The Importance of Compost -- Lots of Compost
March 10, 2015 12:39 AM   Subscribe

Writing for The Guardian, Charles Eisenstein argues that regenerative agriculture is crucial to an effective response to climate change, which in his view includes both technological and philosophical shifts:
The mindset behind geoengineering stands in sharp contrast to an emerging ecological, systems approach taking shape in the form of regenerative agriculture. More than a mere alternative strategy, regenerative agriculture represents a fundamental shift in our culture’s relationship to nature.

Regenerative agriculture comprises an array of techniques that rebuild soil and, in the process, sequester carbon. Typically, it uses cover crops and perennials so that bare soil is never exposed, and grazes animals in ways that mimic animals in nature. It also offers ecological benefits far beyond carbon storage: it stops soil erosion, remineralises soil, protects the purity of groundwater and reduces damaging pesticide and fertiliser runoff.
For example, John Wick, a rancher from California, has developed a specific method for using pastureland to sequester carbon. "His protocol has now been approved by the American Carbon Registry for use on the voluntary carbon trading market. It also just recently got the nod from the California Air Pollution Control Officers Association, which means that California counties can offer emitters the ability to purchase credits from ranchers using the system." --Charlie Siler, The Carbon Gatherer

Similarly, Shubhendu Sharma, formerly an automotive engineer, learned from Akira Miyawaki's famous reforestation method and founded a company dedicated to growing forests really, really fast.

In his recent discussion of geoengineering, Some Climate Engineering Ideas Are Insane. This One Isn't, Eric Holthaus argues that "[i]nstead of messing with sunlight, arguably the most promising technology reverses centuries of fossil-fuel burning by simply removing excess carbon dioxide from the air." But while he briefly mentions planting more trees, he focuses on the development of mechanical methods of free air carbon capture. Holthaus echoes Kim Stanley Robinson's argument that "[o]ur current technologies are already geoengineering the planet—albeit accidentally and negatively." Robinson goes on to argue that "the definition of geoengineering should be broadened" to include things such as reforestation and rehydration projects as well as social and political changes such as reducing population growth and energy consumption.

Might the most successful geoengineering intervention turn out to be good-old fashioned dirt and trees?
posted by overglow (12 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
If we ever can work out small, low-power agricultural drones that can coordinate their efforts, I think we'll really get to see the power of this kind of intensive agriculture, and a thousand variations of it that wouldn't be possible with human hands. Afforestt's little sensor package soil probe there, hooked up to an application to provide custom instructions to manage a forest for optimum speed of growth, seem like the beginning of this sort of thing. (Assuming it isn't vaporware, or intended to be more awareness-raising than effective.)
posted by XMLicious at 1:27 AM on March 10, 2015

Y'know what this also makes me think of - just recently I was watching a BBC documentary (not finding it right now but I'm guessing it had "Earth" in the title :^) that interviewed a scientist doing research in southern Africa, who said that his work was demonstrating that in the sort of terrain he was studying a very high population of cattle, much higher than is normally recommended, whether in wild herds or properly-managed domesticated ones, could actually improve the overall health of the ecosystem rather than degrade it under the right conditions.
posted by XMLicious at 1:36 AM on March 10, 2015

Some Climate Engineering Ideas Are Insane. This One Isn't,

There's not a lot of actual idea in there though. It just says 'artificial trees' and that we need a much higher carbon price. We do need a higher carbon price but of course if we have a much higher carbon price a lot of the other low carbon tech will take advantage of it first since it costs a lot less. Will the price come down? Likely so if it works, but can it possibly get to the stage where its worthwhile enough to invest in over tech that displaces carbon emissions or is acting to suck carbon out of exhausts, where the bang for buck is much higher? Its difficult to see this being anything but a late stage tech if we decide to get the ambient ppm down once the CO2 production has been brought down, and sadly that is a way away.
posted by biffa at 2:43 AM on March 10, 2015

There is a lot of money in this. I came through it when I was working in the waste management industry - taking organic waste and converting it into compost, or "terra preta" (black earth, or feeding to a bacterial swill, generating methane which generates electricity and then selling the dried leavings as fertiliser in nurseries. There are also "phytocaps" - essentially using trees and other flora to line landfills instead of traditional plastic or other landscaping supplies.

