True sustainability requires a system, not marketing-speak

Sticking a bird’s head on a spider does not transform that organism into a creature capable of flight.  Adding energy generation to incinerators and landfills doesn’t make them sustainable systems for organic waste management, either. 

“Sustainable” is one of those words that has been co-opted by Madison Avenue, slapped on everything from dog food to baby toys, and flung about willy-nilly like insults on nighttime reality TV.

It seems every product, process, and entity with even the smallest claim to the word uses it, because “sustainable” has finally caught the attention of the general public.

But the term, when applied to waste management choices, may be just as misleading as the words “natural” and “organic” on supermarket shelves.  What’s behind the label can still be the environmental equivalent of junk food. 

Admittedly,  people have become so adept at generating waste that the world has a never-ending supply have the stuff.  Ergo, any disposal or recycling technology could legitimately claim its feedstocks are sustainably sourced – even landfills without methane capture and plain, old incinerators.  

But that doesn’t make the total system sustainable or economically prudent or environmentally sound.

If pears are grown in compost in South America, shipped to Asia for processing, and transported back across an ocean to the U.S. for distribution and consumption, are those pears a sustainable choice?  

Using compost is better than not using compost.  But, c’mon, folks.  Did that pear earn the right to call itself sustainable?

Of course not.  Neither do disposal options that burn or bury compostables … even if they do result in energy generation.

Currently, only technologies that recycle or divert organics for use as a soil amendment (in farming, landscaping, turfgrass management, etc.) can claim true sustainability.  They close a loop, and when properly managed, do no environmental harm in the process.  

It remains to be seen whether some of the emerging re-uses for organic waste like building highways and formulating cleaning products will help or hurt the effort to recycle biodegradables back to the soil. 

Making new products from waste can be a swell idea.  But if those products can’t find their way to recycling at end-of-life, if the reclamation process renders them too toxic or otherwise inappropriate for composting, or if that reclamation generates a waste stream that cannot be efficiently returned to the soil, these types of reuse projects will likely – albeit indirectly – contribute to further soil depletion, more polluted runoff, increasing stormwater problems, and atmospheric carbon overload.

When government decision-makers are asked to evaluate new systems for organic waste management, marketing-speak has no place in a serious discussion.  One or two sustainable components does not make a sustainable system.

True sustainability cannot be conferred by feedstock source alone.   For organics, returning nutrients, organic matter, carbon, and beneficial microbes to the soil in an efficient, cost-effective manner makes composting and compost use a true sustainability choice – no marketing-speak required.

What’s the difference between compost and peat moss?

Compost is manufactured from recycled materials derived from plants and animals.  Peat moss forms naturally over many, many years – also from decaying plants and animals.  Both are rich in organic matter.  But it takes so many years for nature to form peat moss that the product is not considered “sustainable.”  Peat also tends to be too expensive to be used in large projects.  Fortunately, compost can be substituted 1:1 for peat in any media mix or soil recipe.  

Global warming — Earth’s ‘carb’ overload 

Whether the basis for climate change is over-reliance on fossil fuels, loss of jungle canopy, too many chemical fertilizers, natural phenomenon, all of the above, or none of the above – the fact remains that global temperatures are showing an upward trend.  

Some claim the climb is caused by industrialization.   Others disagree and point to a Medieval Warm Period and other episodes of global warming through the ages.  But the crux of the matter is that, unlike our Middle Ages counterparts, the humans living in this era possess the skills, knowledge, and wherewithal to temper the impacts of rising global temperatures. 

We can pull less carbon out of those long-long-long-term storage deposits of coal and oil, plant a few more trees, and let cows eat grass instead of stuffing them with grain.  But we can also try to keep temperatures within our own Goldilocks Zone by sequestering more carbon in soils that won’t be disturbed for extended periods of time.   

Even if all new sources of carbon were reduced to zero, there’s still too much in the atmosphere now – and it has to go.  Scientists are working on numerous projects designed to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere, but soil sequestration remains among the simplest and least expensive solutions.   

First, it must be said that the much maligned “greenhouse effect” is actually a good thing.  It’s what makes this planet habitable for humans.   

