Carbon & Farming



Author: Brooks McCutchen, Ph.D.

Contributing editor: Janis Steele,Ph.D

Heath, MA 2010




This essay, stemming from our experiences as agroforesters, explains premises and goals of farming carbon.   Such a broad framework can enhance public understanding and debate regarding how carbon operates in our environment.


The 21 st century brings rapid biological and cultural changes, with carbon on our plates. This is our time to learn to see carbon. To enhance our chances of survival we humans must somehow shift our gaze towards wilder and unfamiliar terrain.  Our challenge as civil society is to see below surfaces of soil and water, fur, skin and scales, where vast carbon stores reside within myriad tapestries of biodiversity.  Carbon challenges our gaze as it transits the environment often from tectonic slowness to explosively fast. The carbon forms we can notice more easily are materials sitting quietly beside us, like a wooden table, a plastic chair or some food. We also can see carbon based life in motion if it maintains a recognizable pace which perhaps serves our immediate interests. Far harder to perceive are carbon-based beluga, salmon, elk, tree, insect, bacteria, plankton and soils: all members of a vast commons which sustains all life by exchange and cycling. Many lifeforms, including humans and maple trees, average about 50% carbon dry weight.


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Carbon plays a unique role in the evolution of life. Three features make carbon's contributions possible: 1) its capacity to store prodigious amounts of energy; 2) its capacity to form the scaffolding for millions of organic shapes needed for life; and 3) its proportional location either in ground, air, water or life forms. 1 During earth's early history geological forces like volcanoes and erosion saturated air and water with carbon. Beginning 400 million years ago (during Devonian and Carboniferous eras) ancient plankton, plants and bacteria, using photosynthesis, scrubbed masses of carbon from the atmosphere and packed it into their proliferating biomass. Those that came to form calcium-carbonate shells precipitated even more vast quantities of inorganic carbon to sea beds. Geological forces secured much of this carbon compressed into oil, coal, gas and limestone. This biological and geological balancing launched an explosion in biodiversity that came to occupy every imaginable niche on our planet from deep sea vents to Antarctic peaks while driving oxygen levels in the atmosphere to 21%. 2


Up until the industrial revolution of recent centuries, this remarkable balancing act has contributed to one of our planet's more benevolent weather eras, the Holocene (last 12,000 years). Such relative stability nurtured the great drama that we thrill to today, even as we lose it: human cultural diversity embedded in rich biodiversity, 3 or, more simply, biocultural diversity. 4




Image Courtesy of NASA. Numbers in black estimate total carbon in gigatons (GTC), numbers in blue estimate

carbon Gt in yearly transit. Part II. How does carbon move in and out of the atmosphere? Oregon Wild

offers clear, brief descriptions of the elegant scope of these earth systems.



When we look at a diagram of the carbon cycle, we immediately see carbon in motion between atmosphere, lifeforms, soil and water. Less obvious is the significance of the proportional distribution of carbon over time. Carbon achieves high biological value when it is proportionately held in the right places. As noted above, p lants, fungi, bacteria, insects and animals, most life-forms, contain lots of carbon atoms. Over millions of years geology and photosynthesis evolved to strike a cycling or mobile carbon balance between biomass and its soils, atmosphere, and water. Excess carbon was pooled in reservoirs both in and under rock and dissolved into deep cold waters. This carbon, taking numerous forms, is slow to interact with oxygen or biology's digestive enzymes unless temperatures rise and excite carbon to the point of breaking its molecular entrainment. Industrial combustion, volcanic fires, or warming oceans, can rapidly mobilize resident carbon from its slumber, jetting it skyward as atmospheric CO2 capable of both feeding plants and absorbing heat radiating off the earth's surface. 5



Carbon farming recognizes the unique relationship between plants and earth which produces intensely fertile conditions for life by distributing carbon in the right proportional pools over time. Diverse layers of life have co-conditioned each other across millennium, increasing complex biomass and thus extending carbon storage. Globally, soils contain four times more carbon than the atmosphere. 6 Biodiversity in soils consists of myriad bacteria, fungi (like mycellium) lichens (a symbiotic entity composed of bacteria & fungi), root material, worms, insects and animals which have reflexive relationships to biodiversity above ground and in water. A web of trading carbon structures.


Where to put carbon is the work of farming carbon.  As all of us actively relocate carbon's residence, we carbon farm. We farmers personally enjoy the riches of carbon and construct useful things with it as we move it about. 7 Just glancing around the room you are in will generate an impressive carbon-based list that may include foods, plastics, clothing, building materials and of course our bodies! With every bite we take of carbon rich foods we sample a crop and implicitly confirm the harvester and processor's methods. That bite of food in your mouth will have a carbon footprint, a historic trace, that is either carbon-positive (more carbon released into the atmosphere from that stored in biomass or ground), carbon-neutral (carbon held in biomass cycles into the atmosphere through decay and back into new biomass with no net carbon increase in the environment), or carbon-negative (more carbon is stored either in the ground or in biomass than was previously stored). The key to understanding these three carbon profiles and their interactions is to perceive carbon's relative location as a function of Time . For example, carbon in a neutral cycle (such as tree carbon growing, then dying and decaying back to atmosphere) will be less present in the atmosphere over time if it lingers in the cycling molecules of expanded soil biomass. 8


