Dr. Christine Jones Explains the Life-Giving Link Between Carbon
and Healthy Topsoil
Dr. Christine Jones has written an exceptional article which was
published in the March, 2015 issue of AcresUSA. This article does
a great job of describing the function of MycorrPlus. Here is
her article, followed by how MycorrPlus works within the
framework that the article presents. Enjoy!
the pressing worldwide challenge ofrestoring
soil carbon and rebuilding topsoil, the Australian soil
ecologist Dr. Christine Jones offers an accessible, revolutionary
perspective for improving landscape health and farm productivity.
For several decades Jones has helped innovative farmers and
ranchers implement regenerative agricultural systems that provide
remarkable benefits for biodiversity, carbon sequestration,
nutrient cycling, water management and productivity.
The following article is reprinted from the March, 2015 edition,
volume 45, #3 ofAcresUSA
Dr. Christine Jones,Interviewed
by Tracy Frisch
written that the most meaningful indicator for the health of the
land and the long-term wealth of a nation is whether soil is being
formed or lost. Yet there’s a widespread belief, actually dogma,
that the formation of soil is an exceedingly slow process. Even
some organic researchers accept that idea. You describe the
formation of topsoil as being breathtakingly rapid.
DR. CHRISTINE JONES.
People have confused the weathering of rock, which is a very, very
slow process, with the building of topsoil, which is altogether
different. Most of the ingredients for new topsoil come from the
atmosphere — carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen.
have many soil scientists denied the phenomenon of rapid
Because they do their research in places where it’s not happening,
where the carbon is running down and the soils are deteriorating.
We need to measure carbon on farms where soil-building is
occurring and see what the farmers and ranchers are doing to make
process of fixing carbon in the soil seems to be the crux of your
work. You describe a cycle with carbon in three phases: as a gas,
a liquid and a solid.
The issue we’re facing is that too much of the carbon that was
once in a solid phase in the soil has become a gas. That could be
dangerous for the human species. Climate change is just one
aspect. Food security, the nutrient density of food and the
water-holding capacity of the soil are also very potent reasons
for keeping carbon in a solid phase in the soil.
term “liquid carbon” is such a brilliant phrase.
It has really helped me conceptualize the carbon cycle. What do
you mean by it?
carbon is basically dissolved sugar.
Sugars are formed in plant chloroplasts during photosynthesis.
Some of the sugars are used for growth and some are exuded into
soil by plant roots to support the microbes involved in nutrient
remember bringing up the idea of leaky roots in a conversation
with you and you laughed.
At first people thought “leaky” roots were defective. Exuding
carbon into the soil seemed such a silly thing for plants to do!
Then it became recognized that some of the exudates were phenolic
compounds with allelopathic effects, important in plant defense.
Of course we now know that plant roots exude a vast array of
chemical substances, all based on carbon, to signal to microbes
and to other plants. But perhaps the most significant finding, at
least from a human perspective, is thatthe
flow of liquid carbon to soil is the primary pathway by which new
topsoil is formed.
of which revolves around the concept of a plant-microbial ridge?
In order for carbon to “flow” to soil, there has to be a
partnership between plant roots and the soil microbes that will
receive that carbon. Somewhere between 85 to 90 percent of the
nutrients plants require for healthy growth are acquired via
carbon exchange, that is, where plant root exudates provide energy
to microbes in order to obtain minerals and trace elements
otherwise unavailable. We inadvertently blow the microbial bridge
in conventional farming with high rates of synthetic fertilizers
or with fungicides or other biocides.
you observing an increased awareness of the significance of
There is a lot more energy generated through biological processes
than through the burning of fossil fuels. Most life-forms obtain
their energy either directly or indirectly from the sun, via the
process of photosynthesis. Plants are what we call autotrophs.
That is, they feed themselves by combining light energy with CO2
to produce biochemical energy. As heterotrophs, we obtain energy
by eating plants or eating animals that ate plants. In effect,
we’re running on light energy too. Even microbes in a compost heap
are obtaining energy by breaking down organic materials
originating from the process of photosynthesis.
distinguish between organic matter formed by the decomposition of
manure, crop residues or other carbonaceous materials — and humus
— which is generated via a building-up process. I think a lot of
times that is misunderstood.
It’s a really important distinction, but it’s often overlooked. In
order to obtain the energy that is contained in cellulose, lignin,
starches, oils, waxes or other compounds formed by plants,
microbes have to break this material down — the same as we do when
we digest starches or proteins or anything else of plant or animal
origin. We breathe out more CO2 than we breathe in, because as we
utilize the energy we obtain from the assimilation of food, our
cells release CO2.
The decomposers in the soil are doing exactly the same thing —
breaking down organic materials and releasing CO2. These processes
are catabolic. Conversely, the formation of humus is an anabolic
process, that is, a building-up process. Rather than sugar being
the end point, sugar is the start point. Soil microbes use sugars
to create complex, stable forms of carbon, including humus.
would you define humus?
Humus is an organo-mineral complex comprising around 60 percent
carbon, between 6 and 8 percent nitrogen, plus phosphorus and
sulfur. Humic molecules are linked to iron and aluminum and many
other soil minerals, forming an intrinsic part of the soil matrix.
Humus cannot be “extracted” from soil any more than wood can be
“extracted” from a tree.
frequently mention mycorrhizal fungi in your work. What makes them
Much of the initial research into mycorrhizal fungi was related to
the uptake of phosphorus. Phosphorus is a highly reactive element.
