Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Time to go against the grain.

Below is an article I wrote for the Guardian about the impact that modern farming is having on our countryside, our pockets, our environment and our food.

My new book published this month, 'The Carbon Fields' uses my many years research to lay out the argument of where our farming has gone wrong and how we can improve our lives with what we eat. To buy the book have a look here; The Carbon Fields.

In the meantime have a look at the Guardian article below or to read the full article click here; Against the grain.

"On commodity markets, the price of wheat is barely half what it was a year ago. And as it falls, more food prices look set to tumble. But before cracking open the Bollinger, the Brown cabinet would do well to ponder the implications of having food prices so closely bound up with commodity movements.

Our food supply is now more dependent on globally traded grains than at any time in our history. This makes it inherently unstable and vulnerable to the kind of catastrophic meltdown that threatened the banking industry. First, there's the danger of extreme weather events, worsening as a result of climate change. Grains are at risk both from heavy rainfall and from drought, and this year's rain-drenched harvest was saved only by a fine spell in September.

Then there's the reliance of wheat farmers on oil. To grow the crop, they need diesel to power their giant machines, whose very manufacture requires barrels of the stuff. Then there's the oil contained in the chemical fertilisers and pesticides, without which their over-worked soils would scarcely grow a thing. Little wonder, then, that wheat price movements reflect almost exactly the rollercoaster fluctuations of the oil market. Finally, our grain-based food supply is largely controlled by commodity traders and brokers - speculators now dictate the price and availability of many foods on our supermarket shelves."


Buy the amazing new book The Carbon Fields by Graham Harvey now at www.grassrootsfood.co.uk.

4 comments:

Ed S said...

Interesting topic. I remember your book on soil fertility, and always wanted to know how much of the depletion of minerals in fruit and vegetables was caused by the specialisation of farms. 50 years ago, farms where I live (East Yorkshire) were all mixed, with veg grown everywhere. Now all the veg is grown on the light, sandy soil - which has always had less organic matter and mineral content than the heavier clays and silts. These are now used for cereals. You didn't really address this in the book, any thoughts now?

Brian Gardner said...

Graham, old chum, its clear that your grassland obsession has led you to a false analysis of the current state of the agriculture industry .Your Guardian article is full of factual errors and more importantly, errors of interpretation. I list and examine the more important examples:

1. 'Our food supply is now more dependent on globally traded grains than at any time in our history'. Nonsense. We are less dependent on grain imports today than we have ever been since the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. In the late 19 century self sufficiency in wheat fell to less than 30% as large estates were bankrupted or converted to livestock farming as imports flooded in from N America and elsewhere. 'Traditionally' we have been less than 60% self sufficient in staple foods, with self sufficiency levels falling to less than 40% shortly before WWI and even lower in the 1930s. Contrary to your argument, UK cereal self-sufficiency has never been higher : it rose to over 100% at the end of the 1990s. Today it is still over 85%

2. 'The reliance of wheat farmers on oil' So they are, but so are all productive processes energy dependent. Productivity increases however have reduced and are continuing to reduce the agriculture industry's energy dependency. UK agriculture is becoming more efficient in its use of energy. Total energy use by the industry has fallen by over 30% since 1985, while output has certainly remained constant if not increased. The only way oil dependency could be reduced would be to replace tractors with horses and dragoon workers from the towns back to the farms!

3. Our grain-based food supply is largely controlled by commodity traders and brokers - speculators now dictate the price and availability of many foods on our supermarket shelves'. It always was; read 'The Mayor of Casterbridge'. It's a good job the market is influenced by 'speculators' - that's what keeps demand and supply in balance and ensures optimum welfare.

4. 'In the early days of the second world war, prime minister Winston Churchill called on Britain's farmers to boost our supply of home grown food. Today, they would be unable to respond even if they wanted to'. This is a real corker: farmers responded to the war effort largely by ploughing up ancient pastures and bringing back into production farms and land which had been left derelict by the Depression. Rapidly increased mechanisation and the greater use of artificial fertiliser made major contributions to the subsequent increase in output. Today large areas of farmland are 'banked' in set-aside and environmental schemes. In the event of some unforeseen emergency production could be increased by 15-20% by bringing this land back into production.