Natural selection, often understood as the success of those with an advantage, also includes symbiosis—the achievement of a specie's advantage via the services of another life. 9 This is exampled in mycelium fungi and maple trees sustaining each other, in the organelle chloroplasts harvesting solar energy they trade to their host plant cells for nutrients, and in gut flora where bacterium assist immune functions, cellular growth and ferment resistant carbohydrates into usable fatty acids in exchange for nutrients housed in a warm animal home. In a further display of resource exchange on coral reefs, sharks thin barracuda populations who then hunt fewer parrotfish who clean the reef by grazing algae which can smother vital coral. Parrotfish further grind coral as they feed which then excretes as fecal sand (vast tonnage over years) useful to creatures occupying reef flats and beaches.


Exchanges of ecosystem services are both energized and structured with carbon. Our current carbon problem is that, from high rises to hay fields, we are sloppy carbon-positive farmers, losing our planet's biomass and its biodiversity as we wreck soil, pump oil and waste precious carbon to air and water. Collapsing such biomass (like depleting shark populations) accelerates overall decay (oxidation) along the food web quickly returning carbon held in life back to atmosphere. It is a double load carbonizing Earth's air that, to do this job, humans are re-activating the slowest of carbon compounds, that which geology had removed from the mobile carbon cycle, by burning coal, oil and gas.


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A liberated carbon atom exposed to the atmosphere quickly bonds with two oxygens (forming CO2) and, like evaporated water, methane and nitrous oxide, these larger, heavy molecules absorb more solar radiation. 10 The Earth's fluctuating weather is evidence of relative mixes of stored solar energy. From the tropics to the poles, more stored energy equals more heat which energizes weather changes. 11 Also, as heavy atmospheric CO2 presses on the ocean surface, it is absorbed into water. As water and CO2 combine, carbonic acid forms. Life in oceans is no more tolerant of exceeding its narrow acidity tolerances than our bloodstream is, or than fish in freshwater lakes. Life-bearing acidity tolerances were developed over millions of years with oceans holding a preponderance of mobile carbon (over 90%). These thresholds are now threatened. 12


Humans, trees and plankton share remarkable similarities concerning acidity limits. We can explore our own tight margins (PH 7.35-7.45 13 ) by taking a deep breath and holding it. As we do, a fast buildup of carbon dioxide partial-pressure in our blood forces a rapid production of carbonic acid. As blood acidifies, nerves monitoring this risk will force us to breath so that life can continue. In that moment we have no other adaptive options. Carbon-based biodiversity and its biomass quickly contract when too much carbon is in the wrong places.


Humans are cycling countless tons of carbon into atmosphere and oceans that was historically held in both mobile sites, as biodiversity, and in more resident sites, underground as ancient biomass bonded into fossil fuels and in calcium molecular bonds like limestone. Carbon farming's task and market advantage is to locate carbon, a multi-tool for life, where it needs to be for both cultural and biological diversity to thrive.


From the carbon scaffolding of our bodies and forests to the maple sap we harvest we enjoy carbon! Current Supreme Court and EPA identification of carbon dioxide (CO2) as a pollutant feels uncomfortable. A paradox with carbon, one that may cost us everything, is that it is being proportionately misplaced by our fondness for its properties. Rapidly emerging global carbon markets seek to leverage economic muscle to put carbon back into diverse biomass, like trees and soils, where it has environmental and cultural value. Like any marketplace seeking to create jobs and income, carbon must carry a fair dollar/ton asset value when held in biomass and a dollar/ton cost when business puts more in the air and water than biodiversity can pull back. This is an economic issue of smart organization of one of the planet's great assets. It is also an invitation for 21 st century cultures to become active traders of ecosystem services with the biodiverse creatures of our world. 14



We all farm carbon: Soil health and biocultural diversity are our

Measures of quality work.








Four Activities of a Carbon Farmer



I: Conservation :


Conservation is an umbrella perspective for the body of this agroforestry. As for all activities, conservation seeks specific techniques to reduce amounts of energy used or wasted to accomplish a given task.


Life that is energy efficient tends to thrive. Life that is inefficient will, over time and by excess consumption, collapse its own trading schemes between ecosystem services. Animals failing to trade services with their partners in a biome, may experience a burst of consumptive growth only to eventually face the grinding pressures of natural selection with significant resource disadvantages. Examples include species like Zebra Muscles, Asian Carp, Emerald Ash Borer and indigenous species like Forest Tent Caterpillars when their constraining predators (a virus and a friendly fly) fail to show up. Industrial globalization/agriculture is often considered an example as well.


Conservation enhancing one's fortunes has an intriguing relationship to trading, both in the biological world and in the marketplace. In both systems good trades strengthen both parties, even when wolves eat weakened caribou. 15 When humans forgo conservation efforts we remove ourselves from participation in evolution's trading schemes and, paradoxically, our bodily risks proportionately increase.


