We Can Stop the Climate Crisis

It’s time to farm (and eat!) like the world depends on it.

We can stop the climate crisis.

At least, we can start reducing the 23% of global greenhouse gas emissions that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently attributed to agricultural activities.

The answer is regenerative organic agriculture. And the time to implement it is now.

In a report published last week, the UN concluded that humans cannot stave off the effects of climate change without making drastic changes to the ways we grow food and use land.

Conventional, industrial agriculture depends on the use of chemical inputs and fossil-fuel intensive synthetic fertilizers, in addition to heavy machinery and tillage, to grow food. Industrial farming also relies on factory farms for animals. These methods release large amounts of carbon, methane, and other greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere.

In contrast, science proves that regenerative organic systems, which prioritize soil health and good farming practices like cover cropping, crop rotations, and pasturing animals, use 45% less energy and release 40% fewer carbon emissions than conventional agriculture, with no statistical difference in yields.

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Structurally Complex Forests Better at Carbon Sequestration

Forests in the eastern United States that are structurally complex – meaning the arrangement of vegetation is highly varied – sequester more carbon, according to a new study led by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The study demonstrates for the first time that a forest’s structural complexity is a better predictor of carbon sequestration potential than tree species diversity. The discovery may hold implications for the mitigation of climate change.

“Carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, is taken up by trees through the process of photosynthesis and some of that ‘fixed’ carbon is allocated to wood,” said Chris Gough, Ph.D., corresponding author on the study and an associate professor in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “Our study shows that more complex forests are better at taking up and sequestering carbon in wood and, in doing so, they leave less carbon dioxide in the air.”

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Is Grass-Fed Beef Really Better For The Planet? Here’s The Science

For the environmentally minded carnivore, meat poses a culinary conundrum. Producing it requires a great deal of land and water resources, and ruminants such as cows and sheep are responsible for half of all greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture, according to the World Resources Institute.

That’s why many researchers are now calling for the world to cut back on its meat consumption. But some advocates say there is a way to eat meat that’s better for the planet and better for the animals: grass-fed beef.

But is grass-fed beef really greener than feedlot-finished beef? Let’s parse the science.

What’s the difference between grass-fed and feedlot beef?

Feedlot calves begin their lives on pasture with the cow that produced them. They’re weaned after six to nine months, then grazed a bit more on pasture. They’re then “finished” for about 120 days on high-energy corn and other grains in a feedlot, gaining weight fast and creating that fat-marbled beef that consumers like.

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Regenerative Agriculture Is Key for a Sustainable Climate and Food System

From where I stand inside the South Dakota cornfield I was visiting with entomologist and former USDA scientist Jonathan Lundgren, all the human-inflicted traumas to Earth seem far away. It isn’t just that the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye—are people singing that song again?—but that the field burgeons and buzzes and chirps with all sorts of other life, too.

Instead of the sunbaked, bare lanes between cornstalks that are typical of conventional agriculture, these lanes sprout an assortment of cover crops. These are plants that save soil from wind and water erosion, reduce the evaporation of soil moisture, and attract beneficial insects and birds. Like all plants, these cover crops convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into a liquid carbon food, some for themselves and some to support the fungi, bacteria, and other microscopic partners underground. A portion of that carbon stays there, turning poor soil into fragrant, fertile stuff that resembles chocolate cake.

The field rustles with larger life forms, too. Lundgren was visiting this particular field to meet up with a group of his grad students splayed among the plants, sucking insects into plastic tubes to be later identified and counted. Lundgren launched a research institute called Ecdysis back in 2016 to conduct comparative studies between conventional agriculture and regenerative agriculture, which is generally defined as agriculture that builds soil health and overall biodiversity and yields a nutritious and profitable farm product. Regenerative farmers avoid tilling so that they protect the community of soil microorganisms, the water-storing pores they create underground, and the carbon they’ve stashed there. They encourage plant diversity and plant cover that mimics nature in their fields, avoid farm chemicals, and let farm animals polish off the crop residue.

