Carbon Negative Agriculture

James Wieser

Research by:
Jim Bell

I bought a book from Fungi this spring called “The Biochar Solution; Carbon Farming and climate change” by Albert Bates. The Biochar part sounded interesting but what caught my eye was the carbon farming part. This looked like a particularly interesting topic, I wondered how mycelium played a role in this equation. I have been involved in agriculture for a good 40+ years of my 50+ year existence. I was in charge of weeding the family vegetable garden as a child and had a nice wild flower garden of my own that I would mess with while I waited for the bus in the AM before school (much to the amusement of my classmates).  A few years back, 2008 to be exact, I had a jalapeno pepper plant that I had brought in from outdoors the year before. It was perfectly happy and thriving until I went out of town and my housemate didn’t open the curtains for the 8 days of my absence. When I got back the plant looked like reheated crap. I gave it TLC and nursed it along for 8 months or so but it just wasn’t happy and was teetering on the brink of death. I was getting ready to put the poor sucker out of its (my) misery when an unsolicited catalog showed up in the mail. It was from Fungi Perfecti, run by this guy named Paul Stamets.

Back to Biochar. So I am reading the book (cherry picked really, I got about ½ way through, I’ll pick the other ½ and analyze it at a later date. Fortunately, I have a short attention span, ADD and dyslexia) The first part was about the history of biochar’s invention/use in the Amazon and how it made the soil extra fertile in the form of Terra Preta or “black earth”, even to this day. Then I found what I was looking for. According to the book, there are two types of carbon that are important, labile and recalcitrant. It turns out that biochar is of the recalcitrant type of carbon.

Recalcitrant carbon is inorganic carbon which has a crystalline structure that is excellent for trapping life giving minerals/metals and as a soil structure that acts like a microbe “hotel”. My take, more or less, is that it is useful because Biochar has a tremendous amount of external AND internal surface area. This is perfect for the Amazon because with the amount of rainfall/flooding they get, you need shelter for minerals and microbes so they are not leached from the soil. Recalcitrant carbon sequesters 25-50% of the carbon from its source feed stock for 1000 years. This is interesting from a purely sequestration point of view if you have created a problem for yourself by dumping too much CO2 into the air that you need to fix. Recalcitrant carbon stays in the soil so long because it is inorganic and not bioavailable to fungi/microbes/plants. Now things got interesting. Labile carbon is the active/bioavailable type that may be in the form of a solid, liquid or a gas. Labile carbon from bioremediation sequesters less than 10-20% for 5-10 years. This carbon is the stuff life is made from and the existence of or lack of determines the fertility of the soil and therefore the bio diversity of the life in the soil.

After having become hooked on mycology, I picked through Paul’s book “Mycelium Running” and became completely addicted to mycology. I signed up for Paul Stamets classes on general cultivation and Mycoremediation in the spring/summer of 2009. I had never been outside of the city of Seattle in WA and I was just blown away. I grew up in the temperate forests of Connecticut and traveled much of the country but I have never seen a FORREST before till I got up to Paul’s place. The seminars were incredible. I knew his material cold and have a lot of lab experience so it wasn’t so much of an educational thing for me.

