Saturday, April 18, 2009

What myths need busting?

Be assured there is no serious threat in the "Carbon Mythbusters" except to the "Mythbusters" themselves. The title "Mythbusters" is the most aggressive part of the campaign which consists of a travelling seminar series, at which PhD candidates deliver a presentation said to have been "developed by leading soil scientists to help farmers manage their response to the soil carbon debate."
The Myth "Makers" (presumably anyone who speaks about the benefits of soil carbon) are accused of spreading untruths about soil carbon, a serious charge and unsporting, given we have no right of reply. Our information is "either confusing or at worst, incorrect," said Mr David Waters, of the NSW DPI. "We want to give farmers a clear view of where we are heading with soil carbon and what it may mean for their farming enterprises." In WA, the Grower Group Alliance (GGA) claims we spread "misinformation"
What exactly are these 'myths'?
The Grower Group (a GRDC affiliate) nominated "four common myths surrounding soil carbon... They included the effect of increasing soil organic matter on water holding capacity, how to measure soil organic matter, different types of soil organic matter and what they mean and the effect of cultivation and no-till on soil organic matter." The penny drops when we read the next line: "There is a large amount of information being presented to farmers about the potential benefits of soil carbon and how it can ‘solve' many of their production issues. Soil carbon is also being touted as a solution to ameliorate the impacts of climate change in the future. There is a need to provide good quality information to farmers to quantify how much soil carbon is required to make a difference, in what form and if our soils can sequester an appropriate amount."
Mr Clive Kirkby, "a PhD candidate and soil carbon expert from Charles Sturt University, the E.H. Graham Centre and CSIRO Plant Industry, Canberra, with almost 40 years experience working on soil health" delvered the WA series of seminars.
There wasn't much 'exploding' as Clive delivered a perfectly balanced presentation. Judging only by his slides, he started strongly with the following fact that sets him apart from other scientists: "Remember that economics will (and probably should) drive these issues –not discussed here".
He did manufacture a 'myth' of his own during his presentation. Such as: "Sequestration generally refers to getting C into
the passive pool” (the slow-to-turn over pool). The big myth he exploded was that No Till doesn't sequester much carbon. (The myth being that there is anyone left who believes that it does. This is old news to us. The "Mythologists" in this case are the US and Canadian markets which pay farmers to change to No Till. In Australia, we believe No Till alone is a means to reduce emissions and retain moisture and protect microbial habitat. Our Carbon Cockies have made great gains with No Till when combined with other techniques. What the scientists should say is not that No Till doesn't sequester much carbon, but that it doesn't sequester much when they try to do it. That is because sequestering carbon is a skill that farmers generally have and most scientists generally don't.)
ALthough he didn't make the same mistake again, Clive made a great deal of noise about the ratio of nutrients that make up humus - it has fixed amounts of N, P and S. In an article last year in the GRDC magazine, he and found others claimed that - what with fertiliser prices so high, farmers could not afford to buy enough to sequester carbon in the form of humus. (Where does the extra N, etc. come from?)
Judging only by the slides used, David Waters gave a straight-arrow presentation that 'proved' that soil C sequestration is a faint hope in under 100 years. He also found some major disability or failure with every soil treatment and soil management technique, except one: biochar. Not one. He declares that it sequesters carbon when it is unclear that it does. Equally, the slides list transport costs as an economic disadvantage for compost but not for biochar. It failed to also mention biochars' economic model which appears to be heavily reliant on a high price for carbon or govenment subsidy. The bias towards biochar was noticeable, reading the slides. Which leads one to ponder: could the "MythBusters" tour be a part of the worldwide campaign of propaganda promoting biochar, which has led so many scientists to step into a promotional role. (Lehmann is blatant.) For instance, the Biochar Research Network, is a group of scientists who include as one of their research objectives the 'promotion' of Biochar as a product. GRDC is funding research into biochar's weak spot: broadacre. Biochar - are there a few myths attached to it that might need busting? (See

Congratulations to the MythBusters. The more farmers know about carbon the more likely they are to become Carbon farmers when we can offer them a reward for it.

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