Reversing Global Warming by Changing Agricultural Methods

by Richard Frans…    email: rfrans[at]

The Paris Climate Change Conference has ended and the leaders of the world have made their pledges to reduce the heating of the climate to under 2 degrees Celsius by reducing the production of global warming CO2 and of course other Greenhouse Gases (GHG) such as Methane. While it is certainly good that the leaders can agree on this, the reality is that things have gone too far already and in addition to drastically curtailing  the production of GHGs we should be focusing on how to reduce the CO2 that is already in the atmosphere.

Sheep Grazing

Using sheep to put carbon into the soil.

Let’s give an example of what I mean. We have a train going down a hill with a full load of passengers. We have just lost the brakes and the train is increasing in speed. By the time the engineers decide how they can prevent the train from increasing it’s speed, it is already going 200 kph which means that no one on board will survive when it crashes anyway. We really need to slow the train down before it crashes if we are to save lives. It is the same with global warming. If we are to avert catastrophe we must reduce the level of GHGs in the atmosphere.

The level of atmospheric CO2 in parts per million (ppm) has exceeded 400. Even if we keep the level of atmospheric CO2 there we have tipped the balance and the world temperatures will keep rising for many decades. We must reduce the atmospheric CO2 levels if we are to reverse climate change. The question remains: how can we do that? It doesn’t seem to be a hot topic at the Paris Climate Change Conference at all! In the end it seems that the leaders are only interested in Photo Ops and interesting News Bites, because the real problem is left for a later date.

So how can we actually reverse climate change? If there was no solution I wouldn’t be writing this article. But the solution is one that will go against big money and so I don’t expect a dramatic turn-around in world thinking overnight. But, because the obstacles seem insurmountable, doesn’t mean we can’t talk about them and maybe inspire some more people to take action. Whether it is too late or not, makes no difference, we must do our best to educate people and let them know that there is a solution.

There are some scientists that estimate that one third of atmospheric carbon is there because of agricultural methods that disturb the soil and thereby release CO2 from the soil into the atmosphere. If that is true, then would it not make sense that by changing our farming methods we can put that carbon back into the soil? The real question that must be answered is: how will we do that?

Putting Carbon into the Soil

The first thing we must do, is look at how nature puts carbon into the soil. Plants are the big workers here using photosynthesis to grab the carbon from atmospheric CO2 and using water from the soil or the surrounding air to make sugars. The plant then exudes this sugar out the roots to entice bacteria and fungi to bring nutrients to the plant roots in a form that the plant can use. In a healthy soil there may be 50,000 varieties of bacteria and over 500 varieties of fungi. They all play a roll in taking this carbon in the form of sugar and sequestering it in the soil. All the plant asks is for these bacteria and fungi to bring the nutrients and minerals such as nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper, manganese and on and on. Scientists know of at least 46 different minerals that the plant needs and its workers, the bacteria and fungi, bring in a form that the plant can use.

Cow Dung

Here we have “Sugar Pudding” – a very nutritious meal for many a small animal of the soil.

The carbon in the fungi and bacteria are recycled in the soil as protozoa and nematodes eat live and dead bacteria and fungi. Larger creatures such as microarthropods and earthworms eat all the foregoing. In the process some of these bacteria exude sugars in the form of a sticky substance so that they can anchor themselves to soil particles. This gives soil a texture that allows soil to absorb air and water. While this is a simplified version of the whole process, it does point out that putting carbon into the soil actually does much more than take carbon from the soil and sequestering it into the soil – it does water management also. But before we go too far, lets look at what agriculture has done to reverse this process.

Farming Methods that Release Carbon from the Soil

From the earliest recorded history, it seems that farmers plowed their fields to improve their yields. From what we have just said about how nature puts carbon into the soil we can see that tillage could disrupt that cycle. By tilling farmers broke up the mycorrhizal fungi and killed many of them. Bacteria were exposed to the sun and dried to death. Throughout the history of agriculture, man has depleted the soil with his farming practice of tilling the soil and thereby impoverishing himself and ruined whole civilizations either in a short time of 100 years or a longer time of 500 years. David Montgomery delineates this sad recurring tale in his book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations marvelously. He also tells the story of erosion when the cover vegetation is removed due to tillage.

In the last 100 years through mechanizations we have speeded up this process immensely with much larger plows and tractors, but we have added new threats to the microbes in the soil. The first was the application of chemical fertilizers early in the last century. By applying these fertilizers, the bacteria and fungi became unemployed and the plant no longer had to give out any sugars as exudates and so the bacteria and fungi starved and not only that, but these chemical fertilizers are actually salts which can kill many of these workers. The ones that survived may not have been the best for the soil or the plant.

