Soil Carbon from Rangelands in the US

Written by Karla BellgravatarcloseAuthor: Karla Bell Name: Karla Bell
About: Pragmatic Environmentalist and Entrepreneur

A long time pragmatic environmentalist, Karla is probably best known as the driving force behind developing the Green aspect of the Olympics starting with the first Green Olympic Games in Sydney, while working for Greenpeace in the Atmosphere and Energy campaign. She has since been an advisor to both the public and private sector on green infrastructure and emissions trading, and has been a proponent of the need to bring transparency and automation to help scale emissions trading markets.

Born in Fiji, Karla holds an undergraduate degree from Macquarie University in Sydney and is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal College of Art in London on Sustainable Development. Karla is a co-founder of Carbonflow, Inc dedicated to reducing the transaction costs and ensuring the transparency and environmental integrity of the global carbon credit market. Karla Bell is the Opinion writer and editor of The Greenhouse Gas Blog on Authors Posts (53) November, 2008

Scientist, Allen Savory in his paper “A Global Strategy for Addressing Global Climate Change describes a holistic method of restoring grazing lands, arid lands and degraded lands using methods of animal husbandry that mimic nature and restore soil health, increase biodiversity and absorb carbon back into the soils. He says, soils are further degraded by industrial agriculture using pesticides and chemicals and modern methods of animal husbandry. Dr Savoury has founded holistic management as a movement.

Dr Allen Savoury has 50 years of scientific and practical experience with a network of farmers now representing 30 million acres worldwide using his holistic management techniques. Holistic management has been proven to work even in drought for over 23 years.

His work is very timely and needs to be explored as more focus on Agricultural Emissions as a contributor to GHG emissions is emerging. So far global projects under CDM/JI have not considered soil carbon and no methodologies have been approved. Most new proposed Emissions Trading schemes including Australia, and New Zealand do not include agricultural offsets, the exception is the proposed US Cap and Trade mooted for 2009. To pass the Senate support from rural American states will be necessary. Soil carbon credits may be the rural stimulus package that Clean Tech is for the cities’ utilities and transport infrastructure.

If the car industry spearheaded by GM has to reinvent itself so may the agricultural sector. Following close on the heels of Global Climate Change is a food crisis noted by UK Scientist Professor Lang and some like Scientist Dr Allen Savory believe these twin issues are linked and part of the same problem.

The first and current high technology path under the current Kyoto Protocol focuses on reducing GHG emissions from industry, utilities and transport by plant improvements, fuel switching from coal to gas or oil to bio-diesel and using alternative energy such as solar, wind, nuclear as examples. The high tech path is the focus of mainstream Scientists including the IPCC where the focus is on reducing fossil fuel emissions. It does not address the burning of the world’s grasslands, savannah and does not mention land degradation as a major source of carbon emissions leading to Climate Change.

Furthermore, Savoury maintains that low impact agriculture is the second path, to combating climate change and the only path that can deal with the existing build up of carbon emissions in the atmosphere. Savoury also notes the limitations on carbon sequestration underground or in the oceans and as many others have noted in the long term carbon can be expected at some point to be released or cause ocean acidification.

Organic farming is often seen as the solution as it may not use chemical and pesticides but this does not mean it is a naturally managed system integrated with animals. The new agriculture will need to be truly holistic in that it mimics nature and restores soil health-keeping soils permanently covered. The cropping practices are more akin to nature’s poly-culture complexity than today’s single-crop fields that leave the soil bare between plants and rows and, in many cases, over the entire non-growing season.

Such a new agriculture will remove and store carbon from the atmosphere risk-free, while also increasing water retention. According to the United Nations, one-third of the earth’s land surface (10 billion acres/4 billion hectares) is threatened by desertification, the bulk of which is rangelands. And this estimate is conservative. Rangelands are similar to croplands in that if the soil is bare any time of the year, they will deteriorate and release carbon previously stored. At the same time the ability of such rangelands to store water is reduced. As so much of the soil in rangeland areas is bare – grasslands that appear healthy to anyone driving by in a vehicle commonly have 50% to 90% of the soil bare and exposed between plants – the erosion figures from them dwarf the dramatic figures recorded for croplands.

