Monday, September 22, 2008

Free N, P and S when you grow C

Rather than having to pay for nitrogen, farmers growing their soil organic matter and their carbon could get it for free! Professor Charlie Rice of Kentucky State University explains it this way: Soil Organic Matter is 59% Carbon. It also contains N, P and S. Up to 95% of soil N, 40% of soil P, and 90% of soil S is directly affected by SOM. "Plant productivity is directly associated with SOM content and nutrient turnover by microbial activity. For example, in agricultural soils approximately 2%-4% of the organic N is made available for plant uptake on an annual basis.... In cropping systems, as much as 50%-80% of the N can be supplied from SOM and nearly 100% of the N in native ecosystems." This percentage represents up to 300kg/ha, between $200 and per hectare at recent superphosphate prices ($600 - $2000/tonne). Kimble, J. et. al., Soil Carbon Management, CRC Press

The following appears in P.E.V. Charman's chapter "Soil Nutrient Decline" which appears in SOILS: THEIR PROPERTIES & MANAGEMENT edited by Brian Murphey and Charman: 2nd ed, 2000: "Most nitrogen in soils, and that used by plants, is derived ultimately from nitrogen in the air which has been assimilated by certain soil micro-organisms, many associated with leguminous plants...." "Following fixation, the nitrogen is stored temporarily in the soil in organic forms. These may then be broken down by other soil micro-organisms into ammonium and nitrate forms... for direct uptake by plants in solution."

Questions for Soil Carbon Sceptics

Some soil carbon sceptics demand that the we provide the data to support our claims. (Hard to do that when there has been no investment in studying genuine Carbon Farming until recently, so we are in the 3-to-5 year trials-to-peer-reviewed-article cycle.)

Meanwhile those making these requests make statements without providing evidence.

Please provide data that supports your contention that:

1. soil carbon is difficult to measure for the purposes of trading?

2. the only way to increase soil carbon in soil under crops is to increase inputs of organic matter?

3. the Nitrogen 'tied up' in humus can only be supplied by fertilisers?

4. it is difficult to increase carbon levels in cropped soils, no matter what soil management regime is employed?

5. the carbon market is atypical and the price of carbon will remain at around $20?

These questions deserve answers.

Dr Christine Jones on where the additional nutrients come from


Dr Jones—When we measured the nutrient levels in his paddock this year prior to him sowing his crop [again], the phosphorous levels had gone up by a factor of five. The agronomist actually thought there was a laboratory error in the data. We relooked at that and at bare areas compared with areas under the grass, and it was correct that available phosphorous had gone up by a factor of five.

Senator HEFFERNAN—And that is the microbes releasing it.

Dr Jones—Yes. Phosphorous fertilisers had been used over time, under 15 years of zero till in that area, and they just formed a phosphorous bank that had been inaccessible. A fortune has been spent on phosphorous fertilisers. That farmer will not need to apply phosphorous fertiliser, we do not know for how long but for several decades, because the microbes are releasing what has been built up. You mentioned before the issue with your conventional zero till and why it is that carbon does not work, nitrogen does not work and phosphorous does not work. Nothing works because you have to have a microbial bridge between plants and minerals in the soil. Plants cannot actually access those unless that is in place. Normally the carbon from plants feed the microbes that in turn bring nutrients back to the plants. We have destroyed all those associations in soil by loading it with toxic chemicals, basically. What has been in favour of its adoption is not only climate change but the rapidly increasing price of phosphorous, nitrogen and herbicides. That has encouraged farmers to look for alternatives to that system.

CSIRO/GRDC: Costs too much to grow Soil Carbon

It will cost 4 time as much to grow soil carbon as you could hope to make from it, according to the GRDC and CSIRO. This truly incredible claim has moved many in the soil carbon community to question the science behind it.

The GRDC's Ground Cover article: "The hidden costs of sequestering carbon in the soil" (Passouria, CSIRO) seeks to prove that it would cost too much to grow soil carbon because of the price of nitrogenous fertilisers. "The C content of humus is about 60 per cent, so that every tonne of it contains 600 kg C (equivalent to 2.2 t CO2), and about 60 kg N, 12 kg P, and 9 kg S. Given that these amounts have to be locked up for as long as the carbon is stored, the question arises of what is the value of these required nutrients? The simplest assumption is that their value equals the cost of replacing them with fertiliser..."