In the atmosphere, radiation from the sun generates heat.  As it bounces around in the “greenhouse,” some of this heat is absorbed by the earth and some is released back to space.  But greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane absorb and trap heat.  When there is an excess of this type of gas in the atmosphere, too much heat is trapped and radiated back to the earth, resulting in global warming.   

Other greenhouse gases include water vapor and nitrous oxide.  Industrial chlorofluorocarbons are highly-regulated, synthetic greenhouse gases. 

But carbon dioxide (CO2) has become a primary focus becausits increase is associated with human activity.  Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have jumped from 280 parts per million to 400 parts per million since the mid-1800s, which coincide with the early days of the Industrial Revolution. 

To reduce carbon compounds in the atmosphere, science looks for ways to naturally or artificially sequester excess carbon for long-term storage. 

Putting the atmosphere on a low-carb(on) diet 

Limiting and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is the goal of carbon sequestration.     

Vegetation, oceans, and soils are examples of natural sequestration.  These carbon sinks naturally absorb atmospheric CO2.   

Carbon capture, ocean injection, and geological storage are examples of artificial sequestration.   Captured CO2 has a number of industrial uses, including the manufacture of fizzy beverages and plastic bottles.  Athe costs for these new technologies drop, their uses are expected to rise. 

As sinks go, compost use is among the best.  Amending soils with raw manures and biochar also sequester carbon, but neither offers such a wide range of other soil-enhancing benefits as does compost use.    

Almost everyone can contribute to carbon sequestration 

Regenerative agriculture can restore soil health and make a major impact on carbon sequestration.  In fact, the Rodale Institute says more than 100 percent of current global CO2 emissions could be sequestered if all pasture and cropland management was based on regenerative agriculture. 

But one needn’t be a farmer to create carbon sinks.  From backyard to utility easements to parkland, there is opportunity for every community to contribute to the reduction of the planet’s carbon overload.   

Know that things like soil type and local climate can influence carbon retention.  Tactics must reflect the region, because a good strategy for the arid west may not be the best choice for humid, subtropical Florida.   

Yet all sequestration approaches will have one thing in common – decades or centuries-long confinement of that carbon without disturbance: 

  • Establishing a lawn by incorporating compost?  Yes. 
  • Topdressing a garden plot that is tilled every year? Not so much. 
  • Using compost to amend a field that is plowed every season?  Not that great. 
  • Planting that same field with perennials or converting it to grassland?  Much better. 

Any patch of soil that can be amended, planted, and then left undisturbed for many years is a potential carbon sink.  This includes every community’s roadsides, athletic fields, and recreation areas. 

Bottom line:  Earth’s history is peppered with episodes of warming followed by ice ages.  Unless humans learn to manage carbon to moderate temperature extremes – no matter the cause — those who survive this era of global warming may learn the hard way that nature always seeks to return to a state of balance.    

Is it really a good idea to make compostable waste go away and never come back? 

Each year, taxpayers collectively spend millions of dollars to burn or bury compostables.  Much like a tribe of ubiquitous Gollums, they just want garbage — the biodegradable and putrefying fraction of the municipal solid waste stream – to go away and never come back. 

The desire to make disagreeable discards disappear into fiery furnaces or burial mounds is understandable.  But is it wise?  Is it fiscally responsible?  Is it really a good idea to make organic waste go away and never come back? 

Nature recycles everything 

Rocks weather and erode, creating sediment. With heat, pressure, and time, that sediment becomes rock again.  Plants and animals feed and drink from the earth, die, and decompose to replenish the soil that will sustain future generations of flora and fauna.  Water drops from the sky as rain, filters down to aquifers, upwells and evaporates back to the clouds to fall once more. 

In a fantasy land, it may be possible to keep using resources without a thought to replenishment.  But in the real world, organic waste – the decaying residuals of once-living things – must be recycled back to the soil to maintain life-critical soil functions.   

