Regenerative, Organic Agriculture is Essential to Fighting 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 reduce global emissions, by a drastic 45%, over the next decade. If we don’t, we’ll pass the point of no return — defined as reaching 450 parts per million or more of CO2 in the atmosphere — sometime between 2030 and 2050, at which point the 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.

 

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Soil Power! The Dirty Way to a Green Planet

The last great hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change may lie in a substance so commonplace that we typically ignore it or else walk all over it: the soil beneath our feet.

The earth possesses five major pools of carbon. Of those pools, the atmosphere is already overloaded with the stuff; the oceans are turning acidic as they become saturated with it; the forests are diminishing; and underground fossil fuel reserves are being emptied. That leaves soil as the most likely repository for immense quantities of carbon.

Now scientists are documenting how sequestering carbon in soil can produce a double dividend: It reduces climate change by extracting carbon from the atmosphere, and it restores the health of degraded soil and increases agricultural yields. Many scientists and farmers believe the emerging understanding of soil’s role in climate stability and agricultural productivity will prompt a paradigm shift in agriculture, triggering the abandonment of conventional practices like tillage, crop residue removal, mono-cropping, excessive grazing and blanket use of chemical fertilizer and pesticide.

 

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Can Farmers and Ranchers Pull One Trillion Tons of Carbon Dioxide out of the Atmosphere?

The short answer is yes, they can.

First, a little background: atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have been rising significantly since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In May, the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii reported an average monthly level of carbon dioxide above 415 ppm, the highest concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide in millions of years (I,II). This accumulation represents an additional 135 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, which equates to one trillion tons* of carbon dioxide, or one teraton (III). **

To avoid the harshest effects of these additional greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we must reduce current emissions – but even that will not be enough. Even if all countries meet their commitments under the Paris Agreement, and all companies meet their individual commitments, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will continue to climb, reaching an estimated 580 ppm by the end of the century (IV). This uncertain future cannot be averted with a business-as-usual mindset, nor a middle of the road effort. Drawing down atmospheric carbon dioxide is necessary to begin undoing the damage.
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Farmers Could Help Solve the Climate Crisis—we Just Don’t Invest in Them

When the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) land use report was released by the United Nations in 2000, cities like Copenhagen and countries like Costa Rica did not have public decrees to become carbon neutral.

You couldn’t yet offset your Lyft ride by a nominal fee, because there was no such thing as Lyft, or such a thing as mobile applications – at least not as we understand them today. And Tesla, the first company to offer a fleet of luxury electric cars, would not be founded for another three years.

As societies, our climate perspectives have changed considerably since then, when a UN climate report was more or less a stand-alone warning. Now the world watches as students walk out of classrooms en masse, calling for better climate policies. Narratives like An Inconvenient TruthDrawdown, and Six Degrees have made their way into popular discourse.

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The Solution to Climate Change Is Just below Our Feet

Adam Chappell was in the fight of his life. He and his brother were co-managing the 9,000-acre farm where they grew up in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. They’d each gone off to college to do something different, but couldn’t stay away. Now an invasion of pigweed was threatening to destroy everything.

“We were spraying ourselves broke just to fight this weed,” Chappell says. “We were spending more money than we could ever hope to make. So for the farm to survive, we knew we had to change the entire way we were doing things.”

Chappell turned to YouTube, where he found a guy growing organic pumpkins in a cereal rye cover crop, and was awestruck by the clean, wide rows. “He hadn’t put any herbicides down; all the weed control in that field was the cover crop,” he says. That fall, the Chappell brothers planted cereal rye with their cotton and soybeans, and they kept the farm.

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The Key to Saving Family Farms Is in the Soil

Would it sound too good to be true if I was to say that there was a simple, profitable and underused agricultural method to help feed everybody, cool the planet, and revitalize rural America? I used to think so, until I started visiting farmers who are restoring fertility to their land, stashing a lot of carbon in their soil, and returning healthy profitability to family farms. Now I’ve come to see how restoring soil health would prove as good for farmers and rural economies as it would for the environment.