Three regions of conservation amplify each other. First, soil health and biodiversity are addressed here as Carbon Farming. Second, every machine or vehicle you or we operate has had some thoughtful conservation designs applied to it yet numerous future possibilities await. BSG's section on Energy Conservation and Generation engages this topic as equipment used in this agroforestry. Third, vital resources of cultural diversity, which both emerge from biodiversity and draw sustenance from it. Conserving biocultural diversity is engaged in BSG-farm's section on Food & Culture.



II: Energy Generation:


Energy resources like wind, solar, wave energy, river and tidal flows (All distributed forms of solar nuclear power.) plus geothermal do not cycle carbon. However, if one captures such alternative power sources without first establishing efficient practices then growth submerges in a context of waste. With conservation efforts in hand, alternative energy production can be carefully considered for cradle-to-grave carbon footprints just as car manufacturers do to compete over different vehicle's gross efficiencies. 16 This can become complicated:


For example, hydroelectric dam construction releases vast CO2 emissions through cement production. 17 Flooding next collapses extensive, interconnected ecosystems of biomass/biodiversity which decays, releasing large quantities of CO2, methane and nitrous oxide gases. Another option, nuclear power, has high carbon emissions associated with materials manufacturing, high volume--low yield mining, plant assembly and decommissioning. 18 And the recent Midwest corn-to-ethanol, soybean to diesel, debacles pitted energy against food production. This destabilized supply chains handling corn, beans, processed foods, alternative energy and venture capital with no improvement in corn or soybean farming's low biodiversity--intensive carbon positive practices. Prices along chains of distribution tanked and ventures stalled while odd regulatory loopholes were exploited. 19 Industrial carbon sequestration is an emerging technology currently used to isolate udeground CO2 stripped from natural gas and, in the future, coal CO2 produced in gassification. 20 Algae and switch grass farming are currently emerging as possibly sensible carbon-neutral alternatives. 21




III: Food production & Consumption:



Societies grow around activities cycling carbon into their atmosphere through foods. Equipment manufacturing for growing, harvesting and processing foods, transporting food to its destinations and distributing it, not to mention myriad medical expenditures associated with diet-- most of our relationships to foods and their fossil fuels are intensely carbon positive. 22 Contemporary soil collapse, as biodiversity collapses, forces conditions that cannot hold carbon over time. To many the situation seems intractable as a global soil crisis is held at bay only temporarily as we use carbon-positive nitrogen fertilizers (derived from natural gas). Some contend that as long as we rely for food on intensively cropped annual grasses like wheat, corn and rice, we can achieve neither biodiversity nor biomass below or above ground. 23 Must we therefore rely on intensive use of fossil fuels to grow and process annual mono-crops? Should we also help-defend these plants from the environment with toxins and genetic modifications never even imagined to assist any other plants or animals in the biome? Collapsed farm soils hold little when it rains. Nitrogen runoff feeds into oceans further crashing water biodiversity at the mouths of large rivers where oxygen free “dead-zones” expand. There, rotting biomass becomes a new potent generator of greenhouse gases. 24


Investigating historical and pre-historical perspectives, archaeologists, along with soil scientists, study changing soil characteristics of ancient civilizations as they grew. They find declining soils have frequently placed harsh resource and labor pressures on civilizations. 25


Carbon farming emerges as a contemporary way to restate and precisely focus what some have known and practiced for eons using other narratives. In some ways carbon farming updates work by visionaries like Rudolph Steiner 26 and Sir Albert Howard whose different paths both led to the critical importance of soil health and biodiversity. 27 Today many creative activists populate this growing field. 28 Even more, consumers and farmers are igniting direct trade of services and information (and here we are!). As food shoppers we can carbon farm by exploring carbon's history in our purchases as either carbon positive, neutral or negative. For example, certified organic products indicate only a possible shift from carbon positive to carbon neutral. Investigating harvesters' applied efforts towards soil health and biodiversity will further intrigue us with the food's carbon trail. Purchasing locally, or perhaps not so locally, is another part of a building narrative which may balance rough equations between biodiversity efforts on a harvested biome versus carbon released in transport. [For example, when certified organic, fair-trade coffees are grown in one place and perhaps batch processed nearby, is this an import or a local buy? Balance such carbon farming equations by perceiving what biocultural diversity this crop pressures or enhances. Our appreciation of diverse coffees--biocultural diversity--elevates as we notice our membership among far-flung food-source ecosystems. 29 ] Finally, fair-wage practices locate attention away from economies-of-scale towards agricultural details and investment in human capital, both markers of more effective carbon management.



 

IV: Carbon sequestration in soils & biodiversity:



From your own backyard or gardens to a field or forest, if you can get more carbon biologically active in soil then, by definition, you are increasing soil's biodiversity as microbes, fungi like mycellium and worms, insects, and roots swell the ground.


You may be aware that photosynthesizing plants are symbiotically dependent on creatures like mycelium fungi. 32 The non-photosynthesizing fungi maintain ancient capacity to break mineral nutrients from rock and organic material that sunlight-feeders cannot do. Elements like phosphorus, sulfur and potassium are traded for a sip of sugar from sunshine plants and both survive in greater biomass. Biodiversity above ground is evidence of greater biomass exchange and carbon sequestration occupying all nooks and crannies below and above. To reiterate, carbon held in soil and creatures, a vast tonnage of biomass, cycles as each new death feeds new life in a web slowing carbon's passage to air.


