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Reproducing the Amazon's black soil could bolster fertility and remove carbon from atmosphere
Cornell ^ | 02/18/06 | Cornell

Posted on 02/18/2006 10:15:42 PM PST by Moonman62

ST. LOUIS -- The search for El Dorado in the Amazonian rainforest might not have yielded pots of gold, but it has led to unearthing a different type of gold mine: some of the globe's richest soil that can transform poor soil into highly fertile ground.

That's not all. Scientists have a method to reproduce this soil -- known as terra preta, or Amazonian dark earths -- and say it can pull substantial amounts of carbon out of the increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere, helping to prevent global warming. That's because terra preta is loaded with so-called bio-char -- similar to charcoal.

"The knowledge that we can gain from studying the Amazonian dark earths, found throughout the Amazon River region, not only teaches us how to restore degraded soils, triple crop yields and support a wide array of crops in regions with agriculturally poor soils, but also can lead to technologies to sequester carbon in soil and prevent critical changes in world climate," said Johannes Lehmann, assistant professor of biogeochemistry in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at Cornell University, speaking today (Feb. 18) at the 2006 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Lehmann, who studies bio-char and is the first author of the 2003 book "Amazonian Dark Earths: Origin, Properties, Management," the first comprehensive overview of the black soil, said that the super-fertile soil was produced thousands of years ago by indigenous populations using slash-and-char methods instead of slash-and-burn. Terra preta was studied for the first time in 1874 by Cornell Professor Charles Hartt.

Whereas slash-and-burn methods use open fires to reduce biomass to ash, slash-and-char uses low-intensity smoldering fires covered with dirt and straw, for example, which partially exclude oxygen.

Slash-and-burn, which is commonly used in many parts of the world to prepare fields for crops, releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Slash-and-char, on the other hand, actually reduces greenhouse gases, Lehmann said, by sequestering huge amounts of carbon for thousands of years and substantially reducing methane and nitrous oxide emissions from soils.

"The result is that about 50 percent of the biomass carbon is retained," Lehmann said. "By sequestering huge amounts of carbon, this technique constitutes a much longer and significant sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide than most other sequestration options, making it a powerful tool for long-term mitigation of climate change. In fact we have calculated that up to 12 percent of the carbon emissions produced by human activity could be offset annually if slash-and-burn were replaced by slash-and-char."

In addition, many biofuel production methods, such as generating bioenergy from agricultural, fish and forestry waste, produce bio-char as a byproduct. "The global importance of a bio-char sequestration as a byproduct of the conversion of biomass to bio-fuels is difficult to predict but is potentially very large," he added.

Applying the knowledge of terra preta to contemporary soil management also can reduce environmental pollution by decreasing the amount of fertilizer needed, because the bio-char helps retain nitrogen in the soil as well as higher levels of plant-available phosphorus, calcium, sulfur and organic matter. The black soil also does not get depleted, as do other soils, after repeated use.

"In other words, producing and applying bio-char to soil would not only dramatically improve soil and increase crop production, but also could provide a novel approach to establishing a significant, long-term sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide," said Lehmann. He noted that what is being learned from terra preta also can help farmers prevent agricultural runoff, promote sustained fertility and reduce input costs.


TOPICS: Business/Economy; Culture/Society
KEYWORDS: biochar; blackearth; co2; globalwarming; terrapreta
Today's CO2 is tommorrow's fertilizer.
1 posted on 02/18/2006 10:15:43 PM PST by Moonman62
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To: Moonman62

Yea, we are saved!!! I won't kill myself now....


2 posted on 02/18/2006 10:21:35 PM PST by There You Go Again
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To: Moonman62

I thought this was a thread about Ray Nagin. ;-D


3 posted on 02/18/2006 10:23:30 PM PST by fieldmarshaldj (Cheney X -- Destroying the Liberal Democrat Traitors By Any Means Necessary -- Ya Dig ? Sho 'Nuff.)
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To: Moonman62

more hyperbole built on an idea.

I think that world peace can be spread with pre-marital male promiscuity!!!

But I'm not getting published.


