Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Global Vulnerability

The media has allowed just about everyone who has a message to tie it blindly to the global warming mantra with it seems little critical editing. We could say that the story line is now very mature. In the meantime we are coming out of a very normal long cold winter here in the Northern Hemisphere. Also Australia has had an early cold snap setting the stage for one of their own.

Unless I have missed something, we are going to have a well watered growing season and universally bumper crops this fall. Since every farmer has gone all out this year, it is safe to assume that we are about to make up fully for the past two years of poor crops. Sell your crops forward guys!

In the meantime, the arctic sea ice will bear watching. Spring will not be early this year and the winds will likely stay home. I expect the thin one year ice to breakup and melt at least. It seems unlikely that more will happen.

I wish that our Arctic data was better than it is, but serious work has only gotten under way in the past two decades with the establishment of ample data collection systems and satellite coverage. That is the one compelling reason to wait patiently another twenty years to see the real story unfold. The constant hand wringing misses another critical point. Humanity simply does not have the resources to proactively change a thing.

We have chosen to blame a wobble in the heat content of the Northern Hemisphere on the excess production of CO2.

We could just as easily and with as much rigor have blamed the huge increase in human population over the past century and the related hot air.

We likely could make an equally good argument that a fifty percent drop in CO2 production will lead directly to a fifty percent drop in the population. This certainly would happen if we were in a hurry.

The point is that we are vulnerable to that sort of population collapse, because most of the global population is no longer growing their own food and has no such security. A mega volcano blast or a large comet bombardment would collapse the food supply system quickly with no room for recovery. We even have evidence that this has happened once in the lifespan of humanity.

The survivors would inevitably be those able to protect crop lands from marauders as civilization disintegrated. It takes about two years for the worst of the dust created effects to dissipate and the food reserves simply do not exist to carry over a population. The events described are also highly survivable by all the population. And with our space gear we could even predict the impact targets and evacuate successfully.

In those horrific conditions, the world would experience an orgy of cannibalism and general barbarism. These are unpleasant thoughts but I cannot imagine a concerted remedy to such a risk. Right now we still have not really mapped the contents of the solar system, nor are we likely to for a long time. The Kuiper belt can throw something our way anytime. Hopefully we can protect ourselves long before we ever need to.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Commercial Fertilizer Reformulation

I added a couple of items on commercial fertilizers today to clarify the current status of the industry. Yesterday’s article on the practicality of using elemental carbon from coal got me thinking of the commercial fertilizer industry itself and the realization that at the least a transition to carbon based fertilizers may be the revolution that the industry has been looking for.

I quote the following short item which clearly outlines the problems every farmer knows.

Commercial fertilizer, especially nitrogen, is easily washed below the level of the plant's root system through the leaching of rain or irrigation. An application which is too heavy or too close to the roots of the plants may cause "burning" (actually a process of desiccation by the chemical salts in the fertilizer). As well, overly heavy applications of commercial fertilizers can build up toxic concentrations of salts in the soil, thus creating chemical imbalances. If organic materials are readily available and cheap, the expense of the commercial fertilizer should also be considered.

It has been the practice to blend the nutrient components of fertilizer with a neutral carrier that provides most of the actual weight of a fertilizer blend. This particularly applies to urea which needs to be blended and prilled. I am not so sure about potassium and phosphorus but you get the idea. Fly ash and various earths seem to be commonly used. They are all typically neutral to the overall process of fertilization.

They are all soluble salts and are obviously vulnerable to been leached out. This has been the monkey on the fertilizer industry from the very beginning.

Past work in Cuba, made an effort to abate this problem by blending with volcanic zeolites. They had measurable success. It has also been applied elsewhere in a piecemeal way due to the limited availability of zeolites.

So where are we? Powdered elemental carbon can be used in the same way as the zeolites for the same reasons. The material grabs the nutrients and holds them until a plant root is able to extract them. This is why the terra preta soils are so fertile in rain forest ecology.

The real break for the farmer is that only enough carbon is needed as a nutrient carrier, rather than the tons per acre suggested by the Amazon. The carbon will still persist and accumulate. Biochar can still be practiced as a way to better remove plant waste and sequester CO2. But today, the same sack of fertilizer is doing the same job as a sack last year. The difference is that there is a reduction in leaching and perhaps a large nutrient carryover into future crops.

Without anything other than an incremental modification to the manufacturing process and little change in the cost structure, we are suddenly implementing terra preta culture everywhere industrial farming is conducted.

The open question, that can be only resolved with multiyear field trials, is whether this is a cheaper way to deliver nutrients to our crops. We have eliminated a portion of nutrient wastage. How much we actually wasted is open and how much can now be retained is also open. The swing might totally surprise us and also steadily improve as more carbon is added to the soils.

I added this FAQ from the Canadian Fertilizer Industry which catches us up to current practice which has obviously been steadily improving. Every farmer knows that a nutrient that escapes his roots is a nutrient lost that he paid coin for. Now if we can bind all nutrients with carbon, we may be able to end nutrient loss.

This also suggests that a mature terra preta soil will simply adsorb any nutrients thrown into the mix to the long term benefit of the farmer.

It goes without saying that such a blatantly commercial product will have to go through extensive testing before it replaces the decades old protocols that are currently with us.

Fertilizer & the Environment

Is fertilizer harmful to environment?

Commercial fertilizer has become an indispensable tool in today’s high-yield farming. Its misuse, however, can damage our environment. Fortunately, advances in agricultural techniques are enabling farmers to apply soil nutrients with pinpoint accuracy, minimizing or avoiding altogether any damage to soil, water, and air.

New soil sampling and tillage methods, use of starter fertilizers, and better timing and placement of nutrients mean producers are getting more bang for the buck from fertilizer. For example, farmers today are producing one-third more corn for each pound of nitrogen they apply, compared to 20 years ago.

Commercial fertilizer is also helping to conserve land. Without it, we’d be forced to plow up parks, wildlife habitats, and parks so we could produce enough food to feed the world’s growing population. And by improving plant nutrition, fertilizers help reduce global warming. Experts estimate that American crops give off as much as 500 million tons of oxygen every year.

Wouldn’t it be better for the environment to use less fertilizer?

As a result of advances in agricultural practices, farmers have been cutting back on the amount of fertilizer they use. We’ve made great strides in gaining maximum efficiency from the amount we do apply. There’s a fine line though, between using just the right amount of fertilizer, and not replenishing the nutrients needed to keep pace with today’s high-yield farming.

Last year, farmers only replaced 75% of the phosphorus their crops removed from the soil, and just over 50% of the potassium plants used. More of both nutrients are needed, or yields will fall.

But that’s not the only problem associated with depleting nutrient reserves. An insufficient supply also saps plants’ ability to withstand harsh weather, disease, and other stresses. Nutrient-starved plants cannot maintain soil moisture, which leads to soil erosion from wind or water.

Although dry weather played a key role in the “dust bowl” conditions of the 1930s, insufficient levels of nutrients were at the root of the vicious cycle of problems that plagued Depression-era farmers. Plants could not help the soil hold enough moisture, which in turn caused increased wind erosion.

Isn’t organic farming better for the environment, since it doesn’t use fertilizer?

Most organic growers use fertilizer too. It comes from different ingredients, such as livestock manure or sewage sludge.

However, these natural fertilizers are not available in sufficient quantities to meet the demands of today’s high-yield farming, nor do they provide nutrients in the ideal balance made possible with commercial fertilizers. For example, using enough manure to provide the soil with an adequate supply of nitrogen would mean adding four to five times more potassium and phosphorus than a crop needs. So it’s easy to over- or under-fertilize in this type of farming.

As well, organic crop yields are only one-third to one-half as high as those from farms using conventional fertilizers. So we’d need to turn millions of additional acres of land over to farming, and still end up with less food.

What is runoff from fertilized land doing to our lakes and streams?

It’s true that phosphorus and nitrogen can harm water quality. Thanks to advances in agricultural techniques though, farmers are now able to precisely tailor nutrient amounts to their specific soil conditions — so nutrients are either taken up by crops or stay in the field.

The foundation and others in the fertilizer industry are committed to promoting practices that protect and enhance the environment, including use of conservation buffers. These strips of land along the edges of bodies of water are planted with permanent vegetation designed to slow runoff and soak up nutrients before they run into streams, lakes, and rivers. Studies have shown that these buffers can remove more than 50% of nutrients in runoff from farms.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Industrial Carbon for making Terra Preta

I set out in this article to address the industrial production of carbon for agriculture. I am treating it as an industrial process in order to establish the most cost effective way of getting the task done. The reason that I do this is that is that will always be the prime competition for other industrial methods. We have already done this for the subsistence economies were we applied onsite earthen kilns using the unique nature of corn culture.

