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Read-Along: Carbon Farming Solution by Eric Toensmeier

 
R Ranson
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A few of us have got together and decided to have a Read-A-Long of Eric Toensmeier's book The Carbon Farming Solution. We're enjoying reading this book so much, that we thought to make an event of it.

If you are interested in a good old chinwag about carbon farming and what it can do to help heal our world, this is your chance to join the fun.


We will be starting section one on the 16th May, 2016.

There are five sections in total, and we'll take two weeks to read and discuss each section.

Stay tuned here for more information.

Table of contents to Carbon Farming Solution Discussion


If your local library doesn't have the book in yet, here's how you can get your own copy. (although once you get your library copy, you'll probably want your own anyway).


The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security



image courtesy amazon.com

amazon.com
amazon.co.uk
 
Dale Hodgins
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I won a copy. The print is so small that I am going to have to buy some of those magnifying reading glasses. There are some cool pictures and captions comma and I look forward to being able to read the text.

It is only in the past week that I started really looking at those daily emails. In the past 5 years I've probably only looked at my email 10 times, and hadn't seen it at all in two years since there was a password problem. Winning these things is time-limited. I wonder how many other things I might have won and lost.
 
Neil Layton
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I'm looking forward to seeing what's here. I mean, I have growing doubts about the whole thing, not because I think it's all bunk, but because I've seen overblown claims and ambiguous results.

For example, you have Joel Salatin, who is held up as an exemplar when it comes to grazing, but it turns out he's importing tonnes of supplementary feed grown using the usual intensive methods, which is something we have to stop. Alan Savory's carbon calculations turn out to be, well, somewhat off. Well off: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2013/11/cows-carbon-and-the-anthropocene-commentary-on-savory-ted-video/ His original trial also involved substantial supplementary feeding, and I'm looking forward to reading what Toensmeier has to say on the subject. I'm certainly going to check his references for his comment on page 4 that there are "carbon farming livestock production systems that are climate-friendly even when we account for methane releases." I'm not saying he's wrong, but I've seen some truly lousy source material. Some of those sources need to be challenged.

Research in Australia has shown ambiguous results, and comes with a warning that we "should not get our hopes up. ... Soil sequestration is a nice theory. And a lovely sentiment. But it’s a difficult science." http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/29/carbon-farming-its-a-nice-theory-but-dont-get-your-hopes-up Equally, this is a long way from representative of other climates and soil types.

On the other hand it's clear that agricultural soils could sequester a lot of carbon: http://www.climatecentral.org/news/farmland-could-play-role-in-tackling-climate-change-20219

Then there is the whole question about the extent to which soil sequestration is permanent. That is also a source of ongoing research.

At present soils are a net cause of warming, as a direct result of human activity: http://www.climatechangenews.com/2016/03/29/humans-have-turned-soil-into-a-global-warming-machine/ and see also http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-03/ci-gg030816.php

Toensmeier is clear that his case study in the Introduction uses native species, but cloud forest is both incredibly rich in terms of biodiversity and a threatened habitat. It would be very easy to get this wrong and become precisely the kind of novel ecosystem problem criticised by E. O. Wilson in Half Earth http://www.permies.com/t/55801/books/Earth-Planet-Fight-Life-Edward. As far as I know the native grazers and browsers in this habitat were driven to extinction through human interference, and domestic cattle seem unlikely to fill the same ecological niche. They're growing bamboo, but it's unclear whether this is a native species or one you'd expect to find in cloud forests.

He's also clear that he doesn't expect humans to change their diets, but I have yet to see a convincing argument that does not involve a massive shift down the food chain. Humans have changed their diets before, often in response to the presence of new foods.

It may be that we need to financially incentivise farmers to sequester carbon, perhaps through a shift in subsidies and their implementation globally, perhaps through the UN. There are pilot projects paying farmers to sequester carbon, such as one in Australia. http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/apr/28/could-carbon-farming-be-the-answer-for-a-clapped-out-australia I think this is a mess. The social cost of carbon is estimated at US$220 (AU$290/Euro190/GB£150)/tonne: https://news.stanford.edu/2015/01/12/emissions-social-costs-011215/ The Australian government (who, to be fair, have a reputation for climate change denial as bad as the British Tories or US Republicans) is paying AU$12.25 (US$9.32/Euro8.13/GB£6.37)/ tonne.