Some seem to think the destruction of organics to make energy is more important than rebuilding soil.  But pushing an organic-waste-to-energy agenda by sacrificing the soil makes no sense. Humans managed to survive for millennia without electricity and centralized energy systems.  Without soil’s life-essential contribution to food and clean water, people face extinction in weeks.  

So, which is more important, energy or soil? 

Make energy and rebuild soil?   

Organic waste from developed societies includes all types of vegetation, food, manures … even compostable plastics.  When turned into a quality compost, these once-lost resources can be used by anyone anywhere to replenish depleted soil.   

Happily, making energy and building healthy soil does not have to be an either/or proposition.  It is possible to extract energy from organic waste without destroying the beneficial properties that make it valuable to soil.   The organic waste streams from these processes can then be used as feedstocks in the manufacture of compost products. 

Unhappily, energy production from biomass is one of the most expensive ways to make energy.  Even solar and wind power can be more cost-effective. 

Furthermore, bioenergy technologies based on anaerobic digestion of organics are still too pricey to be practical in many places.  Where they do exist, the waste stream (digestate) is not always put to highest and best use (i.e. composted).  Instead, residuals may be landfilled or relegated to low-dollar-value reuse. 

But one day, as more communities opt to restore natural soil replenishment cycles and energy generation technologies become more efficient, extracting energy from biomass, followed by composting and compost use, can become the system of choice for organic waste management. 

In the meantime … 

The importance of healthy soil 

Where humans live, topsoil has been scraped away or eroded.  Nutrients are used up.  Compaction has destroyed the pore spaces essential to the transport of air, water, and microbes.  Without a regular infusion of new organic matter to correct these deficiencies, soil dies.   

There are lots of processes for generating energy, but there’s only one way to replenish disturbed soils in developed areas – feed them a good, wholesome diet derived from organic waste converted into compost.   

From farms to lawns to sports fields, soils require periodic applications of compost.  There’s no other way to easily and economically provide soil with everything it requires to retain water, nurture vegetation, and create the type of environment soil microbes need to support nutrient uptake, contribute to disease resistance, and degrade pollutants. 

The best news? In many metropolitan areas, efficient, high-rate composting – the type needed to successfully manage big, urban waste streams – costs no more than landfilling or incineration.  Often, recycling at a modern, industrial composting operation can be more affordable than traditional disposal.   

Composting makes organic wastes go away, but they come back as enriching soil amendments.  Biodegradables need to keep recycling, just like they have since the beginning of time. 

Breaking the natural soil cycle by incinerating or burying compostable waste is a bad idea that should go away and never come back.

VIEW THE SLIDESHARE:  Addicted to convenience

Does composting release CO2?

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the composting mass are classified as biogenic. This means the same amount of gas is emitted during decomposition whether the organic material is composted or degrades in a natural setting.  Therefore, these emissions are considered carbon-neutral.

Compared to waste management alternatives, it’s the best of the bunch.

Other emissions sources, however, like those from equipment operation,  do add to the size of a composting facility’s environmental footprint.  These are nonbiogenic, a.k.a. anthropogenic, emissions.

This factsheet provides a good topic overview that includes values for helping composting operations with emissions calculations.

 

Compost is soil’s superhero

Sure, compost adds nutrients. But that might be this soil amendment’s least important function. 

Quite often, articles will mention compost as a replacement for some or all of the nutrients that might be provided to plants through applications of synthetic (man-made) fertilizers.   

That’s certainly true.  Compost delivers the macronutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK), plus a slew of plant-essential micronutrients that are missing from most synthesized fertilizer products.  Compost provides plants with a wholesome, well-rounded meal, not the nutritional equivalent of junk food. 

But what these fertilizer-focused articles rarely mention is the fact that the real value in compost use is not related to feeding plants, but to feeding soil … and soil does require a wholesome diet to function as a true soil and not a dead substrate. 

Compost feeds soil

Providing plant nutrients is just one of many soil functions.  Worms and other creatures that live in healthy soils help to physically break down food sources, then microbes take over to convert that food into plant-available form. 

Both physical and microbial conversion depend on a soil environment that can support those lifeforms.  If the soil is chronically too wet, too dry, too compacted  yada, yada  then it can’t support a healthy soil ecosystem.  That plot of ground may not be soil at all, but lifeless dirt. 

