This is The ChangeUnderground for the 29th of May 2023.
I’m your host, Jon Moore
Decarbonise the Air, Recarbonise the Soil!
Rewetting peatlands is an important way to fight climate change. It helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions and allows carbon to be stored in the soil. In a study in Ireland, researchers compared a rewetted peatland with a drained area. They looked at how much carbon was released or stored in both places over five years.
The drained area released carbon into the atmosphere while the rewetted area absorbed carbon from the air, even though it also released some methane. The researchers used computer models to predict what plants would grow in the rewetted area and how it would affect the climate under different scenarios.
They found that the rewetted area helped cool the climate in some scenarios but not in others. It depended on how much carbon dioxide was released in the future. Overall, the study showed that rewetting drained peatlands quickly is important. It helps reduce carbon emissions, allows for carbon storage and can help cool the climate.
That’s a summary from the abstract for Carbon and climate implications of rewetting a raised bog in Ireland, first published 29 July 2022 in Climate Change Biology.
Rewetting and many of the other actions we will need to take, requires a change in mindset before action. This quote from the Irish Times 2nd April 2023 by Eoin Burke-Kennedy entitled: (Deep Breath) Ireland is undertaking one of Europe’s largest environmental projects. But farmers fear its effects
It’s perhaps the biggest reverse-engineering project ever undertaken by the State. Bord na Móna, set up in 1946, spent the first 80 years of its existence draining the bogs to extract peat. It will spend the next two decades, perhaps more, rewetting them in an attempt to reverse the process it was set up to exploit.
The volte-face can’t come quick enough. About 75 per cent of the raised bogs here have already been destroyed by peat-cutting, afforestation and reclamation for agriculture. They once covered a significant swathe of the Midlands, about 310,000 hectares, stretching across Offaly, Westmeath, Longford, Laois, Roscommon, Tipperary and into parts of Galway and east Mayo.
You can see the extent of the changes being undertaken. This takes some effort for an antipodean to come to grips with. Soil so wet it had to be drained, not just after a flood event but continuously, is a thing most uncommon in this wide brown land.
On our first trip to Ireland we stayed in a long farm house in County Clare, just out of LaHinch and I went looking for the broken plumbing. I could hear water running constantly. It was a confronting thing to come face to face with the reality of continuous drainage I’d read about in John Seymour’s Complete Book of Self Sufficiency. But there it was, water flowing out of paddocks at a fair clip. And this mindset of drainage reversal, in peatlands at least, is a difficult thing for those used to its opposite.
You can tell wet land even in a dry summer by the plants growing on it… (they) all give away the fact that, although dry in summer, it will be wet and waterlogged in the winter and should be drained.
And that’s from page 30 of the 1992 edition.
Draining and “improving” soil has been the standard western approach to agriculture since at least Roman times.
But can a wetted bog produce any food? Let’s look backwards to go forward. From Des Keenan’s Books on Irish History comes a quote from Chapter 8 of Pre-Famine Ireland:
The traditional Irish cow was small and black like the Welsh or Kerry breeds. The terms ‘black cattle’ and ‘horned cattle’ applied to cows, for the word ‘cattle’ itself could apply to horses. The Irish cow had a reputation for hardiness and an ability to survive, if not actually to fatten, on poor pastures. Some of the improved breeds were considered delicate and needing to be stall-fed. The rough grazing on the mountains and bogs was used in summer to pasture the cattle in common.
So things are changing, things need to and they will not be the same as they were but they needn’t be disastrous. Cattle, of the right sort, can run on bogs. Their productivity is another matter. When you compare say a Dexter Bull to a Simental we come up with the following figure: 360 kg or thereabouts vs up to 1300 kg. The difference in pressure per footstep becomes obvious. Clearly you can run more dexters per hectare than simental but then your handling costs increase and so on. If you only have access to rewetted bogs, I’m guessing you use dexters or Kerries. Solutions but are they profitable? One for the bean counters not moi.
The problem with the current systems, not just in Ireland but everywhere, is the concept of intensification. Pouring more and more fertiliser and water into a given piece of land to extract more and more income looks great from the individual’s income perspective but the aggregate effect is not good from a GHG perspective.
The issue is political as much as agricultural/ecological. We all know and we’ve all heard farmers saying no one cares for their land more than they do. And this is true enough but patterns of behaviour, the production systems and the old paradigm promoted by ag depts across the world, both government and university, have been pushing agriculture in particular directions. The Green Revolution being but one example. This isn’t an environmental revolution but one that developed out of western agriculture after WW2, was followed by technology transfer to the developing world and the entrapment of small area farmers into borrowing for the needed inputs, fertiliser, pesticides etc and hoping the crop would cover the debt with something over. To be fair, this occurred in the developed world too with disastrous consequences, environmentally and in human terms, across both levels of economic development.
Going back to the systems prior to the Green Revolution seems at first glance a nonstarter. So many more people, much longer supply chains, loss of locally adapted seed varieties to name just a few objections. I think the key is to shorten the supply lines whilst maintaining the possibility of rapid movement of staples, grains basically, in cases of emergency.
The best way to shorten supply lines is to grow gardens. In a piece by Steven Scott on the website, Small Farmer’s Journal, entitled: Russian Dacha Gardens, Scott discusses the Russian system:
Dacha gardening accounts for about 3% of the arable land used in agriculture, but grows an astounding 50% by value of the food eaten by Russians. According to official government statistics in 2000, over 35 million families (approximately 105 million people or 71% of the population) were engaged in dacha gardening. These gardens provide 92% of Russia’s potatoes, 77% of its vegetables, 87% of the berries and fruit, 59% of its meat and 49% of the milk produced nationally. There are several studies that indicate that these figures may be underestimated, as they don’t take into account the self-provisioning efforts of wild harvesting or foraging of wild-growing plants, berries, nuts and mushrooms, as well as fishing and hunting that contributes to the local food economy.
I understand this production may be a matter of necessity given the, shall be say, complex political and economic history of the Russian state in its many forms but the productivity is impressive. Fukuoka methods would significantly reduce the workload involved. The skillset to achieve these sorts of numbers is relatively easy to impart when compared to industrial agriculture.
The bonus would be, even if we take the 3% of arable and triple it, 91% is available for the restoration of biodiversity, soil carbon sequestration, reafforestation and wind/solar farms. I realise these are just back of the envelope calculations but I think they hold truly enough. Rewetting the boglands of Ireland may be one of the major first steps in saving humans from our own unintended consequences.
Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil!
Thank you all for listening and I’ll be back next week.
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Carbon and climate implications of rewetting a raised bog in Ireland
Russian Dacha Gardens