It's clearly a nice earner for farmers with plenty of land, but would probably not be worth the paperwork for someone with a hectare of forest garden. To bring the price up to a level that would make it worthwhile you'd a) break the bank and b) funnel vast amounts of cash into the offshore bank accounts of land speculators. I mean, one solution to that would be land value taxation, but that's the kind of thing that could drive a smallholder to the wall if the assumption of carbon sequestration were built into the tax rate, which would be the only way to make it work...

I point this out not to suggest it's a bad idea (I think it's a good one if we can make it work), but that making it work is going to be very tricky.

I'm excited. I'm not raving about it. Yet.
 
R Ranson
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Reading your post, Neil, I have to say it makes me excited. I love reading what you have to say. It would be a real honour for me to do a read-a-long with you.

Joel Salatin is an interesting point. This is going to plummet everyone's opinion of me, but I'm not a fan. I like that he's vocal and gets people thinking about where their food comes from, however, I have issues with some of his methods. I think there are some serious flaws that make his method difficult to successfully reproduce in different locations (it's hard to make it profitable and/or it requires a lot of adjustment to prevent damage to the land - in my opinion), and I'm not too certain about... well, anyway. A conversation for another day.

Before the author event, I despised the idea of carbon farming. All I saw was a capitalist excuse to continue polluting the planet. It's okay about this textile mill producing huge amounts of toxic sludge and terrible treatment of slave sweatshop labourers because we planted some trees. This is what I thought carbon farming was. I'm really glad there is more to it than that.

From a practical point of view - ie a small farm which never hopes to make money from selling carbon, I don't see how carbon calculations help me. Basically, I want to improve the soil and land, for pretty much selfish reasons that it grows better food if the soil is healthy. Adding organic matter, and carbon, to the soil, helps this. Sure, the academic in me is going to go giddy over the theory part of the book, but in the end, I want practical ideas that apply to my situation. Can it be so simple as coppicing trees as a wood source instead of going down the shop for some dowels? How about growing grain with longer stems, using the straw for basketry, or whathaveyou, then composting them? Little solutions like this add up.

Have you ever tried to knit a sweater? Probably not. But the idea is the same to me. One stitch is tiny! It's just one little stitch. A sweater takes thousands of them, sometimes millions! But we make one stitch, then we make another, and keep going, and we have a sweater. Some of the earliest crowdfunding was based on this concept. I feel a lot of environmental change can be done like this, one tiny act (refuse a plastic bag), then another tiny act (pack your own lunch), then another (patch your jeans instead of buying new), and ad infinitum.... HOWEVER! The danger is stopping with just a few stitches tiny environmental acts. Feeling self-satisfied because we recycled a few tin cans, is not in my opinion, an excuse to stop improving our ecological footprint. Five stitches do not a sweater make. And when the first sweater is finished, there's always more that need knitting. Anyway, that's my thoughts. It's also why I look for small practical actions that I can incorporate into my life. I support the large actions, but don't sit back and wait for them to happen.


How much good can carbon farming actually do? That's a good question. I suspect when we get into it, it will be location dependent as much as anything else. The introduction to Carbon Farming Solution talks a bit about that (tropical climes are better at sequestering carbon than near the poles). My question is, does it do harm? If we know it helps, and doesn't harm, does the adverage Joe and Joanne need to know just how much it helps? Or is it enough that they take action? I don't know. Just tossing questions out there to think about.

Sun's up, so I've got to get outside and do some farm chores. I'm really looking forward to discussing this book with you.
 
Neil Layton
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R Ranson wrote:

Joel Salatin is an interesting point. This is going to plummet everyone's opinion of me, but I'm not a fan.


Not everyone. Not me, for a start.