4 posted on 02/18/2006 10:23:43 PM PST by wickedpinto (The road map to peace is a straight line down an Israeli rifle.)
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To: cogitator

ping


5 posted on 02/18/2006 10:36:32 PM PST by Moonman62 (Federal creed: If it moves tax it. If it keeps moving regulate it. If it stops moving subsidize it)
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To: Moonman62

Heck, concrete pulls CO2...


6 posted on 02/18/2006 10:37:36 PM PST by endthematrix (None dare call it ISLAMOFACISM!)
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To: Moonman62

So we are going to be saved by a farming technique used by savages thousands of years ago. Wonderful. And all of our energy needs will be met by cold fusion, and that perpetual motion machine invented by that guy in the 1700s will finally be figured out and save us, too.


7 posted on 02/18/2006 10:40:19 PM PST by KellyAdmirer
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To: Moonman62

Did this article just advocate burning down rain forests?


8 posted on 02/18/2006 10:49:14 PM PST by coconutt2000 (NO MORE PEACE FOR OIL!!! DOWN WITH TYRANTS, TERRORISTS, AND TIMIDCRATS!!!! (3-T's For World Peace))
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To: KellyAdmirer
So we are going to be saved by a farming technique used by savages thousands of years ago.

After seeing the replies on this thread I'm wondering who the savages really are. I don't know for sure whether CO2 is causing global warming, but my guess so far is that it is not. However, CO2 is increasing year after year. That's a fact. If this technique works it could have a very positive impact on agricultural productivity as well as lowering CO2 atmospheric concentration, whether that matters or not. This or any other technological adaptation certainly beats giving into the anti-capitalists and signing something stupid like Kyoto.

If you have some knowledge on why this technique won't work, please share your knowledge instead of joining the peanut gallery and making a smartass comment.

9 posted on 02/18/2006 10:50:52 PM PST by Moonman62 (Federal creed: If it moves tax it. If it keeps moving regulate it. If it stops moving subsidize it)
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To: Moonman62

Oh, but I love making smartass comments. Go do some slash and crash or whatever it is and show us the way to salvation.


10 posted on 02/18/2006 10:51:51 PM PST by KellyAdmirer
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To: coconutt2000
Did this article just advocate burning down rain forests?

No, but slash and burn is already happening, so why not do it a better way?

11 posted on 02/18/2006 10:53:46 PM PST by Moonman62 (Federal creed: If it moves tax it. If it keeps moving regulate it. If it stops moving subsidize it)
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To: Moonman62

Sure, but if it works so well.... Why stop with what is normally slash and burned! ;-)

Who needs rain forest anyway?


12 posted on 02/18/2006 10:56:18 PM PST by coconutt2000 (NO MORE PEACE FOR OIL!!! DOWN WITH TYRANTS, TERRORISTS, AND TIMIDCRATS!!!! (3-T's For World Peace))
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To: Moonman62
The search for El Dorado in the Amazonian rainforest might not have yielded pots of gold, but it has led to unearthing a different type of gold mine: some of the globe's richest soil that can transform poor soil into highly fertile ground.

How interesting, I remember a decade ago how the enviromentalists stated that the soil in the Amazon jungle was to poor in nutrients for farming crops.

13 posted on 02/18/2006 10:56:30 PM PST by Paul C. Jesup
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To: Paul C. Jesup

It is very poor in its natural state, but these patches of black earth are man made and thousands of years old.


14 posted on 02/18/2006 11:19:53 PM PST by Moonman62 (Federal creed: If it moves tax it. If it keeps moving regulate it. If it stops moving subsidize it)
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To: coconutt2000
IMO, I would be all for it.

In the next few years the countries near the rainforests are going to become agricultural powerhouses by using already existing agricultural technology from the United States. They have growing seasons that last all year.

15 posted on 02/18/2006 11:24:07 PM PST by Moonman62 (Federal creed: If it moves tax it. If it keeps moving regulate it. If it stops moving subsidize it)
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To: coconutt2000
Did this article just advocate burning down rain forests?

