With carbon farming, agriculture ceases to be part of the climate problem and becomes a critical part of the solution "This book is the toolkit for making the soil itself a sponge for carbon. It’s a powerful vision."―Bill McKibben " The Carbon Farming Solution is a book we will look back upon decades from now and wonder why something so critically relevant could have been so overlooked until that time. . . . [It] describes the foundation of the future of civilization."―Paul Hawken In this groundbreaking book, Eric Toensmeier argues that agriculture―specifically, the subset of practices known as "carbon farming"―can, and should be, a linchpin of a global climate solutions platform . Carbon farming is a suite of agricultural practices and crops that sequester carbon in the soil and in above-ground biomass. Combined with a massive reduction in fossil fuel emissions―and in concert with adaptation strategies to our changing environment― carbon farming has the potential to bring us back from the brink of disaster and return our atmosphere to the "magic number" of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Toensmeier’s book is the first to bring together these powerful strategies in one place. Includes in-depth analysis of the available research. Carbon farming can take many forms. The simplest practices involve modifications to annual crop production. Although many of these modifications have relatively low sequestration potential, they are widely applicable and easily adopted, and thus have excellent potential to mitigate climate change if practiced on a global scale. Likewise, grazing systems such as silvopasture are easily replicable, don’t require significant changes to human diet, and―given the amount of agricultural land worldwide that is devoted to pasture―can be important strategies in the carbon farming arsenal. But by far, agroforestry practices and perennial crops present the best opportunities for sequestration. While many of these systems are challenging to establish and manage, and would require us to change our diets to new and largely unfamiliar perennial crops, they also offer huge potential that has been almost entirely ignored by climate crusaders. Many of these carbon farming practices are already implemented globally on a scale of millions of hectares. These are not minor or marginal efforts, but win-win solutions that provide food, fodder, and feedstocks while fostering community self-reliance, creating jobs, protecting biodiversity, and repairing degraded land―all while sequestering carbon, reducing emissions, and ultimately contributing to a climate that will remain amenable to human civilization. Just as importantly to a livable future, these crops and practices can contribute to broader social goals such as women’s empowerment, food sovereignty, and climate justice. The Carbon Farming Solution is―at its root―a toolkit and the most complete collection of climate-friendly crops and practices currently available. With this toolkit, farmers, communities, and governments large and small, can successfully launch carbon farming projects with the most appropriate crops and practices to their climate, locale, and socioeconomic needs. Toensmeier’s ultimate goal is to place carbon farming firmly in the center of the climate solutions platform, alongside clean solar and wind energy. With The Carbon Farming Solution , Toensmeier wants to change the discussion, impact policy decisions, and steer mitigation funds to the research, projects, and people around the world who envision a future where agriculture becomes the protagonist in this fraught, urgent, and unprecedented drama of our time. Citizens, farmers, and funders will be inspired to use the tools presented in this important book to transform degraded lands around the world into productive carbon-storing landscapes.
This book isn't one you sit down to read in a few chronological sittings, which makes it hard to summarize or "rate" on the traditional Goodreads scale. As the author himself emphasizes throughout the book, it's written with the intent of being a tool guide: introducing the concept of carbon farming, detailing why and where it could be useful, its pitfalls, and offering (generic) methods for implementation. It stops short of being a how-to guide (but with the first steps outlined, it's easy for the reader to go seek out the necessary information to start carbon farming on their own).
With that in mind, I've provided an outline of what you'll find in this book so you can determine if it's a good fit for your interests/needs. The writing is easy to get through (short chapters also facilitate this) - nothing spectacular, but filled to the brim with fascinating information.
Part 1: Implementation. The problem of climate change, the potential of carbon farming to offer a solution, and the nuances within that solution - why it's not as easy as just planting trees and the high complexity behind this idea.
Part 2: A Global Toolkit of Practices and Species. Toensmeier lays out overall structures that can be used for carbon farming: annual cropping systems, livestock systems, and perennial systems. Brief mention is also given to practices such as rainwater harvesting that play a role in the larger practice of carbon farming.
Part 3: Perennial Staple Crops. A species-by-species guide to the types of perennials that can be used for staple crops (a food which accounts for the dominant portion of someone's diet), starches, carbohydrates, proteins, protein-oil, edible oil, and sugar. Although many of these thrive best in warm, tropical areas, there is plenty of space devoted to identifying those species that can work in colder climates. Throughout the chapters devoted to specific species, Toensmeier classifies them by nutritional category (protein, carbohydrate, etc.), climate category (tropical, temperate, etc.) and cultivation status (how close the crop is to being able to be mass cultivated - this ranges from crops like avocados, which already have at least 1 billion in sales, to plants that would require extensive research and breeding to be good crops).
