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The Solution Under Our Feet: How Regenerative Organic Agriculture Can Save the Planet

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[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 avoid toxic pesticides and GMOs.

• 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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Protesters holding signs in solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en Nation outside the Canadian Consulate in NYC. The Indigenous Peoples Day NYC Committee (IPDNYC), a coalition of 13 Indigenous Peoples and indigenous-led organizations gathered outside the Canadian Consulate and Permanent Mission to the UN to support the Wet'suwet'en Nation in their opposition to a Coastal GasLink pipeline scheduled to enter their traditional territory in British Columbia, Canada. Erik McGregor / LightRocket / Getty Images

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An alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, as seen here in Christmas Valley, South Lake Tahoe, California on Feb. 15, 2020. jcookfisher / CC BY 2.0

California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.

The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.

"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."

While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.

On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.

"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."

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