As soon as there’s any free phosphorus floating around in the
soil, including whatever we may add as fertilizer, it becomes
fixed. In other words, it forms a chemical bond with another
element like iron or aluminum or calcium, making it unavailable to
plants. But certain bacteria produce an enzyme called phosphatase
that can break that bond and release the phosphorus.
Once released, the phosphorus still has to be transported back to
the plant, which is where mycorrhizal fungi come in. As our
analytical techniques have become more sophisticated, we’ve
realized that mycorrhizal fungi also transport a wide variety of
other nutrients, including nitrogen, sulfur, potassium, calcium,
magnesium, iron and essential trace elements such as zinc, boron,
manganese and copper. In dry times they supply water.
Mycorrhizal fungi can extend quite a distance from plant roots.
They form networks between plants and colonies of soil bacteria.
Plants can communicate with each other via messages sent through
these networks. Mycorrhizal fungi are both the highway and the
Internet of the soil.
can something so important be overlooked?
Much of the agricultural research undertaken in pots in glass
houses is fundamentally flawed. Soil is homogenized to remove
background noise, that is, to make the soil in all the pots
similar at the outset. The blending process breaks up the hyphae
of mycorrhizal fungi. In some trials the soil is also sterilized
to eliminate any microbial activity that could interfere with the
treatment being assessed. And often the soil has been stored for a
long time prior to the experiments, which means most of the soil
organisms have died. In such an environment, plants are likely to
respond to applied fertilizer, as they have no other means to
obtain nutrients. Similarly with field trials, if the soil has
been cultivated or bare fallowed, mycorrhizal fungi will not be
there in sufficient quantities for effective carbon flow and
nutrient acquisition. In healthy, biologically active soils, we do
not see a response to synthetic nitrogen or phosphorus
fertilizers. If anything, the use of these is counterproductive.
learned from you that plants colonized by mycorrhizal fungi can
grow much more robustly even though they’re giving away as much as
half of the sugars that they make in photosynthesis through their
we have this system characterized by abundance and generosity, and
that’s really different from the way we are used to thinking about
The point that’s often missed is thata
mycorrhizal plant photosynthesizes much fasterthan
a non-mycorrhizal plant of the same species growing right next to
it. The plant is able to give half its energy away and still grow
stronger because of the symbiotic relationship with the fungus. It
doesn’t cost the plant anything to photosynthesize faster. It’s
just using sunlight more efficiently. Remember, plants are
sunlight is free.
CO2 is free too.If
a plant photosynthesizes faster it’s going to have higher sugar
content and a higher Brix level. Once Brix gets over 12, the plant
is largely resistant to insects and pathogens. High-Brix plants
have formed relationships with soil microbes able to supply trace
elements and other nutrients that the plant needs for
self-defense, for its immune system. When plants are able to
produce high levels of plant-protection compounds, the insects go
tend to think that minerals in the soil are scarce because most of
them are not in a form available to plants.
A soil test will only tell you what is available to plants by
passive uptake. The other 97 percent of minerals — made available
by microbes — will not show up on a standard test.By
looking after the microbes in the soil we can increase the
availability of a huge variety of minerals and trace elements —
most of which are not even in fertilizers.
always hear the story about fields that were continuously cropped
or hayed for 30 years where the soil is so exhausted that we have
to add a lot of nutrients or we can’t grow a thing.
The problem is that we interrupt carbon flow with the way we farm.
Cultivating the soil and using chemical fertilizer and pesticides
break up the mycorrhizal networks. If plants can obtain nitrogen
or phosphorus easily, they will stop pumping carbon into the soil
to support their microbial partners.
It’s taken a while for people to realize that plant root exudates
are not only important for nutrient exchange, but also essential
for the maintenance of topsoil. If carbon is not flowing to soil
via the liquid carbon pathway, soil deteriorates.Carbon
is needed for soil structure and water holding capacity as well as
for feeding the microbes involved in nutrient acquisition.
When soil loses carbon, it becomes hard and compacted. The
differences in infiltration and moisture retention between high
and low carbon soils are dramatic. Planetary stocks of fresh water
are declining alarmingly. More efficient water use is going to be
absolutely critical to the survival of our species.
Making better use of water requires improved soil structure —
which in turn requires actively aggregating soils. If aggregates
are breaking down faster than they’re forming, the water-holding
capacity of soil can only deteriorate.
can we tell if a soil has good aggregation?
Dig a hole and take a handful of soil. Squeeze it gently and
release. If the soil is well aggregated, it will look like a
handful of peas. If the soil remains in hard chunks that don’t
break easily into small lumps, then it isn’t well aggregated.
processes are going on inside of a soil aggregate?
The aggregate is the fundamental unit of soil function. A great
deal of biological activity takes place within aggregates. For the
most part, this is fueled by liquid carbon. Most aggregates are
connected to plant roots, often to very fine feeder roots, or to
mycorrhizal networks unable to be detected with the naked eye.
into the aggregates via these roots or fungal linkages, enabling
the production of glues and gums that hold the soil particles
together. If you gently lift a plant from healthy soil, you’ll
find aggregates adhering to the roots. The moisture content is
higher inside a soil aggregate than on the outside, and the
partial pressure of oxygen is lower on the inside than on the
outside. These important propertiesenable
nitrogen-fixing bacteria to function.