All of us are familiar with conventional agriculture: the miles upon miles of farmland growing only one crop, the destructive tillage that wafts soil and its stored carbon into the air and into our waterways; the use of hundreds of chemicals including pesticides like chlorpyrifos that have been found to cause brain damage in children; the confined facilities that are both cruel to animals and make their impact on the Earth an assault rather than a gift.

This is the kind of agriculture targeted in the most recent report, released Aug. 8, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in which a panel of 100 scientists concur not only that the food system contributes 37 percent of greenhouse gases, but also that a more sustainable agriculture can help address global warming.

Reading through the report, I can’t help but wonder whether any of those 100 scientists have visited the kind of agriculture that can turn this mess around or whether they’ve just read about it in studies. Whether they’ve ever smelled the soil that comes from these farms or seen the incredible variety of birds and insects thriving alongside the crops. Whether they’ve ever talked to the farmers who are discovering how to grow healthy food and healthy landscapes at the same time.

I first started writing about those farmers back in 2011, when there were more amazing anecdotes than studies, but that has changed. Lundgren himself published a study with his former student Claire LaCanne in 2018. The study followed 10 cornfields per farm on 20 farms over two growing seasons, half of which were regenerative and half conventional. The study tracked soil carbon, insect pests, corn yield, and profits.

The results give the imprimatur of science to the successes regenerative farmers have reported for years. Lundgren and LaCanne found that there were more pests in the conventional cornfields that were treated with insecticides and/or used GMO seeds than in the pesticide-free regenerative fields, presumably because the cover crops attracted battalions of predator insects that decimated crop pests—and because there were no insecticides to kill off those beneficials.

And while the regenerative farms used older, lower-yielding corn varieties without fertilizer and had lower yields, their overall profits were 78 percetnt higher than the conventional farmers’. Partly, this was because the regenerative farmers’ costs were so much lower, with no cash outlays for costly insecticides and GMO seeds. They also “stacked enterprises” and had two or more sources of income on the same acre—in this case, they grazed their cattle on corn residue after harvest and got a premium price for pastured beef. What was the primary factor correlating with farm profitability? The amount of carbon and organic matter in the farmers’ fields, not their yields.

The venerable soil scientist Rattan Lal was one of the first people to connect the loss of soil carbon caused by destructive farming to the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In a 2018 interview with Soil4Climate, Lal said that he and his colleagues estimated that regenerating landscapes—farms, forests, coastlands, and so on—could restore up to 150 gigatons (a gigaton equals 1 billion tons) of carbon to the world’s soil in 80 years. All the extra vegetation grown to put that carbon in the soil would store 150-160 gigatons more, resulting in a terrestrial biosphere holding an additional 330 gigatons of carbon, equal to a drawdown of 150-160 parts per million of CO2 from the atmosphere. “We should encourage the policy makers that this process of restoring degraded soils and ecosystems is a win, win, win option,” Lal says. “It’s a bridge to the future.”

Several of the Democratic presidential hopefuls have added agriculture to their climate platforms—most notably Rep. Tim Ryan, who proposes policies to support regenerative agriculture and soil carbon sequestration. Just this week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren added to her climate platform a sweeping plan to overhaul agricultural policy, while Sen. Cory Booker announced he would propose the Climate Stewardship Act to the Senate in September; both would pay farmers for conservation practices.

And farmers of the future are ready to take it on.

“Agriculture is perfectly poised to play a major role in the solution to the climate crisis,” says Bilal Sarwari, membership and communications manager of the National Young Farmers Coalition. “By helping young farmers gain access to land, everyone can help play a role.”

I can’t help but believe that the 100 scientists would become hopeful themselves knowing this, hopeful that humanity can turn away from the dire environmental path we’ve been treading.

Posted with permission from Common Dreams

We Could Have Less than 60 Years of Farming Left — Unless We Support This Growing Movement

Sixty years. That’s how long U.N. officials said we have until all the world’s topsoil degrades to the point that it’s no longer useful for farming (and this was back in 2014, so it’s more like 55 years now).

