What is Biocyclic Humus Soil and its importance for the transition to a Biocyclic Vegan Food Production System
Phytoponic Substrate Compost Refinement and Biocyclic Humus Soil Generation in its Significance for the Transformation of Agriculture into a Biocyclic Vegan Food Production System
Few people are aware that the survival of the world’s population depends on a few centimeters of humus in the upper part of the surface of our planet that can be used for agriculture and horticulture. The use of water-soluble nutrient salts for plant nutrition has made it possible to temporarily increase yields, but at the same time, the natural mechanisms that lead to soil formation and, thus to the build-up of fertility have been and continue to be damaged. As a result, the majority of the world’s agricultural land degraded unnoticed for decades. The loss of natural soil fertility, which can also be expressed as a loss of organic matter—a process that releases large amounts of carbon—was compensated for by ever higher application rates of chemically obtained nutrient salts, which released even more carbon into the atmosphere through the necessary burning of fossil fuels. This self-destructive process can only be interrupted by measures for targeted soil formation.
1. Production of quality compost
Biocyclic vegan cultivation does not only mean refraining from commercial animal husbandry and the use of any kind of animal excrements or animal body parts for fertilization or plant treatment but also the promotion of biodiversity and, above all, the closing of organic matter and energy cycles, which is expressed by the term “biocyclic” (bios [gr.] = life, kyklos [gr.] = cycle).
The closing of such cycles can by no means only take place within the agricultural operation itself but must take place on four levels.
- On-farm, e.g., composting, mulching or other use of crop residues, green cuttings (e.g., from grassland no longer used for animal husbandry, companion or green manure plants, e.g., with cut & carry methods).
- Local, e.g., on-farm or on-site composting of organic by-products of food or energy production, such as fruit pomace, sugar beet pulp, packing house outgrade, washing and cleaning residues from the processing of vegetables and herbs, fermentation residue recycling from plant-based bioenergy plants, shredded material from municipal parks, road and landscape design, sawdust and wood chips from forestry.
- Regional, e.g., using ready composts from other regions with biomass surplus, sourcing raw materials for on-farm composting from more distant sources as in point 2.
- Globally, e.g., using processed biomass from aquatic or marine ecosystems, using primary rock flour, or other minerals that are found in large quantities but only in specific areas.
While the closing of cycles on an internal level can be achieved with the help of various processing methods and treatments, depending on the type and amount of plant biomass available, composting is indispensable for processing biomass of local and regional origin. Whether a farm composts itself or uses compost produced externally depends on the individual business and local conditions, and the respective legal situation.
To be able to produce compost of the highest possible quality, certain conditions must be met. These conditions include:
- A surface, which should correspond to approx. 25-30% of the total area required for composting must be able to be sealed so that it is leak-proof.
- A compost turner and a suitable drive machine with a suction creep gear must be available.
- Measuring instruments must be used to determine the temperature profile, CO2 content, and moisture.
- Compost protection fleeces and an irrigation system are needed to control the moisture balance during rotting.
- The person responsible for composting must have sufficient knowledge and should have a qualification certificate in phytoponic composting (based on the Lübke-Hildebrandt method).
The aim of aerobic, open windrow composting, which is particularly suitable for biocyclic vegan cultivation, is to optimize the rotting process while avoiding as far as possible losses of oxygen and leachate as in the initial rotting stages. This can only be achieved by consistently creating optimal development conditions for the microbial decomposition processes, which includes, for example, avoiding compost heaps or windrows that are too high to improve their aeration. It is of central importance that the decomposition of organic matter only leads to beneficial and healthy decomposition products in the presence of oxygen. In addition to a training program on biocyclic-vegan composting, a smartphone application is currently being developed that will enable all operators of composting plants, whether agricultural or commercial, who want to work according to the biocyclic composting process to monitor the parameters that are decisive for optimised compost preparation online and to participate in the International Biocyclic Humus Soil Initiative with a contractually regulated monitoring and distribution system.
At the end of the biocyclic composting process, there is biocyclic plant compost, a well-structured, nutrient-stabilized quality compost that is already so root-friendly that it can be used directly in agriculture and horticulture. When spreading compost, however, maximum quantity restrictions must be considered, depending on the applicable legal requirements. For example, the German Fertiliser Regulation correlates the maximum amount of compost to be applied per hectare with the nitrogen content and limits the amount of total nitrogen applicated via compost to 170 kg per hectare and year, regardless of the degree of maturity or to a maximum of 510 kg per hectare in the case of single compost fertilization within three years (LINTZEN 2020).
The production process and the resulting product can be certified by CERES against their suitability for biocyclic vegan cultivation. In the context of biocyclic-vegan composting, however, the preparation of phytoponic compost (plant-based compost which can be used directly as a substrate for planting seedlings and plants) is only the first step in the production of Biocyclic Humus Soil, which is described in more detail in the next section.