Part 4: Perennial Industrial crops. A species-by-species guide to the types of perennials that can be employed for industrial usage: chemicals, fibers, hydrocarbon, and other industrial uses. Likely of most interest to businesses, rather than the everyday farmer or gardener. As with section 3, frequent use of tables to easily break up species by their recommended climate.
Part 5: Implementation. How can all of these amazing ideas be implemented? Toensmeier points out that the benefits of perennials and carbon farming can take years to be felt; farmers operating on thin financial margins that depend on annual returns may struggle to make this transition.
My key takeaways from this book:
There isn't a one-size-fits-all answer to the question of how best to carbon farm. Techniques that sequester carbon in one area actually cause carbon release in another. The interactions between soil, plants, climate, and human activity are complex, hard to measure, and a product of many variables. Definitely appreciated the time Toensmeier took to weigh the complexity, costs, and benefits of each strategy.
Carbon farming alone can't solve our climate change problem. As Toensmeir points out, once the glaciers are melted, they're melted. Sequestering carbon doesn't help if we keep releasing emissions at our current levels. Even if every bit of current agricultural land started using carbon farming, it wouldn't be a total solution (although I think we should extend the solution to things like backyards and anywhere else there's open land).
An emphasis on perennials. Although Toensmeir spends a bit of time discussing the potential of annual crops, his main emphasis is on perennials - utilizing the ones we already have as well as adopting them in new geograhic areas and developing perennial grains.
Current thinking and calculations often don't include the best types of solutions. Many of the estimates circulating in discussions about carbon farming fail to take into accounts things like focusing on perennial crops and utilizing agroforestry - this solution will probably do MORE good than science currently estimates.
These ideas aren't new. Many of the techniques presented here for carbon farming are based off ecological systems that have been developed by farmers for hundreds of years over millions of acres.
You don't have to be a farmer to find this book useful: you just have to be someone who's seeking an answer to climate change, someone who's seeking to do something, anything, with their own hands to start addressing the problem. We don't yet understand all the complexities of the carbon farming system, but Toensmeier's book makes a valiant, and largely successful, first step at aggregating all that we do know.
Toensmeier's website provides a good glimpse into what you'll find in this book, as well as major chunks of its contents.
A caveat that has nothing to do with the content: this book is $75 if purchased directly from the publisher ($50 from Amazon), and yet the binding is of very poor quality: it started cracking before I was halfway done with the book.
Is climate change a story about energy (heat) or is it about the carbon cycle? (It's both.)
One story of climate change focuses on trapping energy in our atmosphere. The planet gets heat from the sun, which is absorbed though some is let go. The albedo of the Earth's surface affects how much is absorbed or let go, but that alone does not explain the surface temperature of the Earth. That's because the biosphere (biosphere in the Gaia sense of the word) created an atmosphere that traps more heat from the sun, which makes life as we know it on our planet possible. Life existed for a long time before the planet settled on a very conducive balance within which human civilization formed. This period is sometimes called the Holocene. These systems are dynamic, but they're now super dynamic, which is less than ideal for animals, plants, marine life, and people. They all evolved to fill a Holocene niche but evolution takes longer to adapt than the planet does to change because...
Why are we trapping so much heat? Here, we turn to the carbon cycle.
The carbon cycle can draw our attention to many things, but one is just the location of carbon, which is generally found underground, in the atmosphere, in the ocean. People took carbon (fossil fuels) out of the ground and moved it into the atmosphere, thus disrupting what was otherwise a closed system. This atmospheric carbon traps heat and because we have added so much carbon to the atmosphere, we now have more heat than we should, which is less than ideal.
There is more carbon in the atmosphere now, and less underground, than just a couple hundred years ago. This takes us to ratios and measurements. The atmospheric concentration is often communicated in carbon dioxide parts per million. In the last couple hundred years, we've gone from ~250 to ~415 ppm of atmospheric CO2, though you'll sometimes see a higher number if writers include other greenhouse gases, which are often mentioned as CO2e, or carbon dioxide equivalents.
(A basic overview of this can be found in the zero dimension climate model--Katherine Mayer's YouTube tutorial "Lecture 8.3 Energy Balance Models" is fairly easy to follow.)
