Soil Carbon 101

Basic information about soil carbon and organic matter

Albert Howard's Wheel of Life

Sir Albert Howard, in his An Agricultural Testament (1943), wrote of the Wheel of Life, the balance between growth and decay. The chapter "The Nature of Soil Fertility" is reproduced here:

An elevator discussion on climate

NOTE: In an elevator, at a conference on climate change. Each paragraph represents a different speaker.

Well folks, that movie made it clear. There is too much carbon in the atmosphere.

It's grim. But I'm not buying the emissions reduction solution, as obvious as it might seem. According to the IPCC, even with zero emissions (hah!), it will take way too long for atmospheric carbon dioxide to subside to safe levels, and we lose the cooling aerosol effects immediately. So we've got to take out the legacy load.

Isn't there a technology for capturing carbon out of the atmosphere?

Well, maybe. But it takes lots of energy and capital expenditure to collect and concentrate a trace gas into a huge, somewhat hazardous, disposal problem. Who is going to do this, or pay to have it done? "Not me, said the horse."

What about trees? Don't they capture carbon?

Some say the Amazon will burn. There is already too much human and climatic pressure on trees and forests for them to absorb and hold the excess.

What a huge, insoluble problem we've got! And look at the multiple styles of denial, hopelessness, survivalism, and insanity it is generating! (Not to mention the passenger miles to these conferences.) Anyway, here's my floor. G'bye.

Instead of trying to wipe out the problem, let's add to it: There is too much carbon in the atmosphere, and not enough in soils.

Great, now we have two problems instead of one! An excess, and a scarcity.

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.

Canadian Cattleman's Association cowboy guide to greenhouse gas sinks and sources

Lee Pengilly in Canada has written a wonderful "cowboy" guide to greenhouse gas sinks and sources, published by the Canadian Cattleman's Association. Includes a simple monitoring guide for water cycling, nutrient cycling, energy flow, and succession.

Download below (right click, save as). Here is a sample from the "Kyoto Cowboy" poem that ends the document.

Australian Landline documentary on Christine Jones' efforts in soil carbon

On Feb 15 the Australian Landline program broadcast a documentary about Christine Jones and her efforts to promote awareness of the soil carbon opportunity.

Her message is simple: Rebuilding carbon-rich agricultural soils is the only real productive permanent solution to taking excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Ten steps to better management of our soils

Ohio State University soil scientist Rattan Lal writes, "We are dealing with 10 global issues at the moment: food security, availability of water, climate change, energy demand, waste disposal, extinction of biodiversity, soil degradation and desertification, poverty, political and ethnic instability, and rapid population increase. The solution to all of these lies in soil management. It doesn't mean that agriculture is the only solution, but it plays a major role in addressing these issues."

For the rest, including 10 recommended steps to better soil management, see

What's your Earth IQ?

Help spread the word on the soil carbon opportunity! To the majority of people, even those very concerned about climate change, water shortages, human health, and biodiversity loss, the role of soil organic matter is unknown. The Flash widget below is an invitation to begin learning more.

You may copy the embedding code below and paste into a webpage to use this Flash widget in your website. (Facebook users: you must include an application such as My Stuff or My Embed Stuff in your account to post this code; you can search for it and add it.)

From the oil age to the soil age

A recent PowerPoint presentation by Abe Collins, attached below this article, outlines the soil carbon opportunity, the role of carbon farming, and policy directions to realize the opportunity. Right click and choose "Save link (or target) as" to download it.

What grass farmers have known all along—research shows grass sequesters carbon

By Martha Holdridge, West Wind Farm

Editor's note: This article is reproduced with permission from the Summer 2008 Grassfed Gazette, published by the American Grassfed Association.

American Grassfed Association member Martha Holdridge, owner of West Wind Farm, used soil samples to determine that her West Virginia farm sequestered 15 tons of CO2 per acre over the past four years (photo by Kenny Kemp, Charleston WV Gazette).

From 1987 to 2007, at West Wind Farm, we regularly sent soil samples from our pastures to the West Virginia University (WVU) testing lab--in some years requesting organic matter tests. In those same years, there has been increasing public alarm about greenhouse gasses and global warming. In the fall of 2007, Dr. Ed Rayburn, extension forage agronomist at WVU, reminded me that an increase of organic matter in the soil means that carbon dioxide (CO2) is being drawn from the air into the soil. He kindly agreed to calculate the rate of carbon sequestration in the pastures of West Wind Farm.

Our average organic matter in 2002 was 4.1 percent, in 2004 it was 7.0 percent, and in 2007 it was 8.3 percent. According to Rayburn’s calculations based on a 2-inch deep sample, over five years (2002-2007) we had sequestered 15 tons of CO2 per acre or four tons of carbon per acre.

Carbon farming in Marin County, California

An article from ODE magazine about soil carbon research and trials in Marin County, California.

". . . John Wick--who owns this ranch in the hills of Marin County north of San Francisco with Peggy Rathmann, author of the classic picture book Goodnight Gorilla--goes on to outline the climate crisis in terms all-too-familiar to anyone paying attention to the issue. But he then offers a solution that would astonish most people, especially green activists: 'Eat a local grass-fed burger.'"


Subscribe to RSS - Soil Carbon 101