The question has been framed to make the answer inevitable. The question should be, "Where can these required nutrients come from?" The source determines the prices. Once the frame is set, the next step is inevitable: "The simplest assumption" involves the application of expensive artifical fertilisers. After that shift, soil carbon is doomed.

"Carbon trading is normally based on a tonne of CO2 equivalent, of which there are about 2.2 tonnes per tonne of humus. Thus, if the trading price for CO2 is, say, $20 per tonne, then humus would be worth $44 per tonne. This is but a quarter of the estimated value of nutrients locked up, as shown in the Table."

The lead author kindly sent us an advance copy of the article, with these comments: "I am aware of Colin Seis's remarkable achievements, and I have wondered how he has succeeded in increasing soil organic matter in the topsoil by 2%. If that increase is largely humus, then it is likely to contain, in organically bound form, about 2 tonne/ha of N, 400 kg/ha of P and 300 kg/ha of S. I puzzle about where such large amounts could have come from."

Now he has asked the right question. Col Seis says the answer is: soil microbiology. "They should ask their own people," he says. "It's no mystery. The mystery is that they can completely ignore what goes on in the soil and write these articles."

Free-living nitrogen-fixing bacteria and symbiotic fungi can release and make available to plants vast amounts of the N, P, and S locked up in the soil after years of over-application of fertilisers. A CSIRO Fact Sheet says: "We know the current amount of nitrogen fertilizer applied per year is about 100 Megatons of nitrogen. However, we do not have an accurate knowledge of the amount of nitrogen addition through nitrogen fixation, although estimates are between 50 and 200 Megatons of nitrogen per year."(1) A NSW Department of Primary Industries fact sheet says, "Rhizobium bacteria ... can fix 100kg of nitrogen per hectare per year." (2)

In 1998, a CSIRO team claimed that Australian agricultural soils may be holding up to $10 billion worth of phosphorus, as a result of fertiliser applications. "The rural industry spends $600 million each year on phosphate-based fertilisers, yet often only about 10 to 20 per cent of the phosphorus is directly used by plants in the year it is applied," said CSIRO Plant Industry researchers Dr Alan Richardson and Dr Peter Hocking (3). "The remaining phosphorus becomes locked-up in the soil," he said.

If the right bacteria and fungi are present, more nutrient means more growth, which means more microbial activity and more biomass to enrich the soil. "When phosphorus is scarce in soil, plants that have developed mycorrhizas on their root systems have greater access to and take up more phosphorus others," according to the University of Western Australia's Soil Science Department.(4)

The belief that only by introducing organic matter from outside the system can organic carbon grow seems to dominate thinking in high places. But wasn't it superseded long ago? “Numerous studies have shown that the introduction of strains of [bacteria] into the rhizospheres of cultivated plants led to significant increases in grain yield as well as total dry matter... The stimulations observed are most likely due to the production of growth hormones by these bacteria." (5)

We have to answer every challenge. We believe that, if given a level playing field and bullet-proof scientific methodology, we can prove that carbon farming land management techniques, if properly applied, can result in accelerated rates of C sequestration.

(5) Davet, Pierrre, Microbial Ecology of the Soil and Plant Growth, 2004

Monday, September 15, 2008

An Open Letter to the Minister for Climate Change and Water, Senator Penny Wong

Dear Minister,

The way the issue of soil carbon sequestration and Climate Change has been handled by yours and the previous Government's Administration raises important questions of public duty that will not disappear as time passes. They will demand to be answered as the full impact of Climate Change throws the spotlight on the lost opportunities that soil carbon has offered for more than 12 years.

You may wish to seek answers to these questions, if only to satisfy yourself that the claims we make are false. Because if they are not, the legacy of your time in office will be forever diminished.

The Questions:

Q. Why has the science of carbon measurement been fast-tracked in the case of forests and stalled, underfunded and delayed in the case of soil carbon?

Q. Why has a concerted campaign to depict soil carbon sequestration as either not possible in Australia or hardly worth the effort been conducted by bodies such as the former Australian Greenhouse Office and the Grains Research & Development Corporation? Why are senior officials in your own Department still quoting this discredited information?