When aggregates aren’t forming —because
of cultivating the soil or using chemicals or having bare soil for
six months or more with no green plants—
crops are not able to obtain sufficient nitrogen. The tendency is
then to add fertilizer nitrogen, exacerbating the situation. The
application of large quantities of inorganic nitrogen interrupts
carbon flow to soil, further reducing aggregation.
sounds like a vicious cycle.
Yes, the more N applied, the more soil structure deteriorates and
ironically, the less N is available to plants.You’ll
rarely see a nitrogen deficient plant in a healthy natural
When I was driving home yesterday I noticed yellow, nitrogen
deficient pastures on many of the dairy farms I passed. But in the
area between the fence and the road, where no fertilizer had been
used, the grasses were a lovely dark green.
are familiar with Rhizobium bacteria and their relationship with
legumes. What should we know about free-living nitrogen fixing
From an agricultural perspective the most important of the
freeliving nitrogen-fixing bacteria are associative diazotrophs —
so-called because the atmospheric nitrogen that they fix occurs as
di-nitrogen (N2) and associative because, like mycorrhizal fungi,
they require the presence of a living plant for their carbon.
These bacteria live in close proximity to plant roots or are
linked to plant roots via the mycorrhizal highway.
our knowledge of these organisms pretty recent?
The reason we know so little about associative diazotrophs is that
most cannot be cultured in the lab. This applies to most species
of mycorrhizal fungi as well. As bio-molecular methods for
detecting microbes in the soil become more sophisticated, we’re
realizing there is a lot more life — and a lot more species — than
we thought. It has become obvious that there are thousands of
different types of bacteria and archaea that can fix nitrogen.
The Haber-Bosch process, by which we manufacture nitrogen
fertilizer, is a catalytic reaction requiring enormous amounts of
energy. Yet microscopic bacteria in the rhizosphere or within
plant-associated aggregates can fix nitrogen simply using light
energy from the sun, transformed to biochemical energy during
photosynthesis and channeled to soil by plant roots.
a little confused because I understood that there is a difference
between mineral nitrogen and organic nitrogen.
That’s correct. Nitrogen fixing bacteria produce ammonia, a form
of inorganic nitrogen, inside soil aggregates and rhizosheaths.
Rhizosheaths are protective cylinders that form around plant
roots. They’re basically a bunch of soil particles held together
by plant root exudates. You can easily strip them off with your
Within these biologically active environments the ammonia is
rapidly converted into an amino acid or incorporated into a humic
organic forms of nitrogen cannot be leached or volatilized.
Amino acids can be transferred into plant roots by mycorrhizal
fungi and joined together by the plant to form a complete protein.
On the other hand,inorganic
nitrogen applied as fertilizer often ends up in plants as nitrate
or nitrite, which can result in incomplete or “funny” protein.
This becomes a problem in cattle if it turns up as high levels of
blood urea nitrogen (BUN) or milk urea nitrogen (MUN).
Nitrates cause a range of metabolic disorders including
infertility, mastitis, laminitis and liver dysfunction. There is
also a strong link between nitrate and cancer. In some places in
the United States it is not safe to drink the water due to
excessive nitrate levels. Milk can also have nitrate levels above
the safe drinking standard, but people happily consume it, not
realizing it’s unhealthy.
are great points. How dependent is the world on the application of
Farmers around the world collectively spend about $100 billion per
year on nitrogen fertilizer. I’m greatly inspired by the
multi-species over crop revolution in the United States.
Leading-edge farmers like Gabe Brown, Dave Brandt and Gail Fuller
are showing it’s possible to maintain or even improve crop yields
while winding back on fertilizer. These farmers are light years
ahead of the science.
They’re building soil, improving the infiltration of water,
increasing water holding capacity and getting fantastic yields.
They have fewer insects and less disease. The carbon and water
cycles are fairly humming on their farms.
want to get your recipe for transforming terra-cotta tile into
chocolate cake — that is, turning hard, compacted soil into loose,
fragrant soil teeming with life.
There isn’t a “recipe” as such for maintaining soil aggregates
(the starting point for chocolate cake). It’s really just a set of
guiding principles. Soil becomes like a terra-cotta tile when
aggregates break down. Hard, compacted soil sheds water. The
amount of effective rainfall is dramatically reduced. It’s also
much harder for plant roots to grow in poorly aggregated soil.
The first rulefor
turning this around is tokeep
the soil covered, preferably with living plants, all year
environments where the soil freezes, it’s still important to
maintain soil cover with mulch or a frost-killed cover crop or
better still, a frost-hardy cover that will begin to grow again as
soon as spring arrives.
Microbes will go into a dormant phase over winter and re-activate
at the same time as the plants. In regions with a hot, dry summer,
evaporation is enemy number one. Bare soil will be significantly
hotter and lose more moisture than covered soil. Aggregates will
break down unless the soil is alive. Aggregation is absolutely
vital for moisture infiltration and retention.
so that’s one.
diversity in both cover crops and cash crops.
Aim for a good mix of broadleaf plants and grass-type plants and
include as many different functional groups as possible. Diversity
above ground will correlate with diversity below ground. Third,avoid
or minimize the use of synthetic fertilizers, fungicides,
insecticides and herbicides.
