Quick Thoughts on Carbon Sequestration

Carbon sequestration is an excessively expensive and probably technically impossible method of capturing significant amounts of carbon. Planting trees is another popular suggestion for sequestering carbon, but a more traditional method has not been mentioned to the best of my knowledge.

Building up the soil is a simple low-tech technique for sequestering carbon. For centuries, careful farmers have realized how to build up the fertility of the soil, not really thinking in terms of carbon sequestration.

Commercial US agriculture is largely based on “robbery agriculture,” as the great German chemist of the century and a half ago, Justus von Liebig, put it. When I published my book, Farming for Profit and a Hungry World, 30 years ago, I discovered that US agriculture was eroding about 30 pounds of soil for every pound of food it delivered to an US table. At the same time, my research for the book found that US agriculture was burning about 10 calories of fuel for every calorie of food that it was delivering to a US table.

I have no reason to believe that these imbalances have gotten any better since then. I strongly suspect that they have gotten worse.

So, the plan for reducing carbon by way of agriculture is to grow corn, perhaps the most industrialized crop, in order to produce ethanol. This process produces more energy than it consumes, only if a lot of credit is given to the energy value of the residues, which are fed to cattle. Even then, the net gain in energy is minimal and ignores the intensive consumption of water and the carbon released from the soil.

Yet, careful agriculture, by putting more organic matter back into the soil, builds up fertility, while sequestering carbon. This kind of traditional agriculture uses less mechanization.

Does this technology mean that society must revert to turn more people into downtrodden farmworkers? Capitalism might impose such an imperative, but the technology certainly does not. After all, many Sunday newspapers have a special section devoted to gardening because people find that sort of activity pleasant.

Final caveat: I do not pretend to have developed detailed data on how much a rational and cultural system could contribute slowing down global warming, but I do know that the direction we are heading is wrong.

6 comments so far

  1. Dave Iverson on

    While I agree that better and “organic” farming methods are good in many respects — less soil erosion, lower risk of problems from pesticides, fewer overloads of chemicals, etc., even better soil productivity — I don’t find it useful to attach such to the “carbon sequestration bandwagon”, much of which is nonsense. Planting more trees is also problemantic.

    Both practices may fill in gaps, but in the long run are not “solutions.” AND in the short run, some are using the “planting of trees” is cover to log more now — to get rid of weedtrees/weedshrubs and/or “poorly stocked stands”, in yet-another attempt to convert forests to what some believe to be better-working industrial treefarms (now with nice-sounding names like “working landscapes”.

    The “Arrogance of Humanism”, at David Ehrenfeld once called it in a wonderful book, continues.

    Better that we rail against desertification, over-population by humans, etc. Better that we champion organic farming for the good it does in re-connecting humans to nature, for the good it does in turning the tide against over-industrialization and “big business”, etc.

    PS.. Keep up your good work! As the old saying goes, “To err is human. To forgive is divine” One of is is in error here, I suspect.

  2. Dave Iverson on

    Damn.. I inappropriatelychanged an “as” to an “is” in editing my comment. The sentence should read:

    “AND in the short run, some are using the “planting of trees” as cover to log more now…”

  3. mperelman on

    I appreciate your comments. I mentioned carbon sequestration because the build up of the soil holds carbon.

  4. Peter Donovan on

    The big, explosive book on the soil carbon opportunity was published in the US this summer. It is PRIORITY ONE: TOGETHER WE CAN BEAT GLOBAL WARMING by Allan Yeomans. See wwww.biospheremedia.org

    Michael, you are right that trees are problematic. Seedlings die, mature trees don’t pull much carbon, and they rot or burn.

    However, the buildup of soil organic matter, which can remain stable for centuries, has far more potential than most realize. American academics and scientists generally underestimate it because they are looking primarily at “robbery agriculture” and if you cease one or more of these practices (e.g. tillage or chemicals) you get some moderate degree of added carbon storage. However, it is various branches of alternative agriculture which are showing the way.

    The common misperception is that nature does best when it is not managed, or less managed by humans. What these various branches of alternative agriculture (particularly intensive managed grazing) are showing is that intensity of use, combined with an understanding of ecosystem processes, can increase soil fertility (mostly carbon) rapidly and cheaply. You understand well, I expect, why USDA and Farm Bureaus and agrochemical companies are not pushing this . . .

    see also http://managingwholes.net/?p=12 for a short recap of the soil carbon opportunity.

  5. mperelman on

    Thank you very much. In my ignorance, did not know about anybody giving serious thought to this approach.

  6. […] Michael Perelman Originally published as “Quick Thoughts on Carbon Sequestration” in Unsettling Economics and MRzine. Posted with the author’s permission. Carbon sequestration is an excessively […]


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