Massive farms—the kinds that lean on chemical pesticides, large tilling machines, and other growing techniques that strip the ground of nutrients—are one of the biggest threats to our soil. As the global population rises, more hungry mouths to feed will likely mean more of these environmentally damaging growing practices. 

On the other end of the spectrum, you’ll find regenerative farming that actually mimics nature to restore soil health by pumping nutrients back into the ground. (You can learn more on how it works here.)

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Growing Change: Can Agriculture Be Good for the Climate?

Last year California set a goal to become carbon-neutral by 2045. Some called it unrealistic, while we call it mission-critical. But how do we get there? As we search for ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to prevent global atmospheric temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees and result in irreversible climate change, one of the best answers is as old as the dirt under our feet, literally.

Let’s go back to basic science. Soil naturally has large amounts of carbon. Healthy soil — soil rich in nutrients and able to retain water — holds the carbon that plants absorb from the air and bring into their root system and sequester in the soil as root and plant matter decompose. Also, healthy soil is teeming with microbes which also bring carbon deep in the soil.

Agricultural scientists across the globe, including at Stanford University and the University of California, Davis, have in recent years been making new discoveries showing that healthy soil holds more carbon than previously thought and that good soil management can serve as an important carbon sink.

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“I’m Not a Climate Change Guy, But…”: Farmers Reckon with New Reality in the Heartland

Walking over soggy lifeless crops, Brett Adams, a fifth generation Nebraska farmer, paused to catch his breath. Under the dark grey clouds of the Midwestern spring, he was forced to come to terms with an alarming reality: 80% of his farmland was under freezing floodwater. 

In March 2019, record-breaking floods inundated America’s breadbasket, a region that’s also a key exporter of corn and soybeans to the world. Much of the Midwest was overwhelmed with floods as a result of torrential rains, frozen ground unable to absorb more water, heavy snowmelt, and a series of extreme weather events that culminated in a major winter storm—described by meteorologists as a “bomb cyclone.”

“Winter was colder than normal, overall. We also had a wetter-than-normal winter as well as fall, so the soils were at or near saturation,” Nebraska State Climatologist Martha Shulski said. 

The floods damaged public infrastructure and led to the loss of crops, livestock and the evacuation of thousands of people from their homes.

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Japan’s Ministry of Ag Acknowledges Role of Regenerative Farming in Climate Solution

A breakthrough conference on agriculture and climate change took place May 13-15 in Japan, and Regeneration International was there.

While the content and interaction of the “Agriculture Is the Solution to Climate Change” conference in Otsu, Japan, was dynamic and important, perhaps the most important takeaway from the conference was who organized the event in the first place.

The conference was co-sponsored by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in what could be interpreted as a tacit recognition by the world’s third largest economy that agriculture must play a key role in climate-change mitigation.  

The conference was also sponsored by the 4 per 1000 Initiative, and was supported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO), the World Bank, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), Rothamsted Research, and the governments of France and Germany, among others – and it took place just one day after IPCC wrapped up its 49th session in Kyoto, just 13 kilometers from Otsu.

Key speakers from 4 per 1000 and the major supporting organizations and governments all upheld the importance of building soil heath to fight climate change. It was the first-ever international conference in Asia about changing agriculture by adopting management systems that increase soil organic matter as a drawdown and adaptation solution to the climate crisis.

Rice is the most important staple crop in Asia, and RI’s international director Andre Leu gave a keynote presentation on Systems of Rice Intensification (SRI).

SRI can double rice yields, and massively reduce methane emissions, thanks to its lower water usage – and when combined with cover crops, SRI can result in significant soil sequestration of carbon. SRI is a powerful solution for rice farmers all around the world faced with increasing threats of drought, typhoon and coastal storm surge.

A number of RI partners, such as the Biodynamic Association of India and the League of Organic Municipalities and Cities of the Philippines, also took part in the conference, and gave presentations on best practices for mitigating the natural carbon increase in farmland soils.