Q. Why, if Climate Change is as urgent as each new scientific report about it indicates, has your Administration not given a high priority to interviewing land managers and scientists who claim soil carbon can be grown quickly to give them every possibility of providing you with a large scale sequestration opportunity?

Q. Why was it left to a Senate Standing Committee to recognise the true potential of soil carbon and raise the alarm that an opportunity for mitigation is in danger of being lost?

Q. Why do high profile academics and senior officials in your Department spend their time building arguments against the deployment of soil carbon instead of searching for ways to remove the barriers?

Q. Why are the opponents of the soil carbon solution allowed to claim that they have tested the ‘potential’ for Australian soils to sequester carbon when in fact they have no scientific evidence of anything other than that the researchers were unable to grow soil carbon using one or other technique?

Q. Why have scientists been unable to repeat the findings of farmers about soil carbon? Could it be that the “pot or plot” format makes it impossible to reproduce the broad ecological context that contributes to soil carbon sequestration?

Q. Why, if the gaps in the data sets in the first tranch of soil carbon studies in the National Carbon Accounting Scheme were known and advance planning done to fill them (as senior people in your Deparment imply), did AGO documents make major pronouncements on Australian soils’ potential for soil carbon before all the data was gathered? Could it be more likely that those constructing the samples were not aware that they were selecting only carbon-emitting land management approaches?

Q. Is the approach to data and sample integrity mentioned in the item above an example of the ‘sound science’ on which you base your decisions?

Q. Why do local authorities such as CMA’s insist that their staff use the term “Soil Health” and not “Soil Carbon”?

Q. Why have CMAs failed to engage the majority of land managers in NRM activities? Is it because they rely upon the ‘Extension, Education, and Encouragement” model that suits around 15% of farmers? Would the words “Enterprise and Earnings generate more Enthusiasm”?

Q. Why have the following facts not been prominently communicated to farmers and the wider community: Research published by the UN’s FAO reveals that methane emissions have plateaued since 1999 onwards while the number of additional ruminant animals jumped from 9million to 16million per year. This report severs the connection between cattle and sheep and methane levels.

Q. Why has the following fact not been communicated to the farming community, or is it Government strategy to have all its agencies dwell on ‘worst case scenarios’ to scare farmers into compliance? Professor Richard Eckard, who heads the Government’s research effort into farm emissions, estimates that methane will cost farmers less than $1 per cow in the first period of an ETS.

Q. Why has soil carbon farming, which has a capital start-up cost within a farmer’s reach (around $200/Ha compared to $3m for a wind turbine) been obstructed?

Q. Why have plantation forests that depopulate rural areas and destroy social infrastructure been favoured with tax arrangements while soil carbon, which will strengthen local communities, has been denied?

Q. Why have farmers been scared into abandoning their farms, selling out to the plantation forest operators or the big corporates? Have they been unsettled by a constant barrage of ‘worst case scenario’ presentations and PR emanating from Government agencies?

Q. Why is carbon measurement not an issue with forests because the variations between trees have statistical properties and are therefore considered manageable, whereas measurement is claimed to be a major barrier to soil carbon trading, even though the variances (flux) exhibited by soil C samples also have statistical properties and are therefore manageable?

Q. Why is the word ‘estimate’ used in every other sphere in the Climate Change world, but never applies to soil carbon?

Q. Why did the Green Paper introduce a new set of arguments against soil’s inclusion? Wheresas all the discussion during the consultation period focussed on the standard objections, ie. ‘difficult to measure’, hard to hold, additionality, etc., the Green Paper introduced the arguments of the danger of large emissions from drought (bare earth) and bush fire. And there was a passing reference to “changing land management” (ie. farmers reneging on their agreements). A fully-‘carbonised’ landscape has groundcover and so is cooler. A “Carbon farmer” is less likely to bare the soil because they know how important topsoil is. Such a landscape is also more perennialised, and so retains more water in the upper profiles. Emissions from fire are less likely to be as damaging as in conventional systems. And finally, growers who reneg on carbon contracts pay a penalty, as with any such contract.