I think it advocates charring the rainforest into wholesome black dirt. Apparently this is completely different from burning it into evil black cinders. Gee, I thought everybody knew this... /sarcasm

16 posted on 02/19/2006 12:48:05 AM PST by XHogPilot (Islamophobia is NOT an illness. They really are out to kill us!)
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To: Moonman62
Watch these suckers succeed! Then we get to hear about Repubs causing another Ice Age!

Bushes fault!

17 posted on 02/19/2006 12:49:53 AM PST by rawcatslyentist ("If it's brown, drink it down. If it's black, send it back" -Homers guide to drinking in Springfield)
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To: Moonman62
Amazonian Dark Earths: Origin, Properties, Management
I knew there must be a good reason I didn't read the book. Its 523 pages about dirt for $149 buckeroos on Amazon.com!
18 posted on 02/19/2006 12:54:47 AM PST by XHogPilot (Islamophobia is NOT an illness. They really are out to kill us!)
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To: Moonman62

Some useful comments on slash and char.

There was a very interesting story on public television a few months ago. It seems that when Pizarro and his men invaded Peru in the 1500's, he ran into some trouble and sent a group of men down the Amazon in boats to try to get some help from the Atlantic coast. One of the officers of this expedition wrote in great detail about this very difficult trip.

The thing that amazed me was that there were very large quantities of people living rather well along the shore. I could be wrong, but I think the figure several million was mentioned in the program. Apparently, Pizarro's men were treated well by some of these people. Then of course the Old World gave the New World the gift of Measles and Smallpox and all these towns and cities disappeared. Now in the jungles of the Amazon, the only natives are small very hidden primative tribes. Probably they survived because of their isolation.

In all fairness I should mention that the New World gave the Old World the gift of Syphilis (known in those days as the Pox), but I still think the Americans got the worst end of the deal. At any rate these soils are probably a remnant of what was once a very successful civilization.


19 posted on 02/19/2006 1:24:55 AM PST by gleeaikin (Question Authority)
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To: KellyAdmirer
So we are going to be saved by a farming technique used by savages thousands of years ago.

I'm very interested in how you know that these people were savages, since no living person has ever had any contact with these peoples. They died out from diseases indavertantly brought to the New World by explorers. They died of these diseases spreading through the indigenous populations without these remote peoples ever knowing where the diseases came from or how to deal with them.

What we do know is that they maintained populations of millions in areas that are now near wilderness. There isn't any reason to think that they were savages, as they were settled agricultural peoples who built massive earthen causeways and raised hillocks for settlement - often nearly a mile across. They lived in villages and towns with populations numbering well into the thousands. They terraformed the Amazon basin, leaving their man-made fertile soils for us to marvel over. They are the exact opposite of the "noble savage" leftists like to fantacize over.

Among all the evidence available to us, I'm not aware of a single element that would lead me to call these ancient peoples savages.

20 posted on 02/19/2006 1:25:14 AM PST by John Valentine
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To: wickedpinto
more hyperbole built on an idea.

a solution in search of a problem...

21 posted on 02/19/2006 1:35:47 AM PST by Publius6961 (Multiculturalism is the white flag of a dying country)
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To: KellyAdmirer
Oh, but I love making smartass comments. Go do some slash and crash or whatever it is and show us the way to salvation.

What's even funnier and made me smile is that this "legend in his own mind" is ignorant of what a bright Jr. High Schooler knows: One can't prove a negative.

22 posted on 02/19/2006 1:38:56 AM PST by Publius6961 (Multiculturalism is the white flag of a dying country)
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To: Paul C. Jesup

[i]How interesting, I remember a decade ago how the enviromentalists stated that the soil in the Amazon jungle was to poor in nutrients for farming crops.[/i]

And if I recall correctly, this was discovered by someone who was trying to study how such an advanced civilization could have ever thrived there prior to Spanish invasion. . .

I think it was some sort of bacteria in the soil, and the ancient civilization knew how to cultivate the bacteria. One truckful they said, could be spread around an acre, and with a few years the entire acre would be the new type of bacterially infested soil.

Then they did the yield tests, and the bacteria treated (but otherwise poor) rainforest soil out-performed all the other modern fertilizers.


There is a good chance this ancient technology will have a profound impact on future economics!