Planting a mono-crop, like a eucalyptus plantation, can sequester substantial carbon over a lifecycle or two. However, this will not achieve the carbon capacities of a biodiverse landscape over the long haul of centuries. 33 Mono-crops, by definition, are short-term financial projects which lack complex ecosystem trading schemes, built on complex soils. Mono-crop harvest rotation cycles, the speed with which a crop and it's carbon is removed will be driven by tight economic considerations, rather than by long-term logic intent on maximizing biodiverse carbon stores. By contrast, one estimate for carbon sequestration above and below ground for wild Northeast maple-beech-birch forests suggests 130 metric tons (1 metric ton=2,204lbs) per hectare (2.45 acres) over 50 years and 200 metric tons over 100 years. 34 A harvest rotation cycle for such a forest that intends to sustain it's full carbon load, represented in the broad biodiversity of the biome, might be 100 years 35 . Meaning, to crop this forest any faster would restructure the biome by transferring carbon offsite and thereby reducing the forest's real-time biomass and carbon storage capacity.


As carbon dioxide levels rise in the atmosphere, plants can respond by growing somewhat more vigorously and thereby storing more carbon in their mass. At the same time, atmospheric carbon dioxide is absorbed into ocean water estimated to already hold 48% of all human generated CO2, a small portion of its total carbon holdings. 36 There are some who hope this is evidence of planetary self-regulation able to stabilize anthropogenic (human caused) carbon emissions. Regrettably, this hope has fatal logical flaws. Remaining plants and ocean storage cannot balance this carbon equation through absorption for several reasons:


Increasing biomass while biodiversity decreases will not hold carbon from earth's atmosphere efficiently over the long-term. Biodiversity is robust carbon distribution. It has been so for millennium. Pumping formerly resident carbon into the atmosphere while biodiversity declines will force faster decay cycling and net increases in atmospheric CO2. This phenomenon is already fully evident when contrasting low carbon storage capacities of mono-crops versus high carbon storage for perennial complex biomes. 37


Increases in atmospheric CO2 amplify the air column's weight (called partial pressure) on water surfaces forcing absorption which can only translate into higher carbonic acid production. Rapid ocean acidification is a specific and immediate threat to base microbes, plankton and zoo plankton of our ocean food chain. This concern differs from currently observed reductions of larger species such as tigers, rhinos, turtles, sharks or even declines in smaller life forms like fish, frogs and insects. Over recent decades in North America we have already seen acidification force its effects on a smaller scale as sulfur from Midwest power plants absorbed into clouds to fall as acidic rain and snow, sterilizing thousands of Northeast freshwater lakes. Acidity collapsed the base of the food chain and waters emptied. (Hundreds of lakes and their fish diversity are currently recovering as sulfur is scrubbed at the source. At the same time, a new form of acidification threatens freshwater lakes in the form of nitric acid, derived from nitrous oxide, an airborn byproduct of agriculture's extensive use of ammonia fertilizers and burning fossil fuels. 38 ) The massive scale of similar consequences generated in earth's oceans could portend an extinction event approaching 80% or greater species loss. 39 Such impacts on our children and their grandchildren are almost beyond comprehension. 40


Increased plant growth and carbon capture due to rising atmospheric CO2 levels has been demonstrated to be only modest. 41 . Reforestation and afforestation (developing new forests) projects which include soil development have potential to reclaim neutral cycling carbon loads similar to those held over the last 10,000 years of relative carbon pool stability. Re-mineralizing soils, that is, returning to soils a broad array of nutrients stripped away by deforestation, acidity and conventional agricultural practices, underwrites the capacity for increased carbon-neutral storage. 42 It must be noted that efforts to restore carbon pooling to patterns historically supportive of biocultural diversity do not address the vast anthropogenic increases of carbon flowing into the environment. Current biological systems absorbing the vast carbon loads humans are releasing from fossil fuels and limestone are undergoing rapid and fundamental biochemical changes incompatible with our planet's recently more balanced biocultural diversity. Simply put, we must stop transferring additional reserves of sequestered carbon into the global biome. Biochar production has emerged as one response to this dilemma. Biochar's complex history and ironic hope of humanity becoming carbon negative through charcoal production is potently seductive, both for actors driven to reduce carbon loads in atmosphere and ocean and for those who control purse-strings and want to continue and expand business as usual.







Biochar: Incomplete Science & A Crisis of Scale


Biochar is a human made, almost pure structure of carbon that has been altered by high heat in the absence of oxygen and thereby self-bonded into forms more resistant to biological consumption. Throughout Earth's history the geosphere has produced a variety of carbon products by compressing and heating biomass under both varying temperatures and varying access to oxygen. 43 As described above, this occurred on massive scale during Devonian and Carboniferous eras (400 million years ago and forward) as plants evolved traits to occupy land. Terrestrial and ocean biomass was buried by geological activity and pressure heated. 44 Humans also heat oil, coal and wood in the absence of oxygen to make many useful products including chemicals and fuels. Biochar is one such product defined as:


...the carbon rich product obtained when biomass, such as wood, manure or leaves, is heated in a closed container with little or no available air....it distinguishes itself from charcoal and similar materials...by the fact that biochars are produced with the intent to be applied to soil as a means of improving soil productivity, carbon ( C ) storage, or filtration of percolating soil water. The production process, together with the intended use, typically forms the basis for its classification and naming convention...” (Johannes Lehmann, Biochar; Environmental Management, Science & Technology , 2009, pg.1)


As one example, when woody biomass is processed this way about ½ of its carbon atoms end up as charcoal (remember carbon atoms being 50% of the wood's original dry weight). The rest of the wood's atoms go to gases (like CO2 and water vapor) or ash as part of carbon-neutral cycling in the environment. Therefore, around 25% of the wood's original dry weight is now essentially pure carbon charcoal. Carbon in this form may be largely resistant to breakdown by either oxidation or enzymes. Unless it is burned, some proponents argue, about 80% of this new charcoal is proposed to be carbon-negative, for possibly thousands of years. 45 Other research indicates greater molecular instability of biochar, particularly those formed at lower temperatures 46 . Furthermore, claims of stability over hundreds or thousands of years are impossible to research and prove outside of short term analogs which may not be able to encompass true field conditions.



Beyond a carbon yield in itself, there is the potential to use biochar to further amplify carbon sequestration in active carbon neutral cycles by expanding soil fertility, biomass and biodiversity through a variety of mechanisms. To mention two briefly, biochar can provide soil microbes stable porous surface areas as high as 400 square meters per gram of weight for their populations while also retaining significant moisture. 47 Biochar is sometimes analogized by proponents as a “coral reef” for soil microbes. In turn, enhanced microbe populations fix nitrogen and access nutrients to trade with plants which, in turn, pull more carbon out of the air as crop yields increase. There is more agreement among critics and proponents that biochar may enhance biological activity in carbon depleted sandy or clay soils. There is much less evidence of crop improvement from biochar applied to soils already rich or stabilized with carbon and bioactivity 48 .


Lehmann further describes:


Almost four times more organic C is stored in the earth's soils than in atmospheric CO2. And every 14 years, the entire atmospheric CO2 has cycled once through the biosphere. Furthermore, the annual uptake of CO2 by plants is eight times greater than today's anthropogenic CO2 emissions. This means that large amounts of CO2 are cycling between atmosphere and plants on an annual basis and most of the world's organic C is already stored in soil. Diverting only a small proportion of this large amount of cycling CO2 into a biochar cycle would make a large difference in atmospheric CO2 concentrations...” (2009 pg.9) 49


Charcoal production for use as a fuel has significantly damaged biodiversity all over the world. And yet, there is a tantalizing Terra Preta de Indio in the Amazon, evidence of early cultures building rich soils over vast regions with slash and char, or pyrolized charcoal, establishing a biodiverse carbon sink intact to this day. 50 Biochar proponents point to this heritage as a possible course for modern cultures to become carbon negative through soil development. However, there is little research attention paid to the core question of the original jungle's carbon store as a biodiverse biome. In order for terra preta to claim carbon negative status then the carbon store in its soils and current C-neutral biomass must exceed that original jungle feedstock carbon load. In biochar parlance, when carbon storage and carbon release is simply transferred from one site to another it is termed “leakage”. This is important because the term “biochar” only has distinction from charcoal production due to its intended uses in soil remediation and carbon sequestration. Biochar is a term implying sustainable intentions and behaviors of use. Such intentions must apply to both downstream---the site of biochar application—and upstream—the site of the feedstock used to produce the charcoal.


Interest and research into biochar grows rapidly, as does serious controversy. As Lehmann and others note, a key to successful implementation of a carbon negative biochar cycle rides on sustainable and regulated relationships to handling biomass/biodiversity. 51 Biochar has little utility as a stand alone project. Its relevance is as an adjunct, not a replacement, for existing organic gardening, and field and forestry techniques which both build and nurture carbon rich soils and their outcomes. Biochar projects must meet these criteria in two primary sites, both where harvest occurs and where char is applied.


This gets complicated when considering, for example, the best proportional use of plant biomass for either composting or biochar to advance a garden, field or forest's carbon sequestration and biodiverse expansion. If such proportional matters could be resolved in different settings and if biochar can prove long-term stability (recalcitrance)--which is far less evident for biochar produced at lower temperatures--then visions of a global anthropogenic biochar project, boosting our biome's photosynthetic vigor and drawing down atmospheric and ocean CO2 effects with desperately needed speed, has some understandable appeal. Biochar projects must be in intimate symbiosis with plants which do the work of pulling carbon from the air. Operations that support biodiversity will look radically different from those that do not. Numerous family-scale farm and community projects would likely be key components. Many researchers are exploring biochar projects from small cook stoves for the developing world to family-scale farm machinery, to large systems. An economy-of-scale project forcing volume char production by collapsing biodiversity with mono-crops--like planting a forest to pyrolyze the wood-- is a contradiction in purposes over time. 52 Thoughtful biochar proponents note that if economies-of-scale force another short sighted rush to mono-crop biochar, we will collapse biodiversity and evade conservation, with savagely familiar results. 53


