The Solution Under Our Feet: How Regenerative Organic Agriculture Can Save the Planet
[Editor's note: This article is part one of a two-part series. Read part two.]
Many of us are now choosing to eat holistically grown foods. We want:
• more nutrition from our food.
• to create safer conditions for farmers and rural communities.
• to protect the water, air and soil from contamination by toxic agrochemicals.
While these reasons are important, one critical issue is missing from today's conversation about food. The concept is simple, yet virtually unknown. The solution to our global food and environmental crisis is literally under our feet.
If you take away only one thing from this article, I want it to be this quote from esteemed soil scientist Dr. Rattan Lal at Ohio State University:
Through the past hundred years, we've steadily increased our rate of digging up and burning carbon-rich matter for fuel. This is disturbing the oceanic ecosystem in profound ways that include reducing the plankton that feeds whales and provides oxygen for humans. And we're not just talking about the extinction of whales. As I'll detail in this article, even Maine lobsters could become a relic of the past.
We've severely disrupted the balance in the “carbon triad" by clearing rainforests, degrading farmland, denuding pasturelands, and burning coal and oil. The carbon triad? Yes; think of the three main carbon sinks: the atmosphere, the oceans and the humus-sphere. While I'm sure you're familiar with the first two, you might not know about the latter carbon sink. Humus is the organic component of soil. (Gardeners create it as compost.) The humus-sphere is made up of the stable, long-lasting remnants of decaying organic material, essential to the Earth's soil fertility and our ability to grow nutrient-rich crops.
Up until now, the big oil companies Exxon, Chevron and Shell have been perceived as the main climate villains. Yet a new and growing movement of “carbon cycle-literate" people and organizations now realize that Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta and big ag are much worse. We now know that 20-30 percent of all manmade green house gases in the atmosphere comes from industrial agriculture. Chemicals are for cars, not for the soil. By dumping agricultural chemicals onto our soils, we disrupt nature's delicate balance of water, soil and air.
In his recent Huffington Post piece “Nature Wants Her Carbon Back," Larry Kopald writes, “How is it possible that with the entire planet focusing on reducing CO2 emissions we're not even paying lip service to the single largest contributor?"
Tom Newmark, ex-CEO of New Chapter and co-founder of the Carbon Underground Project, has said it best: “Many NGOs view carbon and agriculture as the 'enemy.' The regenerative movement sees carbon as our friend, and agriculture as our natural ally to help our friend carbon return to the land." The challenge is that the enemies of all things natural, i.e., Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta, are culture jamming in hope that the regenerative message won't go viral.
Two of those three carbon sinks are maxed out, while the soil, where the humus-sphere resides, has lost most of its humus due to the use of industrial farming techniques and bad land-management practices. This leaves the soil as the primary sink where our excess carbon can be sequestered. Yet nature is abundant and forgiving. Recent research in the fields of wetland, pasture, forest and crop production has illustrated that, by changing our management strategies, we can create more nature-centric systems that improve our quality of life rather than degrading it.
Carbon Farming Defined
Carbon farming is an agricultural system implementing practices that improve the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and converted to plant material and/or organic matter in the soil. Today excess carbon is falling into our oceans and creating acidic conditions that threaten plant and animal species. If we remove carbon from the atmosphere and oceans by implementing the practices of regenerative organic agriculture, we'll sequester carbon into the soil and expand the soil's water-holding capacity. Building organic matter into the soil's humus layer is essential for growing the healthful foods humanity needs.
As a 2014 Rodale Institute report states, “Organically managed soils can convert carbon CO2 from a greenhouse gas into a food-producing asset." Two major upsides to this approach are drought-proof soils and, thanks to more nutrient-rich foods, reduced healthcare costs.
If this is the first you've heard about this idea, it's because the good news is just starting to trickle out. For example, the Marin Carbon Project's work with compost and rangeland was recently featured on the cover of the San Francisco Chronicle.
The mission of the Carbon Cycle Institute (part of the Marin Carbon Project) is “to stop and reverse global warming by advancing natural, science-based solutions that remove atmospheric carbon while promoting environmental stewardship, social equity and economic sustainability." The institute is also focused on carbon-cycle literacy, a form of savvy still greatly lacking in the general population, by educating and empowering people to make more informed choices and to demand that elected officials do the same.
Recently the American Carbon Registry, a nonprofit organization that creates protocols for carbon usage, approved standards that would reward ranchers for land practices that sequester carbon. Rancher John Wick, a Carbon Cycle Institute founder, has said, “Our proposal is that there is a whole other paradigm—that agriculture practices can be . . . the art of transforming atmospheric carbon into biospheric carbon." As of this writing, I understand that Gov. Jerry Brown's office plans to visit Wick's ranch.