23 posted on 02/19/2006 1:44:46 AM PST by kaotic133
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To: gleeaikin
I could be wrong, but I think the figure several million was mentioned in the program. Apparently, Pizarro's men were treated well by some of these people.

I have read many accounts of early Spanish explorations and can't recall anything this silly, particularly from published versions in the original Spanish journals and diaries.

It's hard to imagine the likelihood of a group focused on reaching the coast for help stopping to make a census involving several million people even assuming such a thing were practicable.
Most likely this historical invention will be repeated over and over until its nonsensical presmise is assumed to be genuine. The artful interpretation of someone not versed in the practicalities of a large scale census in a wild jungle setting.

24 posted on 02/19/2006 1:46:22 AM PST by Publius6961 (Multiculturalism is the white flag of a dying country)
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To: Moonman62

You obviously do not understand what you tag line means with your ecoliberal lets regulate it attitude. Tell me why it won't work or I do it eh. Moonman!


25 posted on 02/19/2006 1:53:45 AM PST by Modok
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To: John Valentine
...since no living person has ever had any contact with these peoples. They died out from diseases indavertantly [sic] brought to the New World by explorers.

Now there's a historically significant trick: kill millions of gentle savages from diseases inadvertently introduced by those nasty European white guys but not as living persons who ever had contact with them. They must have used either dead guys or the post office... but I repeat myself...

26 posted on 02/19/2006 1:54:06 AM PST by Publius6961 (Multiculturalism is the white flag of a dying country)
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To: kaotic133

SO they are going to tear out the jungle for it's dirt. LOL!! Not that is poetic justice.


27 posted on 02/19/2006 1:56:51 AM PST by Paul C. Jesup
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To: John Valentine
I've also read The Flat Earth and The Hollow Earth, too. Isn't it remarkable how speculation can be limitless if no documentation is ever provided for outrageous claims?
Wait. They all disappeared due to the white man diseases; all the millions of them with no remnants or traces of libraries to explain how it was all possible. How convenient.

The best indicator that whatever number existed were savages is the simple knowledge that they are almost entirely gone.

28 posted on 02/19/2006 2:00:33 AM PST by Publius6961 (Multiculturalism is the white flag of a dying country)
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To: Publius6961
I've also read The Flat Earth and The Hollow Earth, too. Isn't it remarkable how speculation can be limitless if no documentation is ever provided for outrageous claims?

So you've been to Brazil and northern Bolivia, spent years there, and also read all of this guy's scientific papers, right?

29 posted on 02/19/2006 2:23:45 AM PST by Strategerist
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To: Publius6961

Um, I think that he meant "no person still living today ever had contact with them." Whether or not the claim is true (about the millions of people in that civilization), anyone who had contact with them is dead now. :)


30 posted on 02/19/2006 2:50:06 AM PST by Some hope remaining.
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To: Publius6961

The program was based on a detailed journal kept by one of the leaders of the expedition to the coast. They stopped among the towns because they needed food and boat repairs. The shores were extensively settled for many miles according to his reports. He kept a very detailed account because he was afraid he would get into trouble for not going back with food and supplies to help Pizarro (against the Amazon's current). He was also trying to make a complete report for the king's information. Extensive reports of this type were common in that era.

I have also read original reports in Spanish of the early explorers/conquerors. "Cortez' Five Letters to King Carlos" of Spain was one. This was an official report like the one prepared by the Spaniard traveling down the Amazon. The diary of Bernal Diaz, one of Cortez' lieutenants was another. Both books were the length of a modern novel. They were very detailed and agreed on most points. I deliberately read them concurrently to check that aspect. They size and complexity of Mexican civilizations was extremely impressive in their reports.


31 posted on 02/19/2006 3:06:35 AM PST by gleeaikin (Question Authority)
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To: Publius6961
I've also read The Flat Earth and The Hollow Earth, too. Isn't it remarkable how speculation can be limitless if no documentation is ever provided for outrageous claims?

Wait. They all disappeared due to the white man diseases; all the millions of them with no remnants or traces of libraries to explain how it was all possible. How convenient.

The best indicator that whatever number existed were savages is the simple knowledge that they are almost entirely gone.