To countermand the impacts of human activity, disturbed soils require regular program of replenishment that includes organic matter and microbes.  Compost provides both.  Compost feeds soil.

Then, when it rains, soil retains that water, reducing runoff.  When runoff is reduced, so is erosion, sedimentation, and water pollution.  Because soil microbial activity also degrades pollutants, any stormwater that does run off is cleaner.  

That same microbial activity can help neutralize some soil-borne diseases, too. 

Improving plant nutrition, aiding in disease control, reducing water pollution, and retaining water are all important soil functions. 

But wait, there’s more. 

Compost as a carbon sink 

The build-up of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere is cause for concern.  As more greenhouse gases flood the atmosphere, temperatures increase. 

This rise in global temperatures influences many things, erratic and extreme weather being one of the most visible.  Subsequent climate shifts can impact people, crops, and livestock for hundreds of years. 

When used to amend soils, compost sequesters carbon.  This means the soil will act as a carbon “sink,” capturing and holding carbon in stasis – but only as long as the soil remains undisturbed.  When the soil is tilled, that carbon is released. 

Extensive use of compost for perennial crops and other long-term application(grasslands, tree farms, utility easements, etc.) can positively impact atmospheric conditions by reducing greenhouse gases.   

At the same time, the addition of compost rebuilds a topsoil layer that has been eroded or scraped away by farming, development, and other human activity.  Since topsoil loss has been identified as a significant threat to planetary health, second only to population growthits restoration is a global priority.   

At a time when nearly a third of the world’s arable land has become unproductive in just a few decades, compost really can be that superhero swooping in to save topsoil, save water, save the atmosphere, and save the planet. 

Comparing costs per gallon retained 

Soil amendment is one of the least expensive ways to collect and manage stormwater 

Manage water where it falls.” 

This sound advice is the foundation of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District’s Regional Green Infrastructure Plana program that identified soil amendment as one of the least expensive ways to manage stormwater.  At 28 cents per gallon, improving soil is second only to native plantings in lowest cost per gallon retained. 

Green roofs?  $4.72 per gallon.  Those fancy-schmancy deep storage tunnels?  $2.42 per gallon.  At $1.59 per gallon, even pretty little rain gardens cost more than five times that of simple soil amendment. 

Milwaukee is not alone in promoting soil amendment as a first line of defense for stormwater management  For example: 

  • Denver and GreenleyColorado, require compost use for new landscaping, as does Leander, Texas. 
  • Some state Departments of Transportation (DOTs) now routinely specify compost.  A few years ago, the Texas DOT said it was the largest single market for compost in the U.S. 

In an urban environment, opportunities for soil amendment abound.  City parks, athletic fields, planters, urban lawns, highway medians and easements, foundation backfill – anywhere there’s soil, there’s opportunity for inexpensive water retention. 

Every 1 percent increase in soil organic matter (SOM) content adds an additional 16,000 gallons of water-holding capacity per acre foot.  A site managed to maintain soil organic matter at only 2 percent can hold all the water of a typical rain event (1 inch or less), which is 27,154 gallons per acre.     

In fact, at 5 percent SOM, the soil can retain the water equivalent of nearly 3-inches of rainfall.  In some regions, this equal95 percent of all storm events. 

Soil amendment may not solve all rainfall issues, especially in downtown areas.  But managing water where it falls can be the most sensible, efficient, environmentally- and economically-prudent strategy for “first line of defense” stormwater management.   

Food waste mandates are only the halfway mark 

Compost use gets organics recycling to the finish line 

Unlike a decade ago, when food waste mandates were few and far between, there is a flurry of activity these days focused on diverting food waste and other residential/commercial biodegradables from landfills and incineration. 

From the U.S. to Italy to northern India, the movement toward more sustainable management of organic waste from households and businesses is real and gaining momentum. 

But while laudable, there’s a big piece missing from some of these programs — mandated compost use.  Just making compost isn’t recycling.  The product must be used – returned to the soil – to be recycled.  That’s what makes the system “sustainable.” 