Today, atmospheric carbon dioxide is high, so we're now looking for carbon sinks, which are places we can put carbon besides the atmosphere. I didn't realize for a long time that our natural sinks would be maxed out without our burning fossil fuels, which is why atmospheric CO2 keeps rising. And these sinks certainly cannot keep up with the ~40 gigatons of CO2 (add an extra 10 or so if you include CO2Es) each year. One sink we don't often think about is the ocean, which is becoming more acidic as it absorbs carbon from the air.
Because all of this atmospheric CO2 and trapped heat seems awful, we now are looking for ways to build more of these sinks.
In The Carbon Farming Solution, Eric Toensmeier argues that farming practices can be adopted that will store more carbon in the biosphere (plants and soil). I love reading these solutions because they feel "natural," even if they're actually by design--a managed artifice. Toensmeier is affiliated with Project Drawdown, which has a fantastic website and a great book (Drawdown, by Hawken) all about ways of drawing down atmospheric CO2.
(Other people are trying to build more artificial--but, imho, no less admirable--sinks. Stripe Climate has put together a very nice website on the carbon removal technologies its backing.)
Many reviewers have suggested that The Carbon Farming Solution is better approached as a reference guide than a book one reads from start to finish. I agree. But I'd broadly recommend the opening chapters to anyone. I wasn't able to find a copy for less than $100 to buy, but I was able to borrow it from my local library for free. Recommended!
It's great to see the permaculture crowd starting to put more emphasis on staple crops, as well as on scaling up. Permaculture, or agroecology or whatever you want to call it, definitely needs to become the mainstream in land management. Although this book only gives brief summaries of different carbon sequestering farming practices, it covers options for virtually the entire planet, from the tropics to boreal regions, humid to arid, lowlands to highlands, rich to poor countries, etc. Considering that just about every region is likely to experience significant changes in the coming decades, and that conflicts are likely to force a lot of people to relocate, it's good to have some understanding of what works best in different conditions and not just focus entirely on your current conditions. Toensmeier's emphasis on "non-destructively harvested" crops is another plus. Being able to produce what we need with only minimal soil disturbance can make an enormous difference, both to carbon sequestration rates and soil fertility.
There are some things that he's kind of open minded to, even if not actually supporting, that I'm not really a fan of. They all basically come from the belief that global industrial civilization can be made sustainable, and obviously the idea that that would be the best thing to do. Those are both popular ideas but I strongly disagree with them. Not only is the infrastructure needed for solar panels and other "green" or "clean" energy technologies inherently unsustainable, I would argue that when all things are considered (not just life expectancies, possessions and amounts of data) modern lifestyles just aren't the best way to live. I'm not sure if Toensmeier really disagrees or if he's just trying to be more "realistic" with his transition plan. At the end of the book he does explicitly label capitalism and infinite growth economics as problems, which is great, but much of the book is about growing plants that can be used to replace plastics, fuels, and other industrial products. In my opinion, when obvious substitutes already exist they should be used but to continue high-tech research for developing new techniques only makes sense if you're trying to maintain modern technology rather than transition away from it. According to him we don't need to "return to stone age living", just the consumption levels of America in the 1970's. Following that assumption, what he's saying makes perfect sense. However, if you don't think that's good enough, as I don't, then it's a bit irritating.
Most of what he advocates could match pretty well with a transition stage towards much simpler lifestyles. Even though he uses low diversity orchards and large-scale farms as examples at times, he does make it clear that he's more in favor of diverse polycultures and small farms that can support local economies. At one point he unequivocally states "... each region should produce most of its own everything..." Since his vision for a sustainable civilization is close to what I would consider a transition stage away from civilization it gives us all something that we should be able to agree on as a common goal for now. I just think that you need to keep asking yourself "would this locality produce everything humans need for a balanced diet, clothing, building materials, heating and cooking fuel?" This book calls for more research into mechanizing harvesting and processing, as well as breeding perennial crops for mechanized farms. When the time comes to rely entirely on manual human labor then things might be more challenging if they're growing crops that wouldn't be considered feasible without machines doing the work. Some livestock and crop integration strategies that rely on things like electric net fencing also might run into complications when switching to simpler technologies. These things are worth keeping in mind.
