Wednesday, April 26, 2006

We welcome Woody Deryckx, soil health pioneer

Prominent US organic farmer and alternative agriculture advocate Woody Deryckx has joined the Carbon Coalition! Woody been devoted to advocating and developing organic agriculture since Earth Day 1971. Farmer, educator, consultant and advocate, he co-founded the Tilth Movement in 1974, planning and hosting the Northwest Conference on Alternative Agriculture in Ellensburg that year. He has been president of the Organic Farming Research Foundation . In the 1970s, he developed the curricula and taught Ecological Agriculture at Evergreen State College for many years. He has been active in playing a catalytic role in the organic food industry in the US, serving on the boards of many organizations to promote organic practices.

He is a soil man. As head of the Field Department of Willow Wind Organic Farms, he wrote this in response to an enquirer's question about composting: "Organic farming is a management intensive, complex biological undertaking. We need high levels of soil fertility to produce processing vegetables and all the nutrient that supports our crops comes to the plants by complex biological pathways in the incredibly complex community of soil organisms in the organic matter of the soil. Since every pound of nitrogen that goes to support our abundant and healthy crops passes through perhaps thousands of microbial hands in the soil food web, the soil is maintained as a vibrantly healthy and robust ecosystem. This is one of the benefits of organic farming - we feed the soil first - then the soil feeds the crop which in turn feeds us.__As I hope you can see, our organic farmers don't treat the soil like dirt."

Upon registering with the Carbon Coalition, Woody had this to say: "Certainly soil carbon is a huge component in the system and soil carbon has declined from intensive cultivation and soluble salt fertilizer use. Organic farming - grass farming - agroforestry - no till and limited till farming - and other bioinnovation alternatives can help restore balance in the carbon cycle and offer hope for sustainability."

We welcome Woody from Washington State.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Carbon market hits record high!

Prices for carbon dioxide (CO2) allowances in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) have jumped to record levels.

On 12 April, Germany became the first major EU member state to publish hard numbers for its Phase II national allocation plan. The news helped push EU Allowance prices above €30 ($37)/tonne of CO2.

The calculations below of the value of sequestered carbon in agricultural soils were made on the basis of $15/tonne CO2. Dr Christine Jones announced in an earlier paper, based on this figure, that 100 hectares could sequester $400,000 worth of carbon for credits. At this new market level, the potential return to a 'carbon farmer' reaches the unimaginable $1m mark.

"If organic carbon concentrations were increased by 2% to a depth of 30 cm in the same example [given in Table 1 below], this would represent $3,960/ha, that is, almost $400,000 in ‘carbon credits’ per 100 ha of regenerated land. These levels of increase in soil carbon are achievable, and have already been achieved, by landholders practicing regenerative cropping and grazing practices."

For readers whom missed the earlier post on calcuating the volume and value of carbon in soils, this is an excerpt from a paper by Dr Christine Jones*, produced for the Living Soils seminars held in NSW recently.

Calculating volume and value of soil carbon

Soil carbon content is usually expressed as either a concentration (%) or a stock (t/ha). Unless the depth of measurement and soil bulk density parameters are known, it is not possible to accurately convert from one unit of measurement to the other.

For the sake of illustration however, some simple assumptions can be made. Changes in the stock of soil carbon (t/ha) for each 1% change in measured organic carbon (OC) status for a range of soil bulk densities and measurement depths are shown in Table 1. Numbers in brackets represent tCO2 equivalent. An explanation of these terms follows.

Soil bulk density (g/cm3) is the dry weight (g) of one cubic centimetre (cm3) of soil. The higher the bulk density the more compact the soil. Generally, soils of low bulk density are well structured and have ‘more space than stuff’. The lower the bulk density the more room for air and water and the better the conditions for soil life and nutrient cycling. Bulk density usually increases with soil depth. To simplify the table it was assumed that soil bulk density did not change with depth

CO2 equivalent. Every tonne of carbon lost from soil adds 3.67 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) gas to the atmosphere. Conversely, every 1 t/ha increase in soil organic carbon represents 3.67 tonnes of CO2 sequestered from the atmosphere and removed from the greenhouse gas equation.

For example, from TABLE 1 we can see that a 1% increase in organic carbon in the top 20 cm of soil with a bulk density of 1.2 g/cm3 represents a 24 t/ha increase in soil OC which equates to 88 t/ha of CO2 sequestered.