This is the most ignorant crap I have ever seen posted on Free Republic. It's one thing to be mistaken, it's quite another to be intentionally stupid and uninformed. You are not merely intentionally ignorant and uninformed, you are PROUD of it!

My advice to you sir, is read a book. Hell, go for broke, read TWO! And not zombie trash like "The Flat Earth" or "The Hollow Earth".

Why not start with "1491"?

32 posted on 02/19/2006 3:33:11 AM PST by John Valentine
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To: Moonman62
Excerpt from 1491 by Charles C. Mann (c. 2002)

Planting their orchards, the first Amazonians transformed large swaths of the river basin into something more pleasing to human beings. In a widely cited article from 1989, William Balée, the Tulane anthropologist, cautiously estimated that about 12 percent of the nonflooded Amazon forest was of anthropogenic origin—directly or indirectly created by human beings. In some circles this is now seen as a conservative position. "I basically think it's all human-created," Clement told me in Brazil. He argues that Indians changed the assortment and density of species throughout the region. So does Clark Erickson, the University of Pennsylvania archaeologist, who told me in Bolivia that the lowland tropical forests of South America are among the finest works of art on the planet. "Some of my colleagues would say that's pretty radical," he said, smiling mischievously. According to Peter Stahl, an anthropologist at the State University of New York at Binghamton, "lots" of botanists believe that "what the eco-imagery would like to picture as a pristine, untouched Urwelt [primeval world] in fact has been managed by people for millennia." The phrase "built environment," Erickson says, "applies to most, if not all, Neotropical landscapes."

"Landscape" in this case is meant exactly—Amazonian Indians literally created the ground beneath their feet. According to William I. Woods, a soil geographer at Southern Illinois University, ecologists' claims about terrible Amazonian land were based on very little data. In the late 1990s Woods and others began careful measurements in the lower Amazon. They indeed found lots of inhospitable terrain. But they also discovered swaths of terra preta—rich, fertile "black earth" that anthropologists increasingly believe was created by human beings.

Terra preta, Woods guesses, covers at least 10 percent of Amazonia, an area the size of France. It has amazing properties, he says. Tropical rain doesn't leach nutrients from terra preta fields; instead the soil, so to speak, fights back. Not far from Painted Rock Cave is a 300-acre area with a two-foot layer of terra preta quarried by locals for potting soil. The bottom third of the layer is never removed, workers there explain, because over time it will re-create the original soil layer in its initial thickness. The reason, scientists suspect, is that terra preta is generated by a special suite of microorganisms that resists depletion. "Apparently," Woods and the Wisconsin geographer Joseph M. McCann argued in a presentation last summer, "at some threshold level ... dark earth attains the capacity to perpetuate—even regenerate itself—thus behaving more like a living 'super'-organism than an inert material."

In as yet unpublished research the archaeologists Eduardo Neves, of the University of São Paulo; Michael Heckenberger, of the University of Florida; and their colleagues examined terra preta in the upper Xingu, a huge southern tributary of the Amazon. Not all Xingu cultures left behind this living earth, they discovered. But the ones that did generated it rapidly—suggesting to Woods that terra preta was created deliberately. In a process reminiscent of dropping microorganism-rich starter into plain dough to create sourdough bread, Amazonian peoples, he believes, inoculated bad soil with a transforming bacterial charge. Not every group of Indians there did this, but quite a few did, and over an extended period of time.

When Woods told me this, I was so amazed that I almost dropped the phone. I ceased to be articulate for a moment and said things like "wow" and "gosh." Woods chuckled at my reaction, probably because he understood what was passing through my mind. Faced with an ecological problem, I was thinking, the Indians fixed it. They were in the process of terraforming the Amazon when Columbus showed up and ruined everything.

Scientists should study the microorganisms in terra preta, Woods told me, to find out how they work. If that could be learned, maybe some version of Amazonian dark earth could be used to improve the vast expanses of bad soil that cripple agriculture in Africa—a final gift from the people who brought us tomatoes, corn, and the immense grasslands of the Great Plains.

33 posted on 02/19/2006 4:12:59 AM PST by John Valentine
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To: coconutt2000
Did this article just advocate burning down rain forests?