I am not constraining myself to sustainable methods for this article, although I certainly think that all agricultural carbon should be made from agricultural waste where possible. It will not be possible for a large portion of the earth’s croplands simply because biomass production is way too low for it to be feasible. If you cannot grow corn for lack of moisture, then you surely cannot make an earthen kiln or even hope to gather enough biomass to make a difference. This describes a lot of good farm land in Africa, to say nothing of the grain lands of western America and Australia.

I also think that the principal benefit of terra preta soils is totally a function of the elemental carbon, rather than any other carbon form. This is because of the long lasting fertility to this day, of terra preta soils, centuries after any other carbon compound was destroyed. It is unlikely that any other factor matters.

So let us stop dragging vast amounts of wet wood waste out of the forest in monster convoys of trucks to the central processing plant. We start instead with bituminous coal. This coal does not even have to be the highest quality because a good chaser of shale may even be a good thing. That also means that huge reserves of poorer quality coal can be exploited. There is plenty of that to do the whole job once and for all.

The coal is then coked in coking ovens which are fueled by process gases and produces a highly porous product of virtually pure elemental carbon. This then has to be crushed into a finely powdered form for agricultural use. It makes very good sense to also blend in fertilizers during this powdering stage. If we are fortunate it should produce a possible non corrosive product that does not damage equipment. At least that should be the objective.

It may prove better to pregrind the coal before it is roasted for forty eight hours. This form of carbon has high crushing strength and this must mean a high wear rate on the grinding equipment. It makes one appreciate the elegance of reducing corn stover to elemental carbon which must naturally produce a finely subdivided powder.

We now have an agriculture ready product that can follow current fertilizer distribution channels.

There is no need to attempt to match terra preta in a single year obviously, but even putting in five hundred pounds per acre, will easily get us there in three generations. Integrating properly with the fertilizer industry facilitates the whole process and allows a slow transition for the soils. Even a hundred pounds per acre as part of the fertilizer blend will put a ton per acre into the ground every twenty years.

Field experiments will need to be done, if only for safeties’ sake. We all know, thanks to the Amazon that the end product is fantastic. However, a hundred pounds even of completely activated charcoal may be simply too aggressively reactive to easily be accommodated.

This or a similar low level can then be even mandated by regulation without putting the industry out of sorts and assuring that soil futility will henceforth be improving no matter how incompetent the individual farm.

This would establish pricing benchmarks that a wood waste charcoal industry must work towards in terms of their feasibility. Biochar kilns on the farm should still produce a better product, but the commercial carbon fertilizer industry can establish a price point for farm labor input.

What I have just described could be implemented today with very little fuss. Experience only has to be gained in grinding coke and blending the various forms of fertilizers to see what is quickly practical.

I want very much to convert atmospheric CO2 into soil carbon by way of carbonizing agricultural waste and thus resolving the CO2 issue. That desire is however equal to the desire to do everything possible to hasten the evolution of global agriculture to sustaining highly fertile soils everywhere and reversing the massive destruction of good farmland everywhere. I even suspect that the soils of the Fertile Crescent can be brought back to ancient fertility and perhaps even reversing the salinity problem there.

The damage done by ten thousand years of often lousy agricultural practice is a problem that puts the current damage of pollution and industrial practice in the shade. We are actually doing a better job as we have industrialized agriculture over the last two generations.

A really great and overly ambitious experiment would be to take a barren field no longer productive because of salinity and attempt an irrigated crop using a ton of carbon fertilizer. It should not work at all, but changes with adjacent untreated plots should inform us if we are onto something. I am optimistic that at some point we will be able to actually produce sweet soil.

Most importantly, the conversion of the industrial fertilizer industry over to carbon based application protocol will assert the primacy of terra preta style soils everywhere and greatly facilitate the adoption of other protocols achieving the same objective.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Kelpie Wilson on Global Food Shock

The press is full of reaction to the suddenly emerging food repricing going on. There is a wide range of opinion, but no real panic or even response from the political crowd yet. I found this by Kelpie to be a good stab at getting the broad picture and she weighs in with a spot for the coming biochar agricultural revolution.

Policy makers need to move toward complete liberalization of the globalization of the agricultural industry, since it must be free to reallocate resources as fast as Mother Nature wishes to throw curveballs. The thin justification for protectionism in agriculture will evaporate now that the reality of a global population transitioning into a middle class lifestyle begins to really take hold.

This current uproar is really the first shot in a global shakeup of food production that has actually been long overdue. It will be sustained for the years needed to implement the trade and technology solutions. The end result is inevitable of course, but so is the shouting and screaming.

Recall the unending battles that ensued in Europe integrating their agricultural policy between the first six members. When the mutual benefits became totally clear, the rest of the countries yelled ‘yes sir’ and jumped aboard. It just took sixty years and there is still plenty to be done, but no one is held up much by agricultural lobbies anymore.

It is outrageous to me that we control the sugar business through quotas when we do not grow much our selves. This is just another Royal monopoly designed to gouge the American people while suppressing the cost of production offshore at the direct expense of the subsistence farmer. Seventeenth Mercantilism is very much alive and well and it still does not work except to distort the market for the direct benefit of those with the Royal writ.

The restructuring of global agriculture will create a sustained attack on these hindrances to global agricultural efficiency and wealth creation.

Why more food is not the answer

by Kelpie Wilson

With food riots across the globe in the news, the immediate cause of food shortages is simply this: grain prices have doubled over the last year and poor people can no longer afford to buy enough food. There is no one single cause for the price rise; it is a combination of supply and demand.

Steady population growth means there are about 70 million new mouths to feed every year, and increasing affluence is also spurring more people to buy more meat. Meat is grain-intensive - it takes about seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. Biofuels are another new demand on grain stocks, and a potentially insatiable one. The grain used to fill an SUV tank with ethanol could feed one person for a year.

There is more than enough grain to feed every hungry human on the planet, but the poor cannot compete with wealthier buyers of meat and biofuels. Markets are not interested in feeding hungry people - they want to make money, so from a capitalist point of view, the only solution is to increase supply in the hope that it will drive prices down.

However, on the supply side, serious limiting factors are coming into play: dwindling water supplies and increased drought exacerbated by climate change; increasingly degraded land and soils; the rising cost of energy used for everything from water pumping to transport, and the growing cost of fertilizer and other inputs.

The world wants more food - a lot more food - but the planet will not be able to provide it. For this reason alone, more food is not the answer - it cannot be the answer.

Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of the book "Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization," says that while there have been food price spikes in the past, "This troubling situation is unlike any the world has faced before." Brown doesn't use the term, but it is likely that we have reached "peak food," the moment when world grain output has achieved its maximum and we will have to work very hard to keep it from declining.

One of the top reasons to believe we have reached peak food is that we have apparently reached peak oil. In his book, "Eating Fossil Fuels," Dale Allen Pfeiffer shows how utterly dependent modern agriculture is on fossil fuels, not just for the machinery that plants and harvests, but for the energy to irrigate fields, and for fertilizers. About 30 percent of farm energy goes to fertilizer, much of which is made from natural gas. Like oil, natural gas is becoming increasingly expensive as production nears peak. Without oil, we might not drive cars, but without fertilizer, we might not eat.

Food and fuel are intimately connected. Not only is fuel essential to produce food, but because food can substitute for fuel, the price of food is now locked into the price of oil - a price that is going nowhere but up.

A Timely Report Shows the Way Forward

Globalization has promised to lift every person out of poverty by growing the economy so large that wealth will eventually trickle down to all. But this is a false promise that ignores physical limits to planetary resources.

A groundbreaking United Nations report that presents a serious challenge to the promises of globalization and biotech was released last week at a very timely moment. The IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development) is directed by Robert Watson, a former director of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and it shares some similar features to the UN Climate assessment reports.

Most importantly, the IAASTD report says that agricultural systems cannot go on as they have. They are failing to feed the poor, wrecking ecosystems, exacerbating global warming and are far too dependent on fossil fuels. Just as everything about the way we produce and use energy must change in order to avoid climate catastrophe, so everything about the way we produce and use food must change in order to avoid a humanitarian and ecological disaster.

Watson said, "If we do persist with business as usual, the world's people cannot be fed over the next half-century. It will mean more environmental degradation, and the gap between the haves and have-nots will further widen. We have an opportunity now to marshal our intellectual resources to avoid that sort of future. Otherwise, we face a world no one would want to inhabit."

As with climate change, the solution to the food crisis will not be found in some miracle new technology. On the contrary, the report identifies a need to reconsider many traditional crops and methods for maintaining soil fertility and coping with drought. These traditional technologies need to be integrated with modern ones to achieve the best of both worlds. Currently there is little support for this approach to crop science.