R Ranson wrote:Before the author event, I despised the idea of carbon farming. All I saw was a capitalist excuse to continue polluting the planet. It's okay about this textile mill producing huge amounts of toxic sludge and terrible treatment of slave sweatshop labourers because we planted some trees. This is what I thought carbon farming was. I'm really glad there is more to it than that.

From a practical point of view - ie a small farm which never hopes to make money from selling carbon, I don't see how carbon calculations help me.


This bothers me too. I've had some more thoughts on the stuff on page 6 on the economics of this idea, more to illustrate the complexity of the problem.

One part per million of CO2 equals 7.81 gigatonnes of CO2.

This equals 7.81/3.66=2.13 gigatonnes of carbon.

Let's take a mid-range projection for 2050, and assume atmospheric CO2 concentrations will reach 450ppm. To be on the safe side we need to be back down in the 350ppm range, so that comes to 213 billion tonnes of carbon we need to do something with in the next 34 years. At a total social cost of US$220/tonne that's just short of 47 trillion US dollars, or 1.38 trillion US dollars a year (which is something over double the US military budget, which is not exactly chicken feed*).

One option would be a carbon levy at the same rate, but that just shovels cash in the direction of big landowners. The capitalists who got us into this mess win again. Meanwhile, they can keep up with business as ****ing usual. Even if we follow Jim Hansen's advice (and I tend to agree with him on most subjects, and simply shut up and listen when he talks about climate change, because he has a nasty habit of being right (and see also https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/mar/22/sea-level-rise-james-hansen-climate-change-scientist )) and go down the fee and dividend option http://www.skepticalscience.com/CCL-pushing-for-US-fee-and-dividend.html, we're just propping up the economic activity that is part of the underlying problem.

Equally, failing to accurately price carbon amounts to a massive subsidy for fossil fuel interests. I suppose it depends on whether you think we should scrap capitalism along the way: http://thischangeseverything.org/

Needless to say, I tend to side with Klein.

To me, the answer is not to put it back in the ground, but to keep it in the ground. Carbon farming is not a solution.

Now, we can't lock all this up in soils, and BECCS more broadly has all sorts of issues (not least the fact that much of the technology involved is science fiction), but even if we assume carbon farming can be a small part of this picture it opens up the whole thing to all sorts of abuses, such as the land speculation I mentioned. What happens if there is offgassing from the soil? This may be down to, say, drought rather than something the farmer has done, so taking the money back has fairness issues. Not taking the money back means a speculator could forest, take the money, cut the forest and run with the timber and the cash, while the soil offgasses the carbon.

On the other hand, with a multistrata agroforest you can sequester between 13 and 40 tonnes of CO2 per year which, paid at the social cost rate US$220/tonne comes to between $2860 and $8800, which is a nice contribution to the balance of the economics of running a forest garden.

Meanwhile, soil carbon sequestration imposes costs on the farmer. Part of what we do know is that carbon sequestration faces a range of limiting factors, notably soil nitrogen and phosphorus (the words "limiting factor" and "phosphorus" are not in the index), as well as water (which may require irrigation, whcih has its own climate change implications)


R Ranson wrote:Have you ever tried to knit a sweater? Probably not.


I've tried to knit a scarf. I can knit, but I'm not good at it.

R Ranson wrote:But the idea is the same to me. One stitch is tiny! It's just one little stitch. A sweater takes thousands of them, sometimes millions! But we make one stitch, then we make another, and keep going, and we have a sweater. Some of the earliest crowdfunding was based on this concept. I feel a lot of environmental change can be done like this, one tiny act (refuse a plastic bag), then another tiny act (pack your own lunch), then another (patch your jeans instead of buying new), and ad infinitum.... HOWEVER! The danger is stopping with just a few stitches tiny environmental acts. Feeling self-satisfied because we recycled a few tin cans, is not in my opinion, an excuse to stop improving our ecological footprint. Five stitches do not a sweater make. And when the first sweater is finished, there's always more that need knitting. Anyway, that's my thoughts. It's also why I look for small practical actions that I can incorporate into my life. I support the large actions, but don't sit back and wait for them to happen.


