pasture, 1/3 forest and 1/3 everything else (grape vines, cereals, fruit, vegetables), then we would not only cancel out the 16 billion tonne increase in CO2 but would see a 12 billion tonne reduction every year.   Additional benefits would be greater biodiversity, cleaner water, less risk of drought and flooding and safer food.  (Their wine is pretty awesome, too).

Going beyond stopping degeneration is the regeneration movement.  This includes: Regeneration International, an offshoot of the mighty Organic Consumers Association in the US; the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation FAO; Soil and More (Netherlands); People 4 Soils (Slow Food movement); and Save our Soils (UK).

Corporations like General Mills are taking strong initiatives.  They have 100,000 hectares of land from their supply chain to be organic by 2020 as part of their carbon reduction policy.

But we still burn food.  One half of the annual USA corn crop is converted to ethanol using more energy to produce it than is embodied in the ethanol. It is mixed with gasoline to be burned as fuel.  The US is now exporting oil and gas yet still burns vast amounts of food in the name of 'energy security.'

We still destroy forests.  According to HRH the Prince of Wales this is at a rate of 15 football fields per minute.  If we valued the carbon stored in those forests at $20 tonne each hectare would be worth $15000.  Once the forest is cleared and then planted with soybeans it is worth $300 per hectare.  HRH described this in a speech in 2008 as ‘The greatest example of market failure in the history of capitalism.’

We still burn wood.  There is a false virtuousness to burning wood.  200,000 wood burning stoves a year are sold in the UK alone.  Wood smoke is more harmful to health than smoke from coal, oil or gas.  It takes a tree 50 years to sequester the carbon that is then consumed in a wood burning stove in 50 minutes. If a replacement tree is planted, will take 50 years to take that carbon back out of the atmosphere.

Wood has the resilience of steel and the load bearing capacity of concrete.  'Glulam' and other new wood technologies mean that wood can be used in 20 story buildings ('plyscrapers'), sequestering the embodied carbon in the wood for centuries.  We should never burn wood, it's a terribly inefficient waste of carbon.

Biochar, or charcoal made from wood, is a way to convert wood by-products into a carbon rich substance that can be put in the soil and will stay there for decades or even centuries.

It dramatically increases the population of beneficial microbes in soil, delivering a healthier plant immune system,  increased water retention and reduced loss of nutrients from leaching.  It is the best use for woody material that is not suitable for building or furniture making.  It is proven to help restore degraded soils and make them fertile and fit for farming again.  There are many examples of its benefits: tomato growers use it to combat plant diseases and increase yields; it cures honey fungus, ash dieback, chestnut blight, phytophthora and other tree diseases; it helps cocoa farmers overcome the devastating impact of black pod.  Stockholm uses it for all their new urban tree plantings as it enhances survival rates.  In Qatar the Aspire Park now use it for all their new tree plantings, with gratifying results.  Biochar in soil protects the beneficial microbes that are part of a plant’s immune system, its food supply and it’s water supply.

Farming and forestry would be transformed if carbon pricing were to be introduced for their activity.   People would plant trees instead of growing wasteful biofuels.  Prairie grass would replace corn in the Midwest.  Farmers would adopt regenerative methods such as organic and biodynamic farming.

Farmers would profit from farming carbon in 2 ways:

  1.  An annual payment for any increase in soil carbon and a charge for any decrease in soil carbon
  2.  An 'interest' payment on the actual level of soil carbon on the farm. This would be effective at around 10% annually.

A typical organic farm would benefit to the tune of approximately £100 per hectare and an industrial farm would have to pay a carbon tax of as much as £100 per hectare.  Farmers would change behaviour overnight and agribusiness behemoths like Monsanto, Bayer and John Deere would have to rethink their business model.  Taxpayer-funded subsidies to farming could be largely phased out as carbon markets would trade the carbon credits.

Farmers could also insure against catastrophic events such as flood and drought that might impact on their soil carbon.   However, farming with carbon in mind would reduce the likelihood of such damaging events.

Soil is Nature’s capital and the foundation of all life on Earth.  Capitalism is about valuing capital and pricing it.  Capitalism has failed to deal with carbon because industry, transportation and farming have been allowed to pollute freely at no cost.  All other forms of pollution are nowadays strictly controlled for wider social benefit. It is time for carbon to be priced and traded like very other important commodity.

We can get 'back to the garden' - the Garden of Eden.  We just have to price carbon and change the way we farm our beautiful planet.

"We are stardust, We are golden

We are billion year old carbon

And we got to get ourselves

back to the garden"

Is Agribusiness a 'stranded asset' class?

organic-farm.jpg

Is it time for investors to dump Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer?