Over the past several years, I drove through small towns from Ohio to the Dakotas visiting farmers to research Growing A Revolution, my book about restoring soil fertility through regenerative farming practices. Along the way, I saw a microcosm of the national economy in which run-down farms and hollowed-out towns stood in stark contrast to farms and communities thriving with renewed vitality.

These revitalized farms came in all sizes—hand-worked three-acre vegetable farms to horizon-spanning ranches where enormous remote-controlled contraptions seemingly cast out of Star Wars seeded and harvested fields with GPS-guided precision. Yet it was not size or technology that distinguished these places, but how they worked the land.

After the Second World War, an expanded reliance on chemicals boosted the yields from soils degraded during decades of intensive farming. At the same time, American farmers increasingly specialized in and became very good at growing a large amount of a small selection of crops. This newfound bounty manifest as a surplus of corn, wheat, and other agricultural commodities. Over time, this drove down the price farmers got for their harvest as the cost of fertilizer, diesel, and pesticides rose—squeezing farmers in the middle.

From 1960 to 1970 corn prices rose from just over $1 to $2 a bushel—the equivalent of about $8 in inflation adjusted dollars today. In 2019, however, corn prices have stayed around $4 a bushel, so farmers are getting half of the real income for growing the same harvest as they did when we put a man on the Moon. At the same time the inflation-adjusted price of a barrel of oil tripled from about $20 in 1970 to more than $60 today. Over the same period, global fertilizer prices roughly doubled. Today’s conventional farmers spend a lot more to grow crops they can sell for far less than their grandparents did.

The mantra became “get big or get out” as the average size of American farms grew. The number of farms declined as smaller ones were consolidated or went out of business. Small towns struggled to retain people, and economic vitality declined in rural areas as a smaller population supported fewer services and local businesses. Driving through America’s heartland today, it’s hard to miss the fallout: shuttered stores, closed restaurants, and half-vacant mini-malls.

Interviewing farmers who had already improved their soil, I found hope that we might turn around this almost century-long trend and economically revitalize rural America. Their practices not only restored soil health, but returned profitability to family farms in the span of a few years, as opposed to the decades you would expect.

If we restore soil health and save farmers substantial input costs, we can restore smaller farms as a means to a secure living and revive the economic viability of farming communities across small town America.

So how did those farmers do it?

The successful regenerative farmers I visited all combined three unconventional practices that cultivate beneficial soil life: They parked their plows, planted cover crops, and grew complex crop rotations. Some also reintroduced livestock to their fields, employing a shifting mosaic of single-wire electric fences to frequently move cattle and implement regenerative grazing methods. These farmers were rethinking how they saw and treated their land.

This combination of unconventional practices—no till, cover crops, and complex rotations—allowed farmers to use far less fertilizer, pesticide, and diesel to grow and harvest as much, if not more, than they did growing one or two crops under conventional farming practices. At conferences, other farmers related how it took just a couple of years for this new farming system to rebuild soil fertility enough to become more profitable than neighboring conventional farms. From then on, these regenerative farmers spent less money to grow more, a surefire recipe for a better bottom line.

Regenerative agriculture is not just about restoring the life of the soil.I could see the difference around the countryside. In parts of the Dakotas where no-till and cover crops had been widely adopted, the landscape was dotted with new grain silos and barns. Shiny new pickup trucks streamed by on the roads. But in counties where black dirt fields still marred the view, things looked worn down and worn out, and topsoil blew across the highway. In Kansas, I was struck by the contrast between bright, well-maintained equipment dealerships in counties that had gone no-till, and sad lots of rusting gear in those counties still hitched to the plow.

Regenerative agriculture is not just about restoring the life of the soil. By making smaller farms profitable once again, it could bring more people back to the land and thereby boost the economy in small towns across America.

You don’t have to take my word for all this.

These points are backed up by a recent paper by Claire LaCanne and Jonathan Lundgren who compared regenerative and conventional corn fields on 20 farms in North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Minnesota. They ranked farms from most regenerative to most conventional based on whether farmers tilled, planted cover crops, used insecticides or other pesticides, and let cattle graze off cover crops and crop stubble. They then divided them into two groups of fields: regenerative fields that were not tilled, received no insecticides, and included livestock grazing; and conventional fields that were tilled at least annually, regularly received insecticides, and had bare soil in between cash crops.