It’s a no-brainer that something designed to kill things is going
to do just that. There are countless living things in soil that we
don’t even have names for, let alone an understanding of their
role in soil health. It’s nonsense to say biocides don’t damage
soil! In Australia many farmers plant seeds treated with fungicide
“just in case.” They’re actually preventing the plant from forming
the beneficial associations that it needs in order to protect
After a few weeks of crop growth, they will then apply a
“preventative” fungicide, which also finds its way to the soil,
inhibiting the soil fungi that are essential to crop nutrition and
soil building. The irony is that plants are then unable to obtain
the trace elements they need to fight fungal diseases. We see many
examples of crops grown biologically that are rust-free,
side-by-side with rust infected plants in neighboring fields where
fungicides are being used.
There is an analogous situation with human health. Not that long
ago the cancer rate was around one in 100. Now we’re pretty close
to one in two people being diagnosed with cancer. At the current
rate of increase, it won’t be long before nearly every person will
contract cancer during their lifetimes. Cancer is also the number
one killer in dogs. Isn’t that telling us something about toxins
in the food chain? We’re not only killing everything in the soil,
we’re also killing ourselves — and our companion animals. Is that
what we want for our future?
you a cancer survivor?
Yes, I am, which is basically why I do what I do. But I don’t say
a lot about that because if you start your talk with “we’re all
going to die from cancer unless we change,” people tune out. It’s
too threatening. Most of us have lost loved ones through cancer.
say it’s not just the toxins in our food that are the problem, but
the use of biocides — chemicals that kill living organisms — which
reduce the nutrient content of food. And you attribute that
nutrient reduction to the inhibition of the plant-microbial
Spot on. If the plant-microbe bridge has been blown, it’s not
possible for us to obtain the trace elements our bodies need in
order to preventcancer—
and a range of other metabolic disorders. Cancer is not a
transmissible disease. It’s simply the inability of our bodies to
prevent abnormal cells from replicating. To date, the response to
the cancer crisis has revolved around constructing more oncology
units, employing more oncologists and undertaking more research.
The big breakthrough in cancer prevention will be in changing the
way we produce our food.
have plenty of evidence from meta-studies that the nutrient
content of produce grown organically tends to be higher than
produce grown chemically. We also have documentation of steep
declines in nutrient content in a number of foods over the last
Yes, we’re getting a double whammy. We’re ingesting chemical
residues, but not the trace elements and phytonutrients we need
for an effective immune response. Plants need trace elements, like
copper and zinc, to make these phytonutrients. But the trace
elements will not be available in the absence of an intact
talked about the pressure on farmers to have tidy farms and
uniformity in their fields. It seems like one of the problems
you’re identifying is a faulty understanding of what it means to
farm well and to be a good farmer. What are some of the qualities
that farmers think they should have that get in the way of
building healthy soil?
I must admit that in the early ’90s, when I first started going
onto farms that were using holistic planned grazing, I was a bit
shocked to see the number of weeds popping up. These weeds would
have been sprayed under the former management regime, but the
ranchers were saying, “Don’t worry.We
have to pass through this weedy stage.
If we spray weeds, we create bare ground and the weed seed that’s
there means the weeds simply come back.”
There’s a saying, “the more you spray weeds, the more weeds there
will be to spray.” It’s oh so true! Continually reverting to bare
ground creates more problems than it solves. Those ranchers knew
some weeds had deep roots that bring up nutrients. Leaving them
quality plants would eventually be able to grow in the improved
soil and replace the weeds.
That is exactly what happened. Over the last 60 years we’ve tried
— and failed — to control weeds with chemicals.
One of the exciting things about the multi-species cover crop
revolution that’s underway in the United States is that the
greater the variety of plant types you use, the more niches you
fill and the less opportunities there are for weeds. Cover-crop
enthusiasts are experimenting with 60 or 70 different species in
their mixes. I see the trend to polyculture as the most
significant breakthrough in the history of modern agriculture.
Even so, the first time you see a multi-species cover or a cash
crop grown with companion plants, you might think, “Wow, that
looks untidy” because we’re not used to it. It takes a little
while to realize that having all those different plants together
is really beneficial.
Somehow we have to change the image of what a healthy field looks
like so that when people see bare ground or a monoculture, they
recognize it’s lacking — and that this is not a good thing.
sort of response are the cover crop pioneers receiving?
They’re seeing fantastic results. The trouble is they are not
getting the accolades they deserve. This is slowly beginning to
change. NRCS, in particular, are being exceptionally supportive of
these leading edge farmers. Cover cropping is now generating a
huge amount of interest.
Recently I visited Brendon Rockey, a young potato farmer in the
San Luis Valley of Colorado. Brendon has increased irrigation
efficiency 20 percent through the use of cover crops. There is
increasing worldwide recognition of the fact that multi-species
cover crops improve soil-water relationships.
another aspect of that abundance.
If there is a bare fallow between crops — or bare ground between
horticultural plantings such as grapes —soil
aggregates break down.
As a result, water cannot infiltrate as quickly. It remains closer
to the surface and evaporates more readily. Lack of aggregation
also renders the soil more prone to wind and water erosion.
We have this fear that if we grow companion plants or a cover
crop, they’re going to use up all the water and nutrients. We have
to realize that by supporting soil microbes, a diversity of plants
actually improves nutrient acquisition and water retention.
transition period from a chemically intensive system where you
don’t have a functioning plant-microbial bridge,
what are some kinds of practices that farmers can use?