Q. Why, instead of waiting for the perfect solution to soil C’s ‘problems’, and filling the last 8 years of Stern’s “Decade For Serious Action” with more trials, don’t you choose a baselining methodology and start farmers growing carbon simultaneously while the trials are conducted. If at the end of the allotted time, the farmers have grown no soil carbon, they don’t get paid. If they have, they do.

Q. Why is the discredited notion of Additionality still used to block soil carbon? (The International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), has stated that proving the intent of developers applying for the CDM "is an almost impossible task". Three quarters of the projects being approved by the CDM's executive board were already complete at the time of approval. It would seem clear that a project that is already built cannot need extra income in order to be built.)

Q. Why is it that those who visit or live on a carbon farm find no difficulty in believing in it, whereas those whose contact with rural reality is via reports find themselves compelled to recite a litany of soil carbon’s fatal weaknesses?

If those of us who live in daily contact with agricultural soils are right, here is the dimension of the opportunity lost:

There is a ‘legacy load’ of GHG in the atmosphere that is sufficient, we believe, to carry us through the 2°C barrier into Climate Chaos. All the popular renewable energy candidates can’t do anything about it, even if they had reached critical mass, which none of them will for at least 20 years. Clean Coal can’t. This can only be removed by photosynthesis. We couldn’t plant enough trees in the time Stern gave us to do something serious about GHG. (Trees are net emitters for the first 5-10 years. Not all soils suit them. They are expensive to grow and plant. And they threaten to depopulate the bush. They suck the children out of bush schools, the patients out of the medical services, the family grocery spend out of local businesses, and the heart out of local communities.)

But soils are already deployed and are at critical mass. There are 450 million hectares in Australia and 5.5 billion on the Planet.

Here lies the opportunity, which, if you pass over it, you should be aware of the potential downside. If the farmers of the world can sequester 0.5tonne C/Ha/year, they will have captured more than 10 gigatonnes of CO2e. (More than the excess emitted by human activity.)

Half a tonne of C is at the lower levels of our expectations. Farmers on the sandy loamy soils in WA are managing to sequester 1-2tonnesC/Ha.

So the soil carbon solution, if we are right, can dramatically alter the balance of nature back towards safety. If this is to work, it must be started soon. We need 80%-85% engagement of land managers.

If we are right and you act on a soil carbon market without waiting for ‘sound science’, you appear far-sighted.

If we are wrong and we grow no soil carbon, you have lost nothing. We will withdraw and bother you no more.

The upside: 10 gigatonnes of CO2e removed, with Australia breaking the logjam for the rest of the world.

The downside: You gave us a shot at it and we were proved wrong.

It is a question of political will.

When there is a hole in the bottom of the boat and the water is rushing in, we don’t need a scholarly paper on the physics of water entering a boat through a hole in the bottom. We need to plug the hole.

Yours sincerely,

Michael Kiely
Carbon Coalition

The New Cash Crop

2008 Carbon Farming Expo & Conference
18-19 November, 2008
Orange NSW


What a difference a year makes! Soil Carbon is now squarely on the national agenda and, with Methane at least, the science is going the farmer’s way for once. (Dr Richard Eckard, Australia’s top farm emissions scientist, will be speaking at the Conference.)
The early soil C data is coming in from trials which started 18 months ago. Tim Wiley has some exciting data from WA – with significant amounts sequestered. Tim will report at the Conference.
We are meeting with senior scientists to see if we can have a special announcement at the Conference about a trading system like that of the CCX in Chicago. At the same time CSIRO’s Dr Jeff Baldock is working on a “Catchment Calculator” for making the trade possible. He will be speaking at the Conference.
We believe that a voluntary trading scheme will be launched at the Conference. There are rumors going around and we have negotiated with the scheme’s developers to stage the launch with us.
Another launch planned for the event is called Soil-C-Central, our mega-website which will eventually have every piece of information and advice about Soil Carbon that we can locate in the world. The draft site has been delivered and we are proceeding quickly to be ready for late November.

We hope we see you in Orange on 18th-19th November. WE also have opportunities to promote services and products via exhibiting and/or sponsoring this unique event.

Your support is critical to success.