Last Winter/Spring 2010, BSG-Farm undertook extensive literature reviews and consultations with a wide variety of actors in the field of Biochar. As a result of our consultations with Biochar Engineering (BEC) and their association with the Carbon War Room (Richard Branson's NGO) we were invited to participate is two on-line forums designed to give the professional public some access to biochar protocol development prior to two biochar conferences held by the International Biochar Initiative (IBI) first at Ohio State this Summer and then in September in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. The purpose of this process is to lead the way with protocols that will unify and systematize both biochar production and its entry into the carbon credit marketplace by December 2010. In terms of carbon trading there was particular interest in unifying practices between US based systems and those used in Alberta Canada. The online webinars were sponsored by the Carbon War Room, Conoco Phillips, Carbon Consulting and Blue Source. Protocol development is all about language and framing. Corporate actors will inevitably seek language which creates “externalities,” meaning which limits their liability as they seek risk management of profit margins. Below are our findings of both explicitly and implicitly devised protocol externalities presented at these webinars:


  1. Biochar was divorced from any requirements of sustainable feedstock harvesting. Sustainable practices were described as “an option” by the presenters which some manufacturers might choose and others not, their stated goal being to not restrict or limit any charcoal or pyrolysis producers access to carbon credit markets.


  1. Biochar was divorced from its humble origins as an adjunct to organic agricultural practices. All other soil biological processes and their plant growth (which includes humus, the rehabilitation of failed soils and reforestation) were declared strictly carbon neutral with biochar being the only process that was carbon negative.


  1. The evidence disputing the durability of different biochars over time and concerns regarding biochar as a permanent soil remediator were sidelined where controversial and advantaged when positive for biochar. (Some charcoals, for exampled from different feed-stocks or temperature profiles, may change Ph and deposit elements that are not ideal for some plants or varied crop rotations over time. Once added these effects may become permanent.)


The logical consequences and protocol designs that flowed from these three externalities were numerous. Some are outlined below:


--Any consideration of key crop rotation cycles, to sustain feedstock biodiversity, cultural diversity and current carbon storage in the feedstock, were dismissed as not relevant. The industry stated a concern over carbon “leakage” (“….describes a situation where an emission reduction measured in one instance results in a measurable increase in emissions elsewhere.”) and then offered no standards or concerns for evaluating carbon emission increases at a feedstock site compared to carbon reduction claims at the post-production site. This established a skewed focus on “downstream” carbon sequestration in charcoal decoupled from upstream feedstock carbon management. This strategy allows for the unfettered production of charcoal without consideration of whether the operations net CO2 releases into the wider environment are carbon positive. As with Tera Preta de Indio in the Amazon, the industries claims of carbon storage are not being indexed against carbon stored in the original jungle biomass that was charred. Biochar as a term has only emerged as a contemporary response to the recognition that global ecosystems are now “carbon constrained.” Decoupling charcoal production from sustainable management of its feedstock source is therefore illogical and biochar becomes an “emperor with no clothes” masking a familiar charcoal production historically driving biocultural degredation across the globe.


--The term Biochar and charcoal became used throughout the webinars with inter-changeable flexibility. Broad expansions of biochars potential uses were proposed (including as a coal substitute in power generation) as charcoal and biochar's dual claim to carbon markets became equivalent with biochar adding a window dressing of green practices when it suited. (Remember that biochar is only distinguished from charcoal by its intended use in soil remediation.)


--Any feedstock became defined as carbon neutral or carbon positive and thereby a form of “waste” or “residue” that therefore pyrolizing into charcoal would offer a net benefit to ecosystems. Within this spurious logic Western forests can be described as carbon positive due to pine beetle infestation, and the Canadian Boreal can be deemed carbon positive due to warming and climate change, indicating vast intentions and markets for pyrolysis. Understanding biocultural diversity as a vast and effective carbon neutral store was made irrelevant by this perspective. The protocols terms, vigorously defended by the presenters and not open to significant debate, declared their intent to open the carbon marketplace to all those interested in pyrolysis. Biochar becomes their greenwashed logo.


--Charcoal production then competes for feedstock with humus production instead of functioning as an adjunct. The presenters, on questioning, insisted that biochar stands on it's own with no intrinsic relationship to humus or bioactive carbon in spite of it's only defining distinction in the literature as an applied soil remediator. Humus, and therefore organic practices, were further diminished as carbon neutral which was pejoratively described as a “zero sum activity” unable to address carbon mitigation.


--Small biochar producers were characterized on one power-point slide listing varied stakeholders as “feel good actors”. Presenters described that these small stakeholders, in their vast numbers, would only gain access to carbon markets, managed by corporate entities, through broker “bundling” of their productions.


