The Yellow-Green Transition
An explanation of living regenerative system and the central role of soil life
By Oane Galama
In natural systems cyclic material and energy flows are coiled up in the process of forming organic matter from inorganic matter, building biomass from dirt and thin air, and eventually the disassembly of organic matter back to their inorganic building blocks.
It requires a great deal of energy to build organic matter from elements. This building process to form greens is powered by the sun (yellow), both directly through photosynthesis, and indirectly through for instance the availability of fresh water.
After all, it is the sun that melts glaciers and snow, and that evaporates salt water to form rain , which fills rivers and recharges groundwater and dissolves precious minerals along the way.
The natural system is designed brilliantly, or perhaps it is better to state ‘develops itself brilliantly’ as it has a high degree of self-regulating capacity. It can harvest solar energy and store it as biochemical energy in biomass.
The brilliancy is in the fact that this newly formed biomass, for instance leaves or roots, is not just an energy storage without further function. Quite the contrary. It allows the living system to capture even more energy. It forms a self-reinforcing loop, a process which is known as autocatalysis. It is this trait that allows for regeneration of harshly exploited and degenerated soils.
From this perspective, consider the beauty of the natural design. Even energy storage that is not directly used, such as ‘stable’ soil organic matter (that can last for centuries), still has many physical properties to improve the soil structure, the soil’s water infiltration and water holding capacity, and mineral exchange.
Capturing and using energy
The living system is not just about capturing energy, it is also about using energy. Because only when energy is used processes occur and ‘functions’ in the living system (live forms) can develop.
All this functions together, developed by the weather and fulfilled by the billions upon billions of microorganisms in the soil or large mammals grazing on grass and leavy greens, providing a robustness to the system and, up to some point, the more complex the system becomes the more efficient energy is used.
In a stable matured ecosystem maximum robustness is achieved in a balance between system redundancy and efficiency. Within the growth of such a complex living system the energy that is used per time frame is increasing, maximizing the power of the system.
It can be seen as an economy, where money is freely moving from one place to the other and everybody is experiencing a large flow of money (good liquidity, people experience prosperity and society flourishes), rather than having the money stored by few in assets and deposits unattainable to others (stagnation of the economy will occur and society will not develop).
Realizing our dependency on the self-regenerating principles of natural ecosystems
To put it simple: from the start the living system continuously increases its capacity to capture energy, increasing the efficiency at which this energy is used (to do work) and the rate at which this energy is used.
At some stage, the unavoidable energy losses that occur in the system and the energy spend at maintenance of the living system amounts to the energy that is captured. It is then that the system stops developing.
Autocatalysis of the system is not broken at that point, but many functions in the system have developed that do not capture energy, but providex the CO2 necessary for photosynthesis for instance.
Autocatalysis is only broken when the capacity to capture and store energy and use this energy to gather and bind crucial minerals together in new organic matter is lost. It can be seen in eroded systems, where all life is flushed or blown away, such as deserts and bare (rocky) mountain slopes.
The same happens in badly managed, overgrazed and trampled pasture or cropland that has been ploughed, heavily disturbed, compacted and treated with chemicals toxic to soil life and other life forms that are supposed to maximize the balance in the system and bring system robustness.
Humans can treat and alter local systems in such ways that autocatalysis breaks down. Powered by fossil fuels, we no longer realize our dependency on the self-regenerating principles of natural ecosystems.
An overview of the natural system
With the great brilliancy of natural systems in mind let us take a look at this system at work in an agricultural setting. Several key principles of such systems are depicted in Figure 1.
Let’s take as the starting point in this scheme the sun, its solar radiation bringing energy to earth. This energy is captured by the so-called autotrophs, organisms that have developed the ability to use light as an energy source, and stored it in their biomass.
The second prerequisite for life to develop is water. It is provided to plants directly from the sky, and although plants could absorb some water trough their leaves, it is not an efficient way and the bulk is guided towards the soil where it is taken up by the plant’s roots, either directly from the soil or through fungi formed water channels.