I don't really have any other major complaints. The first hundred pages are a bit tedious and repetitive (something that drives me crazy with eco-themed books). In my opinion the concern over albedo effect is a little silly considering that boreal regions are the only areas that really cause more warming from tree cover, and I'm pretty sure that's just with dense coverings of evergreens. Almost everywhere else that trees can grow are better off with trees. When all things are considered, boreal regions should probably have a lot of trees too, even if it isn't the ideal scenario for climate change. I just don't see much point in creating unnecessary confusion over something so minor (some people try to use albedo to justify desertification!). I was also kind of surprised not to see much mention of mangroves in here. I know the focus is on crops but mangroves sequester so much carbon compared to other trees that you'd think they would at least get some attention. His focus on "non-destructively harvested" crops means that cattails are left out of the discussion on starch production and his focus on perennials means little interest in hemp in the fiber section, which I consider a bit insane. He gives cotton plenty of attention, calling it a "superior" fiber, maybe just because it has potential to become more "perennialized." However, hemp can potentially produce fiber, food, medicinal leaf juice, resin and useful biomass simultaneously, and with less fertilizers and pesticides than cotton. That multifunctionality easily makes up for it being an annual species. Had he factored in durability of fibers rather than just tons of yield he might have come to a different conclusion just based on that. Focusing on other things, like calories per hectare instead of just yield per hectare, could change the way a lot of these crops are looked at too. Chestnuts and walnuts for example yield similarly but walnuts provide 5 times more calories and 7 times more protein per pound. Statistics like these I feel really should be emphasized when comparing yields. It's a little ridiculous for a book this size to leave such things out. Overall though, there is a lot of useful information for anyone interested in sustainable food production. I do still highly recommend this one.
Definitely a comprehensive book. I used it to research an article and presentation I'm working on about sustainable eating.
One of my favorite quotes: "Our addiction to constant economic growth is in conflict with the very real limits of nature. Nor is it compatible with the requirement to drastically reduce consumption in wealthy countries."
Another: "Placing profit above all else has driven us to the brink of catastrophic climate change. Care for people and care for the environment have to be moved to the center of economic priorities."
Finally: "Many of the social and ecological costs of our economy are not paid for by those who cause them. Economists call these consequences "externalities." We need to put an end to the externalization of climate costs."
Ok, ok, I will never read this cover to cover. I usually don't rate books unless read that way, but this is too densely-packed. It is an encyclopedia, a resource like no other on "carbon farming." The term means an important facet of "regenerative agriculture." Carbon farming /ranching offers a way to draw down CO2 from the atmosphere and replace carbon in the soil from which it has been disappearing at an accelerating rate. It will not by itself save the world but is a sine qua non to that salvation. This heavy volume is a vademecum for all concerned with mitigating global warming by every sensible low-tech mean available. You don't have to own it, but need to know where to find it in the library.
This is for sure a groundbreaking book! Eric with his in-depth knowledge teaches us about Carbon farming and how it can take many forms. On my podcast Inside Ideas, episode 108, I talk with Eric about these practices. On taking a holistic view, sharing success stories from around the world and key takeaways from the book just to mention a few themes. You can find the episode here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Awg24...
I read a lot of tomes about climate change and agriculture, and while all of them have something to offer they very often fall short on obtainable specifics for the committed citizen-scientist person who is not supported by an institution (me!). Another common failing - although thankfully, it is growing less common - is a stiff, hollow acknowledgment of Indigenous and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). The kind of acknowledgment you see blurted out by corporations, I suppose, the forced and abbreviated acknowledgment that doesn't fundamentally rearrange how that corporation (or whatever) acts. So what is an active citizen-scientist to do who believes, because it is true, that it will be Indigenous and peasant farmer cooperatives that will save the world, if indeed it can be saved? She could start by reading this book. BECAUSE IT ROCKS!!!!!!!!!!!! I scribbled so many notes to myself while I read this, I hardly know where to begin. "Climate-smart farming" is becoming enough of a mainstream buzz term that many people will have heard about it by now. There are documentaries and TED talks about how grazing cows and no-till will draw down as much atmospheric carbon as we need them to. And though I buy a lot of it, and do a lot of it, I also know it's not the whole story, since the Western expansion colonizer cosmology that gave rise to turning the prairie into hamburgers can't possibly just change its technique and bam, climate change and environmental injustice solved. So this book - while it does thoughtfully explore many of the techniques, like cover cropping (cover crops even got a shot out in Biden's first state of the union address, and I cried for a couple of reasons about that), its main focus is on the perennial food, fiber, and industrial crops that have been grown regionally for hundreds if not thousands of years in traditional polycultures respected by native people. I'm still barely scratching the surface here of how terrific this book is. Toensmeier identifies, for each crop