Another favorite of farmers in different parts of the world and especially in Thailand and Indonesia is using fire to get rid of accumulated plant growth during the dry season. While the smoke is bad for anybody with asthma or other respiratory ailments, burning also does great harm to the soils of the farmer that thinks he’s doing nature a favour. The heat kills all the bacteria and fungi near the surface of the soil, plus, now the soil is bare to the sun and the sun heats the soil beyond a temperature that plants can grow in. While it may seem that green grass grows well in the next season, the farmer has actually short circuited the carbon cycle by oxidizing all that carbon and putting it directly back into the atmosphere along with the energy that the plants worked so hard grab from the sun thus depriving the soil of all that hard work. I haven’t seen any figures as to the amount of carbon that is released in this way in Asia, but I’m sure it runs into millions of tons of carbon every year.

For efficiency and ease of harvesting crops, industrial agricultural farmers like to have acres and acres of one crop such as corn or soy. From an accountants perspective this may be a great way to farm, but it is also a pests dream come true as now any pest that comes to the field has no competition she and her myriads of descendants have unlimited food. She has become the farmers worst nightmare come true. Mono-cropping, as it is called, is the complete antithesis of all the good farming practices I have been talking about. It creates the need for more pesticides, fungicides and herbicides thus killing more of the beneficial bacteria, fungi etc.

To complete the onslaught, chemical companies invented pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. All of these as you can imagine kill the carbon sequesters leaving the soil dead.

While all these methods improved productivity in the short run, it deceived the farmer into thinking that these methods were the answer and that scientist would always have a new chemical to increase their crop yields. What they didn’t realize was that their soil was degrading and in the long run productivity would decrease. Not only that, the carbon that nature had stored in the soil, and made the soil so fertile, was disappearing into the atmosphere. Further all the water management qualities of soil carbon disappeared also.

The Only Way to Make a Difference

Now lets look at how we can put all that carbon back into the soil and make real changes to the planet and its ecosystem. If the human species were to disappear instantly, we would find that in time nature would reclaim almost every square metre of land and also the oceans. Some areas would take longer than others depending on how much precipitation and the regularity of that precipitation. Within 50,000 years the footprint that our species has left would be fairly difficult to find and the whole ecosystem would be back in full balance. Reality, however, is that if I have any say in the matter, we are not going to disappear from this planet any time soon and further we do not have 50,000 years in order to stabilize our climate. So lets look at how using natures principles how we can speed up the process.

The planet’s land is very diverse in its formations, in amounts and regularity of rainfall and in its temperatures, thus requiring different solutions depending on the situation. For example, in more urban areas where livestock may not be appropriate methods of permaculture involving more composting and more labour intensive means could be used. For our purpose here we want to look at methods that can be used on a large scale with minimum labour. We’re going to look at what we can do on the grasslands of the world.

Much of what I present here is based on the work of Allan Savory, organizer of the Savory Institute. Mr Savory is a biologist from Africa who through some serious trial and error, built upon the work of a french man, Andre Voisin (1903 to 1964), who developed the the Four Laws of Rational Grazing which produces the maximum grass growth which in turn gives the maximum cattle per hectare.

According to Alan Savory there are about 3 billion hectares of grasslands on this planet and much has been degraded and desertified. Depending on the annual rainfall and regularity thereof, we can restore these lands in five to fifteen years – and we’re going to use cattle, sheep or any herbivore in such a way we’ll be putting massive amounts of carbon into the soil. I’m going to use an area that gets, say 20 inches (500 mm) of rain a year, and that semi-regularly. Others area will have to modify their methods to suit their environment. Regardless of the circumstance and method, the purpose is to use microbes to the fullest extent possible to speed the process of carbon sequestration. Without question this always involves intensive management.

The first thing we will do is plant a cover crop especially where the soil has been badly degraded. Here we want to use a variety of species so that depending on the weather some will do well even if others don’t. Some farmers such as Gabe Brown in North Dakota will seed up to 27 varieties. This will attract many varieties of bacteria and fungi to the various plant to supply their nutrient requirements. We’ll look at more benefits to this later, but now we want food for our herbivores.

Bunched Cattle
<<  Here we have cattle bunched together. If they are moved at proper intervals they won’t overgraze this field.