For each field, LaCanne and Lundgren measured the amount of organic matter in the soil, pest insect populations, corn yield, expenses, and profit. What they found directly contradicts key tenets of conventional agriculture. They found that pest insects (such as corn rootworms, European corn borers, Western bean cutworm, other caterpillars, and aphids) were 10 times as abundant on conventional farms that used insecticides than on farms that relied on regenerative, pest-resilient cropping systems with no insecticides. The lower pest abundance in regenerative fields was likely due to competition from greater insect diversity, and because insecticide use kills predatory insects (like ladybugs) capable of keeping pests in check. This becomes a problem because pest populations rebound before their predators.

The soil is the historical root of American prosperity, the foundation of our country. LaCanne and Lundgren also found that regenerative corn fields were almost twice as profitable as conventionally managed corn fields due to lower seed and fertilizer costs, a price premium if the crops are organic, and the added value of cover crop grazing for meat production on the regenerative fields. The profitability was unrelated to grain yield, but positively correlated with soil organic matter. In other words, restoring soil paved the way to restoring farm profitability. A profitable farm was less about how much the farmer grew and more about how they treated their soil.

Other studies have also found higher economic returns from adding cover crops to no-till systems in order to improve soil health. One example comes from a four-year study of the economic impacts of cover crops conducted by the National Association of Conservation Districts and Datu Research on a farm in northwestern Missouri. Over the course of the study, cover crops averaged a positive return of $16 per acre among all fields, and reached up to $100 an acre in some places. The cost of cover crop seeds and planting was more than offset by lowering fertilizer costs by up to $50 per acre, increasing corn yields from 120 bushels to 153 bushels per acre, and raising soybean yields from 38 bushels to 52 bushels per acre.

Such results are not an anomaly. In 2019, the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program released a report on cover crop economics based on data from several hundred farms that concluded cover crops generally provide a positive return within three years and that profit margins continued to grow for at least seven years. Corn and soybean yields were consistently higher in cover cropped fields, especially in drought years. Such examples show that spending less to grow more is a winning combination for farmers.

Whether on large commodity crop operations or on small boutique farmsteads supplying farmers markets and restaurants, the key to a more profitable farm lay in the health of the soil. And we need more small farms near cities to provide fresh foods and vegetables, much as we need regenerative grain and dairy and grazing farther afield. Bringing life back to the soil can help farm profitability across America’s rural landscapes. It’s time to reverse and revise the “get big or get out” mentality to “get small and get back in.” Restoring the soil on smaller, more profitable farms holds the key to restoring rural communities.

The soil is the historical root of American prosperity, the foundation of our country. But since the American Revolution, our nation’s soils have lost half their organic matter—half their natural fertility. Policies that promote efforts to rebuild healthy soils offer fertile ground to help restore prosperity to family farms and farming communities. Reinvesting in our soils is a natural infrastructure program, a sound investment in the foundation and future of America. This would not only put a lot of carbon in the ground, it would reduce the environmental damage from agrochemical use and help bring life back to the land and rural communities. Having more people on the land isn’t the problem, it’s the solution.

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams

El Manzano: Pioneers in an Ocean of Pine Trees

BIO BIO, Chile — It’s almost eerie the way the history of the El Manzano (the apple tree) community has mirrored the history of Chile. In a country inhabited largely by the descendants of early 20th-century European immigrants, El Manzano occupies 120 hectares (300 acres) of a ranch in the Bío Bío region of Chile. The land was bought in 1930 by an Englishman, a great-grandfather of Manzano co-founder and co-director Javiera Carrión.

Like much of Chile, El Manzano’s land was divided up, sold to big logging companies, deforested and then replanted with pine trees—all of which impoverished the soil. The land was again broken up in the early 1970s, under a nationwide agrarian reform initiative implemented under socialist President Salvador Allende.

Now, El Manzano is on the cutting edge of a growing Chilean wave of organic farms and educational centers for eco-social regeneration.

“Ten or 12 years ago there were very few of us doing this,” says Carrión. “We’ve been pioneers, innovators. Our main strategy to survive in an adverse context for regeneration has been to make alliances with international partners—Gaia University, Gaia Education, GEN, CASA, Regrarians, and recently Regeneration International. And we have been active in offering trainings for our team and the wider network.”