TABLE 1. Changes in the stock of soil carbon (tC/ha) for each 1% change in measured organic carbon (OC) status for a range of soil bulk densities and measurement depths. Numbers in brackets represent tCO2 equivalent.

.....................Value of soil carbon.................

Sequestered carbon is a tradeable commodity. It has different values in different markets and the price is subject to market fluctuation. If the CO2 equivalent in the above example was worth $15/t, the value of sequestered soil carbon in ‘carbon credits’ would be $1,056/ha. If the soil carbon concentration was increased by 1% to a depth of 30cm rather than to 20 cm, this would represent 132 t/ha sequestered CO2 at a value of $1,980/ha.

If organic carbon concentrations were increased by 2% to a depth of 30 cm in the same example, this would represent $3,960/ha, that is, almost $400,000 in ‘carbon credits’ per 100 ha of regenerated land. These levels of increase in soil carbon are achievable, and have already been achieved, by landholders practicing regenerative cropping and grazing practices.

Even if organic carbon levels were only increased by 0.5% in the top 10 cm of soil this would represent 22 t/ha sequestered CO2 valued at $33,000 per 100 ha regenerated land (assuming a soil bulk density of 1.2 g/cm3 and a price of $15/t CO2 equivalent).

Carbon credits for sequestered carbon are not an annual payment. In order to receive further credits, the level of soil carbon would need to be further increased. It is also important that the OC level for which payment was received is maintained.

This is not difficult with regenerative regimes in which new topsoil is being formed. Biological activity is concentrated in the top 10cm of most agricultural soils, but regenerative practices rapidly expand this activity zone to 30 cm and deeper. Many benefits in addition to potential carbon credits accrue to increased root biomass and increased levels of biological activity in soil.

The majority of Australian soils have lost enormous quantities of organic carbon and this process needs to be reversed. What has gone up must come down. Soils, plants, animals and people will benefit when we take ‘recycle and re-use’ to the next logical step and recycle the excess carbon currently in the atmosphere.

Carbon and nitrogen

Nitrogen moves between the atmosphere and the topsoil in similar ways to carbon. The main difference is that the ‘way in’ for atmospheric carbon is via green plants whereas the ‘way in’ for atmospheric nitrogen is soil microbes. Soils acting as net sinks for carbon are usually also acting as net sinks for nitrogen. The flip side is that soils losing carbon are usually losing nitrogen too. In poorly aerated soils, some of this loss is in the form of nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas up to 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, while other losses include easily leached nitrate (NO3-) which often takes calcium, magnesium and potassium with it, leaving the soil more acidic (lower pH).

Rewarding landholders for farming in ways that build new topsoil and raise levels of soil carbon and nitrogen would have a significant impact on the vitality and productivity of Australia’s rural industries, reduce the incidence of dryland salinity and soil acidity – and reduce levels of greenhouse gases.

As a bonus, regenerative farming practices result in the production of food much higher in vitamin and mineral content and lower in herbicide and pesticide residues than conventionally produced foods.

A new era

If landholders were rewarded for regenerative practices that aggregate rather than aggravate soil structure, it would move us a long way towards solving the greenhouse gas ‘problem’, without the need to measure soil carbon levels at all. Any farming practice that improves soil structure is building soil carbon. When soils become light, soft and springy, easier to dig or till and less prone to erosion, waterlogging or dryland salinity - then organic carbon levels are increasing. If soils are becoming more compact, eroded or saline – organic carbon levels are falling.

Water, energy, life, nutrients and profit will increase on-farm as soil organic carbon levels rise. The alternative is evaporation of water, energy, life, nutrients and profit if carbon is mismanaged and goes into the air.

It’s about turning carbon loss into carbon gain.


*Christine Jones is a grassland ecologist with more than 30 years experience studying plant species. She has a PhD in agronomy and botany.

‘Managing the Carbon Cycle’ Forums will be held in Horsham, VIC, 26-27 July 2006; Katanning, WA, 2-3 August 2006 and Kingaroy, QLD, 25-26 October 2006. See or contact

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Business leaders predict catastrophe if trading doesn't start soon