During an interview with Regeneration International, Paul Luu, Executive Secretary of 4 per 1000, said policymakers and farmers are putting more and more emphasis on agroecology.  Luu spoke about the strong need for more research to be carried out on agroecology, biodynamic farming and regenerative agriculture – for it to be useful in advising transitioning conventional farmers in accordance to their requirements.

Despite there being no mention of climate change in the G7 meeting of agriculture ministers held a few days earlier in nearby Tokyo (because of abstention by the United States government), the Japanese government is working with 4 per 1000 Initiative to include 4 per 1000’s framework in the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA). KJWA is a decision reached at the UN Climate Conference (COP23) in November 2017, to officially acknowledge the significance of the agriculture sectors in adapting to and mitigating climate change.

The implementation of KJWA is supported by the UNFAO in partnership with other actors at national and international levels. Under this decision the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) supports countries providing technical support to adapt to and mitigate climate change, working in close collaboration with United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and other partners.

Regeneration International will showcase the progress made by the 4 per 1000 Initiative to encourage countries to come on board with a Soil Health Revolution in agriculture (dubbed the Brown Revolution) at its next General Assembly in Chile in December 2019, to be held in conjunction with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change COP 25 summit in Santiago de Chile December 2-13.

Oliver Gardiner is the Organic Consumers Association and Regeneration International’s roving reporter.To keep up with news and events, sign up here for the Regeneration International newsletter.

RI’s Mexico Team Takes Part in First Mexican Congress of Agroecology Conference

On January 1, 1994, Mexico’s Zapatista revolution exploded onto the world stage and instantly grabbed the attention and imagination of progressives and activists around the world.  Among those caught up in the Zapatista revolution were activists and academics pushing back against an almost global corporate takeover of agriculture.  Suddenly a new, different world was possible.

It was only fitting then that the First Mexican Congress of Agroecology was held May 12 to 17 this year in San Cristobal de las Casas, capital of the Mexican state of Chiapas, and ground zero for the vision of a new Mexico launched by the Zapatista revolution. The Congress brought together more than a thousand people from peasant, academic, student and activist communities, and organizations from all over Mexico and around the world—including Regeneration International.

The cross-cutting premise of the Congress was to bring academia and existing grassroots agroecological processes together in a social and collaborative way, while creating the opportunity for rural communities themselves determine their real needs and implement actions to address those needs.

The Intercultural University of Chiapas (UNICH) and the College of the Southern Border (ECOSUR) were the prime movers and organizers of the Congress.  Since 2018, UNICH and ECOSUR have worked closely together to strengthen the exchange of traditional knowledge and experience between rural communities and academia.

From the very beginning and throughout the Congress, during discussions on the origin and history of agroecology in Mexico, peasant communities were spoken of as guardians of agrobiodiversity and as the driving force behind the survival of many of the seeds and plants that have existed in the Americas from pre-Hispanic times until today.

The Congress grappled with the history of agroecology, with an emphasis on the need to build a common future based on the great potential that Mexico has in implementing agroecological techniques.

Participants also worked on organizing a common front to present proposals that feed state and national public policies beneficial to the community at large—policies that create resilience and can reverse the harmful effects that the agro-industrial model has on food quality, food sovereignty, soil, water, air and ecosystems as a whole.  There was also much discussion of agro-industry’s substantial contribution to climate change, and resultant forced migration, an issue that has dominated the news and galvanized public opinion in Mexico, the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.  

The wide variety of program topics and the heterogeneity of Congress participants underlined the need to reconcile the multiple perspectives that exist on agroecology in Mexico, in particular the Mayan vision, which from generation to generation has opted for a construction of knowledge and resistance, as well as the academic vision, in Mexico represented by the figure of the well-known late Mexican ethnobotany teacher Efraim Hernández Xocolotzi .

With this goal in mind, of integrating and weaving together Mexico’s many rich and diverse perspectives, Congress roundtables discussed these principal topics: food sovereignty, international experiences in agroecology and good living, farmers’ markets, agroecological production strategies, agroforestry systems, silvopasture and wildlife management, milpa systems, family gardens, pest management, public policy and governance, soils and seeds, women, agroecology and feminism, maize under siege, water and soil, seeds and resilience, and peasant schools, among other topics.