Besides the hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O) from water biomass contains many elements and even some more are used in the biosynthesis processes driving biomass formation.
The most important elements to all life on earth are carbon (C), oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen (N). Once again, a quite clever design of the living system, as all these elements can be found in the atmosphere, which makes them available around the world.
Other important minerals to life, especially more complex life forms, are found in soil. One can think of the macronutrients phosphor (P), potassium (K), sulphur (S), calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg), but also, the trace elements like iron, boron, chlorine, manganese, zinc, copper, molybdenum and nickel.
A lot of these minerals are bound to soil particles, contained in rocks, locked up in oxides or held in stable organic matter and are as such not readily available. Moreover, their presents may be concentrated in pockets rather than being homogeneously spread throughout the soil.
These elements do not come to the plants by diffusion, as the 4 major elements found in the air, and soil moist or ground water flows, contain only so much of those elements and only those that are dissolvable in water.
However, most minerals actually like to stick to soil rather dan dissolve in water. To overcome this problem the plant has two options: to grow an immense root system (which requires a lot of energy and materials to build in the first place, so it doesn’t) or to come to an arrangement with a life form in soil that can make these minerals available to the plant in exchange for some of the energy captured by the plant (as nature is wise, the plant uses this second option).
Micro-organisms in the soil
Fungi, bacteria, archaea and many other types of micro-organisms are present in every soil. But in many soils a large part is dormant and only in those soils covered with living plants they are fully activated and bringing the soil to life.
Once awakened these micro-organisms are setting up a large underground trading network to exchange carbohydrates, minerals and many different types of secondary metabolites that have for instance signalling functions (e.g. attracting or repelling other life forms) or provide the system with resistance for pathogenic and predatory species that are present in the soil to clear out not optimal functioning parts of the living system.
Moreover, they produce a large score of enzymes that are used to dissolving minerals from the soil and liberate them from compounds in the soil, so they can be used or in many cases re-used in the living system.
Fungi create large hyphae networks, structures of fungi treads spreading kilometres wide and that associate with bot bacteria and root systems of many plant species.
These beneficial fungi and bacteria are not only found within the root zone, but even penetrate the roots, stems and leaves of the plant.
Just as humans contain many beneficial microorganisms throughout their digestive track, also plants are hosting many species that help the plant to operate at higher efficiency. The fungi are the great connectors in the soil that increase the effective root surface area many times over, and allow plants to take up nutrients that are well beyond reach of isolated plants.
Energy drives the soil economy
In this microbial marketplace, energy can be considered the money that drives the economy of the soil and hence the whole living system.
Plants produce energy rich root exudates containing carbohydrates that feed the microbes. Also, do they produce secondary metabolites to promote the growth of a population of beneficial micro-organisms and to create proper conditions in the root zone for the living system to develop further.
This synergy between plants and micro-organisms is a prime example of how a more complex system use energy more efficient. This synergy is impressive, but it is just the base underneath the many trophic levels in the food web that are stacked on top of a thriving bottom layer.
And the further the food web develops the more functions arise in the soil, functions that benefit the living system as a whole. A well-known, but still not fully understood, species of soil life are worms.
Among the functions they perform: process and transport organic matter, transport and spread microbes (in their gut and on their skin), create holes for roots and water flows, build soil aggregates (clumps of dried slime, soil and organic matter) that keep the porous structure of the soil intact even during heavy rainfalls so that the soil can continue to breathe and exchange for instance O2, CO2 and N2 with the atmosphere, worms eat the predator species grazing on healthy bacteria population, and serve as food for birds and larger mammals like moles and hedgehogs.
Soil life is the great connector of all the mineral cycles and the living system. It forms the core of all regenerative ecosystems, a core that is solar powered through plants.