There is an urgent need for fast carbon sequestering, such as soils are perfectly constructed to do, and the world's isnurance companies are worried the help won't come fast enough. The number and frequency of catastrophic weather events is rapidly impacting on their liabilities. CEO of Australian insurance giant IAG, Mr Michael Hawker, said recently,"We have done a huge amount of modelling on catastrophic damage, and a slight rise in temperatures would cause longer droughts, would increase one-in-100-year storms to one in 50 years or one in 25 years." Such events would make insurance impossible to get.Michael Hawker, IAG CEO.
Mr Hawker is a member of the Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change - launched 2 weeks ago - wants Australia to have its own carbon pricing regime by this time next year. The members of the Roundtable are Gerry Hueston (president of BP Australia), Michael Hawker (CEO of Insurance Australia Group), Grant King (managing director of Origin Energy), Keith Scott ( chief of Swiss Re), Harry Debney (CEO of Visy Industries) and David Morgan (CEO of Westpac). The Australian Conservation Foundation's executive director, Don Henry, is a cheerleader.
Modelling by the Allen Consulting Group revealed the cost of doing nothing (compared with taking early action) would be a cost impact on business after year 2020, slowing GDP to 1.9% through to 2050. But if early action is taken, growth of 2.1% could be sustained through 2050, electricity would be cheaper and jobs created.
Australia has more to lose from the early stages of global warming than other nations. The CSIRO predicts that a 2°C rise in average temperatures could destroy 100% of the Great Barrier Reef, 80% of Kakadu's wetlands, reduce Melbourne's water supplies by 33%, send fruit flies south of Queensland and cause longer, more severe droughts.
That would all but destroy a number of industries, including tourism ($32 billion) and livestock exports ($17 billion).

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

US Department of Energy gearing up for credits

The last two lines of a recent US Department of Energy press release about carbon measurement make interesting reading in light of official government policy on carbon trading:

"Pursuant to the Kyoto Treaty on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, "carbon credits" will be available to farmers whose soil contains large amounts of sequestered carbon.Polluting industries are allowed fixed amounts of carbon dioxide emissions, after which they will have to buy carbon credits, now being actively traded on stock exchanges from Europe to Chicago."

Does the DOE know something we don't know? They know about soil carbon:

"Photosynthesis sequesters carbon in the root systems of plants and finally in the soil. Switching from till to no-till agriculture increases carbon sequestration and farmers will want to be able to verify the amount of carbon stored.
Since carbon sequestration removes carbon from the atmosphere, thus mitigating the global warming, this will allow the farmers to receive carbon credits."

New on-site carbon measurement device

The US Department of Energy recently announced that its scientists have developed "a device that can measure carbon and other elements in soils non-destructively and in situ." The device is mounted on a cart and is "field-deployable".
This instrument uses neutron activation to determine how much carbon is sequestered in soils. It has been undergoing modifications and field tests for a year.
In the past, soil carbon measurement was done by taking samples from small cores or large excavations to a laboratory.
With this device, operators can sample a large volume at the site so that normal lateral fluctuations are smoothed out.
Unlike other soil carbon measurement technologies, which are destructive, this device allows for multi-elemental soil analysis. It can also be used in a scanning mode, allowing scientists to obtain average values of a large area.
"The device may be of particular interest to farmers worldwide, who have been switching in increasing numbers from conventional agriculture methods that turn the soil to what is called "no-till" farming. Since carbon generally improves soil fertility, it will allow farmers to determine when soil conditions are ideal.
There is another reason the farmers may want to keep track of how much carbon is present in their soils, says the DOE press release. "Photosynthesis sequesters carbon in the root systems of plants and finally in the soil. Switching from till to no-till agriculture increases carbon sequestration and farmers will want to be able to verify the amount of carbon stored.
Since carbon sequestration removes carbon from the atmosphere, thus mitigating the global warming, this will allow the farmers to receive carbon credits."

Friday, April 14, 2006

STOP PRESS: "Green Farmers" to be paid for being Green

They're talking billions of dollars to be placed in the hands of Green Farmers to help protect and recover degraded landscapes in the 60% of Australia's land mass managed by farmers. If only they understood the soil carbon sequestration story, the government would know they can get industrial polluters to pay for conserving natural resources in the bush.

The Australian reports this week that even more money is needed to deal with intractable land degradation than the $4.4billion already spent by the Howard Government, according to a report into the Natural Heritage Trust and the National Action Plan on Salinity. The report found the programs fell short in dealing with farm areas needing structural adjustment.
The sustainable use of natural resources by agriculture is a key objective of both programs.
The report said areas with intractable problems, such as severe degradation from past land management policies, would need ``significant investment in innovative approaches and cost-sharing arrangements beyond current levels of investment''.