type, the potential for failure and the ways that breeding or appropriate processing technology could transform its usefulness in terms of yield, carbon sequestration, and justice. I know I bored you with that sentence. For me, it is like a global state of the species with remarks on what's going well already and what could be improved and where you might fit into that improvement. Take milkweed, a wild crop ripe for domestication because not only is it key to the survival of monarch butterflies, but it produces latex that can be used in various industrial applications. The fact that he explores industrial crops here gives this book so much more gravitas than your average permaculture "fruit trees are all you need" kind of brochure. I read this at just the right time in my own education, because I knew most of the terms but had to look up perhaps one out of every 40-50, which is a great ratio for keeping one's interest but not completely overwhelming [one]. He is just such a terrific, thoughtful person who unceasingly explores and uplifts - not just nodding nods - Indigenous people and their breeding work, cultivation work, and social-political work past and present. I am really stunned by how well he managed to do this. I haven't felt compelled to write a 10 page book report in years - well, no, I have never felt compelled to write a 10 page book report before. Until now! There is so much to say. While I really doubt many people will want to pick up a textbook for fun, I do think this book should be mandatory for everyone in elected office. If only anything was mandatory for that slice of society! While they primarily twiddle their thumbs, we can support small ecological farmers doing innovative work every chance we get, in any way that makes sense to us. Then again, I'll put one more plug in here hoping you might read this book: I honestly think this is one of the best books I have ever read about meaningful opportunities for work in the future we face. Scratch that, it's probably the only book I have ever read that actually identifies purposeful, engrossing, cool opportunities for work in the future we face. Though that is not its purpose, it incidentally does that. How do you find meaningful work for yourself when so many of the jobs you'd kill yourself striving for could be taken over by software or even AI? Or made simply irrelevant by the myriad ways climate change will impact material life? The exploration of so many peoples' meaningful work, whether it is in research, farming, breeding, cooperative/union organizing, supply chain, processing equipment, education, etc is totally inspiring without trying to be. I think Studs Terkel would be proud!
This is not a book you're supposed to read chronologically and even in its entirety - most of the book is more of a reference and handbook - but I almost did read everything from start to finish. This might just be one of the most important books out there on how to put the land to other uses and reverse global warming.
It's also a rare case of evidence-based literature coming out of an author with a so-called permaculture background. Toensmeier has been one of the few that has consistently encouraged that movement to become more based on data, current science and look out of the permaculture for other innovative land users (there are many examples in this book).
If you want to read a 'permaculture' book that is devoid of delusions and fairytales, this is the one you need to read.
A textbook with, fortunately, a lot of photos and tables so you can breeze through and absorb the grand takeaways. Carbon sequestration is not complicated. To address climate change we need to pay farmers to sequester carbon in the soil through proven agricultural practices. Anyone who cares about addressing climate change must read this book.
A must read for those intrested in agricultural soultions to climate change. For instance, why arent we ustilising more perennial systems, such as alley cropping which are 'easy wins'. Although many of the examples and methods were related to the tropics, there were some nice examples for temperate regions also.
Of course, this is a timely and important book: a vital reference and invigorating survey of a key component in humanity's response to climate change. At its best, it gives one excitement about all the techniques that are possible. At worst, it is never as bad as economic botany could be, given the fatal combination of the sheer tedium of botanic description with the grim outlook of the dismal science.
I think of this book as being in three sections: an overview of the idea carbon farming and the systems that implement it, descriptions of the key plants involved, and a plan for dealing with the social, economic, and political factors involved.
The overview section is great and really expands one's mind to the possibilities of carbon farming. It's so great that I read pretty far into the second section before I noticed I wasn't getting the same amount out of it. I think part of the problem is that this second section organized by use of the crop, not by cropping system or its role in a particular part of the world. It has a kind of disconnection from that integrated picture of worldwide systems. This arrangement dissuades any coherent picture, and as I read it I went from "Oh cool, I never thought about the applications of tropical air yams." to "Why am I reading about the applications of tropical air yams?"
The third section is really not so much of a plan as a cold shower, saying most of what is appropriate for supporting carbon farming is grindingy boring work in finance and community organizing. In other words, it's super real, and you have to respect that, even if reading it fits in the "Why am I doing this to myself?" category.
I'm beginning to think that Eric Toensmeier is best when he's writing with a partner: a Dave Jacke or Jonathan Bates or Rafter Sass Ferguson or Paul Hawken. The work is better when there is someone to temper his encyclopedic tables and grassroots social pragmatism.
Still, check it out. Read the first 115 pages straight and skim the rest for reference. But don't skip the many uses of tropical air yams: it's good to be a well-rounded person.