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Managing the carbon crop

The objective is to return more carbon to the soil than is released

Managing the carbon crop

One of the best parts of writing for Grainews is the people who contact me to question/disagree or express some interest in an aspect of a story I have written. I confess I have sometimes written pieces just to engage healthy discussion. I have always had an interest in the “global warming” debate and have a lot of concerns about how the arguments are being framed on both sides of the discussion.

Since I am in confessional mode, I will also say up front that I believe in man-made global climate change based primarily on a stack of reading from all sides of the issue that is just over four feet high. With some caveats I am also not 100 per cent opposed to a carbon tax (please read on for an explanation).

In the new carbon era that is emerging — either by consensus or edict — I think it is important that as producers we at least understand the basics so we can engage in the conversation and also understand the tremendous power that agriculture has to deal with the issues.

Oversimplified chemistry

Carbon is a pretty straightforward element. Every carbon atom can form four bonds. This can be with another carbon or with another element. What a carbon bonds to is very important in determining its form. The climate change debate is largely about what carbon is bonded to, so the chemistry matters. Carbon bonded to two oxygen molecules is carbon dioxide. Two carbons hooked together and bonded to six hydrogen molecules is natural gas. If we throw an oxygen in between one of the carbons and a hydrogen we have ethanol. A bunch of carbon bonded together can make coal, and if we compress that coal under a mountain we wind up with diamonds. The point is that a lot of the taxing issues surrounding climate change involve the form of carbon, rather than the fact of carbon.

Because carbon makes four bonds and is a stable molecule it is the basis for all life on earth. In other words, the plants, the bugs, the cows and the farmer are carbon-based life forms. What does that mean? Well, carbon is like the framework of a house. It is used for the joists, studs and rafters to which other molecules of life are attached to build a living being.

It is also a tremendous way to store energy, as each of the four bonds a carbon molecule makes hold energy. When we burn a piece of coal, the heat actually comes from breaking those bonds. The reason that the carbon tax is higher on coal than on natural gas is that burning a pound of coal breaks more carbon bonds than burning a pound of natural gas.

Global warming

The global warming role of carbon is primarily when it is in the form of carbon dioxide gas. Our sun does not come with a thermostat, so increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere helps to trap solar heat next to the earth, melting ice, increasing evaporation and creating a myriad of other effects. Since it is about minus 40 C as I am writing this, (early winter) it is a bit tough to argue against global warming and warming is probably not an accurate description of what we need to be worried about. Even “man-made climate change” is a poor description of the concern. The real concern around climate change is increased volatility. In other words, increases in the volume and scale of weather swings and events.

Increased evapotranspiration and more liquid water on our planet may create larger rainfall events. Changes in sea level and salinity of our oceans due to the melting of freshwater glaciers (polar ice caps), as well as temperature changes deep under the ocean may affect ocean currents, which drive nutrient flows and wind patterns. These changes may affect where, when and how much rain falls from the sky, what temperatures happen in different locations and the speed that these things swing back and forth.

Increased severity and length of drought events may occur in some areas. In a nutshell the concern is that on a local level climate change can create havoc faster than we can adapt to it.

So where does the farmer fit?

As farmers and ranchers, we have to ensure we are more than just victims of the carbon tax. We do break carbon bonds when we burn diesel in our tractors, gasoline in our trucks and coal in our shops.

Fossil fuels are a way to store solar energy from the sun by converting it into carbon bonds. When we break these bonds we change carbon from a stable/stored form back into carbon dioxide that insulates and warms the Earth.

As producers we may ourselves be dealing with increased volatility in managing our way through the weather. Our managerial skill sets and risk management capabilities are going to be tested and we can probably expect our crop insurance premiums to rise. Fortunately, the very opposite of this is also true from a farming perspective. Our job as ranchers or farmers is to capture as much solar energy as possible and convert it into carbon bonds.

Our plant populations grow by combining carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with water from the soil and using solar power to create new carbon bonds to build more forms of carbon such as soluble sugars and fibre. These sugars are then pushed around the plant, sent to roots and soil microbiota where they are further solidified and stored as “organic matter.”In short our job is to convert carbon dioxide into stored carbon.

If we are effective carbon managers, over the course of a growing season our plants will convert more carbon dioxide to solid carbon forms than we will release in our operations. The only effective way to do this is to ensure optimal plant growth, which in turn leads to enhanced production and hopefully profits as well.

This is the great news as it means that farmers should be a source of great hope for the world. As producers, we need to understand the science and forms of carbon as well as the power of what our plants do very clearly so that we can communicate that message repeatedly and effectively to policy-makers and the general public.

Agriculture is one of the very few industries in the world that offers a potential solution to the carbon issue. When done right it is nothing but a win-win scenario. Looking ahead there is a lot of work going into the next step, which is measuring our carbon balance, particularly on perennial grasslands.

In other words, how much carbon are we converting into its gaseous form versus how much as we converting into more solid forms. The truth is that we may not like some of the answers from this work and may have to change some practices but it is essential if we want to have a public argument about the solution that agriculture offers to the climate debate and want to receive payment for our contribution to the public solution.

A tax is designed to change behaviours and I can honestly say without a doubt I have seen a lot of behavioural change in Alberta in the last couple of months. Our own thermostat has been dropped a degree or two and our lights are turned out a lot quicker. That said, I have also seen a lot of carbon tax dollars wasted on ineffective, non-solutions to the issue such as solar panels on roofs and shutting down of power plants.

I truly believe farmers and ranchers are one of the most efficient and effective solutions to the carbon form issue since converting carbon dioxide to stored carbon is actually our job definition. If we can effectively sequester carbon, measure and prove what we are doing, I think we are more than entitled to our portion of the carbon tax revenues. I can support that scenario.

About the author


Sean McGrath is a rancher and consultant from Vermilion, Alta. He can be reached at [email protected] or (780) 853- 9673. For additional information visit



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