The UNFCC has launched its '4 per 1000' initiative based on data from the French National Institute for Agronomic Research that shows that just by increasing overall the carbon-rich organic matter of soil by 0.4% per annum we could completely and totally offset all our annual GHG greenhouse gas emissions.  The farming methods that can take carbon out of the atmosphere and lock it in the soil include big reductions of nitrate fertilisers and fungicides.  Just doing that will make a difference as they represent a 15% contribution to annual GHG emissions.  The rest comes from 'agroecological' practices, mostly pioneered by organic and biodynamic farmers, that are now tested, refined and proven to be competitive in yield with industrial methods of farming.  They do not deliver high revenue streams to agribusiness companies and they also do not externalise all sorts of other costs onto society.  These biggest cost is greenhouse gas emissions as that's the planetary existential threat.  But the personal and social costs are pretty costly, too: pesticide residues in food, soil erosion, dust storms, water pollution, flooding, biodiversity loss, toxic algal blooms and an archaic subsidy system that has the hard-working poor subsidising rich landowners in the name of 'cheap food.'.  But forget about that, just concentrating on the carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from farming is enough.  There are plenty of untested technological solutions like mirrors in space or the delusion of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) that you can pump carbon dioxide into old oil wells and somehow convince yourself and everyone else that it will stay there.   The beauty of what I should like to call Soil Carbon Capture and Storage (SCCS) is that with soil carbon, what goes in the ground stays in the ground.   All it needs is the right price signals.  If carbon has a value then the farmer who reduces emissions and increases sequestration will be rewarded. When carbon has a value it will be traded and there is no need for complicated and inequitable government farm subsidy policies that punish environmentally responsible behaviour.  SCCS farmers will sell their carbon right alongside their corn and beans.

Ideally a SCCS farmer would receive three carbon-related payments per annum,  as well, of course as their normal income and profit from growing wheat or carrots or alfalfa or eggs or whatever .  There would be a capital payment and an interest payment and an avoided emissions payment.  Here's how it could work:

  1. Capital Payment:  This is a payment to a farmer for the net annual increase of carbon in the soil.   Rodale's research has shown that an organic farm can sequester 2.5 tonnes CO2 per hectare per year.  There are 1.5 billion hectares of farmland and 3.5 billion hectares of pasture.  For farmland alone, 1.5 billion ha. times 2.5 tonnes is 3.75 billion tonnes of CO2 per annum.  Conversely, a farm that continues to reduce its soil carbon annually would have to pay for that reduction.
  2. Soil Interest Payment - This would be an 'interest'  payment of the market price of carbon based on the amount of carbon that is already in the soil, the 'deposit' so to speak.
  3. Avoided emissions payment - emissions include fossil fuels and the emissions involved in the manufacture and application of fertilisers, pesticides and agricultural equipment.

How does it work in practice?   Let's say a farmer has 100 hectares of land.   The carbon price is $50 per tonne CO2.  There are already 60 tonnes of CO2 as soil organic matter per hectare.  The farmer adds 2.5 tonnes in one year.  What is the annual carbon payout?

Capital Payment: 100 hectares x 2.5 tonnes x $50 =   $ 12,500

Interest Payment: 100 hectares x 60 x 0.5%            =   $    3,000

Avoided emissions payment:  1 tonne $50  x 100     = $    5,000

So the farmer can sell carbon credits to gain an additional $20,500 of revenue on 100 hectares

What about the  industrial farmer?

Capital Payment: 1 tonne p.a. soil CO2 decrease, $50 x 100   =   - $5,000

Interest Payment: 100 hectares x 60 x 0.5%            =                        $ 3,000

Emissions Payment:   .5 tonne CO2/ha =                                         -$ 2,500

(a fee for nitrous oxide, methane and carbon dioxide emissions from the soil due to the use of nitrate fertiliser and pesticides and fungicides)

Total carbon cost of farming as usual:                                          $4,500

Total 'spread' between SCCS farmer and industrial farmer 100 hectares:

$20,500 + $ 4,500  =  $25,000

If yields are equal and input costs are comparable then this is a significant edge in competitiveness in favour of the agroecological or organic farmer.

That's $250 per hectare.  About what a farmer gets nowadays by way of government subsidy but, instead of it coming from the taxpayer and the farmer acting as a conduit that channels it to agribusiness the payment is funded by the carbon markets and most of the money stays in the farmer's pocket.

Michael Pollan's made a lovely video that tells the story of soil carbon.  And Deborah Garcia's film 'Symphony of the Soil' is certainly worth watching to get a full understanding of the real underfoot magic of our existence.