Sometimes when farmers realize the importance of soil biology theyimmediately
stop using fertilizers and chemicals.
This is not necessarily a good thing. It takes time for soil
microbial populations to re-establish. If the soil is
dysfunctional, chances are the wheels will fall off when
fertilizers are pulled. If there is a failure, farmers will revert
back to what they know ... chemical agriculture.
You have to wind back slowly and accept that it’s going to take
time to transition. The key to getting started is to experiment on
small areas. It’s a matter of dipping a toe in the water. Include
some clovers or peas with your wheat, or vetch with your corn —
just on one part of the field.
This reduces the risk. When farmers see that they’ve gained rather
than lost yield — and that the crop looks healthier — they will be
inspired to try a larger area and a greater variety of companion
plants next time. Another option is to plant a multi-species cover
crop on part of the land that would normally be devoted to a cash
You’re exceptionally lucky in the United States in that a lot of
farmers are experimenting with cover crops now. Once the diversity
ramps up, the ladybirds and lacewings and predatory wasps appear
and the need for insecticides falls away. And after heavy rain,
it’s obvious that water has infiltrated better in the parts of the
field where the cover crops were.
Gradually the changes become an integral part of farming — an
exciting part, in fact. Experimentation and adaptation become the
norm, rather than conformity. Confidence builds, as ways to
restore healthy topsoil become firsthand knowledge.
It’s important to cut back on chemical fertilizers slowly. If
you’ve been using loads of synthetic nitrogen, then free-living
nitrogen-fixing bacteria won’t be abundant in your soil. An easy
way to transition is to reduce the amount of nitrogen applied by
around 20 percent the first year, another 30 percent the next and
then another 30 percent the year after.
At the same time as reducing fertilizer inputs it’s absolutely
vital to support soil biology with the presence of a wide
diversity of plants for as much of the year as possible.
Another way to gradually reduce fertilizer inputs is to use foliar
fertilizers rather than drilling fertilizer under the seed.
Foliar-applied trace minerals can also help during transition.
These can be tank-mixed with biology-friendly products such as
vermi-liquid, compost extract, fish hydrolysate, milk or seaweed
Whichever path you choose to support soil biology, the overall aim
is for soil function to improve every year. The overuse of
synthetic fertilizers will have the opposite effect.
mentioned the longest-running field experiment in North America
that found that high nitrogen depletes soil carbon?
The Morrow Plots are the oldest continuously cropped experimental
fields in the United States. A team of University of Illinois
researchers investigated how the fertilization regimes that were
commenced in these plots in 1955 affected crop yields and soil
carbon and organic nitrogen levels.
They discovered that thefields
that had received the highest applications of nitrogenfertilizer
had ended up with less soil carbon — and ironically less nitrogen
— than the other fields.
The researchers concluded that adding nitrogen fertilizer
stimulated the kind of bacteria that break down the carbon in the
soil. The reason there is less nitrogen in the soil even though
more has been applied is that carbon and nitrogen are linked
together in organic matter. If carbon is decomposing, then the
soil will also be losing nitrogen. They decompose together.
fascinating. Tell me about David Johnson and what he is finding in
his research at New Mexico State University.
Dr. David Johnson is based in Las Cruces, south of Albuquerque. He
has discovered that the ratio of fungi to bacteria in the soil is
a more important factor for plant production than the amount of
available nitrogen or phosphorus.
Sadly, in most of our agricultural soils, we have far more
bacteria than fungi. The good news is that farmers use
multi-species cover crops, companion crops, pasture cropping and
other polycultures — and the ranchers who manage their perennial
grasses with high density short duration grazing accompanied by
appropriate rest periods —are
moving their soils toward fungal dominance.
When you scoop up the soil, it has that lovely composty, mushroomy
sort of smell that indicates good fungal levels. Oftentimes
agricultural soils have no smell or a smell that is a bit sour.
Fungi are important for soil carbon sequestration as well as
nutrient acquisition. The formation of humus, a complex polymer,
requires several catalysts, including fungal metabolites.
is a really interesting insight. I would like to get some
perspective on soil degradation. You’ve written about how lush and
green Australia’s landscape was at the time of European settlement
in the early 1800s, land that’s now desertified. How do your
They have a particularly hard time believing that the southern and
southwestern parts of Australia supported green plants during our
hot, dry summers. It’s fortunate that some of the first European
settlers kept journals. George Augustus Robinson, who was the
Chief Protector of Aborigines, kept a daily journal for several
Robinson was a keen observer. He made sketches of the landscape as
well as describing it. In summertime when it was over 100 degrees
and without rain for months on end, Robinson noted green grass and
carpets of wildflowers everywhere he looked. Sadly, we don’t know
what many of these plants were because we no longer have
wildflowers in some of the colors he recorded.
you reconstruct what happened to destroy all this lush, diverse
European colonists brought boatloads of sheep which rapidly
multiplied. In England you could have sheep in continual contact
with the grass and it didn’t matter greatly because it nearly
always rained. Australian weather tends to oscillate between
drought and flooding rain and the English weren’t used to that. By
the late 1800s there were many millions of sheep in Australia,
grazing the grasslands down to bare earth in the dry periods.
When it rained, the unprotected soil washed away. The river
systems and wetlands filled with sediment. We’re now farming on
subsoil. We’ve lost around 2 to 3 feet of topsoil across the whole
country. The original soil was so well aggregated that aboriginal
people could dig in it with their bare hands.