We have a winner!

34 posted on 02/19/2006 4:45:18 AM PST by combat_boots (Dug in and not budging an inch. NOT to be schiavoed, greered, or felosed as a patient)
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To: Moonman62
Interesting article. One good thing about it, farmers are "early adopters", and once the information gets into the Aggie (A&M) research universities, it WILL be tested in the real world.

Sounds like a possible answer to all that "wildfire-causing" undergrowth in western forests.

35 posted on 02/19/2006 5:23:18 AM PST by Wonder Warthog (The Hog of Steel)
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To: kaotic133
I think it was some sort of bacteria in the soil, and the ancient civilization knew how to cultivate the bacteria. One truckful they said, could be spread around an acre, and with a few years the entire acre would be the new type of bacterially infested soil.

But for the microbes to do their job, the soil has to be conditioned with charred material first. Once that happens, some of the soil can be mined, and if enough is left it will regenerate.

36 posted on 02/19/2006 9:07:17 AM PST by Moonman62 (Federal creed: If it moves tax it. If it keeps moving regulate it. If it stops moving subsidize it)
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To: Wonder Warthog
Interesting article. One good thing about it, farmers are "early adopters", and once the information gets into the Aggie (A&M) research universities, it WILL be tested in the real world.

It remains to be seen whether this technique would produce better yields than modern agriculture. It may be more economical, especially in poorer regions. I wouldn't be surprised either that a sample of the microbes in the Amazonian soil would be needed to "seed" any North American fields that use this technique.

37 posted on 02/19/2006 9:46:02 AM PST by Moonman62 (Federal creed: If it moves tax it. If it keeps moving regulate it. If it stops moving subsidize it)
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To: Modok
You obviously do not understand what you tag line means with your ecoliberal lets regulate it attitude.

Nowhere do I advocate more regulation, though some amount of regulation is desirable. My tagline is from Reagan, and he too had to remind people that he was neither Libertarian or Anarchist, and that some amount of government is a good thing. He was also a proponent of technological advancement, and experimenting with new ideas.

I do advocate researching this soil technique and experimenting with it. Dismissing it out of hand with puerile comments does nothing to advance Conservatism.

38 posted on 02/19/2006 9:58:52 AM PST by Moonman62 (Federal creed: If it moves tax it. If it keeps moving regulate it. If it stops moving subsidize it)
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To: Moonman62

Do you have any sources for purchase of a non sterile sample of this soil?


39 posted on 02/19/2006 9:59:01 AM PST by tertiary01
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To: John Valentine

Thanks for the book excerpt. If it was published in 2002, I take it that they've only recently discovered how this soil was created. I would like to see what would happen if this soil technique was combined with modern agricultural technology.


40 posted on 02/19/2006 10:22:37 AM PST by Moonman62 (Federal creed: If it moves tax it. If it keeps moving regulate it. If it stops moving subsidize it)
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To: tertiary01

No, but I imagine you aren't the first to ask. I suggest Google. Do you want to try some in your potting soil?


41 posted on 02/19/2006 10:24:12 AM PST by Moonman62 (Federal creed: If it moves tax it. If it keeps moving regulate it. If it stops moving subsidize it)
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To: Moonman62

I have access to lots of charcoal and charred wood, and would like to experiment to see if these soils could be produced in a dryer climate.

Here's another article:

http://www.newfarm.org/columns/research_paul/2006/0106/charcoal.shtml


42 posted on 02/19/2006 10:39:19 AM PST by tertiary01
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To: Moonman62
"I wouldn't be surprised either that a sample of the microbes in the Amazonian soil would be needed to "seed" any North American fields that use this technique."

Me either. But this certainly sounds like a potentially very "fertile" (no pun intended) area of reseach for a lot of the "Soil Science" researchers at the A&M universities.

43 posted on 02/19/2006 4:26:21 PM PST by Wonder Warthog (The Hog of Steel)
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To: tertiary01

Another interesting article: http://www.eprida.com/hydro/yahoo2004.htm

And interesting site in general:
http://www.eprida.com/hydro/


44 posted on 03/03/2006 2:26:51 PM PST by Some hope remaining.
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