2. Refinement of phytoponic substrate compost to Biocyclic Humus Soil
2.1 The difference between compost and Biocyclic Humus Soil
If you spread well-rotted, if possible, even crumb- and nutrient-stabilized compost on the field or the vegetable patch, the soil life of the area fertilized with it is usually revitalized immediately. Compost is, therefore rightly referred to as a soil conditioner. The improvement is based on a rapid increase in microbial activity and the reproduction of organisms that partly live in the compost and partly in the soil, which find a rich supply of food and ideal conditions for survival in the more or less decomposed organic components of the compost. Due to this combination of factors, the organic matter provided is quickly, almost completely decomposed. The growth dynamics of the soil organisms can even be favored to such an extent that not only the components of organic matter contained in the compost but also those present in the soil that has not yet been completely decomposed are metabolized. It must also be considered that any mechanical intervention in the soil, such as tilling, cultivating, or plowing, stimulates the soil life to increase its activity, which can lead to an increase in the microbial decomposition rate. The carbon contained in the organic matter and released by microbial growth becomes a component in the build-up of fungi, bacteria and other soil organisms and is also respired and thus re-entered into the atmosphere. Therefore, the application of compost does not in itself mean that carbon will remain in the soil permanently in the form of permanent humus.
There is, therefore, justified criticism of the view that one can contribute to the permanent sequestration of atmospheric carbon in the soil and thus to mitigating global warming and climate change by systematically applying compost. As a rule, the carbon applied with green manure, compost, and other methods is lost from the soil after one or two vegetation periods and the desired humus build-up does not occur (KÖGEL-KNABNER 2008).
The situation is different with Biocyclic Humus Soil, a form of permanent humus that has so far been largely ignored. The latest scientific findings from the fields of soil biology and plant nutrition confirm the knowledge gained since 2005 by the “Biocyclic Park” project group led by Dr. Johannes and Lydia Eisenbach in Kalamata/Greece that high-quality plant compost (“phytoponic substrate compost”) can be refined into a nutrient- and carbon-stabilized soil substrate with the help of targeted post-maturation treatment involving mixed-culture systems. In this process, the original compost is gradually transformed under the influence of permanent planting through mixed cultivation in such a way that completely new properties are developed so that the material no longer can be referred to as compost but with the term “humus soil,” as a new category of a substrate of originally organic matter.
To determine whether the refined material can already be described as Biocyclic Humus Soil, the following parameters and measurement results have to be met:
- An unusually high nutrient content for compost (e.g., 2.5-3% N);
- A very low electrical conductivity of less than 600 μS/cm.
- The total absence of water-soluble nutrients.
- A very narrow C:N ratio (below 10).
- A high cation exchange capacity of over 80 meq/100g.
- High density with a specific gravity of over 820g/l.
- A high water-holding capacity of over 80%.
- Measurable fertilizing effect even on seedlings (over 110%).
- Completely clear stamp can filtrate.
The plants growing on Biocyclic Humus Soil show unusually lush growth, with a yield potential up to three times higher than achievable with synthetic chemical fertilizers (EISENBACH et al., 2018). Despite the observed gigantism of the plants, vegetable plants, for example, do not tend to become woody. What is striking is the good taste, an above-average fruit set, and a root system that is up to four times larger than plants grown in soil. Furthermore, the resistance to fungal diseases is highly evident. Likewise, an acceleration of the germination phase can be observed with direct sowing in Biocyclic Humus Soil.
Biocyclic Humus Soil can be used for growing seedlings, for vegetable production in greenhouses or in the open field, for planting new shrubs and trees, for reforestation or for fertilizing existing crops. Due to the complete absence of water-soluble nutrients in the form of salts, over-fertilization is impossible. For the same reason, Biocyclic Humus Soil does not pose a risk to groundwater, as is the case with common composts (SIEDT 2021). Therefore, humus soil can be used in unlimited quantities. There is no recommendation regarding a maximum quantity per hectare. Best growth results are achieved when the plant roots are in direct contact with humus soil, which is the case, for example, with unmixed application in the plant row or with planting in raised beds consisting of the original compost windrows.
2.2 From the refinement material to Biocyclic Humus Soil
However, the mass production of humus soil by commercial composting plants faces economic limits, as the refinement phase from mature quality compost (phytoponic compost substrate) to Biocyclic Humus Soil can take up to five years. It is intended that the Biocyclic Humus Soil Fund (“terra plena Fund”) will start at this point and develop appropriate financing models that will make it possible to outsource the refinement phase and make the material available to contractually obligated, biocyclic vegan certified agricultural businesses for refinement.
