Connor Stedman: Carbon Farming

Climate change remains a hotly debated topic. But a scientific fact not up for dispute is the pronounced spike in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere over the past two centuries.

There's a building urgency to find solutions that can manage/reverse that spike -- a process known as carbon sequestration. But how to do that on a planetary scale? It's a massive predicament. And most of the 'solutions' being proposed are technologically unproven, prohibitively costly and/or completely impractical.

Enter carbon farming. It uses nature-based farming practices to park gigatons of carbon in the soil, rebuild soil health and complexity, and revitalize the nutrient density of the foods that we eat. It is quite likely the only practical -- and best -- way to sequester carbon at massive scale, as well as reap a multitude of by-product benefits.

In this week's podcast, field ecologist and agroforestry specialist Connor Stedman explains the science behind the carbon farming process:

For the last few million years of the Earth’s history, when there’s been this cycle of glaciers advancing and receding in the northern hemisphere, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has gone between about 180 parts per million and 280 parts per million. That is the band in which all of human history has happened, up until the last 200 or 300 years.

Now the concentration of carbon dioxide is about 407 parts per million, almost 50% higher than the upper end of that historical normal. Carbon dioxide is one of a number of greenhouse gases that hold heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, rather than it being fully reflected back out into space

To give you an image of the numbers involved here, to get down from 407 parts per million to 350 parts per million, we would have to remove at least 130 billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere and put it somewhere, plus zero net emissions beyond that. And because going to zero net emissions globally is not what’s going to happen, we’re going to have to take out quite a bit more than 130 billion tons. Most people are estimating between—even with rapid de-carbonization -- between 200 and 250 billion tons of carbon are going to have to be stored somehow.

Often when you read in the news about carbon sequestration, the main way it’s talked about is through geoengineering schemes and technologies. These include things like seeding clouds to increase the Earth’s albedo, the Earth’s reflective effect, so that more heat is reflected back into space. Or seeding the oceans with iron so that more carbon is stored in sea water. Or inventing nanomachines that would pull carbon out of the atmosphere and turn it into plastics directly. Or sucking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it in deep geologic structures. Or even more fanciful things like huge arrays of panels orbiting the Earth reflecting sunlight back out into space. It’s really wild, some of the things that are being talked about.

There are a few different problems with these geoengineering proposals. One of them is that they’re enormously expensive, in the many billions or even trillions of dollars. Another one is that most of them rely on totally unproven technology. I mean, this is like cold nuclear fusion category speculation in a lot of cases. And the third one is that they don’t address any other human problems. They’re a way for some of the people who have gotten very wealthy off of our current crisis to continue getting very wealthy off of the solution for it.

So, the big thought behind carbon farming is that we already have the technology needed to accomplish that level of sequestration. And it’s sequestration into ecosystems and land rather than into technological forms. And it’s sequestration using trees and wetlands and soil and living things that people have been working with for all of human history, rather than requiring a cutting-edge breakthrough.

And also, that carbon farming systems have the potential to address a lot of other human needs as well at the same time: needs around food security; needs around other forms of climate security, like resilience from flooding, resilience from drought and heat waves; and just a lot of other things that come with more biodiversity and more intensified and diverse food production. 

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Connor Stedman (57m:00s).

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Thanks for a great interview/discussion.
While I wholeheartedly endorse the type of agricultural approaches that Connor describes to sequester carbon in soils (more of a permaculture/regenerative agriculture approach), I’ve noticed that there are similar initiatives that appear to have identical aims that seem more geared to working within the prevailing industrial agricultural practices here in North America. So whenever you hear about sequestering soil in the carbon, not all initiatives are equal, and some are downright suspect.
With that in mind, I’d wonder if Connor or anyone else can comment on something that I have noticed with regards to initiatives to increase soil health to alleviate climate change and water quality:
One such initiative is backed by Monsanto and other industrial ag interests, and distressingly, a few large environmental organizations. [].
Among all of the practices that are fall under this particular initiative, one in particular catches my attention, and explains (I think) why Monsanto and others are backing this. You will often read about “conservation tillage” and “no till techniques” in promotional literature alongside of techniques like cover cropping, buffer strips, etc. What you never hear described is that conservation tillage and no-till techniques can be code for genetically engineered crops and herbicide- (often glysophate) based weed control methods. No-till agriculture with round-up ready soy and corn can theoretically increase soil carbon and decrease runoff, thereby providing carbon sequestration and water-quality benefit. But at what cost?
My fear is that these slick PR machines will cause most people who are interested in this kind of work to conflate the kind of practices advocated by the Soil Health Partnership vs. the Carbon Farming described by Connor. If I’m right, I wish there was a good way to better publicize this issue and raise a “greenwashing” alert…