British economist Nicholas Stern called climate change the biggest market failure in history. The IAASTD report also indicts markets with failing to eradicate hunger and poverty. Watson said, "The incentives for science to address the issues that matter to the poor are weak ... the poorest developing countries are net losers under most trade liberalization scenarios."

Agribusiness Reacts

The IAASTD study involved more than 400 authors and took four years to produce. However, not everyone stuck with the process till the end. Representatives from the biotechnology industry walked out in protest, complaining that GM (genetically modified) crops were being unfairly overlooked in favor of organic agriculture. The New Scientist (5 April 2008) presented a point counterpoint between participants Deborah Keith, a manager for Syngenta, one of the world's largest biotech companies, and Janice Jiggins, a social scientist. Keith complained that the draft document was unscientific and that "too often it treated fears and prejudices against technology and business as fact ..." Organic agriculture was not subjected to the same scrutiny, she said.

Jiggins' account of the process noted that traditional farmers at the table "took deep offense at hearing technologies ... building on centuries-old traditions dismissed as 'anecdotal' and of no value."

At heart, the debate is over what is considered "scientific" agriculture. The discussion of biotechnology in the final report summary peels the "anecdotal" label off traditional agriculture and slaps it back on genetic engineering, saying that "assessment of modern biotechnology is lagging behind development; information can be anecdotal and contradictory ..."

Jiggens notes that, among other problems, "the capacity to monitor and regulate GM has failed to keep up."

In reaction to the IAASTD report, some commentators have leaped on the idea that people who are "afraid of science" are irrationally keeping biotech and companies like Monsanto from saving the world.
Oxford professor Paul Collier, writing in The London Times, said that Europe and Japan are "befuddled by romanticism" for subsidizing inefficient small farms. "The remedy to high food prices is to increase supply," he said, and the only solution to the food crisis is more food produced by "unromantic industrialized agriculture."

He also said, "The most realistic way is to replicate the Brazilian model of large, technologically sophisticated agro-companies that supply the world market. There are still many areas of the world - including large swaths of Africa - that have good land that could be used far more productively if it were properly managed by large companies. To contain the rise in food prices, we need more globalization, not less."

Brazil - Big Ag Set Up to Fail?

Taking a closer look at the Brazilian model shows why the IAASTD authors overwhelmingly rejected the big business model as a way to sustainably feed the world.

Brazil's Mato Grosso region is the world's most active agricultural frontier. Satellite photos show the relentless push of soybean monocultures and cattle grazing into the Amazon rainforest. Forest ecologist Daniel Nepstad of the Woods Hole Research Center, says that soy agriculture in the Mato Grosso has "greased the skids" for deforestation of the Amazon.

The success of soy farming in Mato Grosso is based on two advantages: the region's abundant rainfall and the discovery that heavy applications of fertilizer, especially lime and phosphorus, could impart impressive fertility to the tropical soils. Both of these assets are likely to be short-lived.

First and foremost is the rain. Nepstad's research focus is drought in the Amazon. He has found that after only two years of drought, trees begin to die and the forest fires start. Once a regular fire regime takes hold, a tipping point is reached that rapidly converts rainforest to dry scrub. The consequence is not just losing the rainforest, but losing the rain. Through a process called transpiration, trees in the Amazon seed the clouds that water the fields and pastures of South America and the Caribbean. Researchers are finding that clouds and air currents that originate in the Amazon can drive weather patterns as far away as the North Atlantic. As the forest evaporates, so does the rainfall.

The second factor, a reliance on heavy applications of fertilizer, is also bound to be a temporary phenomenon. Little noted in the popular press, fertilizer prices have skyrocketed in recent months. Reuters reported on April 16 that Chinese fertilizer importers have "agreed to pay more than triple what they did a year ago to reserve tight supplies of potash, sending the shares of global fertilizer makers to record levels."

Phosphorus, like potash, is mostly produced by mining mineral deposits and there is a limit to global reserves - a limit that we are rapidly approaching. Patrick Dery and Bart Anderson looked at phosphorus production data in a report for Energy Bulletin titled "
Peak Phosphorus." They concluded that the world has passed the peak of phosphorus production and is already in decline.

"In some ways," say Dery and Anderson, "the problem of peak phosphorus is more difficult than peak oil. Energy sources other than oil are available..." But, they point out, "Unlike fossil fuels, phosphorus can be recycled. However if we waste phosphorus, we cannot replace it [with] any other source."

The main way to recycle phosphorus is to reclaim it from sewage and animal waste. The need to do this will bring us full circle from modern high-tech agriculture back to traditional practices that used animal manure and human "night soil." Researchers in Sweden and Australia are already working on a new toilet design that would siphon off human urine to use as a source of phosphate. It would be stored in tanks for supply to farmers. What will happen to the farms of Mato Grosso when the price of phosphorus doubles, quadruples, and then doubles again? For that matter, what will happen to the fields of Iowa?
Brazil and the New Agriculture

It is the specter of resource limits that has led the authors of the IAASTD study to recommend that traditional practices be studied and adopted where they make sense. One of the most promising traditional practices that is now being studied at Cornell and other major agricultural research institutions has its origins in Brazil.

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has been on the defensive for his government's role in deforesting the Amazon. Most recently, critics have attacked Brazilian agriculture for diverting capacity from food to biofuels. Lula has countered the criticism by insisting that Brazil will expand its agriculture without further encroachments on the Amazon. One of the best ways to do that, and conserve scarce fertilizers like phosphorus at the same time, might be to adopt a practice used by an ancient civilization that occupied the Amazon before Columbus.

The practice is called terra preta, Portuguese for "dark earth." These dark earths are highly fertile soils that were created by burying charcoal along with manure and other organic wastes. Charcoal is a porous material that is very good at holding nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus and making them available to plant roots. It also aerates soil and helps it to retain water.

Some terra preta fields are thousands of years old, and yet they are still so fertile that they are dug up and sold as potting soil in Brazilian markets.

Because making charcoal from biomass releases energy, researchers today are looking at integrated biomass energy and food production systems using "biochar" - the modern term for terra preta. For more details on these efforts, see my report for Truthout on the
first biochar conference in 2007. There is also a good account of the terra preta in Charles C. Mann's book, "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus."

Biochar may be the answer that Lula is looking for. Biochar could be a great gift from Brazil to the rest of the world. Charles C. Mann notes that "it might improve the expanses of bad soil that cripple agriculture in Africa - a final gift from the peoples who brought us tomatoes, maize, manioc, and a thousand different ways of being human."

Biochar is just one of the traditional agricultural practices that a world running out of fossil fuels and cheap fertilizer may be very grateful to rediscover in the coming years. The IAASTD report, if acted upon quickly, could jumpstart this research.

Roadmap Needed

The IAASTD report does not go so far as to provide a road map or an action plan, but the various private-public partnerships that are working to implement its goals are already finding it useful.

Inter Press Service reports that a delegate from Costa Rica said "These documents are like a bible with which to negotiate with various institutions in my country and transform agriculture." Benny Haerlin, the representative from Greenpeace, sees the document as a blazing signpost, lighting the way. He said: "This marks the beginning of a new, of a real Green Revolution. The modern way of farming is biodiverse and labor intensive and works with nature, not against it.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Erich Knight's Biochar list

As long time readers know, I have been promoting terra preta steadily since just after I started this blog. Erich Knight has constructed an inventory of pertinent sites and articles for this topic. Since I started posting, the volume of interest has expanded hugely. I recently posted on the terra preta forum and the response volume was overwhelming. I found myself with dozens of comments as follow up with a lot of good information and thinking.

Anyway this list he has constructed is a good snapshot of the best current sites. I suspect that next year, the number will be much larger.

The best Win Win Win solution is Biochar.

The current news and links on Terra Preta (TP) soils and closed-loop pyrolysis of Biomass, this integrated virtuous cycle could sequester 100s of Billions of tons of carbon to the soils.

This technology represents the most comprehensive, low cost, and productive approach to long term stewardship and sustainability.Terra Preta Soils a process for Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon sequestration, 1/3 Lower CH4 & N2O soil emissions, and 3X Fertility Too.

UN Climate Change Conference: Biochar present at the Bali Conference many years of reviewing solutions to anthropogenic global warming (AGW) I believe this technology can manage Carbon for the greatest collective benefit at the lowest economic price, on vast scales. It just needs to be seen by ethical globally minded companies.Could you please consider looking for a champion for this orphaned Terra Preta Carbon Soil Technology.