Landfilling organics isn’t sustainable because they’re buried.  Any thermal or other waste-to-energy (WTE) technology that destroys organics isn’t sustainable, either, no matter how hard technology providers try to paint them as such.  The feedstock – municipal waste – may be considered a sustainable source, but the management system is not. 

A possible exception is biochar, carbon-rich, charcoal waste material produced by pyrolysis that is sometimes used as a soil amendment.  However, not all biochar is right for this type of reuse.  It doesn’t offer as many benefits as compost, and — since the use of biochar is relatively new — there is a lack of research related to its long-term use.  While pure biochar is made from organics, of specific concern is contamination resulting from WTE biochar processes that use unsorted municipal solid waste as feedstock.  

But whether biochar or compost, the truth bears repeating — recycled organics must be used to feed the soil for a sustainable system to exist.  This is the only way to close the recycling loop for organics. 

Going the distance with food waste mandates

Football players don’t move the ball to the 50-yard line and then stand around waiting for the pigskin to get itself into the end zone. 

Establishing a curbside or drop-off program for source-separated organics is a good first step … but it’s only half the distance to the goal.   

The finish line for organics recycling is compost use.  Anything a community can do to encourage that use is important.  But sometimes, it takes more than education and outreach to get the ball rolling. 

When governmental entities write ordinances and project specifications requiring compost use, good things happen.  By creating early markets for quality compost productseveryone from green industry pros to stormwater managers to homeowners can clearly see the benefits of amending soil. 

This demonstration leads to voluntary compost use through the manufacture of quality products and product sales to high-value markets.  Product sales, not giveaway programs, is what will keep composting facilities – public or private – economically sound. 

Any community considering organics recycling needs to think about the end game.  To ignore the ultimate goal is to win the battle, but lose the war for organics recycling.  

READ:  Food waste diversion — it’s time to pursue alternatives that make environmental and economic sense

Organic waste offers up a feast to hungry microbes

Even some toxins can be degraded while composting’s “bugs” chow down during bioremediation

Unseen by the human eye, microbes are the soil’s equivalent of worker bees.  They are responsible for a slew of soil functions.  Without them, soils don’t work as they should.

“Soil organisms decompose organic compounds, including manure, plant residue, and pesticides, preventing them from entering water and becoming pollutants. They sequester nitrogen and other nutrients that might otherwise enter groundwater, and they fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, making it available to plants. Many organisms enhance soil aggregation and porosity, thus increasing infiltration and reducing runoff. Soil organisms prey on crop pests and are food for above-ground animals.”   — NRCS/USDA

Algae, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa — aerobic microbes and other soil fauna need oxygen, water, and food.  Other survival influences include environmental factors like temperature and pH.

In a managed setting like composting, microbial feeding activity quickly turns organic waste — including some toxic compounds — into a safe, carbon-rich soil amendment product known as compost.

The organics can be food waste, yard debris, biosolids, petroleum derivatives, or anything else that was once alive.  As long as the waste stream is free of agents that would kill bacteria and the like, the material should compost.

Of course, the time required to break things down depends on the specific type of waste, particle size, the composting process in use, etc.  But for the most part, a few days of controlled, high-rate composting followed by a curing period of several weeks is enough to turn common organics into dark, aromatic compost.

How does bioremediation work?

All matter – including organic waste — is made up of individual atoms.  Atoms join with other atoms to become molecules.  Molecules hook up to become compounds, and they’re all held together by chemical bonds.  For organic material, that bond is commonly of the “covalent” variety.  This means the atoms share, rather than gain or lose, electrons.  This makes for a more stable molecule.

During composting, hungry microbes dine on the waste stream’s inherent sugars and proteins, releasing enzymes as they digest their food.

These critters are mostly after the carbon, but their feeding also releases the nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus that plants use as food.  (There are also some microbes that can pull nitrogen from the air and convert it to plant-available form.)

Their enzymes break chemical bonds, eventually reducing compounds to molecules and molecules to atoms.  Toxic compounds disintegrate.  Along the way, elements and simple compounds realign, creating more benign substances like carbon dioxide and water.