According to Carrión, when El Manzano was formed in 2000, there were no other intentional organic-agriculture communities in Chile. But now they are starting to sprout up.

“It’s been incredible this year,” Carrión said on the phone from El Manzano. “People have been inviting us everywhere all the time. Before, we had to reach outside of Chile to find like-minded people and to learn. Now it’s exploding all over. There are people transforming their lives with what we do here. Our educational offerings are very transformative and they lead to action.”

Carrión thinks December’s COP25 in Santiago, 500 kilometers north of Bío Bío, is spurring interest in regenerative agriculture, and she hopes it will do even more to spur more of her countrymen to start communities like El Manzano.

Under its mission of organizing learning for eco-social regeneration and catalyzing change, El Manzano has been running an Incubator for Regenerative Projects in Chile and elsewhere in Latin America. The 2019 incubator was funded by the Chilean Ministry of Economy in order to create a regenerative hub in Bío Bío.

El Manzano is doing everything it can to support the COP25, but the December date falls right in the middle of the community’s busy southern hemisphere growing season, which runs from August to April. Still, the community hopes to send three members to the COP and will support the events and assemblies of Regeneration International at the COP.

El Manzano is a comprehensive community of about 80 people, with everything from housing, housing construction, a one-teacher primary school, and an education center that teaches permaculture, organic farming, ecovillage design, meditation and yoga, among other things. According to Carrión, El Manzano is financially self-sufficient, sustaining itself through three businesses: education and design for regeneration, logging and milling trees, and organic agriculture. Its crops include wheat, rye, blueberries, buckwheat and quinoa, a grain that has been cultivated in South America for millenia.

But El Manzano is about more than just sustaining itself. It’s about creating a viable future for the next generations, inside and outside of the community. Like many rural areas in Chile and throughout Latin America, the region around El Manzano has lost much of its younger generation to the lure of cities with more economic opportunities.

“We provide basic services so our young people can stay here and make a living,” Carrión told me. “This is an intergenerational project. We want to create an amazing little town in an ocean of pine trees.” But Carrión says it will take more than just their small community to protect and preserve what they have. One challenge the community faces is the danger of forest fires.

Reflecting the thinking of regenerative agriculture activists around the world, Carrión says El Manzano can’t go it alone. “We can do what we want with our property, but we need to work with others to protect and regenerate our whole area. We need to create a regional response.”

So far, that seems to be going well, and it looks as if El Manzano is getting out in front of the history that has done so much to shape the community it is building in the pine forests of central Chile.

Lawrence Reichard is a freelance journalist. To keep up with news and events, sign up here  for the Regeneration International newsletter.

Leaders at Summit of Asian Local Governments for Organic Agriculture Highlight Progress, Identify Future Needs

GOESAN, South Korea – Lush green mountains, farmed valleys, high standards of organic farming, hi-tech energy-efficient housing developments, decentralized renewables, solar roofed cycling paths, zero-waste food policies and strict closed-loop waste management schemes.

This is Goesan county, South Korea, home to Hansalim, one of the largest organic farming cooperatives in the world.

Hansalim nourishes 1.6 million people and employs over five thousand farmers. A multi-million-dollar organic hub managed entirely by women, Hansalim is a buzzing social enterprise that has inspired the organic movement worldwide.

It’s here that Regeneration International  took part in the 5th Summit of the Asian Local Governments for Organic Agriculture +4 (continents), the first intercontinental summit on organic policy, organized in September by the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) Asia.

The summit drew more than 200 local, regional and national policymakers from five continents who strive to address multiple crises in today’s food production systems, such as the widespread use of toxics and their impacts on public health.

The scene was set by His Excellency, Lee Cha Yong, mayor of Goesan County, the president of Asian Local Governments for Organic Agriculture (ALGOA) and Louise Luttikholt, executive eirector of IFOAM, who told the Summit: “We are facing changes so big that we can’t even imagine what the future holds for us.”

Outgoing IFOAM Vice President Frank Eyhorn, spoke to the Summit about “the coherent policies driving sustainability in agriculture.”