It's fascinating, excitement stuff, and there's so much soil - here in australia at least, that is either naturally mineral-poor, or has been completely denuded, there's lots of runs to get on the board.
posted by smoke at 3:21 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

There is a lot of money in this.

No kidding. The future is not in the low-impact, low-input kind of agriculture that the main article is proposing (because there are billions of people to feed and high-productivity agriculture is the only way to make that happen while also keeping at least a few areas as ecological reserves and out of production), but in turning these techniques into industry-standard BMPs that can be implemented at the scale of industrial agricultural production. Locally there are some pilot projects with biochar and the like, and eventually some variation on those techniques need to be standard practice.

I read the forest article with great interest, but he's barely getting started: "So far, we’ve planted 43,000 trees for 33 clients." I've put in more trees on a single project site; it's hard to emphasize just how tiny that number really is. (Piezometers are incredibly cheap, and if he is going to make claims about groundwater impacts he should be collecting some data at least, too.) Around here people are experimenting both with mixed species planting, like he is, where you are trying to imitate the mature growth mix, and with just planting pioneer species. I've seen both succeed and fail, based more on site conditions and maintenance than anything else, so I don't know if the data is really in on that.

I'm not a botanist in any way, but my impression is that the state of knowledge about restarting native forests and other plant communities from scratch is about as limited as it is with most aspects of ecological restoration. Pilot projects always do well because they get extra care and attention, while very few efforts have scaled up well, as well as being extremely location-specific in terms of both climate and land-use. What works in the tropics won't work in a semi-arid area, for example, just as the presence or absence of grazing pressure changes what will work.

I will say that it is dramatic how quickly a microclimate on a site will change once you can get some vegetation started, and then the cascading effects just accelerate, just as the article claims, which is an argument for any technique that will get that early growth quickly.
posted by Dip Flash at 3:48 AM on March 10, 2015 [6 favorites]

Yeah I was interested in the first article too, was hoping for a little more oomph. He's right about remediating the soil first, though, with that kind of density. That much growth in such a short time sticks up tremendous resources from the soil.
posted by smoke at 4:18 AM on March 10, 2015

I really don't understand this, this isn't the first time I've read these sorts of proclamations (generally, as here, written by people with only faint clues about actual farming as practised, never by an actual agronomist or soil scientist). To restate what I have written before:
* perennial pastures are not new
* cell rotation grazing is not new
* stubble/cover retention, direct drill seeding etc are not new.

All of this stuff is ten to twenty years old in the Australian agriculture sector. Maybe some old crusty farmers are doing it the old ways of the 70s, but not many.

This Eisenstein article is, in essence, unresearched horseshit.
posted by wilful at 4:21 AM on March 10, 2015

Related in the NYTimes: Farmers Put Down the Plow for More Productive Soil.
posted by alms at 6:08 AM on March 10, 2015

A problem in composting is the methane produced during the process. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas. One option would be to use this to make biogas and turn it into electricity.
posted by humanfont at 6:21 AM on March 10, 2015

All of this stuff is ten to twenty years old in the Australian agriculture sector. Maybe some old crusty farmers are doing it the old ways of the 70s, but not many.

There are still a lot of old-school farmers in the US, for the reasons outlined in the NYTimes article just above. Switching over to no-till and water efficient methods is expensive and change means risk; there isn't much farmers hate more than expense plus risk. A lot of the push comes at the county or multi-county level, where there might be a really proactive NRCS or university extension office in one place pushing conservation methods and helping people get federal grants for the costs, and in the next county that help doesn't exist. So adoption is really patchy for the most part.

And it's still super high impact, high intensity agriculture, for all that it is better in terms of soil retention and health. It requires extensive chemical use, heavy machinery, and all the other aspects of modern farming, just with some ecological benefits.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:22 AM on March 10, 2015

A problem in composting is the methane produced during the process.

Composting under the aerobic conditions typically found in the leaf litter layer on a forest floor produces water vapour, a small amount of carbon dioxide, and almost no methane. You get methane by composting in anaerobic conditions such as you'd find in a waste retention pond or biogas digester.
posted by flabdablet at 6:54 AM on March 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

I think the researcher who XMLicious was trying to recall, the one who says herds of cows are not as destructive as once thought, if you look closely, is Allan Savory. (I've only seen his TED talk.)
posted by puddledork at 8:44 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

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