While the optimized production of quality compost up to the stage of phytoponic substrate compost places increased demands on the production and measuring technology, which cannot be fulfilled on every farm and is, therefore the task of compost plant operators, the refinement into Biocyclic Humus Soil can take place without great technical effort at individual farm level. A corresponding system for the decentralized, but nevertheless coordinated, both procedurally and scientifically supervised refinement of large quantities of phytoponic substrate compost into humus soil on farms in combination with biocyclic vegan cultivation programs is currently in preparation.
The provision of a processing service in combination with biocyclic vegan contract farming opens new, additional sources of income for the participating operators.
2.3 The microbiology behind the effect of Biocyclic Humus Soil
The reason for the unusual performance in growth and yields of crops grown on humus soil is that similar to plants found in natural ecosystems where water-soluble nutrients are almost not available, they are “forced” to activate their natural nutrient uptake mechanisms, which include a variety of capabilities such as the excretion of root acids, the symbiosis with mycorrhizae or free-living, nitrogen-fixing bacteria (Azotobacter). By activating these capabilities, the plant can selectively meet the nutrient requirements appropriate to its specific growth stage, even without the presence of nutrients dissolved in water. The fact that plants can be cultivated with nutrient salts (conventional agriculture) and even in nutrient solutions (hydroponics) is due to the plant’s inability to absorb nutrients selectively as soon as they enter the plant tissue dissolved in the water. This “inability” is the basis of plant nutrition theory in modern agriculture, which, based on almost 200 years of intensive scientific research into this phenomenon, relies almost exclusively on the administration of water-soluble—mineral or organic—fertilizers for plant nutrition. Not least because of the successes achieved in this way in the worldwide fight against hunger in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, no or too little attention was paid in research to the fact that under natural conditions, water uptake and nutrient supply are subject to completely different mechanisms of action. Recently, therefore, new research areas have emerged in many places that are dedicated to this previously underrepresented area of knowledge (EISENBACH et al. 2019; PONGE 2022).
The most plausible explanatory model to date for the properties of Biocyclic Humus Soil and its effects on plant growth assumes that Biocyclic Humus Soil is a carbon-stabilized substrate, in which the originally organically bound carbon of plant origin has taken on pre-crystalline grid structures due to rapid microbial degradation under optimal conditions in conjunction with symbiotic processes, in which highly complex nutrient molecules are protected from being washed out by water. It has not yet been clarified whether this protection is caused solely by the spatial structure of the carbon aggregates, which are too dense for the penetration of water-molecule clusters, or by a large number of microorganisms that find ideal living conditions within the structures that have been created. Against the background of the importance of the carbon structure, similarities can be demonstrated between Biocyclic Humus Soil and terra preta (FISCHER 2008), whose humus soil-like properties are due to the presence of plant charcoal.
Studies in the field of soil biology (JONES 2008) show that soil-creating processes are not only triggered by weathering of the geological source rock or by decomposition processes of the organic matter in the soil but primarily by plants themselves.
Through photosynthesis, the plant assimilates the carbon dioxide present in the air, which it needs as a structural element to build plant tissue and carbohydrates such as sugar and starch. On the other hand, the plant itself cannot assimilate the atomic nitrogen that is abundant in the atmosphere (78%), the element that is mainly required for building proteins. To do this, it depends on the cooperation of soil organisms that settle under natural conditions in the immediate vicinity of the fine roots. During evolution, very close relationships have developed, which, in the case of legumes, have even led to a symbiosis of nitrogen-collecting bacteria inside the root (rhizobium), while others, such as free-living azotobacter, supply the plant root with nitrogen from outside.
A not inconsiderable proportion of the hydrocarbons formed by photosynthesis are excreted by the plant via the root and are available as construction material and energy supplier to free-living nitrogen-fixing bacteria. A lively exchange of substances takes place between the root and the surrounding microbiome, which stimulates plant growth, while at the same time, large amounts of carbon are fed into the soil in addition to the plant and root mass that is formed, where they appear to be involved in the formation of pre-crystalline grid structures, among other things, which—similar to the recently frequently practiced addition of plant charcoal to immature compost—lend the maturing substrate an increasingly earthy consistency. The resulting structures seem to offer increasingly better conditions for the colonization of azotobacilli as the refinement process progresses. The increasing plant mass yields from year to year during the refinement phase can be plausibly explained in this way.
The observed effect is stronger the more plant species grow simultaneously on the surface of the phytoponic or Biocyclic Humus Soil windrows (permaculture, mixed culture). In contrast, the mechanisms described are partially or completely destroyed in monocultures and in the presence of nutrient saline solutions.
There are, therefore, special conditions that enable or favor the formation of Biocyclic Humus Soil, which are rarely or not at all found in conventional agriculture. The degradation of the soils, combined with the loss of natural soil fertility and the resulting need for a constant external supply of nitrogen, is the result.