What was incredible was the interaction with other likeminded people, the location/lab/staff and of course Paul is an incredibly passionate and personable speaker. I highly recommend the courses if you have the time and money to attend. There were two things that I picked up there that made the trip worthwhile just as standalones (from a purely educational viewpoint.) First thing was the fermentation of substrate (mushroom food) to achieve pasteurization at room temperature. I stole this in a heartbeat and renamed it cold water pasteurization (people kept asking me how I was making beer out of woodchips and mushrooms when I talked about fermentation!!) I will elaborate on this point in the future. The second (and more important thing) was a microscopic real-time video that a friend of his, by the name of Patrick Hickey, had just sent to him. Mushrooms/mycelium definition; mycelium is like the roots of a plant and a mushroom is grown from the mycelium and represents the equivalent of fruit/seed to a plant. It was a time lapse view of the activity of the mycelium streaming nuclei through its hyphae. Mushrooms/mycelium are made of only one type of cell, hyphae. These are hair like strands that form all of the different types of structures that the mycelium makes. They are one cell wall thick and kick ass on just about everything else in their world.  Humans on the other hand, are made from thousands of different kinds of cells with 100s of cells in our skin between us and the environment but we still get worked over by microbes on a regular basis. What the electrograph showed was nuclei being streamed to the growing tips of the hyphae in the millions. In essence it was exploring and learning about the environment that it was in. Not only learning but apparently thinking and taking appropriate action to capitalize on what it learned. As I was watching the presentation in amazement one thing suddenly struck me like a clap of lightning. Not only was this organism streaming nuclei out to the tips but I noticed that some of the nuclei were streaming BACK into the organism. Now last I knew, mushrooms didn’t have a nervous system let alone a centralized brain to process information. Where was this information streaming back to and how does one process it without a brain??? What the heck was this all about??? We will get back to this topic.

Upon returning to Denver, I took the basic concepts of mycology that I had learned and mixed them in with my extensive knowledge of agriculture and started to see some incredible results. About this time I ran across the most important book I have ever had the pleasure to pick through. It’s a book/concept called Biomimicry by Jenine Benyus, . If you have not read this book (don’t understand the concept of Biomimicry) you cannot compete in creating the future. I read the first 3-4 chapters and mycelium was never mentioned but the application of the concept was very clear. In a nut shell, it says that life has been on earth for 3.8 billion years and in that time it has come across and solved any problem you may encounter from engineering to agriculture to communication to sustainable and efficient materials manufacturing. Take away; the future is not learning about nature but learning from it. Once my eyes and ears were open and my mouth was shut (picked my jaw up off the table), I quickly expanded my knowledge and ability to apply mycotechnology to my agricultural projects beyond the books and into uncharted territory. The first thing I invented (observed) was the Forest Floor Cultivation Technique. How this works is based on how a forest naturally operates with no help (interference really) from man. In a temperate forest, once a year, the plants/trees drop their leafs/biomass onto the ground. Saprophytic mycelium (mushrooms that are saprobes are autonomous and survive by moving from place to place and decomposing dead or decaying organic material) start to break down the primary materials into bioavailable compounds. This allows microbes and the mycorrhizal fungi associated with plant roots to finish the job and turn the rest of the material into purposefully bioavailable compounds for the plants. The plants take up the bio-usable compounds through the summer and the process starts all over again each fall. Every year the nutrients/carbon accumulate, they are not depleted. There are 10 distinct benefits that you get by decomposing these materials, in their natural position under the plants where they fell vs composting with bacteria. I will fully elaborate on this technique at a later date. This also means applying a new perception of cultivation, benevolent neglect vs agricultural labor.  What’s the difference?

This means you drop the raw materials you want your mushrooms to turn into plants for you on the top of the ground and you leave it alone. Preferably as close to where it grew as possible. What you do not to do/have; No tilling, no chemical fertilizer, little fungal, bacterial or viral problems (mycelium doesn’t generally put up with others messing with its food or home), a few easy to pull weeds, ½ your water use, add 10-20 degrees of heat to your winter greenhouse and vastly increase nutrient density of your food for starters. In the winter this doubles plant growth (they look like its summer year round) due to the fact that I capture almost 100% of the carbon contained in the plants vs composting. Carbon Negative Agriculture.

 Composting is labor intensive and non-productive, you lose ½ of the composted material as CO2 = pollution. Plus, you can’t eat the bacteria you use to decompose the material and home grown mushrooms are gourmet food if the rest of the advantages were not enough to get your attention. I have several DOZEN species of gourmet mushrooms growing my food for me. If this were an equation it would = year round practically free nutrient dense food. Mushrooms are nature’s farmers, employ them! They will work for your trash and love you for it. Think like a tree/plant, biomimic them, they drop their “trash” on the ground once a year to make a living. The ultimate in benevolent neglect and bio mimicry.