Very uplifting podcast.
I began this interview skeptical that we could make a significant dent in the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. After all, fossil fuels represent layer upon layer of plant matter which had been grown and stored away over millenia without being burned. Anything we could do by storing one one layers worth of plant material seemed like a drop in a bucket by comparison. The idea that so much carbon could be stored in bacteria deep in the earth is new to me and very encouraging.
Unfortunately we will face very strong resistance from the entrenched farming and chemical interests. I fear that serious progress in this area won’t occur until those interests are themselves in serious financial trouble and no longer able to buy our political system.

This one may go outside Conner’s expertise but is related. How much effect does the chemical runoff from our soils into our oceans have on the ocean algae and other CO2 absorbing lifeforms?
The externalized costs of industrial ag are hard to calculate. But in many ways I think it is a mistake to try to dollarize nature. Nature is not a machine. To break apart the intricate complex parts of nature’s interactions and try and put $ value on them assumes we understand those interactions which are so complex that they can learn and adapt to changes on their own. It is for that reason the approach of cooperation with nature rather than control and conquest will be the long term winner.

Climate change remains a hotly debated topic
Nonsense. There has been no serious debate about it in scientific circles for decades now. It's only the morons in the US that think it's a controversial topic. Sad to see you fall prey to this crap. No doubt you will not publish this comment, but please, GET A CLUE!

As long as we continue to rip up the soil, cut down the trees, drain swamps and burn carbon, these concerns will be no more than a fart in a wind storm. Sure, the fires in BC this summer and the fires in California are catasrophic, but unless we are actively leaving established forests, wetlands and grasslands in an untrammeled existence, we shouldn’t expect to see anything less than what we are seeing. The indigenous populations of North America had this figured out centuries ago. It’s just that all of us recent immigrants (post 1500) are slow learners and overly greedy. Leave the roots alone - they’ll bounce back.…

A great podcast. Down to the core of our deepest problems and deepest solutions. Isnt it funny that the “primitive” people had it right. Observe nature and be a part of her. Go with the flow. Isn’t It such a profound irony that when we took the carbon stuff out of the ground that baked for a million years and spewed it into our atmosphere in 150 we also, through the power of the machine, started tearing apart the living carbon with exponential force and spewed that as well. Mother will be mad.
It is true that Monsanto is trying to steal the conversation. A shocker, I know. It’s war for them and war was (and is) their first product. But don’t confuse no till with Monsanto spies and lies. No till is exactly how nature works. Ripping apart the soil is like tearing off your skin. Like most living things, the soil is meant to have some skin in game - in the form of permanent perennial life, dead and decaying matter, tree leaves, animal droppings and a billion other things. Till also tears up all the living things under the skin - which is the only thing worse than tearing off your outer skin. So all by all measure, “modern” AG turns out to be one of the deadliest and dumbest things we’ve ever done.
The good news is like all mothers, the earth is pretty forgiving and great at repairs. Permaculture can indeed be use on all scales, and as the guests from Singing Frogs pointed out, for a 100 reasons, it makes more sense to have 100 small farms near the populace than one corporate one a 100 times the size. In fact, small scale has indeed shown that it is, in the end, more productive per square foot. Gardening vs “farming.”
I couldn’t agree more with Connor on his plug for Eric Toensmeier. Great books, great work. While Connor pointed out that different ecosystems raise different challenges, I would point people to one of the demi-gods of permaculture, Geoff Lawton who has shown us that we can re-green the desert with the right design, the right plants and the right natural water capture.
And water is going to end up being the most significant crisis element of all I fear. But once again, keeping the earth healthy brings the water back and holds it. Intelligent design, like Lawton’s work in Jordan, can also increase its capture in healthy regenerative ways.