The thing is, the small actions are, in many ways, little more than a distraction. Let's say I have a hectare of land, which is all most of us can dream of. It's probably lousy land, because it's all most of us can afford, so let's go for the lower end of the sequestration estimates, so 13 tonnes of carbon per year for the next 34 years, which comes to 442 tonnes of carbon - out of two hundred and thirteen billion. That's why we need to be also looking at things at scale.


R Ranson wrote:How much good can carbon farming actually do? .


A bit. I think it's a wedge. I don't think it's a solution.

* Chicken feed being part of the problem, but let's leave that to one side for now.
 
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Neil Layton wrote:

To me, the answer is not to put it back in the ground, but to keep it in the ground. Carbon farming is not a solution.
.


I agree. We can't be considered serious about dealing with climate change until we (society made up of individuals) demand an end to fossil fuel production. And people are beginning to do that. Of course we must also continue efforts to sequester the extra carbon but they're fairly pointless if on the other hand someone is desequestering it by the gigaton. To me, carbon farming only makes sense as part of a different way of life which is not based on fossil fuels, not as a means to continue to live as we do now, and not have to change our personal/ societal behavior.
 
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I'd love to join the read along for this.
Just a quick clarity question. Will the reading, or the discussion start on may 16th?
 
Burra Maluca
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Rus Williams wrote:Just a quick clarity question. Will the reading, or the discussion start on may 16th?


The discussion - so feel free to start reading now! We're still finalising details, so watch this space and keep an eye open for new related threads.

If you're still waiting for the book, just join in with the rest of us as soon as you can.

Also, just to clarify, this will be a discussion of the book, with the aim of understanding how best to use carbon farming as a means to sequester carbon. It is NOT for discussion of climate change, or whether or not carbon farming is a good thing. Any such attempts to derail the discussion will be removed. I've already removed some from this thread.
 
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Neil Layton
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R Ranson wrote:.

The introduction discussion is open.


I thought that was here, hence my comments above.

Sooooorrrreeee!!
 
R Ranson
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Neil Layton wrote:
R Ranson wrote:.

The introduction discussion is open.


I thought that was here, hence my comments above.

Sooooorrrreeee!!


No worries. I didn't know the format either.

I'm glad you posted what you did, I learned a lot.
 
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Hi Neil,

You have some very intelligent doubts about Carbon Farming. I took Eric's course in March in Vermont, and he was very diligent about discussing the limitations of all the various solutions presented. He discussed the limits of soil carbon sequestration, but also presented a variety of other interesting solutions. He critiqued the "miracle solution" discourse often associated with techniques like holistic grazing, amongst others.

In fact, Eric is so balanced and meticulous in his research that I am surprised by the name of his book - "The Carbon Farming Solution" sounds like another miracle-cure, but in fact, as you will probably see when you read through the book, he is not claiming at all that there is one single solution to all of the world's problems...

Anyway, I think a reading group is a great idea for this book. The course was amazing, and if you have met Eric, you should feel confident about the quality of his research and the fairness of his arguments.

Enjoy it! I will try to keep up!

Kate Alvo
 
Eric Toensmeier
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Hello everyone, great discussion so far. I'm hard at work doing further carbon farming research, but very happy to answer questions once people have read through a section. I can be reached at toensmeier [AT] gmail, and I'll come chime in. Just let me know what you need me to weigh in on. Thus far I can say that most of the questions and concerns that people have put forward are answered in the pages to come - including those related to Savory's claims, methane and livestock (juicy controversy!), the unsustainability of offsets, and the avoidance of silver bullet thinking. And I agree - "solution" is not a perfect title but it was the best out of about 50 titles we thought about. Eric
 
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Neil Layton wrote: so 13 tonnes of carbon per year for the next 34 years, which comes to 442 tonnes of carbon


A quick heads up. I made a mistake here. That 442 tonnes figure exceeds the likely capacity of the vast majority, perhaps all, soils to hold carbon, probably by some margin. My mistake.
 
