Sunday, February 16, 2014

Cows Save the Planet

_Cows Save the Planet and Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth:  Unmaking the Deserts, Rethinking Climate Change, Bringing Back biodivesity, and Restoring Nutrients to Our Food_ by Judith D. Schwartz
White River Junction, VT:  Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2013

(xi)  We can deny climate change because to do otherwise would imply that we have to tear the global economy apart, which no one can do;  we can persist in thinking that creeping deserts and melting ice have nothing to do with us because we have failed to think globally and holistically, or understand that the Arctic drives the climate of the world.  We can put our heads in the sand because it's painful to hear that we have enabled a failing civilization.

(2)  Leaving behind our bovine herd for the moment, another way to build soil is through zai pits, a traditional growing method from Burkino Faso in West Africa.  Small holes are dug into a field, and these capture water and old soil organic matter (compost and such), both precious resources in drylands that depend on seasonal rainfall - about a third of the world's landmass.

(3)  In _Dirt:  The Erosion of Civilizations_, geomorphologist David Montgomery offers numerous cautionary tales of kingdoms, cultures, and empires that squandered their soil and found themselves with nothing left to live on.

(5)  According to Rattan Lal, Distinguished University Professor at the Ohio State University, soil carbon restoration can potentially store about one billion tons of atmospheric carbon per year.  This would offset around 8 to 10 precent of  total annual carbon dioxide emissions and one-third of annual enrichment of atmospheric carbon that would otherwise be left in the air.

Consider also biodiversity, which starts in the soil;  there are as many living organisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil as there are people on the planet.

(6)  Steven Apfelbaum, a restoration ecologist in Wisconsin, says that every 1 percent increase in soil carbon holds an additional sixty thousand gallons of water per acre.  Not only does this limit damage from erosion, but it also keeps water on the land.

(7)  One sweeping and dramatic example is the restoration of the Loess Plateau in China, documented in John D. Liu's film "Hope in a Changing Climate."  Over ten years, an area the size of Belgium along the Yellow River in northwest China was transformed from a near-barren desert plagued by dust storms, considered the most eroded place on earth, to a thriving agricultural region with the poverty rate lowered by half.

(12)  Since about 1850, twice as much atmospheric carbon dioxide has derived from farming practices as from the burning of fossil fuels (the roles crossed around 1970).  In the past 150 years, between 50 and 80 percent of organic carbon in the topsoil has gone airborne.  The antidote to this rapid oxidation is regenerative agriculture:  working the land with the goal of building topsoil, encouraging the growth of deep-rooted plants, and increasing biodiversity.

(15)  According to Christine Jones, soils hold more carbon than the atmosphere and all the world's plant life combined - and can hold it longer, in a more stable form than, say, trees.  She says that a soil carbon improvement of just 0.5 percent in the top twelve inches of 2 percent of Australia's agricultural land would effectively store that country's annual carbon dioxide emissions over the long term.

Here in the United States, Rattan Lal, of Ohio State, has estimated that globally soil carbon restoration can potentially store about one billion tons of atmospheric carbon a year.  This means that the soil could offset about one-third of the human-generated emissions annually absorbed in the atmosphere.

(16)  [Ian Mitchell-Innes, South African rancher and Holistic Management trainer] "If we improve 50 percent of the world's agricultural land, we could sequester enough carbon in the soil to bring atmospheric CO2 back to pre-industrial levels in five years."

Abe [Collins] expresses it this way:  "Worldwide, if the organic matter - which is about 58 percent carbon - in all the land that we currently farm and graze were increased 1.6 percent to a foot in depth, atmospheric CO2 levels would be at pre-industrial levels.  We'll have to do even better than that for many reasons, including if we want to get below three hundred parts per million of CO2, since annual global carbon oxidation exceeds photosynthesis."  He cites Allan Yeomans, author of _Priority One:  Together We Can Beat Global Warming_ and a longtime proponent of an agricultural solution to climate change, as inspiration for his soil carbon advocacy.

(22)  He [Nicholas-Théodore de Saussure] demonstrated that carbon in plants - the basis for plant organic compounds - was obtained from carbon dioxide in the air;  the hydrogen in these compounds came from water….