Connor’s comment that most of the carbon dumped into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution is from landscape alteration rather than the burning of fossil fuels has a large impact on the climate change debate. I frequently hear from climate change disbelievers that the increased temperatures predate the industrial revolution and are therefore attributable to something else like increased solar activity However, large scale farming and conversion of forest to farmland lead the use of fossil fuels and from his comment this would explain the earlier rise in measured temperatures.
An interview with someone knowledgeable about this would be much appreciated.
Ps / Psst: Don’t tell Pruitt it says that

I believe this is the most promising solution out there. I also believe it presents a tremendous opportunity. Harnessing the power of biology to hold more carbon, more water, increase biodiversity, increase nutrient density, reduce fuel use, and reduce or eliminate chemical use (and thus pollution). What more could we ask for?
Well it can also be more profitable over time. Less inputs with equal or greater productivity equals more profits. I can’t think of anything better to be doing to try to improve our world right now than this. That’s why I’m working on establishing a large scale agroforestry system here in upstate NY. My thought is that by demonstrating these systems can be designed and run profitably at scale is the surest means to have them widely adopted. We don’t need more research and studies, we need trees in the ground!
Yes the upfront costs are a hurdle for most farmers, and that’s why partnerships with investment capital need to be formed. Once established the costs are greatly reduced and these perennial systems can last for generations. The long term cash flow potential actually represents a tremendous opportunity for investors in this yield and income starved environment. There is also the opportunity to diversify from financial assets and a built in inflation hedge as in timber. Nice side benefit of healing some of the damage we’ve done to natural systems.
Great interview! This hopeful message needs to be shared more widely.

As the owner of a small farm who raises grass-fed and pastured animals, soil health is core to my success. The fact is, reducing tillage and using cover crops increases soil organic matter (sequesters carbon) and improves the microbial diversity and population in the soil. That is independent of the type of seed used for annual crops. Cover crops can also reduce weed populations, which allows farmers to reduce the use of herbicides. I’m no fan of GM crops, primarily because of the use of glyphosate. That is toxic to human gut microbes, chelates critical soil minerals and makes crops less nutritious, etc. But a farmer who risks (at least part of) his livelihood by using new practices like no-till and cover crops is doing good for his soil, the ecosystem, and society, compared to NOT using these practices. Certified Organic farming with intense tillage has its own issues, as does monocropping, as does use of GMO seeds.
I recently read a great book by David Montgomery, titled “Growing a Revolution”. He investigates restorative agriculture techniques and concludes that Organic and agribusiness might be converging on a set of best practices: 1) minimize tilling 2) keep the soil covered (cover crops, litter, mulch, crop residue) 3) avoid mono-cropping . These practices improve soil health and reduce the weed population, which makes farming more profitable and less environmentally destructive.

Seems to me that if the functional choice (considering the degree of embeddedness of industrial agriculture in our society) ends up being long-term chronic reliance on GMO-reliant no-till or limited till agriculture vs conventional tillage with non-GMO crops, there are going to be devastating consequences either way. So while I recongize that GMO use can have the advertised environmental outcome (and related societal) benefits in terms of soil carbon and water quality, I’d stop well short of describing the use of these techniques - particularly if done in perpetuity, as “good”. I know the issue is much more complex that this simple either/or choice that I’ve articulated, but my oversimplification is more illustrative than not, I think.
Permaculture with increasing reliance on perennial crops is more hopeful and fundamentally sustainable, but we are far, far away from where we should be on its adoption. And I do firmly believe that there are efforts afoot to normalize and perpetuate glysohphate GMO no-till techniques in the name of environmental benefit that need to be called out.
We can have an interesting and reasonably well-informed back and forth discussion of these issues on this site, but when it comes to the general public, they will be apt to take some big green NGO’s stamp of approval on GMO reliant food production practices at face value (considering that the GMO use will be hidden from view beneath the terms “no-till” and “conservation tillage”). That to me is concerning.

We live in a regimented, networked system of hives. The 300+ million Americans survive and exist within it. Regimintation rules the world. The system depends on energy, and lots of it. The 130 billion tons of carbon that “needs” to be sequestered isn’t going to be. Not by humans or machines. Moving 130 billion tons anywhere any distance is impossible. The energy to support the industry of moving 130 billion tons doesn’t exist for humanity to exploit.

We live in a regimented, networked system of hives. The 300+ million Americans survive and exist within it. Regimintation rules the world. The system depends on energy, and lots of it. The 130 billion tons of carbon that “needs” to be sequestered isn’t going to be. Not by humans or machines. Moving 130 billion tons anywhere any distance is impossible. The energy to support the industry of moving 130 billion tons doesn’t exist for humanity to exploit.

It's unclear if he is referring to the idea of sequestering carbon in phytoliths or to another mechanism?
There have been several papers in the last 10 years (principally by Song, Parr and Sullivan) following up on an original one by Parr and Sullivan that claim great things for phytolith carbon sequestration. Santos, Alexandre, Corbineau, Ryerson and others have challenged this. See most recently "The phytolith carbon sequestration concept: Fact or fiction?" by Santos and Alexandre (2017)
I recently became interested in this and was surprised to find the rather severe disconnect between the two camps of researchers.