Eyhorn stressed the importance of agricultural policies and how they can do one of two things: perpetuate unsustainable practices and systems, or support the building of sustainability.

Eyhorn recommended focusing on policies that lift up mainstream systems by raising the bar of what is acceptable—in other words, by raising the minimum standard.

Andre Leu, international director of Regeneration International, IFOAM-ALGOA ambassador and former president of IFOAM Organic International, addressed the summit on why policy change is urgently needed.

Andre gave a reality check: Stopping emissions won’t be enough to prevent catastrophic climate change. He reminded the audience of all the major cities in the world that will be affected by sea level rise: New York, Beijing, Lagos, Kolkata, London, Bangkok and many other megacities. This could, Andre said, cause mass forced migrations of unimaginable proportions that would result in full a breakdown of the rule of law.

Andre said we need to draw down and capture carbon fast. How? By implementing regenerative organic agricultural practices, which as the potential to draw down enough CO2 to prevent severe climate change.

Andre concluded that policy change is urgently needed to support a widespread transition to regenerative systems so that we don’t merely stop climate change, but instead reverse it.

Andre gave a second keynote address in which he explained that to implement policies aimed at regenerative development, consumers need to be fully on board, and they need to demand political action that scales up regenerative farming practices that restore the environment.

Andre said product labeling research shows the greatest pull for consumers is health. It is health that drives 95 percent of consumers to invest in buying organic. And this brings us to the need to focus on better communicating the health impacts of synthetic agrichemicals, food additives and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Andre went on to make a number of points, including:

  • We have found no scientific evidence showing there is any safe level of pesticide use.
  • Regulatory bodies test the main ingredients of agrichemicals but never perform tests on the petro-chemical additives that make agrichemicals more efficient—and more toxic.
  • Independent studies have shown that these additives are hundreds of times more toxic than the chemicals’ original active ingredients. This is how big ag gets away with the use of these agrichemicals.
  • The World Health Organisation has declared a global epidemic in non-communicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and chronic respiratory disease, all of which have become main causes of mortality in humans. And the increase in these diseases parallels increases in pesticide use.
  • Independent studies have shown that lifetime exposure to the herbicide Roundup causes tumours, memory disorders, kidney damage, liver damage and hormonal dysfunctions in rats.
  • There is no evidence whatsoever of any safe level of pesticide exposure for children. Out-testing on young rats shows they are vulnerable to the smallest amounts of exposure. In the U.S., babies are being born with as many as 232 chemicals in their placental cord. “Our children are being poisoned before they are even born. To me this is a crime,” Andre said. “The harm inflicted by pesticides is passed down through generations and everybody is concerned.”

To support these declarations, Nakhyun Choi, director of Environmentally Friendly Agriculture Department of the Ministry of Agriculture of South Korea gave a presentation that acknowledged the build-up of harmful agrichemicals in the human body and how babies that breast feed are particularly vulnerable, as these poisons find their way out of women’s bodies through breast milk.

In an interview after his presentation Choi said we know about bio-enrichment of the body—what goes in stays in. Therefore, by eating food sourced from conventional farming methods we all have an accumulation of harmful chemicals in our bodies. Toxic agrichemical accumulation can cause infertility, cancer and depression, Choi added.

Choi said research in Korea has shown that farmers who practice conventional farming using pesticides are 2.4 times more likely to have dementia as farmers who practice eco-friendly farming. Everything we eat in our lifetimes accumulates in our systems, Choi said, and it is important to protect consumers.

Choi went on to make a number of other points, including:

  • The more contaminated food you eat, the more it will accumulate with the potential of creating serious health issues.
  • Infertility and dementia are on the increase in Korea and represent serious issues for an aging Korean society.
  • To solve some of these problems it is important to promote widespread eco-friendly agriculture and sound management of natural resources such as soil and water, and to increase biodiversity and sequester carbon.
  • In Korea, only 4.9 percent of agriculture is eco-friendly and this is a big problem. The biggest demand for organics comes from school meals but we need for this to become more mainstream.
  • The eco-friendly market in South Korea is worth about USD$1.1 billion, but this could significantly increase with the right policy measures in place.
  • South Korea provides health food packages for pregnant women and is currently working hard to protect all citizens and future generations.
  • Eco-friendly agriculture strategies and policies are needed and will be implemented in Korea.