I moved from the grow facility that I had been at into a small bachelor pad house in 2011. I put my portable laminar flow hood right in the middle of the living room and went to town on indoor lab work. I had purposely had no TV or other forms of entertainment other than my mushroom cultures for the next year. Every flat spot in the house has some kind of mycological experiment going on. I literally lived, breathed and ate mushrooms for a year strait. This turned out to be one of the most important things I have done in my life. After being immersed for so long, I started to get into the “mind” of the mushrooms. More like the mycelium invaded my brain and gave me Mushroom Goggles. For all I know, according to Jim, I maybe just the first ant at the right time and place on top of the plant!! ;>)

fungus makes zombie ants article

What happened is that I started to think like a mushroom, to “see and hear” the world through a mushrooms “eyes and ears”. Note; think is not in quotations. What I mean by thinking like a mushroom is why, when & what it does and most importantly how it does what it does it and with the same purposeful intelligence that it uses. So, basically, for the last 6 years I have been obsessed with mushrooms. The only things I do outside of mycology is to eat and sleep practically. In my intense, monogamous relationship with mycelium I have learned a number of things that I consider to be mushroom facts;

Mushrooms are nature’s expert farmers.

Mushrooms are nature’s expert chemists.

Mushrooms are nature’s expert pharmacists.

Mushrooms are nature’s expert 3D spatial engineers.
Mushrooms and more intelligent, proficient and way more sustainable than human beings at the 4 enterprises above. Their ROI puts us to shame. We have a lot to learn from mycelium. Our future literally depends on it. This will need to be explored/proofed in detail at a later date.

Mycelium is a programmable, intelligent and autonomous agent that can be taught to execute specific behaviors and then be released into an environment to accomplish the tasks it has been assigned to do. Mycelial training will be explored in the future.

Fast forward back to Biochar, labile carbon specifically. Based solely on biomimicry and my knowledge of mycelium (thinking like a mushroom), my initial hypothesis was that the mycelium would not waste a valuable resource like carbon and it would capture it somehow for use by the plants/microbiota. I called up Jim Bell, my research partner. He has been running Practical Mycology out of Flagstaff for the last 30 years. A 1990 student of Paul’s, he is practically a walking mycoencyclopedia. I told him about my hypothesis, he agreed with my conclusions based on his existing research. I asked him to pull any academic/scientific papers that supported the hypothesis. He sent me too many articles (there are literally 100’s) about carbon and fungal-plant interactions. The paired down version/most pertinent are sprinkled through the rest of this article to support the suppositions I am making. Jim will be chiming in next to present his subjective interpretation of the research below in the near future.

Suggested Resources
  1. Mycorrhiza-mediated competition between plants and decomposers drives soil carbon storage.

olin Averill,1Benjamin L. Turner2, & Adrien C. Finzi3,

Nature 505, 543–545 (23 January 2014) doi:10.1038/nature12901

  1. Nutrient Acquisition Strategies of Fungi and Their Relation to Elevated Atmospheric CO²

Kathleen K. Treseder

Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Department of Earth System

Science, University of California, Irvine, California, USA  2004

  1. Root Exudation and Rhizosphere Biology1

Travis S. Walker1, Harsh Pal Bais1, Erich Grotewold4 and Jorge M. Vivanco * ,1,2,3

Plant Physiology May 2003 vol. 132 no. 1 44-51

  1. Specificity of plant-microbe interactions in the tree mycorrhizosphere

biome and consequences for soil C cycling

Carolyn Churchland and Sue J. Grayston*

Belowground Ecosystem Group, Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada  Front. Microbiol., 02 June 2014 | doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2014.00261

  1. The role of bacteria and mycorrhiza in plant sulfur supply

Front. Plant Sci., 16 December 2014 | doi: 10.3389/fpls.2014.00723

Jacinta Gahan and Achim Schmalenberger*

Department of Life Sciences, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland

Plant Communication from Biosemiotic Perspective

Differences in Abiotic and Biotic Signal Perception Determine Content Arrangement of Response Behavior. Context Determines Meaning of Meta-, Inter- and Intraorganismic Plant Signaling

Günther Witzany

Plant Signal Behav. 2006 Jul-Aug; 1(4): 169–178. PMCID: PMC2634023

  1. Fungal Bioconversion of Lignocellulosic Residues; Opportunities & Perspectives

Mehdi Dashtban,1,2 Heidi Schraft,2 and Wensheng Qin1,2,

Int J Biol Sci. 2009; 5(6): 578–595. Published online Sep 4, 2009.  PMCID: PMC2748470

  1. Metals, minerals and microbes: geomicrobiology and bioremediation

Geoffrey Michael Gadd

Division of Molecular Microbiology, College of Life Sciences, University of Dundee, Dundee DD1 5EH, UK

Microbial roles in elemental cycles Table

  1. Microbiology is the basis of sustainable agriculture: an opinion

I.A. Tikhonovich & N.A. Provorov

Department of Biotechnology, All-Russia Research Institute for Agricultural Microbiology, St.-Petersburg, Russia

Received: 21 October 2010; revised version accepted: 2 May 2011. doi:10.1111/j.1744-7348.2011.00489.x

  1. The Phosphate Equation

By Graeme Sait

Fungi and Phosphate

  1. GLOMALIN: Hiding Place for a Third of the World’s Stored Soil Carbon

USDA Agricultural Systems Research Unit – Sara Wright

  1. Soil aggregate stabilization by a saprophytic lignin-decomposing basidiomycete fungus

USDA Agricultural Systems Research Unit – Thecan Caesar

  1. Effects of Soil Aggregation and Tillage Practices on Soil Quality, Structure and Nutrient Cycling

USDA Agricultural Systems Research Unit – Thecan Caesar

  1. Agricultural Green Revolution as a driver of increasing atmospheric CO2 seasonal amplitude

Ning Zeng,1Fang Zhao,1George J. Collatz,2Eugenia Kalnay,1Ross J. Salawitch,1,

Tristram O. West3, & Luis Guanter4,

Nature 515, 394–397 (20 November 2014) doi:10.1038/nature13893

Published online 19 November 2014

  1. Evidence that decomposition rates of organic carbon in mineral soil do not vary with temperature

Christian P. Giardina1 & Michael G. Ryan2

Nature 404, 858-861 (20 April 2000) | doi:10.1038/35009076; Received 10 August 1999; Accepted 14 March 2000>

Suggested Articles
  1. Endophytic colonisation of squash by the fungal entomopathogen Beauveria bassiana (Ascomycota: Hypocreales) for managing Zucchini yellow mosaic virus in cucurbits

Lara R. Jabera* & Nida’ M. Salema

pages 1096-1109 Accepted author version posted online: 12 May 2014
Published online: 01 Jul 2014   DOI:10.1080/09583157.2014.923379

  1. Endophytic fungus decreases plant virus infections in meadow ryegrass (Lolium pratense)

Päivi T Lehtonen, Marjo Helander, Shahid A Siddiqui, Kirsi Lehto, Kari Saikkonen

DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2006.0499Published 22 December 2006

  1. Degradation, Phytoprotection and Phytoremediation of Phenanthrene by EndophytePseudomonas putida,PD1.

Zareen Khan, David Roman, Trent Kintz, May delas Alas, Raymond Yap, Sharon Doty

Environmental Science & Technology, 2014; 48 (20): 12221 DOI: 10.1021/es503880t

  1. Legacy effects of aboveground-belowground interactions.

Olga Kostenko, Tess F. J. Voorde, Patrick P. J. Mulder, Wim H. Putten, T. Martijn Bezemer.  Ecology Letters, 2012; DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2012.01801.x