5. 'At the heart of Britain's food production was grassland. Most of Britain's food animals were raised on it - cattle, sheep, poultry and pigs in a genuinely sustainable production model'. If this were true there would have been little bacon and very few eggs - pigs and chickens are monogastric animals which cannot digest grass. These animals were fed principally on cereals, fishmeal, slaughterhouse wastes and what little oilseeds the U-boats did not manage to leave on the bottom of the Atlantic. The levels of milk yields achieved in this period would not have been achieved without concentrate feeds, based on similar materials, which were needed to supplement grazing and grass products.

6. Most agricultural production in WWII and the post war period was based on increasing use of artificial fertilisers including most importantly from the domestic nitrogen industry, steel furnace wastes and imported potash. Pesticides in use in those days, such as copper sulphate and arsenic, were dangerous, poisonous, and polluting.


7. 'Undergrazed pasture soil rapidly builds fertility as plants and soil fauna decay'. Pastures were certainly not 'undergrazed' - on the best farms intensive strip grazing and paddock grazing was practised and was combined with relatively heavy use of nitrogen-based fertilisers. Read George Stapledon and almost any of the farming textbooks that most of us in the 1940s and 1950s were raised on.

8. 'The food output per acre from a well-run mixed farm was often higher than today's intensive chemical operation'. Not very often - that's why the medium sized family run mixed farm no longer exists. To remain viable, farms had to become more specialised and larger. In aggregate, the land-based per hectare output of the 'British farm' is now at least 50% greater than it was sixty years ago. Contrary to the received wisdom among Greens and Guardianistas, the farming industry has achieved this increase in output with declining use of pesticides, artificial fertilisers and fuel (as a consequence its GHG emissions have decreased -very substantially).

My basic criticism of your Guardian article is that it is unbalanced. Certainly, there is a case for better land management which protects soil structure and long term fertility. Most enlightened farmers are practising such eco-friendly husbandry systems anyway. The recent decoupling of farmer income support from production criteria and the new emphasis on environmental schemes is likely to put some marginal land into semi-retirement. With or without subsidies, farmers will continue to farm the best land and the market will ensure that they do so profitably. The market will also ensure that consumers still have access to a wide diversity of food from both domestic production and imports - as they always did, except in times of war.

Brian Gardner

Brian Gardner said...

Graham, old chum, it is clear that your grassland obsession has led to a false analysis of the current state of the agriculture industry .Your Guardian article is full of factual errors and more importantly, errors of interpretation. I list and examine the more important examples:

1. 'Our food supply is now more dependent on globally traded grains than at any time in our history'. Nonsense. We are less dependent on grain imports today than we have ever been since the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. In the late 19 century self sufficiency in wheat fell to less than 30% as large estates were bankrupted or converted to livestock farming as imports flooded in from N America and elsewhere. 'Traditionally' we have been less than 60% self sufficient in staple foods, with self sufficiency levels falling to less than 40% shortly before WWI and even lower in the 1930s. Contrary to your argument, UK cereal self-sufficiency has never been higher : it rose to over 100% at the end of the 1990s. Today it is still over 85%

2. 'The reliance of wheat farmers on oil' So they are, but so are all productive processes energy dependent. Productivity increases however have reduced and are continuing to reduce the agriculture industry's energy dependency. UK agriculture is becoming more efficient in its use of energy. Total energy use by the industry has fallen by over 30% since 1985, while output has certainly remained constant if not increased. The only way oil dependency could be reduced would be to replace tractors with horses and dragoon workers from the towns back to the farms!

3. Our grain-based food supply is largely controlled by commodity traders and brokers - speculators now dictate the price and availability of many foods on our supermarket shelves'. It always was; read 'The Mayor of Casterbridge'. It's a good job the market is influenced by 'speculators' - that's what keeps demand and supply in balance and ensures optimum welfare.