The first Europeans to arrive in Australia talked about two feet
of black “vegetable mold” that covered the soil surface. Today our
soils are mostly light-colored. The use of color to describe soils
only came into being after the carbon-rich topsoil had blown or
washed away. It’s not an uncommon story.
Just about every so-called civilized, developed country in the
world has lost topsoil by one means or another. In the States you
had your Dust Bowl, created by tillage. Restoring the health of
agricultural soils will require more than learning how to minimize
need to learn how to build new topsoil, and we need to learn how
to do it quickly.
read that in Australia, using the so-called best management
practices of stubble retention and minimal tillage, wheat
production results in the loss of 7 kilograms of soil for every
kilogram of wheat harvested. Is it still that bad?
Yes, probably worse. I have documented evidence of 20 tons of soil
per hectare per year being lost through wind erosion. The average
wheat yield in Australia is very low, around 1 ton per hectare. We
lose massive amounts of soil to achieve it. The current situation
is not sustainable.
much of Australia’s farmland would have to increase soil carbon to
offset your country’s carbon emissions?
It would require only half a percent increase in soil carbon on 2
percent of our agricultural land to sequester all Australia’s CO2
emissions. Our emissions are low in relation to our land area
because we have a relatively small population.
you have any idea worldwide how much farmland would have to be
managed differently to increase soil carbon sufficiently to
reverse global climate change or offset greenhouse gases?
Agriculture is the major land use across the globe. According to
the FAO there are around 1.5 billion hectares of cropland and
another 3.5 billion hectares of grazing land. Currently much of
that land is losing carbon.
No doubt there will be — and indeed there already have been —
endless arguments about how much carbon can be sequestered in
soil. In my view it’s not a matter of how much but how many. The
focus needs to be on transforming every farm that’s currently a
net carbon source into a net carbon sink.
all farmland sequestered more carbon than it was losing,
atmospheric CO2 levels would fall at the same time as farm
productivity and watershed function improved. This would solve the
vast majority of our food production, environmental and human
I’m disappointed to see that articles are still being published in
internationally recognized peer-reviewed soil science journals —
as recently as 2014 — downplaying the potential for carbon
sequestration in agricultural soils. Predictably, these articles
fail to mention plant roots, liquid carbon or mycorrhizal fungi.
Many scientists have confused themselves — and the general public
— by assuming soil carbon sequestration occurs as a result of the
decomposition of organic matter such as crop residues.
In so doing, they have overlooked the major pathway for the
restoration of topsoil. Activating the liquid carbon pathway
requires that photosynthetic capacity be optimized.
There are many and varied ways to achieve this. I have enormous
respect for the farmers and ranchers who have done what the
experts say can’t be done. If we have a future, it will be largely
due to the courage and determination of these individuals.
initiated the Australian Soil Carbon Accreditation Scheme (ASCAS).
I’m quite impressed that one person started something like that.
I launched ASCAS in 2007 out of frustration that the federal
government wasn’t doing anything to reward innovation in land
management. I wanted to demonstrate that leading edge farmers
could build carbon in their soils and be financially rewarded for
doing so. But my attempts were blocked at every level, including
being subjected to public ridicule.
I suspect much of the resistance stemmed from the fact that
Australia was importing over $40 billion worth of farm chemicals
and policy-makers saw that as a big business. They realized that
in order to build soil carbon, farmers would need to reduce
chemical use. There were other issues too.
Australia ratified the Kyoto Protocol nine months after the launch
of ASCAS. Under Kyoto Protocols, the issuance of carbon credits
requires adherence to the 100 year rule, which basically means
that any payment for soil carbon must be registered on the land
title and the money refunded if for any reason the carbon levels
fall over the ensuing 100 years.
Then there’s the additionality rule, which states farmers cannot
be paid for changes in land management that they would have made
anyway, or that result in higher profits.
said this story has a good ending.
Despite the roadblocks, I felt it was important that soil
restoration pioneers be recognized. Late last year we decided to
discard the original ASCAS model and start afresh. On March 19,
2015, almost eight years to the day after we launched the ASCAS in
2007, our patron Rhonda Willson will present 11 Soil Restoration
Leadership Awards at a farming forum in Dongara, Western
Australia. It’s a fitting conclusion that these awards be
presented in the International Year of Soils.
changes did your Soil Restoration Leaders make in order to improve
The agricultural region of Western Australia experiences an
extremely hot, dry summer. Winters are cool and moist, although
not as moist as many farmers would like. Innovative ranchers have
been planting summer active grasses at the end of winter when
there is sufficient moisture for germination, despite ‘expert’
opinion that it’s too hot and dry in summer for anything to grow.
Perennial grasses have incredibly deep root systems and form
mycorrhizal associations that help them survive.
The grasses soon create their own microclimate. It’s an absolute
delight to see these patches of green in an otherwise parched
landscape. It helps us understand how the countryside encountered
by the first European settlers was able to remain green over the
the People’s Climate March in New York City, a large contingent of
vegan activists carried signs blaming cattle as a major cause of
global warming. What are your thoughts on targeting ruminants for
greenhouse gas emissions?
There were more ruminants on the planet 200 years ago than there
are now, but we’ve gone from freeranging herds to animals in
confinement. That changes everything.
