A comparison of a test area treated with PrairieFood's micro-carbon additive on the left with ... [+]PrairieFood.com
This March, I introduced the term “Nature-Enhancing Solution” to describe technologies based on natural processes that have been capturing and productively using atmospheric carbon for hundreds of millions of years in one of the three interlocking “gears” – the terrestrial, marine, and geological cycles – that make up the full carbon cycle.
My Pi Day article was all about the smallest gear, the terrestrial cycle. One entrepreneur whose work I have featured in this column before – Robert Herrington, co-founder of Kansas-based PrairieFood – believes he and his team have discovered a Nature-Enhancing Solution to draw down excess atmospheric carbon dioxide while simultaneously restoring health to our planet and improving the quality of our food.
Let me underscore that last sentence because its impact is profound: Herrington believes he has found a way to solve the climate crisis while making our land richer and our food healthier. PrairieFood’s reactors pull in biological waste – manure, the slag left over after beer is brewed, and even treated sewage. This waste contains carbons in long, complex chains, which are difficult for soil-based organisms to consume.
The reactors shred those long carbon strands in a matter of seconds to create short carbon strands that are easily digestible by soil organisms. Those short strands, suspended in water, can then be sprayed onto fields using conventional equipment. The reason we put old coffee grounds and banana peels and fallen leaves into a compost pile is to take the long chains of carbon from biological sources and let nature (fungi, insects, worms, etc.) break them down into the black soil that we shovel into our gardens.
This natural process takes many seasons and yields a relatively small volume of short-carbon strands. PrairieFood’s Nature-Enhancing Solution makes the composting process much more efficient in time and volume. In other words, Herrington and his team have invented a device that acts like a composting time machine.When PrairieFood “slurry” is applied to agricultural fields, the organisms within the soil think they have stumbled upon an all-you-can-eat buffet.
They consume the carbon and provide “services” to the crops (e.g., “fixing” nitrogen – taking nitrogen out of the air and providing it to the plants). As the organisms give the plants more of what they need, the plants flourish. In return, the plants photosynthesize more actively – pulling in more carbon dioxide and changing it to sugars, some of which they give back to the soil organisms through their root systems.
This has the same sort of effect agriculturally as someone bringing more food and drink to a party. The soil-borne organisms love the extra food, and their populations swell to eat it all up. This starts a virtuous cycle by which the organisms help the plants, and the plants help the organisms, on and on.
The virtuous cycle creates a truly profound “multiplier effect” by which a little PrairieFood can have enormous impacts on the concentration of what is known as “Soil Organic Matter” (SOM) of which “Soil Organic Carbon” (SOC) forms a large part.
PrairieFood’s Amazing Results
Herrington and his co-founder, Dr. Griffin Roberts, have three years’ worth of field trials and commercial application of PrairieFood onto agricultural acreage. After some trial and error, they have found that applying 40 gallons of PrairieFood on an acre of cropland is sufficient to raise the amount of SOM by one percentage point over a single season.
That is about ten times the rate at which SOM is usually increased using organic fertilizers and other regenerative farming techniques. (Using conventional farming techniques actually decreases SOM concentrations – essentially desertifying croplands… more about that in an upcoming article.)
I started doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations about this multiplier effect and literally had to double and triple check my work. Dr. Roberts and I talked through the calculations and indeed, PrairieFood’s multiplier effect is off the charts – the addition of a very small amount of carbon (in the form of PrairieFood slurry) ends up generating a multiplier effect in the hundreds of thousands!
A comparison of seedling alfalfa plants. The plant on the left was grown with 40 gallons per acre of … [+]
The reason I was so surprised is that I’m used to thinking about multiplier effects in the world of economics and finance that are in the single digits at most. But when dealing with microscopic organisms, there can be trillions of microbes in a scoopful of soil. As such, the number of microbes in an acre-foot of agricultural land (an acre-foot is the volume of soil in an acre to a depth of 1 foot) is phenomenally high. It is this astronomical number of organisms in the soil – all of which increase population exponentially given enough food – that creates the astounding multiplier effect.
Not all fields respond [with] such dramatic effect, [and] we have seen a range of responses. At times we have witnessed biological community shifts. This happens when nutrient food sources change in microbial populations. The shifts we see typically include [a] balancing of bacterial and [fungal] populations (most [agricultural] fields are bacterial dominated), and/or a rise in [the populations of small organisms] such as nematodes and Protozoa, etc. These higher [small organism population] levels…consume bacterial and [fungal] populations [and] play another significant role in nutrient cycling, both carbon and nitrogen…
“We have found where [farmers] that have applied manure and/or reduced [the practice of tilling, or turning up the soil] in the past, typically see the highest increase right away. We believe [that in these cases] the soil is primed for biological activity but is still stagnant/dormant, so when PrairieFood is applied, the nutrient cycling gets turned on right away, specifically in building SOM. Other fields which may have been…heavily reliant on [synthetic] mineral fertilizer, have a bit of adjusting at first.”
A Solution to the Climate Crisis
Herrington and Roberts have pulled together a thought experiment to illustrate the amazing potential of increasing SOM by a relatively small amount. “What if,” they ask “20% of agricultural land in our home state of Kansas could increase its SOM by one percentage point each year for 10 years?”
The answer to this question is amazing and offers great hope to the human civilization home team. An increase of SOM means a decrease in atmospheric CO2 levels – PrairieFood is enhancing the normal terrestrial carbon cycle. The increases posited would result in the draw-down of nearly 4 Gigatons of carbon!Widening the scope to a global level, the same increase in SOM in the 12.5 billion acres of land now used for agriculture would result in the draw-down of over 180 Gigatons of carbon.
For the average net addition to atmospheric carbon stores and the sources of change between 2009 and … [+]
To put this figure in context, according to a study done by the Earth System Science Data team at German-based Copernicus Publications, the average net increase in atmospheric carbon levels from 2009-2018 was 0.4 Gigatons per year. 180 Gigatons of atmospheric carbon drawdown would, in other words, remove 450 years’ worth of excess atmospheric carbon dioxide – enough to bring us back to the pre-Industrial Revolution average of 250 parts per million (and then some).
If saving civilization from burning up in a furnace of its own making was not enough, applications of PrairieFood slurry to fields creates a lot of other benefits as well.
The PrairieFood-driven SOM increase is important in part because carbon-rich soil stores so much more water than carbon-poor soil does. This will make agricultural regions less dependent on irrigation and much more resilient to flood-producing downpours; it will also give someplace for water absorbed from increasing sea levels to go beside someone’s condo. This is such an important topic that I will take it up in a separate article.
Turning to the benefits to human health, over the last 70 years, there has been a marked trend for vegetables to become less nutritious. The only way that vegetables can become more nutritious is to have healthier soil, so increasing soil health may tie directly to better human health for anyone who eats vegetables or who eats animals that eat vegetables.
I have a lot more to say about the work PrairieFood is doing, so will continue in an upcoming article. For those who want to learn more about this homespun start-up with a mission to do nothing less than save the planet, PrairieFood is sponsoring a conference on November 14-15 in beautiful Pratt, Kansas. I attended last year and credit a quantum shift in my thinking about multiple issues facing humanity—climate change, biodiversity collapse, water management, agricultural productivity, and human health—to my conversation with farmers and ranchers at that event.
Herrington and Roberts know, as I know, that the Goldilocks environmental conditions that have allowed humans to build complex societies teeter on a knife’s edge. Our carbon emissions are pushing us over that edge and threatening the stability of our civilization, which is literally built on agricultural advances. PrairieFood offers a way to right that balance and pull us back from the edge.
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