And the Financial Times published my letter on December 18th 2015 that was a warning to investors not to get caught in a meltdown of agribusiness shares similar to what's been happening with fossil fuel company shares - the writing is on the wall for businesses that generate high greenhouse gas emissions - there's no hiding place any more.  The Paris talks have tipped the balance.

ft-re-carbon-dec-18-tw.jpg

It's anything but dirt

The soil is a vast living organism, stretching across continents with an interconnected ‘mind’ – a consciousness that spans countless numbers of tiny living beings. All those living things have an energy field. A healthy soil has the combined energy field of thousands of different organisms. We are part of that energy field – when we disrupt it we disrupt our own spirit and consciousness.

Ploughing the soil breaks up this social community and forces it to rebuild, with many participants dying and decomposing during recovery. Adding artificial fertilisers to soil breaks the cycle of mutual nourishment between plants and the living soil, and the soil dies. Fungicides and pesticides also kill the life in the soil. When the living organisms in the soil die, the soil dies and disintegrates. To kill soil, therefore, is a slow form of suicide by humankind.

When life on Earth began 500 million years or so ago there was just a small population of fungi living on rock. The fungi would erode the rock, squeezing out small amounts of carbon, breaking it down into small pieces of sand, smaller ones of silt and the smallest particles of clay. There were minerals, but they had no life in them.

Then blue-green single-celled organisms called ‘cyanobacteria’ (‘blue bacteria’) harnessed sunlight in order to turn carbon dioxide and water into a simple carbohydrate, glucose sugar. These bacteria had invented photosynthesis and a new way to make carbohydrate. The fungi locked these cyanobacteria into cells so they could take control of their sugar output. They then created green ‘chain gangs’ – the earliest plants – by joining the cells together and surrounding their roots. These chain gangs of cyanobacteria got bigger and bigger, organised into fan shapes and leaf shapes to maximise capture of carbon dioxide. Internal tubes in the plants served as veins to deliver the sugar to the fungi in the soil and take up water and nutrients in return. Plants have been the food source of ‘mycorrhizal’ (‘root fungus’) fungi ever since.

Nothing has changed today. An oak tree is a collection of tubes that carry water and minerals up to the sugar factories in the leaves and carry sugar down to the mycorrhizae clustered around the roots. The mycorrhizae produce superfine filaments (‘hyphae’) – there can be 10 miles of these superfine threads in just a tiny handful of soil. Fungi communicate with each other and with other soil microorganisms through chemical signaling, electric pulses, smell and touch. They control the sugar supply to all the other organisms in the soil – without sugar nothing can live. The fungi rule, deciding which bacteria to nourish and therefore which shall flourish. If an emerging plant needs more sugar than it can produce, the mycelial network of fungi will deliver extra amounts to the plant to help nurture its growth. The mycorrhizal community of the soil has been described as “associations for mutual aid and the promotion of common interests.” We think that plants compete with each other for nutrients, but it is the fungi that regulate their diversity and growth rate. The soil, undisturbed, is a mutual support network with sugar as the common currency. Every time a fungus or a plant dies it is recycled to become the organic matter that holds together the living soil of tiny rock particles.

At least 10,000 different bacteria and fungi dwell in the soil. They all need sugar. They all get it from the mycorrhizae. Some, like the omnipresent actinomycetes bacteria, mimic fungi in shape, joining up to form long filaments similar to the hyphae. Those filaments are tubes that channel mineral nutrients and water to the fungi. Every time an earthworm consumes actinomycetes it excretes six times as many as it ingested. Actinomycetes give off the characteristic smell we associate with fresh good soil.

Some root-eating nematodes, tiny worms, don’t cooperate – they prefer just to eat plant tissue. Mycorrhizae entrap these nematodes with lassoes or sticky exudates from their hyphae and then digest them for their protein while protecting the plant roots. Some fungi are parasitic and are seen as disease on plants. The antidote to them comes from the soil. Soil bacteria produce salicylic acid, jasmonic acid and ethylene – natural antibiotics that kill or repel parasitic organisms. If a fungal spore lands on a plant’s leaf, the plant is ready with its defences because the soil community’s underground internet has already forewarned of approaching threats.

Mycorrhizae produce glomalin, a sticky substance that helps keep the particles of sand, silt and clay aggregated together. This gives soil its structure. Throughout this structure there are pathways of varying dimensions, whether made by fungal and bacterial threads or by worms. These passages aerate the soil and help the absorption and the retention of water and nutrients.

Without mycorrhizae the glomalin level drops, the network of life that glues it all together falls apart, and the soil washes or blows away as dust. As a result of modern agriculture, this erosion of the world’s soils causes losses annually of 10 to 80 tonnes of soil per hectare. This represents a loss of 1.8% of the world’s useable farmland every year. Some lost soil is replaced by deforestation – but we’re running out of forests. Organic farming can bring dead ‘farmed-out’ soils back to life after a few years of fallowing and regular additions of compost. This regeneration can be accelerated with the addition of biochar: finely ground charcoal. Zeolite performs a similar function, but is less durable. When biochar is present in soil at between 5% and 10% by volume, the population of mycorrhizae and bacteria increases by anything from 2 to 100 times. This increase in life generated delivers more glomalin and more vitality. This supports the creation of healthy, fertile soil.