Controlling the composting environment ensures ideal conditions for these microbes, setting the stage for rapid biodegradation.  Where decomposition and stabilization could take months (or years) in a natural setting, composting achieves the same outcome in a matter of weeks.

The tighter the control, the faster the bioremediation process.

How does bioremediation work?  Very well.

Can compost and perennial food crops save the planet?

A match made in food science heaven has the potential to forever change agriculture’s environmental impact.

Long ago, humans abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in favor of agriculture. They tweaked deep-rooted perennial grasses, turning them into shallow-rooted annual grain crops with higher yields.

But farming came at a price.  Domestication of wild edibles set off a destructive cycle of soil depletion.

Seasonal tilling loosened soil particles. Wind and rain carried topsoil away. With it went the earth’s ability to store water and sequester carbon.

In the last 200 years alone, the top 2 meters of the earth’s soil have lost 133 billion tons of carbon.

Soil loss has turned into a big problem for today’s humanoids. Topsoil is at a fraction of historic levels.  Storage capacity is dwindling.  Greenhouse gases are building, and global temperatures are rising.

No-till agriculture was once thought a solution to soil loss. By planting in the rubble of the previous crop, farmers didn’t need to plow the soil.  But many no-till farmers rely on heavy doses of chemicals to control weeds. This, we now know, generated its own set of problems.

But no-till put agriculture on the right track.

Perennial crops like orchard fruit, tree nuts, berries, and asparagus produce food.  Because the soil remains undisturbed season to season, these crops are also no-till.

Through photosynthesis, they sequester carbon in the soil for many years.  By adding carbon-rich compost before planting and throughout the crop’s lifecycle, carbon storage becomes even more significant.

But from maize to melons, most of today’s plant-based foods are annuals. These dead-within-a-year plants constitute 85 percent of human calorie intake.  Yet they offer no long-term carbon sequestration and require tillage year after year.

Compost application may boost soil productivity on annual cropland. But much of its carbon is released with the next tilling, too.

So scientists began to ask:

Is it possible to revert more crops, especially grains, to perennial form? Could agriculture meet this goal without sacrificing yields?

Back to the future with Kernza®

The answer appears to be a resounding … could be. Probably … yes. A cautious … quite likely.

Researchers have gone back through time to marry the characteristics of two crops. One is an ancient perennial wheat-like grass. The other is a modern, annual wheat.

Together, they have produced a perennial wheat with the trademarked name, Kernza. This year, General Mills’ Cascadian Farms plans to produce 6,000 boxes of a breakfast cereal featuring the grain as a research fund-raiser. Though total acreage is still small, other commercial applications for Kernza include bread and beer.

In photographs, Kernza kernels look more like a wild rice (a grass) than a wheat berry. But it is considered flavorful and can be harvested using conventional farming equipment.

Deep-rooted (10-20 ft.), this intermediate wheatgrass grows from a rhizome.  It is planted in the fall (in Minnesota).  Most growers plant in rows, but solid seeding is also used.  Weeds are not a big issue, because as the rhizomes spread, they choke out weeds.

The problem is that the kernel is small, like the yield per acre.  Conventional milling equipment doesn’t work.  And, currently, Kernza growers reap a meager 500 pounds per acre. Their conventional wheat-growing counterparts get an average of 2,856 pounds in the U.S.

After a few years, those thick, horizontal stems can run out of expansion space, too. Yields decrease.  As a result, some growers replant every 3-5 years. At least one farmer is experimenting with chisel plow strips to extend productivity to lengthen the time between replanting.  (More cultivation information:  Farmers voice their experience growing intermediate wheatgrass for grain)

The importance of deep root systems and perennial food crops

Worldwide, several annual food crops, including rice, have become the focus of similar research.  Perennials for biofuel production are being studied, too.

Minimizing soil disturbance is one reason. The benefits that come with deep-rooted crops is another.