From the building process to recycling
The biosynthesis process from inorganic components described above is labelled the ‘building process’ in Figure 1. However, as mentioned, while living systems develop, they become more energy efficient and it is from an energy perspective profitable to re-use organic components for biosynthesis, rather than to build new organic molecules from inorganic matter. Animals, humans and all other heterotrophs feed on organic material build by other species.
This organic matter may come from living organisms or from dead organic matter and organisms’ eliminations (everything they purge from their body). This Recycling is depicted on the right hands side of the scheme given in Figure 1.
Of course, there is a great deal of overlap in between the building and recycling, as parts of the building blocks are lost during degradation or locked in long term storage of organic matter, and sometimes synthesis of new materials serves organisms just better.
All remains and eliminations of plants, animals, humans but also micro-organisms themselves enters the soil as soil organic matter. This may be fresh and unstable of character or it may be (partly) degraded and stabilized by some mechanism (e.g. sorption in/on soil particles, chemically stabilized, or stored under microbial activity prohibiting conditions).
As discussed, organic matter contains energy, it is stored energy. The soil organic matter can be seen as the energy reserve of the soil. It only can build up if there is surplus energy in the soil. Once power production by plants stops soil life is drained of energy.
In this case it will turn to their energy stores and obtain energy through the oxidation of organic matter, which can be noticed as a decrease in soil organic matter content.
The breaking down of organic matter in soil requires energy investments to break the structures in digestible material, breaking the photosynthetic energy supply will therefor always cause energy scarcity at the bottom of the food web.
Hence it will impoverish the entire living system, which will result in shutting down of functions. The system will become less robust and less efficient, the degenerative cycle has started.
The only way the degenerating cycle can be switched to the regenerating side is by planting crops and cover as much of the soil as possible for a longest duration as possible AND by hooking up these plants to the soil life.
In degenerative agriculture, it is not just the lack of plants and variety of plants that causes simplification of the ecosystem it is also to a large degree the disconnection from plants with their microbioom in the soil.
This disconnection is established trough using for instance pesticides, herbicides, mineral fertilizers, toxic manure, physical wrecking of the soil and its underground network through ploughing or compacting the soil by overstretching it carrying capacity with heavy machinery or large herds.
It also has been shown that some GMO crops do no longer have the ability to connect with soil life, they do no longer agree with each other. When this connection is lost, biodiversity and all the functions they fulfil in the natural ecosystem, decreases as it is starved of energy.
Also, the ecosystems natural production capacity is degraded, the autocatalytic loop is broken. Every subsequent degenerative year more effort (energy) has to be spent by the farmer to maintain crop yields. It results in increased use of pesticides and fertilizer, increased applications of trace elements (although they can be present, they are no longer made available to crops by micro-organisms), and the continues increase of horse powers required to work the soil.
All this external effort is powered by fossil fuels. It is not sustainable. The agricultural system as a hole consumes a several times more fossil energy than it produces in food carbs to society. Complete madness from a systemic viewpoint.
Moreover, real plant health can only occur when plant are well embedded in the soil life. Plants of impaired health are not just prone to disease and pests; they are also less nourishing to people.
The degenerative nature of our agriculture is already showing up in many deficits of trace minerals in the world population, even so in parts of the population that consume way more calories than required for survival.
Empty calories that are. Since the green revolution, nutritional values have significantly dropped, while the amount of toxins (pesticides, herbicides, micro-plastics, …) in our food products have risen.
Time for a new paradigm
It is about time for a new paradigm shift. A transition from a degenerative to a regenerative agricultural system. A transition in which we heal our relation with the ecosystem, become part of the ecosystem. A transition that allows biodiversity to return and that fosters the autocatalytic processes that increase natural production capacity.
Let’s stop wasting fossil fuels battling nature, let’s start putting excess carbon in the massive underground carbon storage chambers called soil organic matter. This organic matter that is a key part in soil health and is so important for an efficient and robust living system.
Make a shift to a system in which we produce healthy food and let food be our medicine again. It is time for a transition powered by the sun to green the world: The Yellow-Green Transition.