The main hurtle now is to change the current perspective held that the soil carbon cycle is a wash, to one in which soil can be used as a massive and ubiquitous Carbon sink via Charcoal Below are the first concrete steps in that direction;

S.1884 The Salazar Harvesting Energy Act of 2007

A Summary of Biochar Provisions in S.1884:

Carbon-Negative Biomass Energy and Soil Quality Initiative for the 2007 Farm Bill

Bolstering Biomass and Biochar development: In the 2007 Farm Bill, Senator Salazar was able to include $500 million for biomass research and development and for competitive grants to develop the technologies and processes necessary for the commercial production of biofuels and bio-based products. Biomass is an organic material, usually referring to plant matter or animal waste. Using biomass for energy can reduce waste and air pollution. Biochar is a byproduct of producing energy from biomass. As a soil treatment, it enhances the ability of soil to capture and retain carbon dioxide. are 24 billion tons of carbon controlled by man in his agriculture and waste stream, all that farm & cellulose waste which is now dumped to rot or digested or combusted and ultimately returned to the atmosphere as GHG should be returned to the Soil.

If you have any other questions please feel free to call me or visit the TP web site I've been drafted to co-administer. has been immensely gratifying to see all the major players join the mail list , Cornell folks, T. Beer of Kings Ford Charcoal (Clorox), Novozyne the M-Roots guys(fungus), chemical engineers, Dr. Danny Day of EPRIDA , Dr. Antal of U. of H., Virginia Tech folks and probably many others who's back round I don't know have joined.

The International Biochar Initiative (IBI) conference held at Terrigal, NSW, Australia in 2007. The papers from this conference are posted at their home page; article, Aug 06: Putting the carbon back Black is the new green:'s the Cornell page for an over view: Earth Science Forum thread on these soils contains further links, and has been viewed by 19,000 self-selected folks. ( I post everything I find on Amazon Dark Soils, ADS here): Preta creates a terrestrial carbon reef at a microscopic level. These nanoscale structures provide safe haven to the microbes and fungus that facilitate fertile soil creation, while sequestering carbon for many hundred if not thousands of years. The combination of these two forms of sequestration would also increase the growth rate and natural sequestration effort of growing plants.

All the Biochar Companies and equipment manufactures I've found:

Carbon Diversion

http://www.carbondiversion.comEprida: Sustainable Solutions for Global Concerns Pyrolysis, Inc. Slow Pyrolysis - Biomass - Clean Energy - Renewable Energy Energy Systems The Evolution of Energy - Environmentally Friendly Energy and Chemicals, developing bio oils from agricultural waste BioRefinery Inc. Review: Turning Slash into Cash Environmental Technologies Ltd. (Edward Someus)

The company has Swedish origin and developing/designing medium and large scale carbonization units. The company is the licensor and technology provider to NviroClean Tech Ltd British American organization WEB: and VERTUS Ltd.

http://www.vertustechnologies.comGenesis Industries, licensee of Eprida technology, provides carbon-negative EPRIDA energy machines at the same cost as going direct to Eprida. Our technical support staff also provide information to obtain the best use of biochar produced by the machine. Recent research has shown that EPRIDA charcoal (biochar) increases plant productivity as it sequesters carbon in soil, thus reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide. pre-Columbian Kayopo Indians could produce these soils up to 6 feet deep over 15% of the Amazon basin using "Slash & CHAR" verses "Slash & Burn", it seems that our energy and agricultural industries could also product them at scale.

Harnessing the work of this vast number of microbes and fungi changes the whole equation of energy return over energy input (EROEI) for food and Bio fuels. I see this as the only sustainable agricultural strategy if we no longer have cheap fossil fuels for fertilizer.We need this super community of wee beasties to work in concert with us by populating them into their proper Soil horizon Carbon Condos.

Erich J. Knight
Shenandoah Gardens
1047 Dave Berry Rd.
McGaheysville, VA. 22840
(540) 289-9750

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Mono Cock Dreaming

I am sure everyone is aware that the price of oil has ended up at a price of around $114 a barrel after climbing steadily through the slow season. This surely means that the summer market will bring prices running between $120 and $140 a barrel. This means that the pump price is going to be between $4.00 and $5.00 per gallon.

This has all happened without an oil shock anywhere. In fact it is amazing how quiet all the global oilfields are. It is as if they are all trying to keep their heads down. Right now the market smells a million barrels per day short with more to come. This current price adjustment is meant to contract demand. Do you feel contracted yet? Right now the industry is working harder and harder to maintain the current supply volumes.

I personally wish the shoe to never drop. The red hot problem is that we can expand production in only a very few locales. This is while global production is setting up to actually tumble. Current global production is 85 million barrels per day. A mere ten percent decline over the next three years which is totally likely plus a modest bit of fresh production means global production is suddenly below 80 million and steadily declining.

That pending decline is going to come straight out of the personal automobile. That is our real strategic reserve. Ration coupons for all is on the way. As I have said before, the price of oil will get worse and stay bad for a long time. A shock will put it over an unsustainable $300 per barrel for a brief spell. In the meantime, start thinking defensively about your use of gasoline. My own family shifted our own usage sharply downward over the past three years and we are glad we did.

We have now reached the threshold for wholesale conversion to better methods and technologies distained in the past. The news is now full of fresh new engineering advancing efficient new strategies. So the cavalry is on the way at a gallop. So let us give them free rein for they will replace that faltering production with solutions that have nothing to do with another oil well.

While this is all happening, the single best thing that industry can do is to shift fully over to mastering high volume carbon fiber fabrication technology, ending the default use of steel in all traditional manufacturing. Yes, I love steel, but that is because I can mold it under my hands with hammer and anvil. I have not had to do that however, since I left the nineteenth century behind and went to University.

Clever module making with carbon fiber means that we can assemble an automobile from a handful of precision fitted units (try that with steel panels!) that are themselves nearly indestructible and can be even reused over several models and over perhaps decades. After all, if an extra effort is made to be perfect, it is very close to been immortal. Carbon fiber demands nothing less to begin with.

The object of course is to rip as much weight out of the automobile as possible. Carbon fiber can bring the weight of the vehicle down to a level that makes even present hybrid technologies and electric cars competitive. It is not hard to trick out a battery driven system that is good for almost a hundred miles. Carbon fiber could easily double or triple that range.

The auto industry has embraced change and is working on many possible improvements, particularly in propulsion which they know their manufacturing ability gives them a huge edge. After all, a small efficient gasoline engine is ideal for powering a light weight carbon fiber vehicle.

The point I want to emphasize is that very strong carbon fiber laminates can be used to make super strong vehicle shells that can handle both high performance and safety. Why should not every passenger in a vehicle be in a carbon fiber mono cock. It only needs the desire to accept long operational lives to amortize the initial expense.

How about making a fitted mono cock that is good on any running gear for the life of the user and easily mounted. A bit crazy and obviously impractical but should we try to go there? I think we should.

I like the idea of locking in my personal shell onto a road car that is capable of letting me survive a high speed crash. It would be perfect for the autobahn.

We need to explore ways in which a couple of hundred pounds is sufficient to carry a two hundred pound driver at speed on the highway. Do this and even do it cheaply and the use of gasoline must plummet. Many good design concepts have already been played with. They just have not been picked up on by manufacturers who really want to sell you a boat and cannot stop their engineers from adding weight.

It is worth recalling that many designs that are apparently flimsy in steel are very sturdy as carbon fiber.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Albedo and Earthshine

Richard A. Lovett has an article in the June edition of Analog Magazine wherein he discusses various anomalies about the solar system. In particular, he reports on Philip Goode’s work at California’s Big Bear Observatory.

They realized that light reflected onto the moon was an excellent proxy for variation in the Earth’s albedo and have been measuring Earthshine for several decades. What they did discover is variation on an apparent decadal cycle. The variation is sufficient to match the magnitudes assigned to global warming. This all runs in the 2 to 4 watts per square meter range and of course, they have not been coincidal.

Obviously this is a factor able to make a difference as around thirty percent of incoming solar radiation is reflected back out. So what is the source of the variation? Again, it is obviously cloud cover that does vary and this is actually a good way to measure that variation.

One other factor enters the equation. Low clouds promote cooling and high clouds promote warming. Getting a headache yet?

The article speculates furiously on what all this may mean, but I suspect we are not much further ahead. While we have isolated variables that need to be measured, we are far from any conclusion except to warrant expanding the data collection.

That can be affected by the creation of a global chain of observatories measuring earthshine on the moon. If that can also be tied into satellite monitoring, then perhaps we can actually understand the impact of manmade aerosols. I suspect high resolution data will turn out to be illuminating. With Earthshine we have the other side of an albedo summation equation.

The point I want to make is that we have here an order of magnitude calculation for variation in the Earth’s albedo. This can be compared to solar radiation variation of 1.2 watts per square meter due to sunspots which exhibits a ten plus year cycle and has also been blamed for climate change. Variation of the albedo is easily twice that of the Sun itself.