4. 'In the early days of the second world war, prime minister Winston Churchill called on Britain's farmers to boost our supply of home grown food. Today, they would be unable to respond even if they wanted to'. This is a real corker: farmers responded to the war effort largely by ploughing up ancient pastures and bringing back into production farms and land which had been left derelict by the Depression. Rapidly increased mechanisation and the greater use of artificial fertiliser made major contributions to the subsequent increase in output. Today large areas of farmland are 'banked' in set-aside and environmental schemes. In the event of some unforeseen emergency production could be increased by 15-20% by bringing this land back into production.

5. 'At the heart of Britain's food production was grassland. Most of Britain's food animals were raised on it - cattle, sheep, poultry and pigs in a genuinely sustainable production model'. If this were true there would have been little bacon and very few eggs - pigs and chickens are monogastric animals which cannot digest grass. These animals were fed principally on cereals, fishmeal, slaughterhouse wastes and what little oilseeds the U-boats did not manage to leave on the bottom of the Atlantic. The levels of milk yields achieved in this period would not have been achieved without concentrate feeds, based on similar materials, which were needed to supplement grazing and grass products.

6. Most agricultural production in WWII and the post war period was based on increasing use of artificial fertilisers including most importantly from the domestic nitrogen industry, steel furnace wastes and imported potash. Pesticides in use in those days, such as copper sulphate and arsenic, were dangerous, poisonous, and polluting.


7. 'Undergrazed pasture soil rapidly builds fertility as plants and soil fauna decay'. Pastures were certainly not 'undergrazed' - on the best farms intensive strip grazing and paddock grazing was practised and was combined with relatively heavy use of nitrogen-based fertilisers. Read George Stapledon and almost any of the farming textbooks that most of us in the 1940s and 1950s were raised on.

8. 'The food output per acre from a well-run mixed farm was often higher than today's intensive chemical operation'. Not very often - that's why the medium sized family run mixed farm no longer exists. To remain viable, farms had to become more specialised and larger. In aggregate, the land-based per hectare output of the 'British farm' is now at least 50% greater than it was sixty years ago. Contrary to the received wisdom among Greens and Guardianistas, the farming industry has achieved this increase in output with declining use of pesticides, artificial fertilisers and fuel (as a consequence its GHG emissions have decreased -very substantially).

My basic criticism of your Guardian article is that it is unbalanced. Certainly, there is a case for better land management which protects soil structure and long term fertility. Most enlightened farmers are practising such eco-friendly husbandry systems anyway. The recent decoupling of farmer income support from production criteria and the new emphasis on environmental schemes is likely to put some marginal land into semi-retirement. With or without subsidies, farmers will continue to farm the best land and the market will ensure that they do so profitably. The market will also ensure that consumers still have access to a wide diversity of food from both domestic production and imports - as they always did, except in times of war.

Brian Gardner

Erich J. Knight said...

I thought these updates and endorsements of Biochar may interest you,

Sen. Ken Salazar (NOW Secetary of Interior) has done the most to nurse this biofuels system in his Biochar provisions in the 07 & 08 farm bill,
http://www.biochar-international.org/newinformationevents/newlegislation.html

Below are my current news & Links to major developments;


Cheers,
Erich J. Knight
540 289 9750

At USDA Dr.Jeffrey Novak is coordinating Biochar research.
I've had productive contacts with Douglas Lawrence, director NSCS & Farm bill coordinator, and through him, David Douds with ARS for MYC & VAM Fungi research, and Chris Nichols ARS glomalin research.

My other most successful efforts to date are continuing briefings to Michael Pollan (Food Column NYTs & author) over the last year.
In a recent National Public Radio interview, Michael Pollan talks about how he was approached by a Democratic party staffer about his New York Times article, The "Farmer & Chief" article is an open letter to the next president concerning U.S. agriculture/energy policy. The staffer wanted Pollan to summarize the article into a page or two to get it into the hands of Barack Obama. Pollan declined, saying that if he could have said everything that needed to be said in two pages, he wouldn't have written 8000 words.
Michael Pollan is well briefed and excited about Biochar technology, but did not include it in his "Farmer & Chief" article to President Obama, (Which he did read & cited in a speech) but I'm sure Biochar will be his 8001th word to him.