The closing ceremony was held at the historic Teatro Zebadúa in the center of San Cristóbal de las Casas. Speakers at the closing roundtable included Dr. Víctor Suárez Carrera, Mexican Undersecretary of Food Self-Sufficiency of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development; Dr. Crispim Moreira, U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative to Mexico; and Dr. Luis García Barrios, director of the southeast region of the National Commission of Science and Technology.

In a packed auditorium, the public peppered authorities with questions on the real capacity for change posed by the Fourth Transformation, a broad proposal put forth by the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador to solve the problems that the Mexican Revolution—the Third Transformation—left unresolved. It became clear that agroecology must be part of the real transformation of the Mexican Republic, and that this will occur to the extent that a strong and organized society demands the necessary changes so that the public policies that the government implements integrate agroecology as a substantial part of that change.

Ercilia Sahores is a member of the Regeneration International steering committee and Latin America Director. To keep up with news and events, sign up here for the Regeneration International newsletter.


The 9% Lie: Industrial Food and Climate Change

The Climate Emergency is finally getting the attention of the media and the U.S. (and world) body politic, as well as a growing number of politicians, activists and even U.S. farmers.

This great awakening has arrived just in time, given the record-breaking temperatures, violent weather, crop failures and massive waves of forced migration that are quickly becoming the norm. Global scientists have dropped their customary caution. They now warn us that we have to drastically reduce global emissions – by at least 45 percent – over the next decade. Otherwise, we’ll pass the point of no return – defined as reaching 450 ppm or more of CO2 in the atmosphere sometime between 2030 and 2050 – when our climate crisis will morph into a climate catastrophe. That’s when the melting polar ice and Arctic permafrost will trigger catastrophic sea rise, fueling deadly forest fires, climate chaos, crop failures, famine and the widespread disintegration of society as we know it.

Most people now understand that we must quickly move to renewable forms of energy, such as wind and solar, and reduce our fossil fuel emissions as much as possible. But it’s far less widely understood that energy conservation and renewables can’t do the job alone.

Alongside the massive political and economic campaign to move to 100% (or nearly 100%) renewable energy as soon as possible, we must put an end to the massive emissions of our corporate-dominated food and farming system and start drawing down and sequestering in our soils and forests billions of tons of “legacy” CO2 from the atmosphere, utilizing the enhanced photosynthesis of regenerative farming, reforestation and land restoration.

Regenerative Agriculture” refers to farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity. This results in both carbon drawdown and improved water infiltration and storage in soils. Regenerative practices include:

  • Reduction/elimination of tillage and use of synthetic chemicals.

  • The use of cover crops, crop rotations, compost, and animal manures.

  • Integrating animals with perennial and annual plants to create a biologically diverse ecosystem on the farm.

  • Grazing and pasturing animals on grass, and more specifically using a planned multi-paddock rotation system.

  • Raising animals in conditions that mimic their natural habitat.

If regenerative food, farming and land use – which is essentially moving to the next stage of organic farming, free-range livestock grazing and eco-system restoration – are just as essential to our survival as moving beyond fossil fuels, why aren’t more people talking about this? Why is it that moving beyond industrial agriculture, factory farms, agro-exports and highly-processed junk food to regenerating soils and forests and drawing down enough excess carbon from the atmosphere to re-stabilize our climate is getting so little attention from the media, politicians and the general public?

The International Food Information Council Foundation released a poll on May 22, 2019, that found that “22 percent [of Americans] had heard of regenerative agriculture and 55 percent said they had not heard of it but were interested in learning more.”

Why don’t more people know about the incredible potential of regenerative agriculture, or more precisely regenerative food, farming and land-use practices, to fix our climate, restore the environment, improve the livelihoods of farmers and rural communities and produce more nutritious food? Why is it that the U.S. and global climate movement until recently has focused almost exclusively on reducing emissions through renewable energy?

