Carbon: the back story
Carbon is an essential resource and one of the major building blocks for life. The climate problem arises when there is too much ‒ as a gas ‒ in the atmosphere.
With the meteoric rise of Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg over the past year global ecological ‘collapse’, as it is being styled, is rarely out of the news. Yet despite this new-found environmental awareness, there’s one topic that is still being overlooked. Soil.
Eden’s long history with soil goes back almost 25 years to the time some bright sparks had the audacious idea of growing a global garden in the crater of an old clay pit. Bodelva Pit may have been dripping with all the landscape drama of a Lost World, but it was completely lacking in soil – crucial for a place that intended to showcase plants.
A team of scientists was enlisted to solve the problem. Led by Dr Tony Kendle, then at the University of Reading but soon to join Eden as a director, and assisted by Drs Juliet Rose and Pete Whitbread-Abrutat they set about one of the largest soil creation projects the world had seen. A nearby clay pit was used as a giant mixing bowl in which sands, clay wastes and organic matter were blended in a range of recipes to suit plants from tropical rainforests through to semi-arid deserts. In the end, they made 83,000 tonnes of the stuff, literally ‘brown gold’ for a project which has always had astonishing horticulture at its core.
As a historical side note, this work might not have been possible were it not for the work of Tony Kendle’s PhD supervisor, Professor Tony Bradshaw of Liverpool University, half a century earlier. Bradshaw’s pioneering work on the revegetation of china clay wastes in the 1950s and ’60s was crucial to the success of Eden all those years later.
“Despite all our accomplishments, we owe our existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact it rains.”
Soil is the ultimate blend of rock, water, air, the dead and the living. It’s our mineral nutrient supplier, water reservoir and climate regulator – it stores over 10 billion tonnes of carbon. Under our feet lives a complex community of minibeasts, microbes and moles. I like to think of soil as the great unifying force. Without it, it’s hard to make sense of many of the planetary boundaries, indeed it’s hard to make sense of any socio-ecological issue at all. Without soils how could one begin to have a sensible conversation about rainforests, agriculture, food security or climate change?
Across Cornwall 65 farms of all types have joined The Soil Carbon Project, to understand how their soils store and build organic matter over time. Organic matter improves the quality of the soil as well as helping store water and carbon. Alex Bebbington of Agritech Cornwall who runs the project, said, ‘The government target is 3% organic matter, we can smash that down here!’