This historic summit of local leaders also gave a worldview on some groundbreaking policies currently being developed at regional levels in developing nations where the so-called Green Revolution has wreaked havoc on soils and farmers’ well-being for decades.

Progress in the Mekong region of Vietnam includes:

  • In 2019, Vietnam enacted its first organic agriculture law, which is supported by a farmer union of 10 million members.
  • Neighboring Laos is working with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to develop regional agroecological conversion programs for small-scale farmers, and Cambodia has become a leading example in Asia for scaling up agroecological policies and farming practices.
  • Pierre Ferrand, FAO Agroecology Officer for the Asia Pacific, said FAO is developing an analytical framework, a tool to assess the multidimensional performance of agroecology at the farm level in the Mekong region that can be used to shape future local, regional and national policies.

On progress in Africa:

  • David Amudavi, IFOAM world board member, explained the work of BIOVISION Africa Trust, of which he is director. BIOVISION Africa Trust is a branch of the Swiss organisation BIOVISION, whose founding father is the well-known Dr. Hans Herren, who is also cofounder of Regeneration International.
  • Recently Biovision Africa Trust, in partnership with Regeneration International, organised the first conference of Agroecology for Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. The conference was a huge success, with more than 400 participants from all over the world.
  • The Green Innovation centres that Biovision Africa Trust has been setting up with support from GIZ Germany, a German development aid agency, have given new life to agriculture extension in Africa. One of the great successes in 2019 was Uganda becoming the first country in Africa with an organic agriculture policy—a huge step for Africa, and it shows what is possible.

In an interview, Amudavi pointed out that policies are severely needed in Africa to protect human, animal and environmental health. He explained that most of the soils in Africa are dying due to the combined effects of chemically intensive agriculture and the climate emergency.

Amudavi hopes that Kenya, his homeland, might be the next African country to put forth an organic policy. A draft policy on organics is currently awaiting approval by parliament.

Other efforts in Africa are being made through the Ecological Organic Agriculture Initiative, which was created by African heads of state to gather knowledge from international organizations on improving agricultural systems.

The International Network of Eco-Regions (INNER) also participated in the IFOAM summit. Led by Salvatore Basile, INNER works with regions all over Europe where farmers, consumers and local governments have an agreement on the sustainable management of their lands by having organic agroecological farming practices at the heart of their decisions. This includes 49 regions in Italy, 14 in Portugal, and many more in France, Tunisia, Germany, Slovenia and other countries.

One of the main highlights of the IFOAM summit was the League of Organic Agriculture Municipalities, Cities and Provinces of the Philippines (LOAMCP). LOAMCP represents close to 200 local governments and is rapidly expanding. LOAMCP was a driving force in the creation of ALGOA. Regeneration International is currently working with LOAMCP to advise the organization on climate strategy and education around regenerative agriculture, and to promote LOAMCP’s initiatives around the globe. By the year 2022, LOAMCP hopes to certify 1.2 million hectares of organic agriculture.

Oliver Gardiner is Regeneration International’s media producer and coordinator for Asia and Europe. (With thanks to the cooperation of IFOAM Asia). To keep up with Regeneration International news, sign up for our newsletter.

On Golden Ground: Regeneration International Partners with Myanmar Project to Help Farmers Go Chemical-Free

SHAN STATE, Myanmar – In 2018, I went to Myanmar on a public relations assignment to document a test project for a drone prototype that shoots out mangrove seed pods. Little did know then that this assignment would lead me to discover heart-wrenching stories of farmers being exposed daily, without any protective clothing, to highly toxic unregulated chemicals—a trend that is being documented all across Asia, particularly in countries bordering China, where most of these chemicals originate.

The story began while I was working on my assignment’s communication campaign at my partner’s office in Yangon, Myanmar. There I picked up a book titled “Organic Farmers Handbook.” Written in Burmese, this farmer’s manual is rich in photos and even cartoons that explain how to avert the risks of conventional farming by using free, readily available inputs found in organic materials, how to implement different composting techniques and how to design cropping combinations.