From the regenerative agriculture movement has also come a fascinating new book by Kristin Ohlson that I strongly recommend: The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet.
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It is undisputed that vitamin D plays a role everywhere in the body and performs important functions. A severe vitamin D deficiency, which can occur at a level of 12 nanograms per milliliter of blood or less, leads to severe and painful bone deformations known as rickets in infants and young children and osteomalacia in adults. Unfortunately, this is where the scientific consensus ends.
Where Does the Deficiency Begin?<p>Nobody knows exactly how much vitamin D a person actually needs. The question of when a deficiency starts is correspondingly controversial. However, vitamin D is becoming increasingly popular.Not only is the pseudo-scientific literature on the "sun vitamin" experiencing an upswing, but the number of published studies has also increased enormously in recent years. For example, in 2019 <a href="https://academic.oup.com/edrv/article/40/4/1109/5126915" target="_blank">a study found that</a> Vitamin D is responsible for keeping the skeleton functional and is associated with cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and various types of cancer. <br></p>
An All-Rounder<p>Vitamin D levels in the body rise and fall according to sun exposure. If sufficient UV rays reach the skin, the body is able to produce the vitamin itself. However, the human body only derives an estimated 10 to 20 percent of its daily requirement from food.</p><p>The vitamin D that we synthesize from sunlight or food is not biologically active at first. Before the kidneys can produce the biologically active form of the vitamin, known as calcitriol, and release it into the blood, some metabolic processes must take place beforehand.</p><p>In addition, many organs have receptors to which the precursor of calcitriol binds. Further, this substance is also present in blood.</p><p>From this precursor, the organs then produce calcitriol themselves, which the body then uses for countless other processes in the body. This form of vitamin D thus regulates insulin secretion, inhibits tumor growth, and promotes the formation of red blood cells as well as the survival and activity of macrophages, which are important for the <a href="https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/5/7/2502/htm" target="_blank">immune system.</a></p>
Low Vitamin D, Severe COVID-19 Disease?<p>A research study carried out <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352364620300067?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">at the University of Hohenheim</a> has now established a link between vitamin D deficiency, certain previous diseases, and severe cases of COVID-19.</p><p>According to the study, "there is a lot of evidence that several non-communicable diseases (high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, metabolic syndrome) are associated with low vitamin D plasma levels. These comorbidities, together with the often accompanying vitamin D deficiency, increase the risk of severe COVID-19 events."</p><p>"This statement is completely correct," said Martin Fassnacht, head of endocrinology at the University Hospital of Würzburg. However, he qualifies that it is a pure association, "i.e. a mere observation that these events occur together.</p><p>Dr. Fassnacht is very critical of the hype surrounding vitamin D, but not because he denies the vitamin serves important functions. However, studies on humans have not been able to show that vitamin D has the healing powers many often propagate.</p><p>Fassnacht says, "If you take a closer look, the hopes that the administration of vitamin D has a healing effect have not been confirmed so far."</p>
Association Versus Intervention Studies<p>Many studies on the vitamin are association or observational studies. "By definition, these studies cannot prove the causal relationship, but only point to mere correlations," said Fassnacht. The physician tries to illustrate this with an example:</p><p>"Imagine two groups of 80-year-olds. One group is spry, active and does sports. If you compare them with another group living in nursing homes, the difference in vitamin D levels will be dramatic. Life expectancy would also be extremely different."</p><p>But to try to explain the difference in fitness by vitamin D status alone is far too simplistic. "Vitamin D levels are a good measure of how sick someone is. But not more," says Fassnacht. </p><p>According to Fassnacht, none of the intervention studies carried out to date -- that specifically examined the effect of vitamin D on various diseases -- has been able to confirm the previous association and laboratory studies or the presumed positive effect of vitamin D.</p>
Further Research Is Needed<p>"If a coronavirus infection is suspected, it is therefore absolutely necessary to check the vitamin D status and quickly correct any possible deficit," said the recommendation of the paper published by the University of Hohenheim.</p><p>"Studies are underway to see whether vitamin D helps in COVID-19 infection, but I personally do not believe that this is really the case," says endocrinologist Fassnacht. Nevertheless, he says it is of course useful to carry out these studies.<br></p><p>"I don't want to rule out that there are actually subgroups of people who benefit from an additional vitamin D dose," he says. After all, this has been proven to be the case with a severe deficit.</p><p>In view of the study situation, Fassnacht does not think much of preventive, nationwide vitamin D substitutes. "My belief that the vitamin helps somewhere is very low. But, of course, I can be wrong."</p>
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