This also begs another question. In a perfect world, increased warmth will produce more water vapor and therefore more clouds and therefore a higher albedo with a corresponding drop in absorbed sunlight. In any event, this all shows that net albedo is a much more important player than anyone thought.

Once again the CO2 conjecture remains buried in a medley of other active variables, sporting the same magnitudes and happily going whatever direction they seem to like.

We are however, uncovering apparent decadal cycles, like the sunspot cycle, the hurricane cycle, the drought cycle and the albedo cycle that all seem to be expressed in cloud variation and therefore local climatic variation.

This laid overtop a recovery from the little ice age that has been underway for two centuries and little except speculation that any of this is linked.

We can make three assertions: (1) In the long run the northern hemisphere left alone will warm to Bronze Age conditions.

(2) Eventually, an unknown event will cause the waters of the Atlantic to be chilled, precipitating a long period of cold conditions focused in Europe.

(3) Neither event has any likely relationship to these cyclic changes. We will let the jury stay out on the CO2 conjecture.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Current Polar Sea Ice Maps 2008

Current Polar Sea Ice Maps 2008

One of my favorite sites is:

We get a map of current sea ice coverage and a second map showing the variation from the thirty year medium and is vastly more significant.

Last year we got a huge surprise when an unexpected wind system emerged and helped shift a lot of perennial ice out into the Atlantic and opened the Northwest Passage. We can reasonably conjecture that this was a release mechanism whereby surplus heat already built up in the higher latitudes as shown by unusually warm winters over the past five years, is suddenly disposed of. A result is the return this winter of rather cold conditions with plenty of snow.

After all this activity and speculation we come to the 2008 season which should help answer a few questions or prove that we are still clueless. Although we have had a very unusual winter, I see little reason to see that it was colder than the averages set before the turn of the century. That grants that the several years since have been warm and that was the source of the heat buildup that discharged last summer.

If that model holds up, then we should expect several years of heat recharge before we see another strong attack on the Artic sea ice.

This brings me to another issue. We know that the globe has been slowly warming since the onslaught of the little ice age whose cause has been attributed to the sunspot minimum and other non earthly causes. We know this because worldwide glaciers have been retreating for the past two hundred years.

The only way in which this is possible is for the atmosphere to get warmer. That does not necessarily mean hotter at surface so much as more heat is contained in the air mass itself. Presumably that also means a very slight increase in sea temperatures.

An increase in sea temperature is usually concentrated in the tropics and is discharged by increased hurricane activity. This system seems to have a thirty to forty year cycle by itself, and yes, we caught a peak with Katrina.

In the meantime the atmosphere is able to deliver extra heat onto the glaciers, or perhaps less than sufficient snow onto the glaciers. Of course it will take years to figure out which is correct. Myself, I hope enough snow landed on the Columbia snow field this winter to cause an advance.

The sea ice should breakup quickly this year and while it has the potential to be pushed back to the same line as last year, I am expecting a lot less and that a lot of this winter’s ice will get to be two year ice. We shall see.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Milpa and Earthen Kilns

Kevin has done an excellent commentary on the Earthen Kiln Conjecture which I also posted over on the terra preta forum. It has made the whole rather lengthy but sometimes that can not be helped.

He integrates his knowledge of Milpa agriculture which is the three sisters transposed into the tropics. It seemed likely that this was so and it is nice to see it confirmed. I had heard of the Milpa system before but had not quite connected it to the Amazon and even Belize. It almost certainly is the precursor to terra preta.

The evidence suggests that terra preta production was ongoing, yet I am conscious that this was not necessary. Carbon sequestration at the one ton per acre per year rate would produce a base carbon content wildly beyond what was necessary.

Kevin’s remarks are in italics. Any additional remarks of mine will be bold.

Dear Robert
Robert Klein wrote:

I am reposting to my blog this article by David Bennet with Lehmann on Terra Preta in2005. This reconfirms the most critical information as well as describes the original scope of the Indian civilization itself. Again this lays out the limiting factors and fully supports my earthen kiln conjecture.
I like your Earth Kiln Conjecture, in that it sets out a possible explanation for the presence of charcoal in TP areas.

Firstly, the maize or corn exists in an environment that mitigated against its use for purely food production. There were alternatives far better suited to the non terra preta environment, starting immediately with manioc which is a rainforest friendly plant.
See:, that describes the Milpa System of primitive agriculture as is presently practised in parts of the Yucutan and Belize. Basically, a space is cleared in the jungle, and "The Three Sisters" (Maize, Beans, and Squash) were planted. This system works, and is simple but labor intensive, due to the need to clear new land every year. I would pose that Milpa was the original agriculture system, and that it evolved into the Terra Preta system, that did not require annual clearing of jungle for one crop and then 7 to 20 years of fallow. In summary, the addition of char to a Milpa Plot, would allow addition and retention of additional nutrients, to enhance growth.

I totally agree with this. Any beneficial improvement would be easily observed and copied in this system.

Secondly, the only viable source of meat protein to these peoples at this population density was through fish. Without confirmation, a pond with tilapia makes great sense. The waste from the daily meal could be readily folded into any growing seed hill. Human waste could simply have been buried in the field itself avoiding any storage.
Such a system would make sense in the context of smaller, dispersed villages. The important thing is that large villages and communities start from small villages and communities. Aquaculture was practiced in Chile or Peru, where fish were grown in the irrigation channels in the sides of mountainous terrain, where there was the grade for water conveyance. A key thing was that such "fish water" conveyed both phosphorous and potassium to the plants, in addition to the water. Tilapia are a very special fish, in that they can live on algae. Algae growth can be promoted by addition of manure to the irrigation water, and the Tilapia can grow under "green water conditions", as is employed in SE Asia Pond Culture. In larger communities, the field irrigation channels would provide a very convenient way for disposal of night soil.

I first came across Tilapia in conjunction with the Mayan ditch and bank system of producing rich gardens that was used throughout the Americas from Michigan to Chile.

> This is common practice to this day.
The making of the earthen kiln is no more difficult than uprooting the dehydrated corn stalks and properly stacking them to form an earthen walled kiln with a wall thickness of two to three root pads and an interior of tightly packed cornstalks.

Given that the Primitive Farmer went to all the work of clearing a hole in the Jungle, and given that he had one good year with a bountiful harvest, it would be a natural step to try and avoid the extra work required to clear more Jungle, to continue with the cropping/fallow cycle. It would be a lot easier to pull the maize stalks and stack them as you suggest, to dispose of them in an attempt at getting another year out of a particular Milpa Clearing. The Milpa System employs fire as a "clearing aid", and in the attached photo, charcoal is evident. Note however, that with the Milpa System, the exposed sticks and stalks would generally burn to completion. However, with Robert's Earthen Kiln Hypothesis, the "root ball walls" would tend to collapse onto the partially burned/charred corn stocks, smothering the fire, preventing it from going to completion, and thereby producing a much higher yield of residual char than would an open bonfire.

It required only one smart farmer to think this up and try it out

Obviously, any other plant material, including wood can be built into the stack as available. The earthen wall nicely restricts air flow during the burn phase and lends itself to optimization by changing the thickness. It also minimizes the amount of human effort needed which is through the roof if you are attempting to cover a pile of stubble or branches. This gives you a kiln with vertical earthen walls and a possibly domed top that can be easily covered with earth. Again, field trials will optimize this protocol very easily. The kiln could be squared of or perhaps even circular though unlikely. The only tool to this point is a strong back or two.

Nowadays, the Milpa Farmers have the benefit of steel machetes, and would be able to easily cut the stalks from the root ball. Without a machette, it would be much easier to pull up the entire stalk, and stack the stalk and root ball in the manner suggested by Robert. Certainly, the incremental effort to pull and stack the stalks would be less than the effort to move to another site and clear more jungle.

> We have gathered several tons of corn stover over perhaps an acre of land with only a little more effort than that required to clear the field and burn the waste. Now we must fire the kiln. The easy way is to take a clay lined old basket and fill it up with coals from a wood fire. Carry this ember charge to the center of the kiln top and tip the charge onto the exposed center and place the basket as a cap to the newly forming chimney.

> More clay may be necessary to widen the chimney cap. Throw more earth on top of
this to prevent breakout of the fire. Keep growing earth on any breakout points that start.
The chimney will serve to burn all the volatiles produced as the hot zone expands to fill the collapsing kiln until they are exhausted.

If the Farmers were simply trying to get rid of vegetative waste, to avoid opening up new Jungle, then they may not have been very interested in plugging up any air leakage points. Less labor would be involved is simply "stack and burn", rather than tending the earthen kiln. They had no need to burn the volatiles to completion. Indeed, the smoke would probably be beneficial, through dispersing mosquitoes and insects.