At the same time this week the Financal Review reports that the federal government is launching a scheme to provide taxpayer assistance to farmers who make environmental improvements to their land. "The incentives - which may be in the order of hundreds of millions of dollars - are an attempt to allay growing anger in the bush about the burden of environmental regulations," said the report. Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran said they would result in an increase in long-term productivity. "The environmental aim might be to revegetate a waterway, repair some gully erosion, protect a wetland, or maintain some remnant native vegetation. It could be a lot of things, but the aim would certainly be to use our money in a way that helped farmers maintain or improve productivity for the long term, in return for long-term environmental protection."
To start the ball rolling, $2 million was announced for a number of pilot projects. "I want to see a broader use of incentives come into play in the next phase of the government's natural resource management programs, from 2008 at the latest", Mr McGauran said.

(SEE THE DIARY OF A CARBON FARMER for the Green Farmers Manifesto -

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Australian business leaders call for credits trading

The CEOs of 6 leading corporations are defying the Federal Government and calling for a carbon credits trading scheme for Australia. They have formed the Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change, described by the Sydney Morning Herald as "a powerful new voice which wants business and government to respond more rapidly to inexorably rising world temperatures."
Founding members of the Roundtable are Westpac, Swiss Re, Insurance Australia Group (which includes NRMA Insurance),BP Australasia, Origin Energy, and Visy Industries. The Australian Conservation Foundation is also a member.

The position taken by the US and Australian Governments in refusing to ratify the international Kyoto Agreement - which forced heavy emitters of greenhouse gases to buy carbon credits - is rapidly becoming uncomfortable for the two leaders who took the decision to stay out. In the US, business and political circles are merely biding the time for George Bush's term to end. The Congress is known to have legislation drafted and ready. Major corporations such as General Electric are counting on the change.

Westpac CEO David Morgan said GE's CEO Jeff Immelt told him "he was virtually certain that the first action of the next President of the United States, be it Republican or Democrat, would be to initiate urgent action on climate change." Mr Morgan said GE "is allocating billions of dollars worth of investment in the confidence of that development."

Sunday, April 09, 2006

First Coalition scan underway!

It's started! We have fired the first shot in our campaign to have soil carbon sequestration recognised as tradable carbon credits. We won't know for 3 years what degree of carbon sampling will be acceptable to the market, we are taking a conservative approach and measuring deep and measuring often. One metre deep and a core sample per acre.
To map the carbon in the topsoil at Uamby, we have commissioned The Center for Precision Agriculture, an august body of soil scientists from Sydney University, to do a pretty standard mapping exercise, using both an EM31 and an EM38 device and a Gamma machine which measures the various radioactive signatures to a depth.

The EM is a standard soil mapping instrument that can give us a guide as to where we should drill for core samples. The Gamma is still experimental but we are told that it has achieved good results in estimating carbon. (I will blog these devices later once I've done my homework.)

Why sample 100cm deep when 30cm is advised?
The 1m of core sample that we have proposed is insurance. 1cm to 30cm was to be sampled in 10 increments to get the data that DR Christine Jones said would be useful i.e the three horizons to see the relative activities of each level. The 30 to 100 cm horizon was taken purely to complete the data set.

Our largest problem at the moment is finding someone to test the soil. It seems the cheapest we can find is $36 per sample, making it unrealistic for the 3 horizons to be tested. We are not giving up on this though as it is very worth while having the top 30 cm separately tested.

From our research, the approach to carbon "Measurement, Monitoring and Verification" adopted across the world varies from a mere estimation based on computer modelling aall the way to our over-cautious approach. We are adopting our approach because we have got to convince the marketplace of our bona fides.
We'll keep you informed.
Driving the scanning rig is Michael Short from The Center for Precision Agriculture. Michael stayed with us for several days and had several adventures along the way. For instance, he drove across a rabbit warren which collapsed under him!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

More papers posted in our "Library"

Two more papers are available in our "Library":

"Carbon Stops Salt" by Dr Christine Jones

"ORGANIC MATTER, HUMUS, HUMATE, HUMIC ACID, FULVIC ACID, AND HUMIN" by Dr. Robert E. Pettit, Emeritus Associate Professor, Texas A&M University

Here is Dr Jones's introduction:

"Since the time of European settlement there have been significant losses of humic materials and other forms of organic carbon from Australian soils. This has had a dramatic impact on landscape health in many ways, not the least of which is an increased incidence of dryland salinity.
"Humic substances play three vital roles in reversing dryland salinity:
i) increased soil water storage potential
ii) stimulation of biological activity
iii) chelation and inactivation of salts
"The influence of soil humus on the storage and subsequent movement of water in the landscape is the most important of these roles."