The “Organic Farmers Handbook” of Myanmar has published five editions and sold 5,000 copies through Golden Ground, one of the country’s few organic training centers. Golden Ground, founded in 2014, is led by Hlay Myint, who wrote and published the comprehensive guide.

As I was leafing through the pages with avid interest, a voice from the back of the office said: “It is because of these dangerous chemicals.”

The voice belonged to a local woman working for the NGO involved with the drone project.

“What dangerous chemicals,” I asked?

“They come from Thailand, I think.”

“So, there are farmers now converting to organic because of health risks?” I asked.

Yes, she said.

“Would you like to be introduced to Mr. Hla Myint, the founder of Golden Ground?” she asked.

“Yes” I said, “I would be very interested to meet him.”

“He will be here tomorrow,” the woman said. “We supported his training center a while ago.”

The next day, a humble gentleman arrived wearing a Loungyi, a traditional Myanmar male dress, and chewing betel nut, a kind of palm nut many people consume like chewing tobacco in some parts of Asia.

I introduced myself as working with Regeneration International and the Organic Consumers Association and expressed my interest in his work helping farmers.

He seemed in a hurry, on a swift visit to pick up some papers. Yes, you must come, he said. He gave me his phone number. “I must go now or I will miss my bus to go to Taunggyi Shan State, where the Golden Ground is.”

“Before you leave,” I said, “I hear that you are helping farmers move away from toxic agrochemicals.” He laughed. “Yes,” he said, “hundreds! Across ten villages already!”

“You must come, you must come,” he said, while swiftly moving on to catch his 10-hour bus.

I was intrigued. My guts were urging to go meet the people in the 10 villages and create media about farmers transitioning away from harmful practices in a remote region most of the world never hears about.

Shan State is known for being a conflict zone and is the largest opium- and methamphetamine-producing region in the world. The kind of place that invalidates insurance coverage, I thought to myself. But luckily those stories only happen up in the northern territories, quite a distance away from Golden Ground. Most of Shan State actually represents a breadbasket for the country, with hectares upon hectares of agricultural land producing, among other things, corn, coffee, tea, pulses, ginger and vineyards—yes, they have good wine.

So, I decided to visit Shan State and meet with Mr. Hla Myint. But I was not alone—my Burmese partner, Hsu Zin, was with me. I met Hsu in Yangon, thanks to a social media thread on my work. Hsu was coordinating the British Council’s social enterprise program for Myanmar and had lived and studied in London. We had naturally clicked, first becoming best friends then soon afterward, to my great fortune, partners. We had discovered a common passion for education, organic farming and quite a few other things.

Hsu was delighted when I asked if she would be interested in visiting Golden Ground and helping to translate discussions with rural community members.

So we both headed up to Shan State to meet Hla Myint and visit the Golden Ground training center.

We were greeted first at the training center by one of Hla Myint’s colleagues, who drove us to meet Hla Myint in one of their potato, pulses and ginger fields.

Hla Myint is a busy man. He teaches week-long courses to dozens of farmers and also provides follow-ups on the land of his newly qualified trainees, to ensure their transition periods happen smoothly. So we didn’t waste any time. We asked if we could interview him about what he does, and why.

“Farmers here get duped,” Hla Myint said. “First they are promised high productivity, but instead they become sick and fall into debt. We are just a few miles from China, where unregulated chemicals that are very detrimental to farmers’ health are smuggled across the border from China. We have seen cancers, miscarriages and birth defects in children—all believed to have been caused by use of the unregulated chemicals.”

Many farmers buy these products because they are 10 times cheaper than chemicals regulated by the Myanmar government. And the farmers don’t follow any of the dosage directions. We have even seen people use their bare arms to mix dangerous cocktails of highly toxic herbicides and pesticides. So, we promote organic farming practices to help change some of these practices.

Can we meet some of the farmers you work with, I asked?

Hla made a few phone calls and within a few minutes he said yes, there is a village nearby where we can meet people that have suffered from the effects of these poisons.

As we made our way from the potato field to Hla’s vehicle, Hla noticed some empty containers that had been dumped close to his land. His face became sad and confused. “Look at these,” he said. “Here are two plastic bottles with labels marked in Thai and Chinese. This is what we are dealing with. It’s everywhere. I am very worried that our fields have become contaminated without us knowing.”