> There upon the hot zone will cool off leaving a blend of biochar, ash and earth and
ome root ends for the next kiln. And yes, we should have a lot of fired clay.

This is very interesting. Loose earth from the root balls would not be compacted sufficiently to yield the pottery shards we now associate with Terra Preta. However, the process could very well have produced "microshards" of "pottery". Actually, this "fired soil" would not be "microshards", in that the term "shard" usually refers to "broken pieces of pottery", and it would not be "pottery", in that the term usually refers to "a formed clay shape that was fired to enhance its properties." It would be expected that this would be a "low temperature firing", and it is thus not likely that the "fired root ball pottery particles" would be able to endure the ravages of 500 to 4,000 years of tropical weathering.

I would actually be surprised to see any firing taking place in the soils themselves. However, the thin clay plate sitting on top of the chimney preventing a full burn out would get hot enough to fire. Of course, they may simply have fired sun dried plates elsewhere, but so far I have seen no evidence of such kilns.

> The biochar itself will be a range of nonvolatile combustion products that will range from even dried vegetation to activated charcoal following a nice bell curve. The material can be then gathered in baskets and redistributed into the field onto the seed hills again reducing wastage and effort. I realized originally that the only ancient plant that could accommodate a high enough volume of terra preta production was good old maize. It just seemed an unlikely option for tropical rainforests. That is when I started looking for references to the pollen record. The article by David Bennett and Lehmann is one of those references that then emerged. I would like to get a full spectrum of the pollen profile since it seems very likely that while the fence rows held the food trees, it seems more likely that they also used a variation of the three sisters using some form of convenient legume. Squashes also, of course, but not nearly as important. The key point of all this is that a family can convert a field into terra preta in one short season, allowing them to repeat the process thereafter as necessary until the field is completely transformed to depth. Today, we can do the same thing using shovels and a garbage can lid.

Terra preta: unearthing an agricultural goldmine Nov 14, 2005 10:36 AM, By David BennettIn, there is reference to "insufficient period of fallow". It would indeed be advantageous to be able to extend the productive period of a Milpa, to avoid the need to clear more jungle. Weeds are a problem in a fertile soil. What they needed for sustained cropping of a given milpa area would be

1: A mulch system, that focused growth where they wanted it, and
2: Plant nutrients.

Now, people don't live in the fields where they are attempting to grow their food crops. They would live adjacent to their fields. They would, of course, be producing Nightsoil, and naturally, they would need to dispose of it. Fresh manure and night soil could

The seed hills occupy twenty five percent of the available space. The night soil can be covered with soil and placed in a new location each time. I saw this recently described in India. (it is only a problem in cold climates were breakdown is postponed.

damage the crops. For the simple reason of smell, it would make sense to have adjacent fields working on "short fallow system"... crop one field area, while applying the humanure to an adjacent area. This would allow pathogens the time to degrade to a safe level. An additional "health protection benefit" of the "Three Sisters" is that they are all "above ground crops."

They had pots made of "pottery", and these pots over time would break. It would not take long for a Farmer to discover that pottery shards make an excellent mulch, in that plants do not grow up through pottery pieces. A further benefit of such pottery mulch is that it is fireproof. It would be a relatively easy thing to simply "burn the weeds". A further benefit using such a "fireproof mulch" is that there would tend to be moisture retention below the shards, and this moisture would tend to prevent loss of organic material from the soil. Fire burning of the weed tops with pottery shards as a "fireproof mulch" would result in an increase of organic material in the soil, from the weed root system.

There is way too much ‘pottery’ to be explained by household breakage. And a clay plate or clay lined basket was clearly necessary to carry an ember charge and cap the resultant chimney. It would shatter in the heat.

> > Many soil scientists insist an ancient Amerindian agrarian society will soon
Ø make a huge impact on the modern world. They say once the intricacies and
Ø > formulation of the society’s “terra preta” (dark earth) is unlocked, the
Ø > benefits will help stop environmental degradation and bring fertility to
Ø > depleted soils. Developing and developed nations will benefit.

Ø > Milpa and Terra Preta were NOT "systems designed to prevent environmental degradation... they were systems designed to provide a supply of wholesome food on a regular and dependable basis. Certainly, obvious signs of "environmental degradation" would be dealt with, and the one concern I could see that they would have is loss of soil through erosion. Flat pottery shards would absorb the energy of falling rain, and reduce soil erosion problems.

> Orellana
>>> The story goes that in 1542, while exploring the Amazon Basin near Ecuador
> in search of El Dorado, Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana began
> checking the area around one of the Amazon’s largest rivers, the Rio Negro.
> While he never found the legendary City of Gold, upon his return to Spain,
> Orellana reported the jungle area held an ancient civilization — a farming
> people, many villages and even massive, walled cities.
>>> Later explorers and missionaries were unable to confirm Orellana’s reports.
> They said the cities weren’t there and only hunter-gatherer tribes roamed the
> jungles. Orellana’s claims were dismissed as myth.
>>> Scientists who later considered Orellana’s claims agreed with the negative
> assessments. The key problem, they said, was large societies need much food,
> something Amazonia’s poor soils are simply incapable of producing. And without
agriculture, large groups of people are unable to escape a nomadic existence,
> much less build cities.

> Milpa could very well progress to Terra Preta, and with the sanitation requirements for larger communities, there could very well have been a food system that evolved to support it. A classic symbiotic relationship.

> Dark earth
>>> More recently, though, Orellana’s supposed myths have evolved into distinct
> possibilities. The key part of the puzzle has to do with terra preta.
> It turns out that vast patches of the mysterious, richly fertile, man-made
> soil can be found throughout Amazonia. Through plot work, researchers claim
> terra preta can increase yields 350 percent over adjacent, nutrient-leached
> soils.

> There is absolutely no mystery or miraculous occurence here... plants grow well in nutrient rich soil and they grow poorly in nutrient poor soil. With all the burning and vegetation, it would be natural for some of the Milpa Farmers to have noticed that black soil seemed to last longer before yields fell off to the point that a fallow period was necessary. These Farmers were primitive, but they weren't stupid.

I completely agree that an association would be made between high carbon content and sustained soil fertility. I made the exact same observation as a child on our farm from what must have been a patch used to burn out a huge amount of wood during the original clearing of the land. It had the thickest and best grass on the farm.

> Many well-respected researchers now say terra preta, most of it still hidden
> under jungle canopy, could have sustained large, agronomic societies throughout Brazil
and neighboring countries.

> The "well respected researchers" don't deserve much respect, if all they can say about Terra Preta is that "... it could have sustained large agronomic societies...". They would deserve much more respect if they provided more insight into Terra Preta. :-) The above statement may have some profound content..."... terra preta, most of it hidden under Jungle canopy..." Is it perhaps possible that terra preta is simply the natural jungle soil?
> Amazing properties
>>> The properties of terra preta are amazing. Even thousands of years after> creation, the soil remains fertile without need for any added fertilizer.

This is a stretch. A very big stretch. It goes against all known "Agricultural Paradigms". Mother Nature is very strict with her rule "You never get something for nothing." The above statement would only be true if a fertile, nutrient laden soil was not used for growing, or if nothing was removed from the site as crops, or through leaching, or as food for soil organisms, or as an oxidation product..

Not so fast – the carbon grabs nutrients and holds them. Only a little is actually used each season. Without terra preta the remaining nutrients are washed away. With terra preta any fresh waste nutrients are recaptured and also made available. Thus it is no surprise that reports of sixty years without fertilization are heard. Our own system is incredibly wasteful, distorting our expectations.

> For those living in Amazonia, terra preta is increasingly sought out as a
> commodity. Truckloads of the dark earth are often carted off and sold like
> potting soil.
> Certainly, there are people who make their living all over the world bringing in topsoil, compost, and manure to areas where the soil is deficient in organic matter and nutrients.

> Chock-full of charcoal, the soil is often several meters deep. It holds
> nutrients extremely well and seems to contain a microbial mix especially suited
> to agriculture.
> Certainly, this would work. Note, however, that black soil found in a wet depression could very well have been formed naturally, without the presence of man-made charcoal. The soils are referred to a "Black Carbon" soils, and "black carbon" can occur naturally through decomposition of organic matter in anaerobic conditions.
> Thus far, despite great effort, scientists have been unable to duplicate
> production of the soil. If researchers can ever uncover the Amerindians’ terra
> preta cocktail recipe, it will help stop the environmentally devastating
> practice of slash-and-burn agriculture in the Amazon jungle. Terra preta’s
> benefits will also be exported across the globe.