Here is Dr Pettit's introduction:

"Humic substances, such as those listed in the above title, play a vital role in soil fertility and plant nutrition. Plants grown on soils which contain adequate humin, humic acids (Has), and fulvic acids (Fas) are less subject to stress, are healthier, produce higher yields; and the nutritional quality of harvested foods and feeds are superior. The value of humic substances in soil fertility and plant nutrition relates to the many functions these complex organic compounds perform as a part of the life cycle on earth. The life-death cycle involves a recycling of the carbon containing structural components of plants and animals - through the soil and air - and back into the living plant
"Man became distracted from the importance of organic compound cycling when it was discovered that soluble acidic based N-P-K “fertilizers” could stimulate plant growth. Large industrial concerns took advantage of the N-P-K discovery to market industrially processed “fertilizers” from mineral deposit. Continued use of these acidic fertilizers in the absence of adequate humic substance (in the soil) has caused many serious sociological and ecological problems. Man needs to reconsider his approach to fertilization techniques by giving higher priority to soil humus.
"The urgency to emphasize the importance of humic substances and their value as fertilizer ingredients has never been more important than it is today. All those concerned about the ability of soils to support plant growth need to assist in educating the public. Humic substances are recognized by most soil scientists and agronomists as the most important component of a healthy fertile soil. To illustrate how humic substances function, the following summary, based on published scientific data, has been prepared as a guide for an educational program. In addition, by understanding how these carbon containing substances function, professionals will have a solid foundation on which to design environmentally acceptable sustainable agriculture programs."

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Biodiesel: Enviro-Enemy Number One?

The only place you'll see orantugangs like this is in a zoo because environmentalists are causing his forest home to be devastated.

Environmentalists and governments are "creating a market for the most destructive crop on earth", according to green activist George Monbiot in an article in the Guardian (6/12/05).
Palm oil is the cheapest source of biodiesel and the rush to meet demand from the EU has resulted in the clearing of millions of hectares of rainforest in Malaysia, Indonesia and Borneo. Biodiesel plants are popping up all over South East Asia to consume the crop that is replacing native forestlands.
Recently Friends of the Earth reported that between 1985 and 2000, the development of oil-palm plantations was responsible for an estimated 87% of deforestation in Malaysia. In Sumatra and Borneo, some 4 million hectares of forest have been converted to palm farms. Now a further 6 million hectares are scheduled for clearance in Malaysia, and 16.5 million in Indonesia.
"Almost all the remaining forest is at risk. Even the famous Tanjung Puting national park in Kalimantan is being ripped apart by oil planters," says Mr Monbiot. "The orangutan is likely to become extinct in the wild. Sumatran rhinos, tigers, gibbons, tapirs, proboscis monkeys and thousands of other species could go the same way. Thousands of indigenous people have been evicted from their lands, and some 500 Indonesians have been tortured when they tried to resist. The forest fires which every so often smother the region in smog are mostly started by the palm growers. The entire region is being turned into a gigantic vegetable oil field." Emotive language. Oh, the irony of it all!

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Agricultural soil carbon sinks cheapest and fastest, says Professor

Soil carbon sinks can play a key role in the global strategy to mitigate against greenhouse emissions, says US climate change economist Professor Bruce A. McCarl of Texas A&M University. In a paper called "Enhancement of Carbon Sequestration in U.S. Soils" he wrote: "With focused effort, the amount of carbon sequestered in soil by land management could be significantly increased. Various studies estimate that the soil C sequestration rate may be increased to 0.44-0.88 Pg C y-1 and sustained over a 50-year time frame," says Prof. McCarl. "Results from integrated assessment analyses indicate that soil carbon sequestration may have an important strategic role – due to potential for early deployment and low costs – within a technology portfolio to mitigate climate change.
"The important aspect of land management for soil C sequestration is that, unlike many other technologies to offset fossil fuel emissions (e.g. geologic carbon sequestration, carbon capture), it can be implemented immediately, provided there are economic and other incentives to do so.
"Due to the cumulative effect of CO2 on climate, an immediate offset of CO2 emissions provides a significant delay in the rise of atmospheric CO2 concentration. In addition, by the time that land management C sequestration begins to saturate the soil’s capacity to store additional C, other methods of reducing emissions or sequestering carbon may be available or already in use."

Prof. Bruce A. McCarl is Regents Professor of Agricultural Economics at Texas A&M University. He specialises in policy analysis (mainly in climate change, climate change mitigation, among other things).