A large part of the soil life is, therefore, not concerned with the decomposition of organic matter but directly with the supply of nitrogen to the plant. Added to this are the diverse exchange mechanisms via fungi, mycorrhizal, and organelles. It is obvious that these processes require a sufficient supply of air (oxygen and nitrogen) to the soil. In this fascinating interaction of life forms, the plant acts as a “carbon pump” from the atmosphere into the soil, while the large group of Azotobacter makes atmospheric nitrogen accessible to the plant via the soil. Thus the “bio-cycle”, i.e., the “circle of life of fertility,” begins in the thinnest of all envelopes of our planet, the rhizosphere, which, along with the supply of water and air, is the prerequisite for the survival of mankind.
Since it has now been realized that the processes in the soil are much more complex than previously assumed, the call for interdisciplinary approaches in researching the still largely unknown mechanisms associated with the development of natural soil fertility through soil formation and humus build-up is becoming louder and louder (PONGE 2022).
2.4 Contribution of Biocyclic Humus Soil to the transformation of agriculture
It has already been recognized that the above-mentioned plant-induced soil formation processes are hindered or irreversibly destroyed by the presence of salts, i.e., water-soluble nutrient solutions, and by sowing or planting monocultures. Since mankind has always associated agriculture with the administration of more or less water-soluble fertilizers, whether in the form of unrotten or liquid animal dung or, since about 100 years, also in the form of synthetic chemical mineral fertilizers, with increasing neglect of mixed cropping systems, there has historically been a permanent danger of soil degradation and the rapid decline in soil fertility associated with the loss of natural soil formation processes. The intensification of agriculture with the methods used so far will lead to an accelerated loss of soil fertility as the world population continues to rise, which, in conjunction with the effects of increasingly noticeable climate change, will increase the danger of food shortages in the future.
With the production of Biocyclic Humus Soil, we have succeeded for the first time not only in imitating the plant-induced soil formation processes found in natural ecosystems but also in potentiating them with the help of the concentrated nutrient supply during the biocyclic composting process described above, thus making them directly useful to humans for agriculture.
The production of Biocyclic Humus Soil from maturity level V according to the RAL categorization of the German Compost Quality Association, is an agricultural-productive process in which high-quality vegetables can be grown within the framework of biocyclic vegan cultivation according to the multi-stage refinement process.
The previous explanations should have made it clear that the cultivation of vegetables in mixed culture is not only a possible use of the quantities of compost used for the refinement into humus soil but is even causal for the formation of humus soil. Due to the many times, better growth and multiplication conditions of the microorganisms involved in plant growth compared to those found in natural ecosystems, the processes that occur only slowly in nature during the composting phase into Biocyclic Humus Soil takes place in fast motion. Cultures with increasing yield and value potential over the course of the refinement process are the result. This results in noticeably higher utilization of the genetic potential of the cultivated plants.
All these effects are related to the special, biologically highly active molecular structure of Biocyclic Humus Soil, which is also responsible for the permanent binding of carbon in the soil. Calculations have shown that 2.5 t of humus soil corresponds to approx. 1 t of CO2 equivalents (VHE 2020). This significantly increased sequestration potential of Biocyclic Humus Soil compared to other forms of organic matter enables agriculture to move from being a contributor to climate change to being part of the solution in combating its causes. If one then considers the possibility of efficient groundwater protection despite the intensive form of vegetable production and the increase in soil fertility in a globally shrinking production area, for example, on previously infertile or even urban sites (“urban farming” or “vertical farming”), it becomes clear that the creation of conditions that favor the development of Biocyclic Humus Soil has a high transformation potential for the agriculture of the future.
Biocyclic Humus Soil already provides a substrate to produce quality vegetables during its production that meets the requirements of the Biocyclic Vegan Standard, as no ingredients from commercial animal husbandry are processed or administered in it. Furthermore, Biocyclic Humus Soil represents a permanent carbon store which, in contrast to other forms of organic fertilization such as manure, slurry, compost, mulching or green manure, is not subject to any further microbial degradation, which means that the pre-crystalline carbon produced in Biocyclic Humus Soil can no longer escape into the atmosphere. Due to its macromolecular structure, Biocyclic Humus Soil is also no longer at risk of leaching and, therefore does not represent environmental pollution in the sense of the German Fertiliser Ordinance. Plants growing on Biocyclic Humus Soil in mixed culture form symbioses with a large number of soil organisms, which are also specialized in binding atmospheric nitrogen in the soil. In combination with the minerals abundantly present in humus soil, the availability of this nitrogen leads to yields that are far above the current level not only in organic but also in conventional agriculture. Thus, Biocyclic Humus Soil replaces both animal and synthetic chemical fertilizers, secures the world’s food supply and actively contributes to climate and environmental protection. Whether or not it will be possible to produce large quantities of Biocyclic Humus Soil worldwide will determine how quickly and how clearly the associated leverage effect for the transformation of agriculture will take effect.
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