Today I met my friend and ex-Soil Association colleague, Gundula Azeez, for lunch.
She wrote the Soil Association 2010 report, Soil carbon and organic farming.
I confess carbon used to confuse me.
As a journalist, my ignorance is my strength. If I can understand it, so can you.
Gundula kindly went back to basics for a beginner’s mind explanation.
Is carbon good or bad?
Carbon is both good and bad depending on where it is.
When it is in the soil, or locked up in oil and coal, it’s good.
When it’s in the atmosphere, it’s bad.
Carbon-in-the-air i.e. carbon dioxide is something we need to breathe OUT.
In the case of current planetary concerns, rising levels of carbon dioxide (or CO2) create rising greenhouse gases – too much of which contributes to climate change.
(Sentence rewritten following Georgie’s comment below).
Organic farming and the carbon cycle
Plants remove carbon from the atmosphere by breathing IN carbon dioxide.
When plants decay, the carbon is stored in the soil.
That’s good too.
Organic farmers uses this natural cycle to replenish the soil.
According to the Soil Association report, if all UK farmland were converted to organic farming, at least 3.2 million tonnes of carbon would be stored in the soil each year – the equivalent of taking nearly 1 million cars off the road
Not only that – but when carbon is stored in the soil, it does a LOT of good.
That’s because it is stored as organic matter which retains nutrients, soil structure and water.
Organic farmers create more carbon-rich organic matter through their farming practices.
They grow green manures and add compost to enrich the soil.
Introducing soil microbes, the tiniest creatures on earth that perform vital functions to keep the soil healthy.
These soil microbes are exterminated by chemical farming practices but are actually encouraged by organic farmers.
Soil micro-organisms are essential to life on earth.
They help deliver nutrients to the growing plant.
They help it decompose when it is dead.
Thus creating more organic matter and its carbon-storage capacity.
Clods of earth
The soil actually clumps – or aggregates – around the carbon to protect it.
This delicious crumbly soil also provides a holding place for water, nutrients and air.
Which is why majority-world countries benefit from organic farming practices because they increase yield, and create water-retaining soil.
This gives developing countries more economic independence too.
They don’t have to pay the West for chemicals to feed the soil because organic farming does it naturally – by using the planet’s natural carbon cycle.
Lunch at Saint Stephen’s cafe
I had sweet potato frittata and salad – pictured – at Saint Stephen’s cafe.
The food is amazing – home-cooked and organic, seasonal, fair trade and local where possible.
Saint Stephen’s church cares deeply about the environment and this is reflected in its cafe food, conceived by one of Bristol’s best cooks, Edna Yeffet Summerel.
Nice to know when I eat organic food that I am enriching the soil and helping store carbon…