Wednesday 3 August 2011

Soils and climate change

Two recent articles, one from Australia and one from the US, refer to sometimes contrasting attitudes in the debate about how best to manage soils effectively in the face of a changing climate.

In Cellulosic Fantasy: Ending Corn Ethanol Subsidies, writer Steve Breyman argues against the development of new technologies which will convert plant ‘waste’ into biofuels; specifically, cellulosic ethanol.   Apparently it’s currently harder, more expensive, and unprofitable to produce ethanol from cellulose (woody biomass) as compared to corn kernels but the US Department of Energy is reported to be supporting (with a $105 million loan guarantee) the expansion of an ethanol refinery in Iowa.

The New York Times states that commercial production of ethanol from waste products like husks is the ‘holy grail’ of the ethanol industry.   Professor Breyman, however, argues (quite rightly in my opinion) against this sort of technology on the basis that this so-called waste is of vital importance to the soil and contributes to maintaining and increasing soil organic matter (SOM) levels which help to reduce erosion and improve drainage and moisture retention.  Read more of what he has to say here.

The Australian government seems to be taking a different approach to its US counterpart, however, over how soils can help society deal with climate change.   To complement the carbon farming initiative  (which will allow farmers to earn credits for planting trees, reducing pollution from fertiliser and methane emissions from livestock), farmers stand to gain from $429 million-worth of funding into the best ways to store carbon in the soil and drive down pollution in the agriculture sector.

According to a report in The Australian newspaper, an additional $201m has been secured from the federal government to engage scientists and independent experts to develop ways to improve soil carbon storage and reduce emissions from livestock and crops.   Read the full story here.