If we define work mathematically, as force over distance, day in and day out the work of photosynthesis exceeds the total of the world's industry by a factor of nine.
NB:  The sunlight that grows US agriculture is at least three times the annual energy budget of the US.

(26)  Cattle, like all ruminants, emit methane as part of their unique digestive process (from the front end, actually).  According to the EPA, ruminant livestock annually generate about eighty million metric tons of methane, which is approximately 28 percent of the global methane emissions attributed to human-derived activity.

(27)  COs and CH4 have different weights, with a carbon dioxide molecule nearly three times as heavy as a methane molecule.  Rather than comparing the global warming potential of a molecule of carbon dioxide with a molecule of methane, the twenty-five number [methane is 25 times more global warming than CO2] expresses the activity of a kilogram of methane versus a kilogram of carbon dioxide.

Plus, methane in the atmosphere breaks down much more quickly than carbon dioxide;  in the presence of oxygen CH4 turns into CO2 and H2O, or water….

There seems to be little correlation between methane levels and the number of ruminants.  A joint 2008 report from the FAO (the UN's Food and Agiruclture Organization) and IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) noted that since 1999 atmospheric methane concentrations have been stable while the population of ruminants worldwide grew at a rapid rate, raising the question of whether livestock play much of a role in the greenhouse gas situation.

(28)  So I contacted Steven Apfelbaum, a world-recognized expert on ecological restoration and the founder and chairman of Applied Ecological Services in Wisconsin...

Historically, the primary origin of biochar is wildfires, he [Steven Apfelbaum] said.  According to Joel S. Levine, a senior research scientist at NASA, about 30 percent of global annual carbon dioxide emissions can be attributed to biomass burning.

(30)  Australian soil scientist Christine Jones' website:

(35)  A plant with mycorrhizal connections can transfer up to fifteen times more carbon to soil than a non-mycorrhizal counterpart.

There's another aspect to these root fungi scientists are still learning about:  glomalin, a sticky secretion - it's been called "soil's superglue" - that coats the spindly hyphae.  This glycoprotein (both a carbohydrate and a protein) was only discovered in 1996 by Sarah F. Wright, a soil scientist with the USDA's Agricultural Research Service (AGS).  Glomalin is significant for two reasons:  It holds carbon, storing it for as long as several decades (a study by microbiologist Kristine A. Nichols of the ARS determined that glomalin represents on average 15 percent of carbon in soils);  and it binds soil particles to create aggregates, which lends soil its tilth - that soft, granular quality you get when you run a handful of good soil through your fingers.  This helps keep soil stable and resistant to erosion while allowing for air and water flow.  As one USDA brochure asks rhetorically, "Does glomalin hold our farm together?"

(37)  How much carbon can be brought into the soil and stored?  According to Jones, "under appropriate conditions, 30 to 40 percent of carbon fixed in green leaves can be transferred to soil and rapidly humidified, resulting in rates of soil carbon sequestration in the order of five to 20 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year."  If we wish to "revitalize all terrestrial life forms, including people," she says, the way to do so is to restore the soil battery.  This means creating the conditions for the liquid carbon pathway to flow uninterrupted in  the soil, giving biology the chance to do its thing.

(44)  "Institutional soil scientists, funded by agrochemical companies, are doing their utmost to prevent this information being accepted because the humification process (and hence the storing of the sun's energy in the soil) does not proceed where there are high levels of chemical inputs," says Jones.  "Once farmers 'get' this, the big end of town (in the ag world, at least) will have nothing to sell.  Farmers will not want to use toxic chemicals because their use results in soil degradation - which is a symptom of the loss of soil energy."

(45)   One tool that reportedly allows for faster soil building is the Keyline plow and design system, originally developed in the 1940s by P. A. Yeomans, a farmer and engineer (and his son Allan Yeomans, who wrote _Priority One_, which inspired Abe Collins).  The chisel-shaped plow decompacts and aerates the subsoil with minimal disturbance;  water can infiltrate and conditions improve for fungi and microorganisms.  With Keyline plowing and planned high-density grazing, Yeomans was reportedly able to produce four inches of humus-rich soil in three years, starting with bare sandy ground.

(47)  Christine Jones:  "Every kilogram of glucose produced via the photosynthesis process represents 16 megajoules of sunlight energy bound in a biochemical form.  If that same amount of light falls onto bare ground rather than onto a green leaf, the energy is radiated back to the atmosphere."

(52)  Drylands - the arid, semi-arid, and sub-humid areas with seasonal, and often unpredictable rains - are complex, delicate ecosystems that though resilient are vulnerable when land and water are not sustainably managed.  Drylands account for 41.3 percent of the world's landmass, including 44 percent of land under cultivation.  Each year upward of twelve million hectares (thirty million acres) of productive land are lost to desertification;  this means an area the size of South Africa is slipping away each decade.

(53)  So intertwined are these three - desertification, climate change, and biodiversity loss - that we can consider them manifestations of the same problem:  The biological cycles underlying life on earth have been thrown out of whack.  We can't hope to make inroads on any one of them without addressing all of them.  However, this is not how it's usually discussed.

(60)  Allan Savory:  "This planning process [Holistic Management] results in the many different factors having a bearing appearing on the chart over the months planned, then allowing the moves of the livestock to be plotted so that the animals are in the right place, at the right time, for the right reasons and with the right behavior."

(61)  So if domestic herbivores can be managed such that their behavior mimics that of their wild counterparts, the grasslands - the African savanna or the U.S. prairies and plains, terrain that represents about 45 percent of all land world-wide - will regain the state of wild land:  healthy, diverse, and resilient…

The animal urine and dung provide fertilizer as well as the impulse to move on, as an animal will not feed where it has dunged.

(63)  The Holistic Management decision-making model can be applied to other processes that benefit from planning, such as governing a town (the mayor of Buena Vista, Colorado, Joel Benson, is a Holistic Management educator and brings this approach to local governance), running a business (see:  Buena Vista Roastery, the café Benson runs with his wife, Laurie), and setting personal life goals.

(65)  Among Savory's contributions to our understanding of desertification is the concept of brittleness.  This term refers to the distribution of humidity throughout the year in an environment.
NB:  brittleness and anti-fragility

(76)  _Water for the Recovery of the Climate:  A New Water Paradigm_ [Kracvik, Pokorny, Kohutiar, Kovac, and Toth 

(78)  "Water enters the plant as dirty water and goes into the air as distilled water.  Plants not only give us oxygen, they also produce for us clean water and function as the perfect air conditioning system."  [Jan Pokorny]  

(79)  Pokorny's applied ecological research nonprofit, Enki, named for the Sumerian "god of fresh water and education, the patron of craftsmen and artists," in addition to research in Africa

(81)  Water has a greater capacity to absorb thermal energy than any other known substance.

(84)  "Regarding sea level rise, people are still thinking of ice melt and not about the loss of water from the landscape, the water that flows from the continents to the sea."  Michal Kravcik

(85-86)  Let me introduce this concept by posing a question that the biotic pump potentially answers:  If precipitation derives from moisture brought to land from the ocean, how does that moisture reach inland areas far away from the ocean?  In other words, why doesn't it only rain on the coast?

Answer:  It's thanks to _forests_.  The high rate of transpiration in wooded areas enriches the atmosphere with water vapor.  When moist air ascends, it cools, and water vapor condenses, producing a partial vacuum where condensation has occurred.  This creates an air pressure gradient, whereby the forest canopy sucks in moist air from the ocean.  This moisture now enters the small water cycle described by the forest and its surrounding region, and brings sustaining rains.  The biotic pump is the mechanism by which moisture is transported across the land.  Forests don't merely grow in wet areas - they create and perpetuate the conditions in which they grow.
NB:  Auroville example

(88)  In the early 1990s, scientist Malin Falkenmark of the Stockholm International Water Institute articulated the distinction between "blue water" and "green water."  Blue water is precipitation that ends up in lakes, rivers, and aquifers, whereas green water is water on land:  soil water.  While we think of rainwater replenishing reservoirs, in fact 65 percent of water that falls as rain becomes green water.

(91)  [Michal Kravcik]  "You can think of the sun as yellow and water as blue.  Together the sun and water make green, which is nature.  This is how we make a green landscape.  We prime the small water cycle:  evaporation takes water up and condensation brings it down.  Every drop of water is key to our recovery."  He alerts me to a favorite quote, from King Parakramabahu the Great of Sri Lanka in the twelfth century:  "Not a single raindrop should be allowed to flow into the sea without first having been used for the benefit of the people."

(92), news from a Native American perspective

(106)  John Kempf, farming consultant in Middlefield, OH, Advancing Eco-Agricuture.  "The company manufactures liquid nutritional blends and micronized (meaning broken down into extremely small particles, to ease assimilation by plants) minerals and micronutrient blends.

(107)  [Kempf]  "The biggest single problem with the agricultural paradigm of the day is the warring mentality.  It's us against nature:  let's kill all these pests.  I'm sorry, nature always bats last.  It will always circumvent the inventiveness of our attempts to play God."

(120)  [Gene Goven]  He's also constantly juggling complexity in new ways.  For example, when he says he manages for diversity he means this on multiple levels, including chronology:  "If I seed a field early this year, I will seed it later next year.  That breaks up the weed cycles.  I'm changing the timing all the time.  It sort of keeps things in chaos.  If I graze one pasture on June 1, I won't come back at the same calendar time for ten years.  The goal is to create the conditions for deeper rooting [of plants], which then creates conditions for building soil."

(121)  …wild flax - the one plant he [Goven] knows of that's found worldwide…

(128)  Tony Lovell from TEDxDubbo:  "If you reduce [soil and plant] biodiversity you reduce biomass [plant cover], which reduces photosynthesis, which reduces carbon uptake and oxygen creation, which disrupts nutrient cycling, which reduces fertility, which reduces infiltration and retention of rainfall, which changes soil moisture, which changes relative humidity, which changes weather, which changes climate."  However, a focus on soil biodiversity gets the cycle running in the other direction…

The soil research that's done, he [Hans Herren, Millennium Institute] says, is mostly on the physical properties - fertilizers, how minerals move in the soil.  That's one thing.  But when it comes to soil biology, we know very little.  And you know why?  Because it's extremely complicated.  Now we have molecular tools with which we can differentiate organisms, and see what role they play in the soil, and what do we do when we mistreat our soils."  He says it's imperative to study the mix of insects, bacteria, and microorganisms in the soil because "the longer we wait, the more difficult it will be to regenerate some of this system."

(130)  The sign welcoming visitors to Organic Growers of Fairlie [Scotland] reads:  Promoting Global Worming.

(149)  In spring 2011 he [plant pathologist Don Huber] unintentionally sparked a stir when a letter he'd written privately to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was leaked.  This communication was to alert Vilsack that scientists had come upon a new pathogen associated with plant diseases and reproductive problems (infertility, miscarriages, stillbirths) in cattle, pigs, chickens, and horses and which was found in crops genetically modified to tolerate glyphosate.  In an interview with Food Democracy Now!, Huber said this previously unidentified organism can kill a fertilized egg in twenty-four to forty-eight hours.  Through his letter, Huber urged Vilsack to pursue more research before GMO alfalfa, the country's main forage crop, is approved and enters the food supply.  Numerous scientists, including Purdue colleagues, refuted Huber's statements and claimed he had jumped the gun by, well, calling for caution.  Meanwhile, the USDA approved GMO alfalfa, which is now sold under Monsanto's Genuity "trait master brand."

…"Let's start by going back to the very basics," he [Huber] says.  "We need to recognize that farming is a management program for a system.  In that management process, sometimes we forget that there are four major components:  the plant, the physical environment of the soil, the very dynamic component of soil microorganisms, and your pests.  When we think we have a silver bullet, we forget the interaction[s] among those four components that are so critical to success - to whether we have a successful crop, a nutritious crop, disease or no disease.  Any time we make changes in agriculture we change the interaction of those four components.  In the same way, one gene operates with all the components.  We can't just look at one gene and say it's only doing one thing.  We don't have enough genes for all the processes that take place."

(156)  A BBC report noted that malnourished people may not absorb the beta-carotene from the rice without a balanced diet that includes the type of traditional foods that commodity crops like hybrid or GM rice put in jeopardy.  It's also been found that to get the benefit from fortified rice, young children would have to consume six pounds of it a day.

(157)  [Hans Herren]  "If you look at crops from before the green revolution, they were nutritious," he says.  "Breeding has raised the starch and water content.  With high-yielding varieties we have increased the crop yield but lowered the nutrition.

(162)  After leaving the firm [J. P. Morgan] in 2001, [John] Fullerton began grappling with questions of economics and sustainability.  He has since formed the Capital Institute, a nonprofit forum on the role of finance in a shift to a more "just, resilient and sustainable" system.

(171)  When people consider the growing potential of a particular environment, they often look to the amount of rain it receives.  Holistic Management emphasizes making effective use of whatever precipitation comes down.  To Brandon [Dalton], this is an inherently optimistic model:  We can't force rain down from the sky but we _can_ take measures to ensure that the rain we get is used well.

(175)  "The thing about cattle is that it scales up nicely.  Grazing management for five hundred cows [is] much the same amount of work as fifteen hundred cows."  [Brandon Dalton]

(183)  The stark fact that appears now, and which wrote itself across the Roman Empire, is that debt and taxation increase as the soil declines.
GT Wrench, _Reconstruction by Way of the Soil_, 1936

(185)  As the late Kenneth Boulding said of his own profession, "Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist."

(186)  Bank of North Dakota, a public bank established nearly a century ago that keeps money in the state, drawing on public wealth to provide credit to citizens and local enterprises

(190)  The high-disturbance soil breaks apart ("not enough glomalin or 'glue,'" says Jay [Fuhrer]) and the water clouds up.

(191)  At least a third of US agricultural land is no-till.

(195)  As for finances, Gabe [Brown, sustainable farmer in North Dakota, Burleigh County Soil Conservation District] says that "it takes an average of twenty-one gallons of diesel fuel to plant, grow, and harvest an acre of corn.  Here we're doing it in five.  If we can save 75 percent of our fossil fuel bills, we're doing well."

(200)  In _The Solutions Journal, ecologist John Todd takes the analogy yet farther and proposes that carbon - specifically the carbon found in the soil - serve as a form of currency:

"Humanity has always been carbon based.  The carbon that supported us through most of history was slow carbon embodied in trees, other plants, and animals.  Since the Industrial Revolution we have shifted to using fast carbon in the form of oil and natural gas.  fast carbon is mainly finite and nonrenewable.  What if we used carbon as a universal currency?  What if people around the world were paid to capture and sequester carbon, particularly in soils?  What if enterprises that emit carbon into the atmosphere, including, for example, coal-fired power plants, had to pay for the right to pollute based upon every ton of carbon they emitted?  A tectonic shift in the way the world conducts its business, from farming to aerospace, might ensue.  Let's continue the conversation.  The stakes are too important not to."

He could have been channeling Christine Jones, who has said:  "Carbon is the currency for most transactions within and between living things."

(202)  In a 2005 talk at The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State titled "The Farm as Natural Habitat," Laura Jackson, Wes Jackson's daughter and professor of biology at the University of Northern Iowa, said:  "In most areas of the Upper Midwest, land in agricultural production is barren dirt for nine months of the year.  Because of our corn/soybean rotation, we're looking at a system of collecting solar energy about three months of the year.  The rest to the time the land has very little cover on it, very little green leafy cover to collect solar energy…"

Jackson included a slide that depicted, via satellite imaging, the "greenness index," or plant cover, over a period of two weeks in June.  She said:  "The maximum amount of solar energy comes to Iowa on or around June 21, and Figure 2 shows that a big chunk of the Corn Belt is virtually bare, brown to yellow, on the same days that solar energy is at its maximum.  What a waste, right?"

(203)  One YouTube clip called "the Stupifyingly Simple Solutions to Preventing Drought and Flooding" (on the "whatifwechange" channel) draws on his  [John D Liu] observations:

"…We need to realize that wealth is not coming from manufactured goods and from commerce.  Wealth is coming from natural ecological function.  If we understand this we can base our monetary systems on ecological function.  And to do conservation of the earth will be to protect wealth.  And to restore degraded areas will be to increase wealth.

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