When we arrived at the village we were greeted by a family of farmers. They invited us to have tea in their home, a humble wooden house with no windows, void of furniture and with just a few pictures on the walls.

The family kindly offered to cook rice for everyone, a form of hospitality that went straight to the heart. Having traveled to many remote places, I can’t help but notice how the biggest hearts and unconditional hospitality are always to be found with the poorest of people. They will always share the little they have (tea, rice, their unique piece of meat for that special day of the week) and never ask anything in return. It is their pleasure to welcome a stranger, especially if visitors have travelled far to honor them with their presence.

Here we met with Ma Mya, a 35-year-old farmer who had been working since the age of 11. Her smile was generous. It made us feel right at home. We sat down and she talked of her in-depth experience as a farmer. We never used to use chemicals, she said, but one day we were employed by rich landowners and they told us to use them. I instantly felt sick using them. They affected my vision, and I became very disoriented. I was unable to make the difference between men and women.

We then interviewed Maung Hla, her brother. The chemicals made him ill for three months. “At the beginning I worked normally,” Maung said, “but over time I started to feel dizzy until I experienced partial paralysis and was unable to work.”

Ma May and Maung Hla then brought us to meet their farmer trainer in a neighboring village who was working with her team on a large pulse plantation. They were busy harvesting, but she agreed to speak with us.

“Chemicals make the soil hard and degraded,” she said. “At the time of my father, we never needed to use chemicals. The day we started (using the chemicals), work became expensive, and when applied, these chemicals would burn our eyes and skin.”

Not wanting to take away any of the farmers’ precious harvest time, we thanked them for speaking to us and moved on with Hla Myint. “I want to take you to our offices and meet our team,” he said.

His office team were all young dynamic advocates for organics. They gave us a full presentation of their activities at the Golden Ground training center and the 10 villages. They then asked about regenerative agriculture. “We want to learn more. We are ready to train many more farmers!”

I then gave them a few examples of regenerative farming practices that would be of use to them, such as those of David Johnson Bioreactors and the Main Street Project. They asked whether Regeneration International could organize a workshop here one day. That was possible, I said.

Back in Yangon, I made a phone call to Andre Leu, international director of Regeneration International. Andre has a love affair with Shan State, as he was there in 1976 with Julia his wife. They met in northern Thailand in 1976 and went on an adventure to discover local varieties of fruit in Shan State. Andre and Julia then continued a lifelong journey and developed a prosperous tropical organic fruit farm and business in Australia.

Andre was very enthusiastic when I told him the whole story. I would be happy to return to Shan State and meet the farmers there, he said. A few months of coordination later, Andre, Julia, Hsu Zin and I returned to the Golden Ground training center. Golden Ground mobilized hundreds of farmers to attend a workshop led by Andre, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation also attended with dozens of students and some of their best agronomists.

Andre gave a one-day workshop on regenerative pest and weed management, and we produced this short video for Trails of Regeneration:

 

More on this story will come soon, along with a video release of the entire Golden Ground – Regeneration International workshop on regenerative pest and weed control.

Oliver Gardiner is Regeneration International’s media producer and coordinator for Asia and Europe. To keep up with Regeneration International news, sign up for our newsletter.

Nebraska Farmers, Ranchers Push for Green New Deal Policies

LINCOLN, Neb. – Agriculture is the fourth largest producer of climate pollution, and farmers and ranchers from across the U.S. have launched a campaign urging Congress to pass the Green New Deal, which supports regenerative family farm and ranching practices over industrial scale agribusiness.

Graham Christensen, who runs an independent farm in northeastern Nebraska, says farmers across the political spectrum are seeing the proposal as an opportunity to level the playing field.

“Farmers have a chance to be able to lead in reduction of greenhouse gases, as well as clean up the water, and at the same time develop a more nutritional food system that probably benefits their bottom line as well,” he states.

Christensen says 85% of the nation’s $25 billion farm subsidies go to the biggest 15% of businesses, which rely on factory farming, synthetic fertilizers, chemical pesticides and other practices linked to increased air and water pollution.

Christensen says supporting cleaner practices will produce healthier food and enrich soil by capturing more carbon.

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