Soil Carbon farmer Tony Lovell and Bruce Ward made a submission to the Garnaut Climate Chanage Review regarding Landuse, Agriculture and Forestry. They were suggesting that soil carbon be accepted as a source of carbon credits under Australia’s proposed Emissions Trading Scheme. They maintain that using holistic management far more land is available to store carbon. Estimates are that forestry projects could absorb about 5% of Australian emissions, but the real opportunity for acting as major carbon sink is the 64% of landmass of rangelands, crop lands, that currently remain an unrecognised sink for carbon emissions.

Dr Savoury takes exception to the notion that large herbivores cattle, sheep and goats producers of methane are the problem, but indeed could be a major part of the solution. The generally accepted wisdom is that livestock overgrazing and trampling is responsible for a major part of the land degradation as well as methane emissions.

See Clean Living, this blog on Food Miles

Savoury noted, “An alternative to grassland burning and inevitable desertification as a young biologist/game ranger in Africa in the 1950s. Studying the damage from Government policy to burn Africa’s grasslands, he noticed the healthiest land was associated with remnant wild populations of large game animals, where large populations of thousands of buffalo and game, complete with packs of lions that followed closely and kept the herds bunched, the soil and vegetation was healthiest. What the wild, large concentrated herds did not consume, they trampled onto the ground, thus removing the old growth and preparing both plants and soils for new growth.

The animals in intact communities were doing what we were doing using fire, but doing it better with no adverse effects of soil, wetlands, springs and rivers. The world’s vast savannas and grasslands developed over millions of years with soil, soil life, plants, grazing herbivores and their predators-all acting as one vast indivisible functioning whole in nature.

The world’s large grazing animals run in herds as a defence strategy against pack-hunting predators. The larger the number of animals, both prey and predator, the larger the herd masses. Such herding grazers have what are referred to as non-self-regulating populations. This means their numbers are only controlled by accident, disease or predation, rather than any innate breeding control. Because they cannot regulate their own numbers these populations were often enormous with numbers running to many millions.

In fact, as we have discovered, only through increasing livestock numbers while planning their concentration and movement carefully can desertification be reversed on most rangelands. Once restored, rangelands can store even more carbon than croplands can for two reasons: the rangelands of the world dwarf the croplands in size; and most croplands support annual plants with lesser root volume and depth than the perennial plants of healthy rangelands. Root volume and depth is crucial to both carbon and water storage in soils.

The diaries of early explorers in Africa and the Americas record vast herds, which in all likelihood were but remnants of earlier much larger numbers. In the early 1800s, for instance, some 17,000 antelope were shot in a one-day hunt provided for the Prince of Wales in South Africa. Records kept by early South African pioneers describe substantial wetlands, sponges and springs associated with the vast herds but which dried up rapidly as soon as the herds were killed off and their former role was replaced with fire”.

If his approach to animal husbandry was adopted, we would not have to give up eating meat. Natural management practices following nature’s evolutionary herding methods, which co-evolved between plants and animals when millions of buffalo / bison / antelope ranged the American / African / middle-eastern rangelands are his solution. In fact he argues in times gone by far greater numbers of herbivores producing methane existed without causing Climate Change.

Using modern management techniques that truly mimic natural herding phenomena mean carbon will be sequestered in soils. For the earth’s soils to once more sequester carbon as it once did – it is essential to restore living soils. Small increases in soil organic matter amount to billions of tons of carbon stored safely. Conversely, small decreases in soil organic matter result in vast amounts of carbon released to the atmosphere.

Restoring soil organic matter and soil structure also increases rates of water retention. Excessive soil exposure throughout most of the year leads to soil degradation and further exacerbated by industrial agricultural use of chemicals and pesticides.

The new agriculture is close to organic practices and more. It will have to allow natural systems to re-emerge with poly-culture complexity extending beyond plants to include animals particularly herbivores. This strategy has great appeal for Australia, Africa, Middle East and the US where large herbivores have ranged over grasslands.

Some Soil carbon scientists believe the entire legacy or carbon load could be absorbed in the world’s croplands if properly managed, which would mean the end of human-caused Climate Change as a problem. It is estimated that 24 billion tons of soil are eroded annually.

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