R Ranson
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Eric Toensmeier wrote:Hello everyone, great discussion so far. I'm hard at work doing further carbon farming research, but very happy to answer questions once people have read through a section. I can be reached at toensmeier [AT] gmail, and I'll come chime in. Just let me know what you need me to weigh in on. Thus far I can say that most of the questions and concerns that people have put forward are answered in the pages to come - including those related to Savory's claims, methane and livestock (juicy controversy!), the unsustainability of offsets, and the avoidance of silver bullet thinking. And I agree - "solution" is not a perfect title but it was the best out of about 50 titles we thought about. Eric


Wow, this is a treat!

Thank you very much for dropping in.

I bet we are going to have all sorts of questions (warning, I'm a bit obsessed with textiles, so I'm really looking forward to that chapter).
 
R Ranson
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Ah, I see the mighty hand branch of Mother Tree has done a clean up. Thank you mother tree.


When I was looking at the title of this book, I didn't think it was suggesting the one and only or the best SOLUTION, rather it was examining possible solutions that might help mitigate and maybe even reduce damage. Maybe a better title would have been "Carbon Farming Solutions", plural, but I don't think it would sell as well. That's a big issue with our current consumerism. But then again, I think the title as it is now, opens up the conversation as to what a solution is, what it looks like, and how any solution to the issue of human-caused climate change actually involves many small and steady steps.


Just a reminder, if we want to discuss climate change in general, the cider press is a better place for it. Feel free to start a thread.


To be absolutely blunt, the discussion of climate change doesn't interest me. It's obvious it's happening, and I don't feel interested in it beyond knowing how I can change my life to reduce it. I can't see many readers here all that interested in it, except as a background for understanding where the problem is coming from. I could be wrong and it could be the most favourite subject of everyone but myself, that's fine too. My point is, that I think we can get more out of this discussion if we separate off the climate change stuff (as much as is possible, which I know it's hard because it's all interrelated) and keep these study group threads focused on solutions.


And along those lines, are we thinking of putting chapter 1 in the Cider Press, it's basically the discussion on what climate change is and why it's important.
 
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I've removed a load of posts from this thread.

I'd like to reiterate what I posted in the discussion thread for the introduction

For this discussion, the emphasis is to be on how we can use the information from the book to mitigate climate change and rising levels of CO2. Any discussion of climate change itself, and especially whether or not it is real, or a good or bad thing, is cider press material, and not to be discussed here. We're looking for solutions, not debate about whether or not there is a problem. I'd like the discussion to be positive, helping people to make appropriate decisions, encouraging any step in the right direction.

 
Neil Layton
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R Ranson wrote:Ah, I see the mighty hand branch of Mother Tree has done a clean up. Thank you mother tree.



Blessings be unto the Mother Tree, even when we fundamentally disagree with Her decisions...

Although, to be fair, not in this case. We were getting wayyyy off topic and well into mashed apples territory.

R Ranson wrote:And along those lines, are we thinking of putting chapter 1 in the Cider Press, it's basically the discussion on what climate change is and why it's important.


I have a 2000-word draft about the broader implications to permaculture in general emerging from issues raised from Chapter 1. Some of it is going to be controversial; some of it relates to some (patchy) flaws in Toensmeier's reasoning, but I don't think any of it is in breach of the Rules. I'd be happy to bounce this off you or Burra privately before posting it, but I think it would benefit from broader discussion. I won't be offended if either of you have strong views on me striking parts of it.
 
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OK guys, the read-along is live!

After much behind-the-scenes debating, we decided to pull all the stops out and have not only a discussion thread for each section as a whole, but also one for each of the chapters within each section. Confusing, I know, but it means we can focus both on overall themes and more specific stuff without getting everything muddled up within one thread.

Here are the link to all this fortnight's threads - enjoy!

Part 1: The Big Idea

1: Climate Realities
2: Agricultural Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation
3: Carbon Sequestration Potentials
4: Agroforestry and Perennial Crops
5: A Multifunctional Solution


And please let me know if I messed up any of the links...
 
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