--Conoco Phillips' intentions in sponsoring this protocol development were specified by their representative. Conoco wants carbon credits via biochar as they plan “substantial scaling up” of tar-sand oil production described by them as “a world-class energy supply” (Tar sands produce three times the CO2 emissions processing oil than any other fossil-fuel source). Conoco and other multinational producers currently extract from Canada 16% of American energy demands and they plan to grow that market share substantially under American “energy security” policies. The tar sands are already destroying and fouling an area the size of Florida in the Athabascan region. It is our view that appearing to reduce their carbon footprint by potentially pyrolizing more stretches of the Boreal for carbon credits becomes part of a pro-green market strategy as they encounter increasing international criticism and pressure for producing the dirtiest oil on the planet. Planting row, mono-crops of hybridized or GMO fast growing trees across Canada and Western states for charring would suit the design off this protocol well and would turn the Boreal into a sterile wasteland as has been done, for example, over vast regions of Southern Chile with eucalyptus plantations. The protocol development team Blue Source and Carbon Consulting continues to advertise their need for corporate sponsors with the stated direct assurance that the largest contributors specific interests will be first accommodated in their designs.


From the modern inception of biochar, concerns have persisted that it cannot remain sustainable and, in fact, becomes highly dangerous within economies-of-scale. 54 Many thoughtful biochar proponents are well aware of this. Given these above feedstock, market and political activities and the science considerations that while biochar has demonstrated some utility in poor sandy or clay soil remediation, it has not fully done so in stronger soils. Further, such charcoal in many forms may not have the long-term carbon stability claimed. We must therefore take a firm position against this methodology and oppose any protocols, licensing or production of pyrolysis products at scale. Charcoal production plans described above are destructive to biocultural diversity over the long term and therefore are not carbon-negative practices. Smoke, mirrors and short term-perspectives again create a utopian illusion, a purchased indulgence, offering to sooth collective anxiety, fear and hubris.







To restate the sight-line of this paper: This is ours and our children's time, the 21 st century, to train ourselves to see carbon in order to farm it with skill. Soil health and biocultural diversity are our measures of quality work!














Carbon is uniquely capable of forming lengthy and strong single, double and triple bonds (the number of shared electrons) with other carbon atoms while also including elements like hydrogen and oxygen. Such carbon catenation proliferates into over 10 million shapes and complex energy storage schemes and has earned carbon its own broad field of investigation, organic chemistry.

Don't miss this link to read Oregon Wild's (2007) concise and comprehensive outline of carbon's movement and storage in earth's systems. Part II. How does carbon move in and out of the atmosphere? — Oregon Wild

D. Rothman, (2001 ) National Academy of Sciences paper finds strong inverse correlations in the paleontological record between fluctuating CO2 levels and biodiversity. As CO2 levels decline biodiversity rises throughout historical fluctuations. This suggests an equivalence between biodiversity and biomass that is integral to atmospheric regulation. Global biodiversity and the ancient carbon cycle — PNAS

The term Biocultural Diversity, (coined in 1999) defines an arena of broad professional interests. See: On Biocultural Diversity: Linking Language, Knowlege & the Environment. edited by Luisa Maffi (2001).

Resident and mobile carbon were proposed by H. Mclaughlin (2009) to describe proportions of biochar carbon [C] more available to interact with oxygen or enzymes over a timespan (up to five years) versus more bonded and therefore recalcitrant C. All Biochars are Not Created Equal, and How to Tell Them Apart . Organic C also describes carbon active in biological life versus inorganic C like carbonic acid in water, limestone or oil, some of which can return to the organic cycle with relatively low energy applications (like warming sea water) while others require higher energy inputs to break down and form CO2, like combusting oil.

Oceans hold 93% of organic and inorganic mobile C, which does not include oil/coal/gas/limestone deposits Carbon Dioxide in the Ocean and Atmosphere - sea, depth, oceans, important, system, plants, marine, oxygen, human, Pacific

The energy resource of different carbon compounds can be compared in British Thermal Units (btu's) per pound where sugar=5ooo, maple syrup=3300, coal=8-13,000, gasoline=20,128, #2 fuel oil=23,000 and 1 cubic foot of natural gas=1034btu's (1 kilowatt of electricity=3413btu's.) calculated using: What is Energy? Conversion and Resource Tables

A Recent Gulf of Maine Research Institute study evaluated whales' global biomass for historical carbon sequestration, (over one hundred million tons, or the size of a large forest) which, in modern times is lost to the atmosphere through excessive hunting and processing for human consumption. BBC News - Science & Environment - Whaling 'worsens carbon release'

See the superb, Tree: A Life Story David Suzuki & Wayne Grady, Greystone Books, 2004.


Methane can absorb and re-radiate 30x more energy than C02, Nitrous Oxide 300x!

Modern Seamanship, Chapter 10, Don Dodd, The Lyons Press, 2001, Lucid & practical descriptions of large-scale weather processes and their local effects.

Seasick: The Global Ocean in Crisis, Alanna Mitchell, McClelland & Stewart Ltd. 2009

Acid-Base Regulations & Disorders, Merk Manual of Diagnosis & Therapy

Leaders in development of the concepts and practices of the ecosystem services marketplace: Forest Trends - Welcome to the Forest Trends Homepage . Ocean ecosystem services: Forest Trends - MARES , -- UN-REDD Programme - home --

Stunning footage that repeatedly examples this principle of evolution across the globe is the BBC video series: Nature's Most Amazing Events, ( 2009) narrated by David Attenborough.

The Prius hybrid has been critiqued by Nissan engineers as having a larger cradle-to-grave carbon footprint due to battery processing, than their standard engine vehicles. Now Nissan has an all battery vehicle.