Details 02 6374 0329


Michael Kiely

Monday, September 08, 2008

Soil carbon credits 'as soon as possible': Garnaut

"It's very important that, if we're not going to have the whole of agriculture in an Emissions Trading Scheme, long before that we've got proper credits for the increase in carbon in soils," says Professor Ross Garnaut. Asked by ABC Rural Radio on Friday 5 September to nominate when trading should begin, he said: "As soon as possible." As for the usual objections thrown up against soil carbon, he says: "I don't think it's impossible to measure either the carbon in soils - the increase in carbon - or the vegetation on properties. It is going to be much easier if groups of farmers within a region band together so that you reduce overall costs in that way. But in the end we're going to need to develop satellite imaging, remote sensing and other new tech ways of measuring these things so we can get the costs down." He says scientific work on measurement 'should be given very high priority'. "The opportunity in the Australian countryside is very large."

The founder of the Australian Soil Carbon Accreditation Scheme, Dr Christine Jones, praised Professor Ross Garnaut's call for carbon in soil to be included under an emissions trading scheme. She says Australia could be made carbon neutral if carbon stored in the soil in 2% of the nation's farmland was increased by 0.1%.

Interest in soil carbon has exploded recently, she told ABC Rural Radio: "I think there's been a huge change, even in just the last couple of weeks. It seems to be almost every day there's more and more interest. We have a group of Senators coming out to have a look next week from Canberra. The fact that at the highest political level we now have interest being shown by the Federal Government, that's a very, very positive step."

Sunday, September 07, 2008


Cattle are not the cause of methane increases, according to research by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, a United Nations agency. “Since 1999 atmospheric methane concentrations have levelled off while the world population of ruminants has increased at an accelerated rate,” it reports at
“The role of ruminants in greenhouse gases may be less significant than originally thought, with other sources and sinks playing a larger role in global methane accounting,” says the FAO.
In 2003 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the concentration of the methane in the atmosphere was leveling off at the 1999 level. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledged this in 2007, with “emissions being equivalent to removals.”
This report is a dramatic reversal of the FAO’s position in its 2006 paper called “Livestock’s Long Shadow” in which it blamed cattle for most of the greenhouse and environmental ills. This was leapt upon by vegan, vegetarian and religious groups which urged consumers to avoid meat or reduce their intake to save the planet.
Professor Aslam Khalil, at the Portland State University, in an analysis of more than 20 years of atmospheric sampling, concluded that “global emissions and the lifetime of methane in the atmosphere have been constant, so the buildup of methane in the atmosphere has been slowing for as long”. Since 1999, there has been a non significant atmospheric increase of 0.3 ppb methane/year. This contrasts with the 10.8 ppb/year for the previous time period of 1979 to 1999. “Seeing that the total source has remained constant for at least the last two decades, it is questionable whether human activities can cause methane concentrations to increase greatly in the future.”

Thursday, September 04, 2008

World's Top Soil Carbon Scientist to address Carbon Farming Conference

Rattan Lal, director of Ohio State's Carbon Management and Sequestration Center and a professor with the School of Environment and Natural Resources, is the keynote speaker at the 2008 Carbon Farming Conference on 18th November. "Lal" as he is known, has authored more books and papers than any other living scientist on the subject. He helped establish the Chicago Climate Exchange soil trading system by giving expert advice on rates of sequestration in various climatic zones in US farm states. He is a strong supporter of the Carbon Coalition and is committed to the cause of soil carbon credits. He will address the conference on the subject of soil carbon's role in global food security.

Ross Garnaut says "Change Kyoto to fit soils"

Biosequestration - capturing carbon in vegetation and soils - is Australia's big advantage, but we must break through the bureaucratic barriers to achieve it, says the Government's Climate Change and Emissions Trading Scheme advisor Professor Ross Garnaut.

“We need some big changes in established international approaches to accounting for Carbon in international trading regimes because neither the CDM set up by the Kyoto Protocol or the European Trading System credits many of these forms of Carbon sequestration,” Professor Garnaut said on the ABC Rural Radio's Country Hour on 4 September, 2008.

He made a call for Australian farmers to avoid plantation forests and switch to native grasses to capture vast tonnes of carbon when speaking to a conference organised by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering's Crawford Fund in Canberra yesterday.