Firstly, we’re growing feed for these animals using fossil-fuel
intensive methods and secondly, confinement feeding creates a
disconnect between ruminants and methanotrophs. Methanotrophic
bacteria use methane as their sole energy source. They live in a
wide variety of habitats, including surface soils. If a cow has
her head down eating grass, the methane she breathes out is
rapidly metabolized by methanotrophs.
There’s an analogous situation with termites. Termites produce
methane during enteric fermentation, as happens in the rumen of a
cow. But due to the presence of methanotrophic bacteria, methane
levels around a termite mound are actually lower than in the
nature, everything is in balance. After the disastrous Deepwater
Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the ocean was bubbling
with not only oil, but also methane. To the astonishment of
scientists monitoring the spill, populations of methanotrophic
bacteria exploded and consumed an estimated 220,000 metric tons of
methane gas, bringing levels back to normal.
we talk about the consequences of the increased extreme weather
associated with climate change, like devastating floods and
droughts, all too often we neglect to consider how better
land management can reduce their impacts.
With weather events becoming more extreme our farming systems need
to be more resilient. Again, this is where having carbon
sequestered in soil to maintain aggregate stability and improve
infiltration is vitally important.
If we look at flooding on the Mississippi,
for example, we see that the mean maximum and mean minimum water
levels from the early 1800s to the present show an increasing
perturbation since the dust bowl era of the 1930s. That is, the
highs are becoming higher — floods are more severe — and the lows
are getting lower — the river doesn’t ‘run’ as much as it used to.
This boom-bust situation is due to inappropriate land management.
If soil is in good condition, water infiltrates rapidly and is
held in the soil profile. Some of this water is used for plant
production and some will move downward through the soil to
replenish the transmissive aquifers that feed springs and small
streams, enabling year-round, moderated baseflow to river systems.
If groundcover is poor and soil water-holding capacity is low,
rapid run-off not only leads to flooding in lower landscape
positions, but also takes a lot of topsoil with it. These days
it’s not just soil, but a heap of chemicals too — which end up in
the Gulf of Mexico.
the Dead Zone?
Yes. The consequences are enormous. And when the flood is over,
the river level drops because the transmissive aquifers haven’t
adding compost to the soil sufficient to turn things around?
Compost is certainly a fantastic product, but compost alone is not
enough. It will eventually decompose, releasing CO2. However, the
application of compost to appropriately grazed pastures or
polyculture crops can increase plant growth and photosynthetic
rate, resulting in more liquid carbon flowing to soils.
Diverse microbial populations — particularly fungi — supported by
the compost, can aid in humification, improving soil structure,
water-holding capacity and nutrient availabilities.
On large agricultural holdings such as we have in many parts of
Australia, it is not economically viable to spread compost.
However, compost extract, which is simply the chemical signature
of compost, can prove highly beneficial.
The use of natural plant or seaweed extracts asbiostimulantsis
a relatively new but rapidly expanding area of R&D and
farmer-adoption worldwide. The advantage of biostimulants is that
they function at very low rates of application — milliliters per
hectare — as opposed to a product such as compost which needs to
be applied in tons per hectare.
These products stimulate soil biota and enhance plant root
function. The proliferation of roots is quite obvious when you dig
in the soil. There can also be rapid improvements in soilstructure.
The above article by Dr. Jones gives some wonderful principles for
successful farming. Now we would like to share with you why
MycorrPlus is so successful in accomplishing the things Dr Jones
talks about in her article.
MycorrPlus Facilitates Rapid Topsoil Formation
Dr. Jones says that the formation of topsoil can be breathtakingly
rapid. She explains that the reason for this is that most of the
ingredients for new topsoil come from the atmosphere, including
carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. Plants utilize these to
produce liquid carbon, which they then exude into the soil through
their roots in order to feed soil microbes. It is this flow of
liquid carbon (sugars) into the soil that is the primary means by
which rich topsoil is formed.
MycorrPlus-A or O helps to improve the soil
and the plants growing in it
a host of nutrients, including a rich supply of the trace
minerals found in ocean water. These nutrients supply the soil
with what it needs so that it cansupply
plants with theenergythey
need to reach their maximum potential.
contains 20 species of aerobic bacteria (70+ strains), plus it
is a food source that helps in the establishing of mycorrhizal fungi
and beneficial nematodes in the soil.
This great host of micro-organisms help to create balance in the soil. Balance
balance created causes the soil to possess a high energy
When this energy is made available to plants, itenergizesthem
to sequester sugars to feed the micro-organisms in the soil.
As the micro-organisms are nurtured and fed by the plant, they
in turn make nutrients andenergyavailable
to the plant. This enables the plant to sequester even more
sugars into the soil. This relationship between microbes and
plant result in plants being able to attain their optimum
The Best Way to Form Topsoil
Many scientists have confused themselves — and the general public
— by assuming that building soil carbon and the making of topsoil
occurs as a result of the decomposition of organic matter such as
In stark contrast, Dr. Jones points out that most of the elements
needed to create topsoil are found in the atmosphere and that the
creation of new soil centers around carbon. Compost may help, but
it is simply not the best way to create topsoil.
A plant can acquire between 85 to 90 percent of the building
materials it needs from the air to create liquid carbon. The rest
of the nutrients are provided from the soil. Soil microbes use
this liquid carbon as an energy source to help them convert tied
up nutrients into available plant food. In the process, the sugars
emitted by the roots act as gums and glues to create complex soil
structure, which includes stable forms of carbon and humus.