The soil’s living community provides an example to our society of how a cooperative community of plants and microorganisms can maximise and efficiently share the production of food derived from the abundance of water, sunlight and carbon dioxide with which our planet is blessed. It is a model of efficient use of resources that our farming systems should corroborate and emulate.

Soil is the soul of society. It is where life began – it is where life begins. We treat it like dirt at our peril.

Craig Sams will be speaking at Restoring the Soil, Schumacher College, 2–6 February, 2015. 

Craig Sams is a former chairman of the Soil Association and co-founder of Carbon Gold, a company which develops biochar products.

From Green & Black's to Blackened Greens

Here's the story of how I moved from dark chocolate to even darker materials - biochar

Back in 1995 the Prince of Wales delivered the Lady Eve Balfour Memorial Lecture on the theme of ‘Counting the Cost of Industrial Agriculture.’ He argued that if you incorporate the externalised costs of non-organic farming, such as nitrate pollution, gender-bending herbicides in the water supply, biodiversity loss and the climate change cost of greenhouse gases (from nitrous oxides and soil carbon emissions) the real cost of non-organic food would nearly double.

A year later Dan Morrell of Future Forests (later to become the Carbon Neutral Company) encouraged me to go carbon neutral with Whole Earth’s organic wholegrain cornflakes. The whole life cycle carbon footprint of the cornflakes was calculated by independent experts who found that it was surprisingly low: because organic farmers increase rather than reduce the stored carbon in soil, this offset much of the other carbon cost of the cornflakes.

By now it was pretty obvious to me that the sooner we could get policymakers to force us to include the cost of greenhouse gas emissions in the cost of food the sooner we would all be eating organic food, because it would usually be cheaper.

Roll on 14 years to 2009 – the climate negotiations in Copenhagen have soil carbon and forest carbon on the agenda. Lord Nicholas Stern, former chief economist at the Bank of England and author of the Stern Review that put the cost of every tonne of carbon we emit today at £140 for future generations (currently carbon markets value a tonne of carbon at £11) has said that any future climate agreement has to be ‘universal and equitable.’ In other words, no cheating, no get-outs, no let-outs, no sacred cows. That means that all countries and all activities, including agriculture, forestry and transportation must be included in the new climate regime that begins in 2012. Hitherto only Europe has complied and then only for the heavy industries that emit half of our greenhouse gases – farming and transport have been excluded. But no longer.

2 years ago I invited Dan Morrell to join me in a new venture: Carbon Gold. What do we do? For a start, we believe biofuels are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Every bit of biomass carbon is too precious to waste by burning it. At Carbon Gold we aim to capture woody material such as waste biomass, forestry co-products and tree prunings and convert it into charcoal. But we call it ‘biochar.’ Why? Because we don’t burn it, thereby putting the carbon back into the atmosphere as CO2. Once we’ve made the biochar we blend it with fertility-building clays and composts and add it to the soil. Biochar is a wonderful soil conditioner: it improves drainage but also prevents soil drying out; it reduces the leaching of nutrients from soil by rainfall; it provides 5-Star accommodation for beneficial soil fungi and bacteria, increasing their populations; it improves soil structure and aggregation; it helps suppress soil-borne diseases that are harmful to plants and biochar helps raise the pH of acid soils. Universities around the world are gearing up to do biochar research that will more precisely quantify its benefits. These vary depending on soil, climate and the amount of biochar applied to soil.

Meanwhile at Carbon Gold we are busily making biochar and selling the carbon credits from avoided emissions as well as selling the biochar as a soil improver. In Belize cacao farmers produce biochar that is blended with compost and used by banana growers to reduce their dependence on fungicides and irrigation. In East Sussex we are regenerating ancient chestnut coppice woodland and producing organic biochar which we use to produce “Gro-Char” peat-free compost which will be sold through garden centres. Garden Organic members will be trialling it in various applications during the 2010 season. In Mozambique we are partnering with a conservation organisation to help small farmers produce biochar, encouraging them to protect their forests and improve their soil fertility. On my own smallholding near Hastings there is a magnificent peach tree dripping with perfect fruit that had its base covered with biochar last February. The ones that didn’t get biochar haven’t done so well, peach leaf curl was worse for them. My biochar potatoes still show no signs of blight, while everyone else’s have suffered.

I feel like I’m still in the food business (and I have made a delicious risotto nero charbonara that delighted dinner guests recently), I’ve just moved my focus towards food security.