Lets use cattle for now although any herbivore that can be managed can be used. The idea now is to pack the animals together similar to how nature would use predators to keep the animals in tight formation and keep them moving, so we will use electric fencing to control the intenseness of the grazing and move them on at the exact time when the grazing is complete thus avoiding over-grazing. We will not let the cattle graze this particular plot till the grass has had a chance to totally recuperate, about 80 to 120 days. Using this method the cattle take the carbon that is above the ground moisten it and using the bacteria in their gut along with a nice warm temperature, processes the grass, extracts what the cow needs for itself and sends the rest off out the backend as sugar pudding for insects, dung beetles and all sorts of bacteria, micro-arthropods and worms that then put that carbon to work increasing the variety and volume of life in the soil. Over a period of time as the carbon builds up, the water holding capacity and the porosity of the soil increase so that even if rain is intermittent the plants will continue to grow and the farmer will have nice increase in weight of her cattle.

While this is a very simplified version of the process, we can see that our purpose is to increase carbon in the soil so that we can increase the microbiome of the soil to bring nutrients to the roots of the plants so that they become more efficient at taking the energy from the sun to extract more carbon from the air. Managed properly, year by year the cycle improves the soil, not only near the top, but also deeper, sometimes as deep as 50 feet.

Benefits of Holistic Managed Grazing

The Soil Food Web

Now lets look at some of the benefits of this method of farming.

 Reduced Fossil Fuel Usage

First we expend no energy and time plowing and tilling. The only disruption of the soil is cutting down a couple of inches, dropping the seed and then closing the opening we made.

Clean Rivers and Oceans

Our next savings comes from not using any chemical fertilizers. Here we save time and energy spreading the fertilizers, to say nothing of the cost to buy the fertilizer. We also find that much of the chemical fertilizer is not used by the plants and washes away into the rivers and eventually into the ocean where it can create dead zones which of course kill an abundance of fish. Not using this disruptive technology will reduce damage to our rivers and oceans.

No Poisons on our Food

By not needing and not using pesticides, fungicides and insecticides our food is safer and our immune systems aren’t overwhelmed unnecessarily.

Reduced Costs

Our costs are reduced because as farmers, we don’t have to buy all the chemical fertilizers and poisons or the fuel to put them on the land.

Water Management

  1. Reduced flooding because now the soil can absorb much more rainfall and much faster, releasing the water slowly to the streams and rivers.
  2. More drought resistance. With the water held in the soil much longer, our crops can survive much longer periods of drought while the neighbours are collecting crop insurance.
  3. Clean water. At any given time on native reserves in Canada, there are 200 ‘Boil Water Advisories’. With good farming practices we will have much cleaner water everywhere because we now have this huge carbon filter in the soil.
  4. Streams that once dried up during periods of drought will now continue to feed animals, wild and tame, and many species of plants that grow along the banks of such rivers. This is a great benefit for those that love to fish also.

Less Work

Once the system is set up, there is much less work as it is the bacteria, fungi and all the other critters in the soil, plus the cattle that do all the work. More time can be spent educating the farmer’s customer on what he is doing and of course more time spent with his family doing the things they like to do.

Improved Health

With the bacteria and fungi bringing all the nutrients that the plants need, they will grow fast and be healthy and vigorous. Healthy plants mean healthy and vigorous animals. With nutrient dense food humans will be healthy. Imagine what this could mean to our health care costs.
The Soil Food Web shows the inter-relatedness of a diversity of species in and on a healthy soil.

Diversity of Species

Diversity of species increases resistance to pests. As the carbon increases in the soil, more species accumulate underground and new species of plants that disappeared start returning bringing with them more species of insects which in turn attract more birds and predators of the birds. This in turn creates a very robust environment that is resistant to diseases and also weeds. Some scientist say that for every pest there are about 1700 predators of that pest.

Carbon into the Soil

And last but certainly not least, we are taking carbon from the atmosphere and putting it to work in the soil, thus reversing climate change.

While we may realize more benefits than the foregoing from putting carbon into the soil, this should give us something to chew on for a while. I have only delineated one way to do this on a large scale, but the principles brought forth here can be applied in various ways, but at all times we must keep our eyes on where the work is being done: in the soil by the soil microbiome.

To learn more on this topic, the following are great books that are easy to read and explains things very well and in much more detail:

 Teaming with Microbes by Wayne Lewis and Jeff Lowenfels

Cows Save the Planet by Judith Schwartz

Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making by Allan Savory

There is also a Ted Talk on Youtube by Allan Savory: How to Green the World’s Deserts and Reverse Climate Change (22 mins)