Our collective ignorance on this crucial topic may have something to do with the fact that we never learned about these things in school, or even college, and until recently there was very little discussion of regeneration in the mass media, or even the alternative media.

But there’s another reason regeneration as a climate solution doesn’t get its due in Congress or in the media: powerful corporations in the food, farming and forestry sector, along with their indentured politicians, don’t want to admit that their current degenerate, climate-destabilizing, “profit-at-any-cost” production practices and business priorities are threatening our very survival.

And government agencies are right there, helping corporate agribusiness and Big Food bury the evidence that these industries’ energy-intensive, chemical-intensive industrial agricultural and food production practices contribute more to global warming than the fossil fuel industry.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) repeatedly claim that industrial agriculture is responsible for a mere 9 percent of our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. As the EPA explains, GHG “emissions from agriculture come from livestock such as cows, agricultural soils and rice production.”

After hearing this 9-percent figure regurgitated over and over again in the media, most people draw the conclusion that food and farming aren’t that important of a factor in global warming, especially when compared with transportation, electricity generation, manufacturing and heating and cooling our buildings.

What the EPA, USDA, Big Ag, chemical, and food corporations are conveniently hiding from the public is that there’s no way to separate “U.S. agriculture” from our “food system” as a whole. Their faulty math (i.e. concealing food and farming emissions under the categories of transportation, manufacturing, etc.) is nothing but a smokescreen to hide the massive fossil fuel use and emissions currently belched out by our enormously wasteful, environmentally destructive, climate-destabilizing (and globalized) food system.

USDA and EPA’s nine-percent figure is ridiculous. What about the massive use of petroleum products and fossil fuels to power U.S. tractors and farm equipment, and to manufacture the billions of pounds of pesticides and chemical fertilizers that are dumped and sprayed on farmlands?

What about the ethanol industry that eats up 40 percent of our chemical- and energy-intensive GMO corn production? Among other environmental crimes, the ethanol industry incentivizes farmers to drain wetlands and damage fragile lands. Taking the entire process into account, corn production for ethanol produces more emissions than it supposedly saves when burned in our cars and trucks.

What about the massive release of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide from factory farms and the GMO, monocrop industrial grain farms that supply these feedlots and CAFOs with animal feed?

What about the methane emissions from the fracking wells that produce the natural gas that is used in prodigious amounts to manufacture the nitrogen fertilizer dumped on farmlands – fertilizer that then pollutes our waterways and creates oceanic dead zones as well as releasing massive amounts of nitrous oxide (300 percent more damaging than even CO2) into our already oversaturated atmosphere?

What about the 15-20 percent of global fossil fuel emissions that come from processing, packaging (most often non-recycled plastic), refrigerating and transporting our highly processed (mainly junk) food and agricultural commodities on the average 1,500 miles before they reach the consumer?

What about the enormous amounts of GHG emissions, deforestation and ecosystem destruction in the international supply chain enabling Big Box stores, supermarket chains and junk food purveyors to sell imported cheap food, in many cases “food-like substances” from China and overseas to undernourished and supersized U.S. consumers?

What about the enormous emissions from U.S. landfills where wasted food (30-50 percent of our entire production) rots and releases methane, when it could be used to produce compost to replace synthetic fertilizers?

A more accurate estimate of GHG emissions from U.S. and international food, farming and land use is 44-57 percent, not the 9 percent, as the EPA and USDA suggest.

We’re never going to reach net zero emissions in the U.S. by 2030, as the Green New Deal calls for, without a profound change, in fact a revolution, in our food, farming, and land use practices.

This essay is part of The Organic Consumers Association’s Regenerative Agriculture campaign. To sign their petition in support of a Green New Deal that puts regenerative food, farming, and land use front and center, sign here if you’re a farmer, and here if you’re an activist or a green consumer.

Ronnie Cummins is international director of the Organic Consumers Association and a member of the Regeneration International steering committee. To keep up with RI’s news and alerts, sign up here.

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams