Scientists say we have only 10-12 years to stop global catastrophe.
Converting to 100% renewable energy asap is essential, but not enough. It addresses only half the problem, halting the addition of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. The more immediate task is to reduce greenhouse gases that have accumulated there, to safe levels quickly enough to avert catastrophic climate change. The broad application of the tools of sustainable agriculture, variously known by terms such as Ecoagriculture, Carbon Farming, or Regenerative Agriculture, may be employed to drawdown CO2 and store it safely in the soil. This paper features the research of author and teacher of permaculture and appropriate technology, Albert Bates, who advocates using biochar as a key element in carbon farming. The works of other educators are recommended below.
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Agriculture is a leading cause of climate change. The production, processing and distribution of food, fiber, and other products is responsible for about half of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Conventional farming methods pollute our waterways with herbicides, pesticides and nutrient runoff contributing to algae blooms; destroy vital rainforests in indigenous communities to raise cattle and monocrops; and degrade soil fertility, the ability to retain water, minerals, organic matter and a diverse microbiome that plants depend on. Raising cattle for food is inordinately consumptive of grain and water, and is majorly polluting.
Conventional agriculture poses a threat to our survival.
Food writer Michael Pollan states in a Washington Post Dec 4, 2015 Op-Ed: “Our unsustainable farming methods are a central contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change, quite simply, cannot be halted without fixing agriculture.”
Transforming agriculture into a regenerative engine, along with reforestation, could drawdown enough CO2 from the air and store it safely and inexpensively in the biomass and soil where it belongs, to help prevent runaway global warming, and Re-Green the planet in the process. Otherwise, the task would be difficult if not impossible on the scale needed with questionable and complicated bioengineering projects proposed to trap CO2 underground, or technology intended to extract carbon from the air and repurpose it.
We must rely on the healing power of nature, unleashed through the magic of plant photosynthesis.
In his book “The Biochar Solution,” Albert Bates makes the case for facilitating the agricultural sequestration of carbon by plants into the soil with sustainable methods. (Carbon’s natural home is in the bodies of plants above ground and in the soil in roots, decaying plant material, microorganisms and other organic matter.) To maintain sufficiently long term storage, Bates champions the use of the soil amendment biochar, a recalcitrant form of carbon produced by pyrolysis (“burning” biomass in an oxygen starved environment) that both stimulates soil biology (when infused with compost tea) and locks up carbon for thousands to millions of years. Whereas the normal biomass labile carbon cycle is a decade or less. Forests also hold carbon for extended periods above and below ground.
In the forward to Bates’ book, Vandana Shiva places the prudent use of biochar in the larger context: “To cultivate the future, we need to cultivate life in the soil. We need to cultivate the humility that soil makes us, we do not make the soil, and we can only serve her process of making life.”
Bates says in his following book, “The Paris Agreement,” that conventional agriculture’s plowing method destroys soil, releasing “gigatons of greenhouse gases from the very place where we can safely store them – in the soil. [It] is progressively “desertifying the most fertile foodbelts on Earth.”
Fortunately, conventional methods are “being replaced with a suite of tools that produce more food per land area and net sequester more carbon every year, build soil, store water, and increase the resiliency of land to withstand storms, floods and droughts. The new tools include no-till organic farming, agroforestry, aquaponics, keyline design, holistic management, remineralization, biochar from biomass energy production, and permaculture.”
Bates continues: “According to a recent report by the UN Commissioner on Human Rights, ‘ecoagriculture’ is the only way we are going to feed the population of the world by 2040. Then we need to go beyond that and perform what Mark Shepard calls ‘restorative agriculture,’ building back the web of life and returning us to a garden planet.”
BASIS FOR A NEW ECONOMY
Critic of corporate rule, David Korten, in “Agenda for a New Economy,” advocates for evaluating economic performance by indicators of “real wealth,” wealth based on human and natural systems health rather than financial indicators of “phantom wealth.” He describes “living enterprises” that serve community needs, networked in “a planetary system of coherent, self reliant local (living) economies,” achieving “a more equitable distribution of power and real wealth,” while having the smallest possible ecological footprint.
Leading environmental leader and thinker, Vandana Shiva, expresses similar views in her book “Earth Democracy,” which she defines as a living democracy based on economic democracy and life nourishing living economies, diverse and decentralized economies, the localization of economies being a social and ecological imperative, “with local communities – organized on principles of inclusion, diversity, and ecological and social responsibility…”
Self reliant local living economies are engaged in their own food/materiale production and distribution. Such democratic decentralized, distributed networks are more sovereign, and more safe and secure, characteristics especially valuable in potentially chaotic conditions ahead.
These principles are in perfect harmony with the mission of carbon farming / ecoagriculture / restorative agriculture. Eco Ag naturally lends towards more agrarian local/regional economic networks, having many small farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs and cooperatives participating in sustainable food growing and production of feedstocks, such as industrial hemp, bamboo, managed forests, biomass for biochar and sustainable biofuels…all operations being carbon negative (net sequestering), that is, stashing more carbon in the soil than is harvested, and retaining it there for the long term,
At the Paris COP21 Climate Summit, Albert Bates spoke of the profitability of a typical biochar cascade, “building upon each other to provide yields at each step, rather than creating the necessity for for massive subsidies..” He also brought attention to an “emerging business model – eCO2 – which uses social permaculture, indigenous wisdom, large-scale offsets for biodiversity, and multiple-ecovillage watershed economies to take all this to scale at the diffusion rate required to bring the planet back into normal Holocene range by mid-century.”
A SOLUTION with MANY ADVANTAGES
In review: As the complement to 100% renewable energy conversion, Carbon Farming presents a suite of tools we can rely upon to help reduce atmospheric carbon to safe levels. With the magic of photosynthesis, plants capture and store the carbon safely and inexpensively in the soil and biomass. Nurturing life in the soil is crucial. Compost tea infused biochar can readily catalyze abundant plant growth to drawdown even more carbon faster. In the form of biochar, carbon can be stored in soil for millenia.
Ecoagriculture also facilitates the formation of carbon negative, self reliant local living economies, serving community needs, being democratic, diverse, sovereign, and more safe and secure in a changing world.
Bates makes the case that with carbon farming: “I can provide more power than (governments) need, at a tenth of the cost of the oil, and I can do it from feedstocks they consider wastes, and I can use processes that net-sequester greenhouse gases at each step, with life-cycle cost that is high in the black, low capital outlay, and quick return on investment. Oh, and it arrests global warming, deepens soils, saves water, and increases biodiversity while preserving and protecting indigenous culture.”
GETTING IT ALL GOING
Bates acknowledges that “we are in the early stages of this agricultural revolution, re-learning how to live in balance. Like a toddler taking first steps, we have not yet found our equilibrium.” Daring thinkers, scientists, universities, enterprising farmers and ranchers, urban gardeners and off grid ecovillages are doing the pioneering work. Some have envisioned creating a kind of youth corps to do massive tree plantings, or help manage desert restoration, or deploy mushrooms to clean up environmental pollutants.
Bates believes that regardless of the outcome of the Paris talks or governments’ action or inaction…. “Once this package is readily available, and the expense is more than justified by immediate returns, the product will sell. Little, short of catastrophic economic collapse, can stop it.” The ability of carbon farming to “solve so many seemingly intractable problems simultaneously that once set in motion it will never be arrested. It will create a garden planet.”
Time is of the essence!
“Agricultural approaches coming into view are not magic elixirs,” observes Bates. They cannot solve the problem alone.
Our survival requires of us a change in consciousness, a renewal of respect for nature and each other, a recognition of our mutual dependence within the web of life on a finite planet with finite resources. We must become stewards of life instead of consumers, exploiters, and dominators, characteristics endemic to the avaricious political economic system that has brought us to the brink, corporate global capitalism.
This is a subject unto itself, but suffice it to say there is a growing consensus against corporate capitalist globalization. David Korten quotes James Gustave Speth, dean of the Yale University School of Forestry: “..the planet cannot sustain capitalism as we know it.”
Vandana Shiva opines: “Remembering we are earth citizens and earth children can help us recover our common humanity and help us transcend the deep divisions of intolerance, hate and fear that corporate globalization’s ruptures, polarization, and enclosures have created.”
Albert Bates thinks the greatest challenge is “not even the need to switch broad-scale agriculture from ‘conventional’ to organic. The greatest challenge is in changing the growth paradigm away from Civilization 1.0 – fossil fueled industrial globalization – to Civilization 2.0 – ‘glocalization,’ a steady-state economy characterized by stable (and in near term declining) population size.”
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The Biochar Solution, Carbon Farming and Climate Change, Albert Bates, forward by Vandana Shiva, New Society Publishers, 2010
The Paris Agreement – the best chance we have to save the one planet we’ve got, Albert Bates, an ecovillage imprint, 2015
Agenda for a New Economy, from Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth, David C. Korten, BK publishers, 2010
Earth Democracy, Justice, Sustainability, and Peace, Vandana Shiva, South End Press, 2005
The Carbon Farming Solution, A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security, Eric Toensmeier, forward by Dr. Hans Herren, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016
Biochar for Environmental Management, Science and Technology, Edited by Johannes Lehmann and Stephen Joseph, earthscan, publishing for a sustainable future, 2009
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