Changing World Technologies

Ultimately we must leave the combustion age behind. Charcoal to the soil is a bridging first step as other energy conversion technologies bloom from Nano and bio research . Thankfully we can do Terra Preta (TP) soil with off the shelf technology now.

Oil companies must come to see the overwhelming value of their fossil carbon as the best feedstock for the manufacture ( via carbon nanotubes, fullerines, DNA programed nano self assembly, etc.) of virtually all things in the near future.

This convergences of different technologies will end the Combustion age.

TP starts as a soil nano technology with increased CEC, than a micro technology with our wee- beasties / fungus, and macro with bugs and worms.

Biochar, the modern version of an ancient Amazonian agricultural practice called Terra Preta (black earth), is gaining widespread credibility as a way to address world hunger, climate change, rural poverty, deforestation, and energy shortages… SIMULTANEOUSLY!

Modern Pyrolysis of biomass is a process for Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon sequestration,10X Lower Methane & N2O soil emissions, and 3X Fertility Too.
Every 1 ton of Biomass yields 1/3 ton Charcoal for soil Sequestration, Bio-Gas & Bio-oil fuels, so is a totally virtuous, carbon negative energy cycle.

Charles Mann ("1491") in the Sept. National Geographic has a wonderful soils article which places Terra Preta / Biochar soils center stage.

Please put this (soil) bug in your colleague's ears. These issues need to gain traction among all the various disciplines who have an iron in this fire.

The NGM cover reads "WHERE FOOD BEGINS"
http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/09/soil/mann-text


It's what Mann hasn't covered that I thought should interest you and Sen. Salazar;

NASA's Dr. James Hansen Global warming solutions paper and letter to the G-8 conference, placing Biochar / Land management the central technology for carbon negative energy systems.
http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/0804/0804.1126.pdf

The many new university programs & field studies, in temperate soils; Cornell, ISU, U of H, U of GA, Virginia Tech, JMU, New Zealand, Germany and Australia.

Biochar data base;
http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/?q=node

Glomalin's role in soil tilth, fertility & basis for the soil food web in Terra Preta soils.

POZNAN, Poland, December 10, 2008 - The International Biochar Initiative (IBI) announces that the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) has submitted a proposal to include biochar as a mitigation and adaptation technology to be considered in the post-2012-Copenhagen agenda of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). A copy of the proposal is posted on the IBI website at
The International Biochar Initiative (IBI).


Given the current "Crisis" atmosphere concerning energy, soil sustainability, food vs. Biofuels, and Climate Change what other subject addresses them all?

This is a Nano technology for the soil that represents the most comprehensive, low cost, and productive approach to long term stewardship and sustainability.

Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.

If pre-Colombian 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
shengar@aol.com





Total CO2 Equivalence:
Once a commercial bagged soil amendment product, every suburban household can do it,
The label can tell them of their contribution, a 40# bag = 150# CO2 = 160 bags / year to cover my personal CO2 emissions. ( 20,000 #/yr , 1/2 Average )
http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/emissions/ind_calculator.html

But that is just the Carbon!
I have yet to find a total CO2 equivalent number taking consideration against some average field N2O & CH4 emissions. The New Zealand work shows 10X reductions. As biochar proves to be effective at reducing nutrient run-off from agricultural soils, then there will accordingly be a reduction in downstream N2O emissions.

This ACS study implicates soil structure as main connection to N2O soil emissions;
http://a-c-s.confex.com/crops/2008am/webprogram/Paper41955.html


Biochar Studies at ACS Huston meeting;

578-I: http://a-c-s.confex.com/crops/2008am/webprogram/Session4231.html

579-II http://a-c-s.confex.com/crops/2008am/webprogram/Session4496.html

665 - III. http://a-c-s.confex.com/crops/2008am/webprogram/Session4497.html

666-IV http://a-c-s.confex.com/crops/2008am/webprogram/Session4498.html

Most all this work corroborates char soil dynamics we have seen so far . The soil GHG emissions work showing increased CO2 , also speculates that this CO2 has to get through the hungry plants above before becoming a GHG.
The SOM, MYC& Microbes, N2O (soil structure), CH4 , nutrient holding , Nitrogen shock, humic compound conditioning, absorbing of herbicides all pretty much what we expected to hear.