Produced by heating calcium carbonate (limestone) and driving its copious carbon into the atmosphere along with CO2 from the heat source.

“splash & dash” describes loaded foreign tankers headed for Europe visiting US ports to top off with American diesel thereby collecting lucrative American & European subsidies! Finance panel set to close ' splash and dash ' loophole By Ian ...

Statoil in Norway and EnCana in Weyburn Saskatchewan have been sequestering CO2 stripped from natural gas and oil/water raw materials into rock and saline aquifers for years. Combustion of these fuels produces additional CO2. U.S. based Future Gen, in development, will gassify coal and harvest hydrogen for power production and sequester CO2 . Costs for these processes are significant. Statoil – a leading energy company in oil and gas production , Encana, Canada , FutureGen Industrial Alliance, Inc

Against The Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization, Richard Manning, North Point Press, 2004. Reviewed and compellingly argued in the journal Culture & Agriculture 2009 Volume 31, #2, American Anthropological Society

Aquatic ' dead zones ' contributing to climate change original article in the journal Science

Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, Chapter 10, David R. Montgomery, University of California Press, 2007

Agriculture, Rudolph Steiner, 1924, He created biodynamic agriculture & “spiritual science” in Germany.

An Agricultural Testament, Sir Albert Howard 1943, considered by many the originator of organic farming working in India and Barbados.

Dean's Bean's embroils customers in such relationships with crafted market structure. Dean's Beans - Fair Trade Coffee Fair Trade Coffee Roasters Organic Coffee Roasters

Have a look at the Slow Food USA Ark of Tastes, 200 + American exotic foodstocks in danger of extinction that would like to be purchased and eaten! US Ark of Taste : Slow Food USA

Werner Herzog's Oscar nominated film Encounters at the End of the World (2007, a Netflix instant view) brilliantly anchors this point. Filmed for the National Science Academy at McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

Mycelium Running, How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. Paul Stamets, Ten Speed Press 2005

In Uganda the World Bank funded mono-crop tree planting for carbon sequestration with negative social and biological consequences. Living on Earth radio report: Tree Planting for Carbon Raises Questions

On the West coast Douglas Fir and Hemlock & Sitka Spruce can go much higher to 650 metric tons per hectare in 100 years. Nicholas Institute For Environmental Policy Studies, Harnessing Farms & Forests in the Low Carbon Economy , 2007, pg.54 ghgexerpts.pdf (application/pdf Object)

Conversation with Steven Hamberg, Chief Scientist and Forester with Environmental Defense Fund. April 2010

Against The Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization, Richard Manning, North Point Press, 2004 Reviewed and compellingly argued in the journal Culture & Agriculture 2009 Volume 31, #2, American Anthropological Society

William Schlesinger, president Cary Institute, Living on Earth radio transcript 10/10/2010

For comparison, Stephen J Gould describes in Full House:The Spread of Excellence From Plato to Darwin ( 1996 ) that in the large extinction event which occurred between the Permian and Triassic Era's (251 million years ago) loss of lifeforms in oceans was 96%, land 70% and insects 50%. Earlier, the termination of the Devonian Era (circ. 354mya) lost 70-80% of all animal species with disproportionately high losses in oceans. Causes are debated. The Devonian Plant Hypothesis (Algeo, Berner, Manard & Scheckler) Suggests that growth of plants on land forced nutrient runoff, including Carbon, into oceans destabilizing water chemistry. Devonian Times - Front Page

Storms of My Grandchildren, J. Hansen, Director NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies, 2010, Seasick: The Global Ocean in Crisis, Alanna Mitchell, 2009

W. Schlesinger and Duke/Brookhaven's recent Free Air CO2 Enrichement (FACE) experiments show modest growth improvements not capable of compensating for increasing anthropogenic (human made) Co2 emissions. See Cary Institute and Brookhaven FACE program and Steven Hamburg's research, lead forester at Environmental Defense Fund.

Thermolysis is an umbrella term for heating material in the absence of oxygen or another catalyst. Kerogen is an example of catagenesis at lower temperatures which then forms bitumen and petroleums as oxygen free heat increases. Oilfield Glossary: Term 'kerogen' Pyrolysis is also used as both an umbrella term, (e.g. caramel maple flavors are formed by pyrolysis in the evaporator) and to refer to higher temperature charcoal formation.

J. Leehman's powerpoint slides have a useful carbon-cycle diagram that includes biochar and charts Lehman powerpoint--Biochar Systems Science: Climate Change Mitigation with Multiple Sustainability Outcomes?

JRC European Union, Biochar Application to Soils, Leehman, Mclaughlin, Bruges all note questions concerning the true stability of biochar longitudinally. Proponents tend to sidestep these questions by arguing that any improvement in the carbon crisis towards carbon negative is better than carbon neutral biology.

Terra Preta de Indio , Cornell University

An overview and response to biochar controversies by the International Biochar Institute For the Press | International Biochar Initiative

J. Bruges, The Biochar Debate, Chelsea Green, 2009.

See George Monbiot at the UK Gaurdian beginning a series of critical exchanges regarding biochar. George Monbiot : Biochar , the latest miracle mass fuel cure, does ... . also J. Bruges, The Biochar Debate

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