New topsoil is rapidly created in this environment. Once
MycorrPlus-A or O is activated with at least 1.1” of moisture and a soil
temperature above 45 degrees, almost immediately plants begin to
secrete liquid carbon into the soil, and it is only a matter of
weeks before new soil begins to form.
This is superior to results seen by using a bio stimulant,
including natural plant or seaweed extracts. MycorrPlus
contains micro and macro nutrients needed by the plant, plus
4 strains of mycorrhizal fungi and over 70 strains of aerobic bacteria that help the soil to
up in the soilinto
Benefits of Sequestering Carbon into the Soil
Carbon is needed for soil structuring and water holding. As liquid
carbon streams into the aggregates via the roots or fungal
linkages, it enables the production of glues and gums that hold
soil particles together.
Establishing a good soil structure enables nitrogen-fixing
bacteria to function. You will rarely see a nitrogen deficient
plant in a healthy natural ecosystem. Ammonia that is fixed from
the air is rapidly converted into an amino acid or incorporated
into a humic polymer. These organic forms of nitrogen cannot be
leached or volatilized.
With rapid carbon sequestering, the growth rate of plants can
quickly increase, with as much as a 20% to 70% increase in yields
the first year. That is the power of properly functioning soil.
Only a Small Transition Period is Needed to
Wean Off of Chemical Fertilizers
Dr. Jones states that, when transitioning between a chemically
intensive system and one dependent solely on a functioning
plant-microbial bridge, there needs to be a transition period of 3
years or more, reducing nitrogen fertilizer by 20% the first year,
30% the next year and 30% the third year.
MycorrPlus may actually be able to reduce this transition
period. Once MycorrPlus has been activated, a
plant-microbial bridge is quickly established. The plant secretes
sugars to the soil, and harvests the nutrients it needs. Within
less than a year, nitrogen fixing bacteria are supplying needed
nitrogen to the plant.
Dr. Jones mentions that foliar applications of trace minerals can
help in the transition from a chemical program. For higher dollar
crops, MycorrPlus-F or O-F can be applied as a foliar application to
meet this need.
As plants photosynthesizes faster, they are going to have higher
sugar content and a higher Brix level. Once Brix gets over 12, the
plant is largely resistant to insects and pathogens.
Why Chemical Fertilizers
Slow Down the Soil Building Process
As Dr. Jones pointed out, if plants can obtain potassium and
phosphorus easily, (as is the case with chemical fertilizers) they will stop pumping carbon into the soil to
support their microbial partners. This interruption of the carbon
flow to the soil reduces aggregation and the forming of new
As Dr. Jones stated, including some clovers or peas with your
wheat or some vetch with your corn is another way of supplying the
soil with extra organic nitrogen. As is mentioned in her article,
in biologically active soils, Dr. Jones hasn’t seen a response to
synthetic phosphorus fertilizers. Dr. Jones found the
use of NPK to be counterproductive.
Remember that a soil test can only tell you what is
available to plants by passive uptake of inorganic nutrients. The
other 97 percent of minerals will not
show up on a standard soil test.
By nurturing the aerobic microbes in the soil, we can increase the
availability of a huge variety of minerals and trace elements —
most of which are not contained in fertilizers.
Maintaining Soil Aggregates
Keep the soil covered and don’t till it
Tilling the soil or allowing soil to remain bare for a number of
months disrupts soil microbial life, as well as mycorrhizal fungi.
Plant a cover crop and use companion crops with cash crops.
Remember, plants colonized by mycorrhizal fungi can grow much more
robustly even though they’re giving away as much as half of the
sugars that they make in photosynthesis through their roots. They
photosynthesize faster, producing more sugars, which can in turn
be shared with the soil.
In regions with a hot, dry summer, evaporation is enemy number
one. Bare soil will besignificantly
hotter and lose more moisture than covered soil. Aggregates will
break down unless the soil is alive. Aggregation is absolutely
vital for moisture infiltration and retention.
Avoid or minimize chemical applications
This includes synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, insecticides and
herbicides. It is a no-brainer that something designed to kill
things is going to do just that.
Chemical applications can inhibit the soil fungi that are
essential to crop nutrition and soil building. When soil fungi are
kept from functioning properly, plants can no longer use them to
obtain the trace elements they need to fight fungal diseases.
When we spray for weeds it creates bare ground and the weed seed
that’s there means the weeds simply come back.
Some weeds have deep roots that help to bring up nutrients.
Leaving them can mean that better quality plants will eventually
be able to grow in the improved soil and replace the weeds. A
little patience may be needed while soils improve.
For dry regions, perennial grasses have incredibly deep root
systems and form mycorrhizae associations that help them survive
during dry periods. They will soon create their own microclimate
to help them overcome a lack of water and thrive, displacing
A diversity of plants actually improves nutrient acquisition and
water retention, and helps to fill in gaps in the soil.
Multi-species pasture cropping can help to displace unwanted
weeds. Rotational grazing can help, too. For cash crops,
multi-species cover crops and companion crops can help with weed
control and soil improvement, as soils move toward fungal
MycorrPlus-A or O is the most advanced
we know of for accomplishing carbon sequestration and the building
For most applications, just 1 to 2 quarts per acre is all that