> The above passage reads well, but it doesn't say much about the caliber of scientific effort being directed at figuring out how to "reverse engineer" Terra Preta!! :-)

> However, even without unlocking all of the soil’s secrets, things learned in
> the study of it are already being brought to row-crop fields.
> Among researchers studying terra preta is Johannes Lehmann, a soil
fertility management expert and soil biogeochemistry professor at Cornell
university. Lehmann, who recently spoke with Delta Farm Press, says things learned
from terra preta will help farmers with agricultural run-off, sustained fertility and input
costs. Among his comments:
>>> On how Lehmann came to terra preta research…
>>> “I spent three years living and working in degraded Amazonia field sites.
> Inevitably, if you work in the central Amazon, you come across terra preta.
> “The visual impact of these soils is amazing. Usually, the soils there are
> yellow-whitish colored with very little humus. But the terra preta is often 1
> or 2 meters deep with rich, dark color. It’s unmistakable. We know terra preta
> are preferentially cropped.”
>>> On the various properties of terra preta and its modes of action…
>>> “There are a few factors that contribute to this fertility — sustainable fertility.
> Remember, these are soils that were created 1,000 to 5,000 years ago and were
> abandoned hundreds or thousands of years ago. Yet, over all those hundreds of
> years, the soils retain their high fertility in an environment with high
> decomposition, humidity and temperatures. In this environment, according to
> text books, this soil shouldn’t exist.
>>> “That alone is fascinating for us.

> Amazonian Jungles have been in existence for much longer than the presence of Man in Amazonia. They are a natural phenomenon. They work as a result of the layer of humus on the surface of the jungle floor that captures available nutrients and releases them to jungle vegetation. An abandoned Terra Preta plot could be expected to remain fertile for a very long time, PROVIDING THAT no crops were removed from the site.

Except this is in contrast with the rapid fertility loss of all tropical soils because of the rapid movement of rainwater deep into the soils

>> “Among the most important properties are high nutrient concentrations
> (especially for calcium and phosphorus). Most likely, this is linked to a
> unique utilization of agricultural and fishery waste products.

> Certainly, one would expect higher levels of soil nutrition in the vicinity of human habitation, where they had a nightsoil and food waste resource that was at the same time, a disposal problem and a tremendous agricultural resource.

>> “We believe that fish residues are an important portion of the high
> phosphorus concentrations. Phosphorus is really the number one limiting
> nutrient in the central Amazon.

> Near River/Lake systems, natural fish could provide a good source of protein, and fish bones for fertilizer. Pond Culture may have been employed further away from rivers and lakes. Human and animal manures resulting from "new phosphorous" being brought into the area as a result of the people "importing" foods from outside the community would also result in an "above average phos level.

Also terra preta does not let the unused phosphorus to escape.
>> “Another interesting aspect of terra preta’s high fertility is the char
> (charcoal) content of the soil. This was deliberately put into the soil by the
> Indians and doesn’t only create a higher organic matter — and therefore higher
> fertility through better nutrient-retention capacity — but this special type of
> carbon is more efficient in creating these properties.
>>> “You can have the same amount of carbon in terra preta and adjacent soils
> and the infertile soil won’t change. Terra preta’s abilities don’t just rely on
> more carbon, but the fact that its char and humus is somehow more efficient in
> creating beneficial properties. That’s the truly unique aspect.”

> This is very interesting. He might be differentiating between "Black Carbon Soils" that contain "pyrocarbon" and those that only contain "natural black carbon." It is also possible that on the "poor" Black Carbon Soil plots, the Cation Exchange Sites on the charcoal and natural black carbon may be occupied by cations that were not beneficial to the plants, and thus unable to hold the nutrients that were the "bottleneck to growth."

> Having lived in the Amazon and studied it, how much terra preta does
> Lehmann believe there is?
>>> “There are no precise numbers of how much terra preta there is (in
> Amazonia). No one has done any large-scale investigation of that. It’s very
> difficult to find out in the Amazon’s jungle environment. Suitable
> remote-sensing techniques haven’t yet been used.
>>> “So (the 10 percent) estimates sometimes cited are crude extrapolations from
> the few areas we’re familiar with. But we know that in familiar areas there are
> huge patches of terra preta. These are hundreds of hectares large. When there
> have been maps produced of areas containing terra preta — say an area around a
> stream — patches are everywhere.
>>> “It is also true that terra preta is widespread. Almost anywhere in the
> central Amazon, you can step out of the car and ask a local ‘Is there any terra
> preta around?’ and they’ll show you. It’s everywhere.”

Effort should be made to determine if these Black Carbon Soils were the initial result of natural black carbon formation, and if the Anthropogenic contribution of charcoal to Black Carbon Soils was an incidental result of working a natural black carbon soil.

>> What were the Indians growing? Tree crops? Row crops?
>>> “There has been some pollen analysis. It suggests manioc and maize were
> being grown 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. In the pollen bank, these crops didn’t
> pop up sporadically but in large numbers.
>>> “But all kinds of crops were grown by the Indians. Palm trees,
> under-story fruit trees, Brazil nut trees — all were very important.”
>>> On the differences between slash-and-burn and slash-and-char agriculture…
>>> “We have very good indications that the Amerindian populations couldn’t have
> practiced slash-and-burn and created these soils.

> This statement should be clarified. There is indeed very good evidence that the Mayans in the Yucatan have indeed been practising "slash and burn" agriculture on a sustainable basis for thousands of years. Milpa is "slash and burn" on a patchwork basis.

>> “It’s also highly unlikely that a population relying on stone axes would
> have practiced slash-and-burn anyway. The normal soils are so poor that with a
> single slash-and-burn event, you can only crop without fertilizer for two years
> at most. Then the soil has to be left fallow again.

> Yes, that is what the Mayans found also. This is where the addition of Humanure could have led to sustained "single site tropical agriculture." Additional nutrients would give immediate feedback to the Farmer, and would encourage him to do it again next season"

>> “Primary forest trees have a diameter of 2 or 3 meters. If all you had was a
> stone ax in your hand, you’d find a different way to deal with agriculture than
> felling these huge trees every two years.

> Huge trees take a long time to grow, especially in nutrient poor soils. The cycle time of cropping a Milpa Site is about 7 to 20 years; replacement trees would be nowhere as large as 2 to 3 meters in diameter. Note that such large trees can be easily taken down by primitive technology.... simply chop or burn the anchor roots and wait for the first good windstorm. When the tree fell, it could be disposed of by burning. These tree stems and branches could have been a significant source of charcoal for the site.

The easiest way was to simply girdle all the trees and come back in a couple of years. The voracious climate would be quickly reducing the remaining material.

>> “The difference between (the two systems) is the slash-and-char wouldn’t
> burn in an open fire. Charcoal would be produced under partial exclusion of
> oxygen. We envision that happening by natives covering up piled up logs with
> dirt and straw. These charcoal-making systems are still being used around the
> world.”

In the photo referenced above, there is clear evidence of charcoal having been produced, and there is no evidence of effort been expended to prevent total burning of the wood.

>> How close are researchers to duplicating terra preta?
>>> “We’re working intensively. We don’t need to take any terra preta anywhere.
> What we want to do is become knowledgeable about how terra preta was created
> and then create it elsewhere with local resources.
>>> “Research on this is ongoing in Columbia, in Kenya. I have research
> colleagues in Japan and Indonesia also working on this. At the moment, there is
> a lot of excitement but there’s a lot of work to do.”
> It would indeed be interesting to know the avenues being pursued by the various researchers.

>> How terra preta could help industrialized countries…
>>> “We envision systems based on some of the principles of terra preta. And
> this isn’t just for tropical agriculture. This could be very important for U.S.
> agriculture.
>>> “Terra Preta could mean a reduction in environmental pollution. What works
> as a retaining mechanism in Amazonia could work in the United States where
> there are concerns of phosphates and nitrates entering groundwater and streams.
> We have only begun to realize the potential of how this could reduce pollution
> in industrialized countries.

> "Pollution in industrial Countries" was not a concern of the Amazonians. Having a fertile soil and a secure food supply was a concern. Segregating Municipal Sewage from toxic Industrial Waste should allow safer and more widespread application of Municipal Sewage into agricultural systems, reducing such sewage pollution

>> “Luckily the principles of creating bio-char soils will be very similar no
> matter what area of the world you’re in. Results obtained in Brazil will be
> pertinent for the United States.
> One should be careful here. There are many very fertile "Black Soils" throughout the world that have "Natural Black Carbon", and where there is no "bio-char" that was made by a pyro process.

>> “In terms of widespread adoption, it’s still some way away. There are still
> knowledge gaps. For instance, we know there are important differences in the
> effects of bio-char on soil fertility depending on what material you use and
> what temperature and under what conditions the char is produced. That’s
> something we should be able to resolve within a year or two. Once that’s done,
> we can take the systems to Extension Services around the world and make larger
> scale, on-farm research plots.

