Soils need living carbon as humus

by Vandana Shiva

From the Chandigarh Tribune NOTE: This opinion piece does not necessarily represent the views of the Soil Carbon Coalition. It may be an example of how difficult it is to distinguish between ideas or management tools, and their implementation. It also typifies the reactive debate over solutions to climate change.

Burning trees and biomass has ironically emerged as a “solution” to climate change.

Following the false solution of industrial bio fuels we now have the waste left from production of bio fuels as the next magic bullet. The process used is pyrolysis – incineration that chemically decomposes organic materials by heat in the absence of oxygen. Through pyrolysis organic matter is transformed into gases and small quantities of liquid, used as bio fuels. The waste is a solid residue containing carbon and ash. This waste has now been given the elegant name “biochar”. It is being wrongly treated as the same as “Terra Preta de Indio” — the black soils created by the indigenous people of the Amazon by burying charcoal over hundreds of years. Charcoal in every soil and every ecosystem can prove to be an ecological disaster.

“Biochar” is basically the next new trick of global investors to make money on the global market of carbon trading. As the biochar website clearly states “A prerequisite for the above mentioned management practices is access to the global carbon trade.” The global carbon market which has a potential to grow to $ 1 trillion by 2020, and this is what is driving “biochar” — not love for the soil, nor the wisdom of indigenous people.

The collapse of Wall Street in 2008 should be enough reason for governments and people to be cautious about the charcoal solution. We cannot afford to have an economics of greed and fraud drive false solutions to climate change.

But there are many other reasons for not falling into the biochar trap. It is based on a scientific fraud.

The central argument for promoting the burning of biomass to make charcoal to put into soil is based on totally false assumptions such as only “2% of carbon from plant biomass enter the soil as carbon through humus” and “30% of soil carbon from humus escapes in the first year and 80-90% in the second year in organic practices which return soil carbon through recycling of biomass.”

These assumptions go against all scientific evidence that shows that organic farming increases soil carbon, and the carbon stays in the soil.

Data from the Rodale Institute and from Navdanya indicate that regenerative and organic practices can increase soil carbon, dramatically and stable carbon compounds remain in the soil for years.

The Rodale long term farm trial research shows a 30% increase in soil carbon over 27 years in organically farmed soils. Chemically formed soils did not increase soil carbon; in fact in certain cases they loose it.

Navdanya’s research carried out across arid, semi arid, sub humid and humid ecosystems shows that compared to chemical farming organic practices increase soil carbon up to 102% and increase soil microbial activity up to 63%.

It is this microbial activity which stabilises soil carbon.

Sir Albert Howard had recognised that humus is at the heart of soil fertility. According to Howard, “Humus is an essential material for the soil if the first phase of the life cycle is to function.

There is another reason why humus is important. Its presence in the soil is an essential condition for the proper functioning of the second contact between plant and soil — the mycorrhizal relationship.”

In total ignorance of the living soil and its complex ecological processes, the “biochar” proponents are proposing a solution based on killing and burning trees and turning living carbon into dead carbon.

On the basis of their blindness and false assumptions they state that “The drawback of carbon enrichment with conventional (referring to organic) methods is that carbon levels drop rapidly again as soon as a required careful management is not sustained.”

This is a ridiculous argument. Good organic farming is a way of life, not a one time fad.

The biochar promoters are also wrong in lumping together all systems of agriculture. Good farming can create agro ecosystems as permanent as natural ecosystems. As Sir Albert Howard has observed in the Agricultural Testament.

“In the Agriculture of Asia we find ourselves confronted with a system of peasant farming which in essentials soon became stabilised. What is happening today in the small fields of India and China took place many centuries ago. The agricultural practices of the Orient have passed the supreme test — they are almost as permanent as those of the primeval forest of the prairie, or the ocean.”

Organic farming is the lasting and sustainable solution to climate change and food security, not blanketing the planet with charcoal.

Biochar is part of two non-sustainable practices that need to be phased out if we have to avoid catastrophic climate change. One is agriculture based on chemical farming and monocultures; the other is monoculture tree plantations. Biochar will be used with synthetic nitrogen fertilisers which are a major source of nitrogen oxide a greenhouse gas three times more powerful in global warming than Co2. And expanding tree monocultures to then burn trees for bio fuel and charcoal is a threat to soil, to biodiversity and the climate.

Nature created humus to recycle carbon. Farmers have maintained carbon balance through good organic farming over centuries. And the contemporary organic movement has shown how we can both increase food security and climate balance through ecological processes. Biochar is another expression of arrogant ignorance which assumes nature got it wrong. It is a blind and reductionist solution which reduces both climate and soil to carbon, forgetting the millions of soil micro-organisms that make a living soil and the trace elements and micronutrients what give life and health to plants and humus. This is carbon reductionism, not ecology.

Biofuel waste as biochar /charcoal is dead carbon. What we need to increase is living carbon in plants and in humus. An anti-life world view cannot protect life. We need to think like Gaia to defend her.