Company News & EU Certification

Below is an important hurtle that 3R AGROCARBON has overcome in certification in the EU. Given that their standards are set much higher than even organic certification in the US, this work should smooth any bureaucratic hurtles we may face.

EU Permit Authority - 4 years tests
Subject: Fwd: [biochar] Re: GOOD NEWS: EU Permit Authority - 4 years tests successfully completed


Doses: 400 kg / ha – 1000 kg / ha at different horticultural cultivars

Plant height Increase 141 % versus control
Picking yield Increase 630 % versus control
Picking fruit Increase 650 % versus control
Total yield Increase 202 % versus control
Total piece of fruit Increase 171 % versus control
Fruit weight Increase 118 % versus control

There is list of the additional beneficial effects of the 3R FORMULATED BIOCHAREU DOSSIER for permit administration and summary of the results from 4 different Authorities who executed different test programme is under construction
I suggest these independent and accredited EU relevant Authority permit field tests results will support the further development of the biochar application systems on international level, and providing case evidence, that properly made and formulated (plant and/or animal biomass based) biochars can meet the modern environmental - agricultural - human health inspection standards and norm, while supporting the knowledge based economical development.

We work further on to expand not only in the EU but in the USA as well. My Cincinnati large scale carbonization project is progressing, hopefully the first industrial scale 3R clean coal - carbon plant will be ready in 2009.

Sincerely yours: Edward Someus (environmental engineer)
HOMEPAGE 3R AGROCARBON: http://www.3ragrocarbon.com

http://www.terrenum.net
EMAIL 1: edward@terrenum.net
EMAIL 2: edward.someus@gmail.com


Also:

October 28, 2008

U.S. Department of Agriculture to Evaluate CQuest™ Biochar

Non-Funded Cooperative Agreement Signed

The objective of the biochar research is to quantify the effects of amending soils with CQuest™ Biochar on crop productivity, soil quality, carbon sequestration and water quality. Field trials will involve incorporation of biochar in replicated field plots and on-farm strip trials with monitoring of crop yields, soil quality, water quality, emissions of greenhouse gasses, and soil carbon sequestration. Laboratory studies will involve amending soils with biochar and quantifying changes in soil quality and microbial activity during incubations.

Biochar will be shipped from Dynamotive's West Lorne facility to Agricultural Research Service (ARS) locations in Iowa, South Carolina, Idaho, Washington, and other ARS locations. Initial results are expected during the 2009 growing season.

http://www.dynamotive.com/en/biooil/biochar_tests.html


"Is global warming preventing an Ice Age?"
This head line, at first glance, may feed the global warming denier's rationals, but in fact this work confirms man's lucky, unintentional consequence of putting the earth to the plow and producing a warm, stable climate for his civilization to prosper.
The carbon transfered from biosphere to atmosphere, now needing to be reversed, could find no better sanctuary than the earth from which most of it came.
Why I love Biochar.

"The con­tro­ver­sial idea—first pro­posed by Uni­ver­s­ity of Vir­gin­ia cli­ma­tolo­g­ist Wil­liam F. Rud­di­man—is based on the con­ten­ti­on that hu­man-induced glob­al warm­ing started long be­fore it's gen­er­ally ac­cept­ed to have be­gun.

The com­mon wis­dom is that the ad­vent of the steam en­gine and the coal-fueled in­dus­t­ri­al age two cen­turies ago marked the be­gin­ning of hu­man in­flu­ence on glob­al cli­mate. But Kutz­bach and like­minded sci­en­tists con­tend it really started thou­sands of years ago with large-scale ag­ri­cul­ture in Asia and ex­ten­sive de­for­esta­tion in Eu­rope.'

http://www.world-science.net/othernews/081217_warming.htm