Living plants remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air. They keep some of the carbon (C) and release the rest, along with the oxygen (O2), back to the atmosphere. The retained carbon resides in stems, leaves, and roots. Plants use water and light to turn that carbon into sugars to fuel growth. When plants die and decompose, the carbon becomes a constituent of soil organic matter (SOM).

Deep roots extend the rhizosphere, the zone where roots, soil, and microbes interact. Microbes aid in the transfer of carbon from plants to soil.  Researchers say increasing this area could raise soil carbon storage.

Deep-rooted crops are a tool of what has become known as “carbon farming.”  The goal is carbon sequestration — removing excess from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil, instead.

Moisture and temperature increases could speed up carbon release at lesser depths.   But research suggests deeper soils buffer that carbon from climatic change.

If true, consider the carbon impact of a 20-ft. Kernza root compared to the typical agricultural plant (~3 ft. root depth).  To better understand the potential, this article includes an image comparing perennial Kernza and annual wheat root systems.

Assessing carbon storage potential of perennial food crops

Estimates of the carbon storage potential of “perennialized” annuals are sketchy, at best. None of the new grains have yet to hit their commercial stride.

Research on deep-soil carbon storage is a bit thin, too. It’s difficult to find sequestration estimates that consider all possible impacts like:

  • Reductions in fossil fuel extraction and use
  • Conversion of annuals to perennial crops+
  • Capture of all organics for composting and reuse

But as food for thought, here are some numbers from recent articles and research papers:

  • The soil carbon storage from improved root growth in agricultural crops could offset human-caused environmental emissions for the next 40 years.
  • Reuters: The U.S. emits around 5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. Better soil management could boost carbon stored in the top layer of the soil by up to 1.85 gigatonnes each year. This is about the same as the carbon emissions of transport globally.
  • Peak Prosperity: A 1 percent increase in SOM stores approximately 10 tons of carbon per acre. Doing the math: There are about 130 million U.S. acres in major annual grain crops. If converted to perennial varieties, carbon storage potential equals 1.3 billion tons.  That’s roughly 1/5 of the U.S. carbon pollution.
  • Bulletin of Atomic Scientists: Devote 5 percent of the world’s cropland to plants bred for carbon storage. Capture ~50 percent of current global CO2 emissions.  (That’s an area about the size of Egypt.)
  • USEPA: In 2015, about 38 million tons of food waste were burned or buried. Only 2 million tons went to composting. Doing the math: Composting all 40 million tons would produce ~20 million tons of soil amendment. This would cover roughly 600,000 acres in 1/2 inch of compost. Its ~11 million tons of carbon (20 million tons of compost @ 54 percent carbon) could go to deep-soil storage under perennials.
  • Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of landfilling organic waste vs. composting and recycling estimated a net greenhouse gas mitigation benefit of 23tCO2eq/ha over a 3-year period when organics were composted. That’s 23 tonnes (1 tonne = 1,000 kilograms) of carbon dioxide equivalent per hectare — about 25 tons spread over 57 acres.  As little as a 1.3 cm (about a half inch) topdressing of compost resulted in “substantial” increases in carbon storage on rangeland, too, attributed to better water retention and improved grass productivity.

 Economic benefits add up, too

Looks like there’s yet one more reason to bank on perennials — economics.

Agricultural investors say annualized income for perennials rose ~13 percent over 10 years. Income from annual cropland stagnated at about 4 percent during the same period.

And in a few spots, Kernza is generating more profit than the more traditional corn and soybeans. In addition, Kernza leaves and stems remain green at ripening, making its hay more valuable than wheat straw.

Commercialization of annual-to-perennial food crops is a tantalizing possibility.  The day may come when “perennial food” labels sway consumer purchases, just like organic, gluten-free, and other profitable food-niche certifications.

But most enticing is this factoid — at $0-$100 per ton, soil carbon sequestration is the cheapest carbon mitigation tool currently available.

It should be noted that soils can eventually reach a point where no additional C can be absorbed.  Sequestration is not a miracle cure.  People still need to work on reducing CO2 generation.

But in the interim, agriculture offers one opportunity to reduce the human carbon footprint.  And compost under foot makes this challenge easier.