Fertilizer additions seem to be an important part of the research work. Little is said about the importance of fertilizers and nutrients, the emphasis is primarily on the "bio-char", with little apparent recognition of the importance of "natural black carbon" in the soils.

Best wishes


Thursday, April 17, 2008

Potatoes Rising

Sometimes, you forget what you know. I thank Terry Wade for reminding me that the potato revolution is long from over. The potato single handedly freed Europe from endemic famine and fed the population expansion from the seventeenth century to the present.

That China has made such a huge investment in potato production comes as a complete surprise. That India also will is another surprise.

Yet the logic is there. A mere acre of land can easily produce over a ton of potatoes. I know this from personal experience. It takes several acres to produce the equivalent in grains. This is why famine is no longer a real threat anywhere unless it is artificially caused.

The only difficulty is that at the subsistence level it takes a little more labor than almost any other crop. For the uninitiated, besides cutting seed eyes and planting them several inches deep, one has to also hill the rows at least twice, if not three times, normally by hand with a hoe. However, an acre of such work is not onerous and it is the best payoff in the household garden with enough for a family all winter.

It also solves another issue that I was mulling over. Subsistence level biochar production with corn root earthen kilns requires a sister crop to plant every second season at the least. The Amazon Indios were able to use cassava in the rainforest. This is an unlikely option elsewhere. The fact is that the potato is suitable everywhere else that you are able to grow corn.

Thus in one season the land can produce a ton of corn and in the next season a couple tons of potatoes. If one is additionally growing legumes with the corn as in the three sisters system, then the soil is getting a nitrogen boost.

Returning to my favorite tropical soils that are today a disaster, this growing protocol has one other advantage. Freshly cleared and broken soil requires a great deal of working in order to provide a quality seedbed. The extra hilling needed for potatoes does exactly this.

I once converted a section of lawn into a planting bed by first breaking and turning the sod deeply enough to give me several inches of working soil. I then planted potatoes. By season’s end I had a fine seedbed. The potatoes were scarred from a too biologically active soil but by then I knew how to work with the resultant soil. And I had my bed. I would recommend this process to any hobby gardener who wants to restore flower beds.

I am optimistic that huge tracts of tropical soils can be brought into continuous cultivation using this virtuous corn potato protocol producing viable livelihoods for a couple of billion people at least. I would expect to feed a family of several mouths on perhaps two to three acres of tropical soils that once could only give one crop in fifteen years. Just three growing seasons per year with one crop of corn and two crops of potatoes would produce about ten tons of potatoes and likely a couple of tons of corn on two to three acres of land. I suspect that this is much more productive than a rice paddy.

As other staples soar, potatoes break new ground


April 16, 2008 at 9:04 AM EDT
LIMA — As wheat and rice prices surge, the humble potato - long derided as a boring tuber prone to making you fat - is being rediscovered as a nutritious crop that could cheaply feed an increasingly hungry world.

Potatoes, which are native to Peru, can be grown at almost any elevation or climate: from the barren, frigid slopes of the Andes Mountains to the tropical flatlands of Asia. They require very little water, mature in as little as 50 days, and can yield between two and four times more food per hectare than wheat or rice.

"The shocks to the food supply are very real and that means we could potentially be moving into a reality where there is not enough food to feed the world," said Pamela Anderson, director of the International Potato Center in Lima , a non-profit scientific group researching the potato family to promote food security.

Like others, she says the potato is part of the solution.

The potato has potential as an antidote to hunger caused by higher food prices, a population that is growing by one billion people each decade, climbing costs for fertilizer and diesel, and more cropland being sown for biofuel production. To focus attention on this, the United Nations named 2008 the International Year of the Potato, calling the vegetable a "hidden treasure."

Governments are also turning to the tuber. Peru's leaders, frustrated by a doubling of wheat prices in the past year, have started a program encouraging bakers to use potato flour to make bread. Potato bread is being given to school children, prisoners and the military, in the hope the trend will catch on.

Supporters say it tastes just as good as wheat bread, but not enough mills are set up to make potato flour.

"We have to change people's eating habits," said Ismael Benavides, Peru's agriculture minister. "People got addicted to wheat when it was cheap."

Even though the potato emerged in Peru 8,000 years ago near Lake Titicaca, Peruvians eat fewer potatoes than people in Europe: Belarus leads the world in potato consumption, with each inhabitant of the Eastern European state devouring an average of 171 kilograms a year.

India has told food experts it wants to double potato production in the next five to 10 years. China, a huge rice consumer that historically has suffered devastating famines, has become the world's top potato grower. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the potato is expanding more than any other crop right now.

The developing world is where most new potato crops are being planted, and as consumption rises poor farmers have a chance to earn more money.

"The countries themselves are looking at the potato as a good option for both food security and also income generation," Ms. Anderson said.

The potato is already the world's third most-important food crop after wheat and rice. Corn, which is widely planted, is mainly used for animal feed.

One factor helping the potato remain affordable is the fact that unlike wheat, it is not a global commodity, so has not attracted speculative professional investment.

Each year, farmers around the globe produce about 600 million tonnes of wheat, and about 17 per cent of that flows into foreign trade.

Wheat production is almost double that of potato output. Analysts estimate less than 5 per cent of potatoes are traded internationally.

Raw potatoes are heavy and can rot in transit, so global trade in them has been slow to take off. They are also susceptible to infection with pathogens, hampering export to avoid spreading plant diseases.

But science is moving fast. Genetically modified potatoes that resist "late blight" are being developed by German chemicals group BASF. Scientists say farmers who use clean, virus-free seeds can boost yields by 30 per cent and be cleared for export.

Touting the tubers

257.25 million - World potato production in 1991 (tonnes)
320.71 million - World potato production in 2007 (tonnes)
110 - Number of calories in a medium-sized potato.
5 - Number of kilograms of potatoes needed to produce one litre of vodka.

Sources: Reuters, UN Food and Agriculture Organization

Top potato producers

In 2007, in millions of tonnes: China 72, Russian Fed. 35.7, India 26.3, Ukraine 19.1, U.S. 17.7, Germany 11.6, Poland 11.2, Belarus 8.5, Netherlands 7.2, France 6.3

Source: UN Food and Agriculture Organization

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Great Barrier Reef

I quote this little item out of Australia. It is a timely reminder that the media is profoundly lazy and insecure in their shallow knowledge and will pile on any fashion to tell a good story.

These days I am perusing dozens of stories with little or no credible linkage to the global warming theme, yet everyone is assigning the label to just about any apparent environmental anomaly.

Perhaps I should construct a story about how global warming is causing the miraculous recovery of the Great Barrier Reef.

None of this is advancing knowledge or actions where action is truly mandated and is promoting action were none is warranted. Today I see a story suggesting that George Bush is about to announce some sort of action on global warming. I hope it is a hoax.

They survived this, they’ll survive warming
Andrew Bolt

Wednesday, April 16, 2008 at 12:03am

You know those scare campaigns every few years about the Great Barrier Reef facing extinction thanks to global warming? Relax. It turns out that coral is actually so tough you couldn’t kill it with a nuclear bomb. In fact, much of the stuff just grows back fine, the seas are so coral-friendly these days:

SOME corals are again flourishing on Bikini Atoll, the Pacific site of the largest American atom bomb ever exploded, but other species have disappeared… Ms Richards said she did not know what to expect when she dived on the crater but was surprised to find huge matrices of branching Porites coral - up to eight metres high - had established, creating thriving coral reef habitat.

The truth is that I never understood this story at all. Mankind’s involvement with the massive reef is at best ephemeral and it is remote from the type of coastal pollution you see around Taiwan for example. Any observed collapse phenomena was most likely no more than a natural event that simply had not been observed before.

The most powerful force affecting natural populations is the predator prey cycle. Many of these will swing from a massive destruction of the host environment, through near complete collapse through a long slow rebuilding and recovery and suddenly back to massive destruction. Whatever happened on the reef looked very much like that.

We should be more concerned about the ongoing unnecessary influx of pollutants into the sea off the industrial heartlands of the world. Most such pollutants are actually safe to dump this way, but the problem is the lack of an audit trail that allows us to spot truly dangerous pollutants getting into the environment.

It likely required trivial abatement systems and a dose of common sense to prevent the dumping of mercury compounds in Japan fifty years ago, but no regulatory system was in place to catch it.

Does anyone actually believe that the Chinese are on top of this threat yet? Or India? I know that while most individuals in charge of these situations will do the right thing, there are always individuals who are both reckless and ignorant who are utterly focused on short term results. Every disaster will shake out another such fool.

In any event, it is fair to say that the global warming theme is been devalued by this sort of nonsense diverting attention.