Carbonomics: The Amazing Underground Economy

Carbonomics: The Amazing Underground Economy
Carbonomics: The Amazing Underground Economy

A veganic home garden can do more than supply you with fresh cruelty- and chemical-free produce. No matter how small, it can contribute to the enormous job of combating climate change.


Through an interactive system known in agricultural circles as “carbonomics,” a name Nebraska farmers and seed producers Keith and Brian Berns coined. It’s a combination of “carbon” and “economics,” an ingenious description of the natural “currency exchange” constantly happening in healthy soil.

In other words, carbonomics is another textbook example of vegan gardener Will Bonsall’s gardening mantra, “… a unified living system whose parts function to the benefit of one another and the whole.”

What’s the Carbonomics Currency Exchange?

In the era of COVID-19, the U.S. economy is now on millions of minds that previously didn’t give it a second thought. We’ve had a very rude awakening to what happens when product and service providers run out of customers.

In this 2020 Cover Crop Strategies interview with Keith Berns, reporter Mark McNeely says, “… he realized the distinct parallels between strong national economic systems and vigorous, carbon-centric soil systems.” 

And parallels are genuinely striking. Well-balanced soil contains:

  • producers
  • consumers
  • currency
  • capital investments
  • energy
  • resources
  • infrastructure
  • defenses

and communications (yes, plants can communicate, and soil organisms can respond!)

According to Berns, carbonomics has three pillars: the soil, the plants, and the animals. This post from two weeks ago detailed the animals, including ( in his words) “the small, soil-based animals such as microbes, bacteria and fungi.” 

Carbonomics in Action

In the Soil Health Institute’s excellent 2018 video Living Soil, the National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment’s Jerry Hatfield estimated that in every acre of “really healthy” soil, 10,000 pounds of biologically active organisms lie below the surface.

He notes that’s about the same weight as two adult African elephants – and that that it “takes a lot to feed” the organisms.

What do they eat?

One acre of healthy soil contains two African elephants’ weight in microorganisms.

Carbon! A soil low in carbon is low in biological organisms. Healthy soil sequesters carbon, and the carbon comes from plants. It works like this:

Without nitrogen, plants can’t grow. The Earth’s atmosphere is 78-percent nitrogen, but it’s in a form inaccessible to plants.

Using water and the energy from sunlight, plants absorb carbon dioxide and break it down into oxygen and carbon-based liquid sugars. We call this process photosynthesis.

The carbon (sugar) molecules become the plants’ currency. Their roots release them in fluid exudates, which they use to “buy” goods and services from the other two carbonomics pillars,  soil, and animals.

In exchange for the carbon “payment,” Mark McNeely explains, the soil “sells”:

  • macronutrients (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and a host of trace minerals essential for a “balanced economic system.”)
  • habitat for roots and biological activity
  • water storage

Carbon sequestering fights climate change. Jocelyn Lavallee, CC BY-ND

As their part of the deal, the animal service providers (including rhizobacteria):

  • affix nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil
  • transport and cycle the nutrients throughout the soil
  • break soil compounds down into plant-available forms
  • protect plants from soil-bore diseases and pests

The entire carbonomics system depends on there being enough carbon “currency” to ensure the soil supports enough biological organisms to supply plants with the necessary  “goods and services.”

But since the 1940s, Big Ag has been killing the soil’s bacteria and fungi and depleting its nutrition with chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Its goals have been:

  1. to feed the world’s ever-growing population.
  2. to boost profits.

Carbonomics and Veganomics

USDA Agriculture Research Scientist Rick Haney pulls no punches about the sorry state of carbonomics. In this 2107 interview with YaleEnvironment360, he states:

 “We see that when there is a lot of tillage, no cover crops, a system of high intensity [chemical-dependent] farming, that the soil just doesn’t function properly. The biology is not doing much. It’s not performing as we need it to. We are essentially destroying the functionality of soil, so that you have to feed it more and more synthetic fertilizers just to keep growing this crop.”

So is there a solution, and can veganic gardening play a part?

Carbon sequestering fights climate change.
Jocelyn Lavalee

 Yes, and yes!

Healthy soil needs a year-round carbon source. Plant cover crops that keep photosynthesizing liquid carbon through the winter. In doing so, they’re pulling carbon dioxide out of the air – and helping fight climate change! 

We suggest fava bean plants that sequester carbon during the winter and serve as nitrogen-replenishing green manure in the spring!

And commit to no-till gardening. It protects the countless numbers of the microorganisms your plants depend on for those four essential “services.” 

Quite a payoff for not disturbing your soil. “Veganomics” is great economics!


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