How Can Soil Quality Slow Global Warming?

A new study from the University of Berkeley in California has found that improving soil quality could make a substantial contribution to slowing down global warming. What’s more, the practices needed to make this scenario a reality are already widely-practiced around the world and involve little technological or financial investment to implement.

Photo credit: Pixabay

The authors of the paper found that if simple initiatives like planting cover plants, sowing legumes and optimising grazing terrain were introduced on a worldwide scale, they could reduce global warming by as much as a quarter of a degree Celsius. If the controversial additive biochar was factored in, the reductions could amount to as much as half a degree. However, none of the above will have any meaningful impact without attendant reductions in carbon emissions

KEEP READING ON ENVIRONMENTAL TECHNOLOGY

Landscapes That Work for Biodiversity and People

BACKGROUND

Biodiversity is under siege, with greatly enhanced rates of local and global extinction and the decline of once-abundant species. Current rates of human-induced climate change and land use forecast the Anthropocene as one of the most devastating epochs for life on earth. How do we handle the Anthropocene’s triple challenge of preventing biodiversity loss, mitigating and adapting to climate change, and sustainably providing resources for a growing human population? The answer is in how we manage Earth’s “working lands”; that is, farms, forests, and rangelands. These lands must be managed both to complement the biodiversity conservation goals of protected areas and to maintain the diverse communities of organisms, from microbes to mammals, that contribute to producing food, materials, clean water, and healthy soils; sequestering greenhouse gases; and buffering extreme weather events, functions that are essential for all life on Earth.

Photo credit: Pexels

ADVANCES

Protected areas are the cornerstone of biodiversity conservation.

KEEP READING ON SCIENCE

To Address the Climate Crisis, We Must Completely Rethink How We Produce and Consume Food

The clock on climate upheaval is ticking fast with little time to lose, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made frighteningly clear last week. “Limiting global warming to 1.5ºC would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” the October 8 report warned. Yet just one month earlier, the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) brushed over what may be the most critical “aspect of society,” making only marginal mention of the crisis’s top cause.

Photo credit: Pexels

Tucked away in a pastry-laden conference room in a downtown San Francisco office building, a “high-level roundtable” of international leaders discussed something pivotal to the fate of the planet yet sidelined by the summit: food and agriculture.

Led by New Zealand’s ambassador to the United States, Tim Groser, and top representatives from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Resources Institute and others, the roundtable posed the challenge, “How can we make agricultural climate action more attractive?”

Food and agriculture represents the single-biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions—at between 19 and 29 percent including associated deforestation, more than any other sector in the global economy. Yet, “agriculture is always the last at the party,” noted Groser, former chair of the World Trade Organization agriculture negotiations process, during the roundtable. Other GCAS panels explored issues of deforestation, land use and food production systems—but these pivotal issues were largely absent from the summit’s main stage events, and were barely mentioned in the protests and teach-ins surrounding the summit.

The roundtable, hosted by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, featured a dissonant blend of urgency and lack of clarity: There was no consensus around how to rapidly reduce food’s greenhouse gas emissions, which stem chiefly from industrial agriculture’s removal of forests and other carbon sinks, alongside ballooning meat and dairy production. Livestock production alone spews 14.5 percent of all the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

A failing food system

“The way we produce food is failing us,” said Zitouni Ould Dada, deputy director of the UN FAO’s climate and environment division, in an interview after the event. “The whole system of land use has to change. We need to produce food with the land we have.”

The roundtable raised a host of food and climate crises and challenges:

  • In a survey of 174 countries by the World Resources Institute, just nine had targets for reducing methane emissions from their food production.
  • Despite heaps of evidence showing industrial livestock is a top climate threat, global meat and dairy production and consumption continue to soar.
  • Massive food waste is a major hunger and climate problem: according to the UN FAO, a full one-third of all food is wasted or lost, and “if food wastage were a country, it would be the third largest emitting country in the world.”

As the FAO’s Dada explained, “We are trying to get production to shift toward efficiency because we know there is so much food wastage, from the time you sow the food to the time you have it on your plate,” including long-distance transportation, storage and processing. “Instead of producing more, we can produce more efficiently.”

The roundtable clarified a key dilemma: with nations dependent on trade, exports and economic development to maintain economic growth—and that growth invariably spurring greater meat consumption—how can countries fill their economic coffers while slashing food-related emissions?

As the world’s top exporter of goat and sheep meat, and a major beef producer, New Zealand illustrates this tension between trade and emissions reduction. The far-flung island nation faces a “very acute problem when it comes to our emissions program,” Groser acknowledged.

But, with global meat consumption rising and livestock’s climate hoof-print clear, how would top beef exporters reduce their climate harm while maintaining income for those nations and their farmers? When this reporter posed the question to the roundtable, Groser dodged the core challenge of production and consumption. “Production is not the problem,” he responded. “The problem is the how, the sustainability of production.”

While debate persists between better meat and no meat, more sustainable ranching has been on the rise, including grass-fed, smaller-scale and rotational grazing systems. Scientists and activists continue to debate the emissions reductions and carbon storage potential of these alternatives, but there is little question that producing and consuming less livestock would reduce food’s climate impact.

Unfortunately, the big picture of meat and dairy is grim. Global per capita meat consumption continues to rise (with the United States and other industrial “developed” nations leading the way)—and with it comes climate-wrecking deforestation, along with methane and nitrous oxide emissions.

When asked about using national policy such as subsidies or other incentives to propel more sustainable food production, the roundtable offered meager response. Groser said there are efforts in that direction, but he stressed the contradiction of governments trying to price carbon in the marketplace while also subsidizing carbon production.

For Groser, the dilemma exemplifies “the enormous sensitivity of agriculture” in climate reduction, particularly for nations that rely on agriculture and exports to survive. According to the EPA, agriculture comprises 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—though given farming’s relatively small chunk of the U..S economy, “it is a disproportionately GHG-intensive activity,” the USDA Economic Research Service has noted. New Zealand, meanwhile, generates half of its emissions from agriculture, Ireland 30 percent, France 20 percent, and Uruguay around 80 percent, according to Groser. “There’s no incentive structure for anyone to worry about agriculture other than France, Ireland and New Zealand.”

Like the summit itself, the roundtable focused far more on market-driven approaches than on how governments can regulate or fundamentally change the market systems that require relentless growth and profits. Gail Work, CEO of One Earth Ventures, touted lab research suggesting “we can increase the size of cows and the volume of milk while reducing pollution.” Manish Bapna, executive vice president of the World Resources Institute, emphasized using “market forces” to sway corporate supply chains to address deforestation—but, he added, “what we’ve seen is not nearly enough progress.” Any notion of the public sector spurring or supporting more rapid change was missing from the roundtable conversation.

As the latest IPCC report spells out, aggressively tackling the climate crisis would have “clear benefits to people and natural ecosystems,” and “could go hand in hand with ensuring a more sustainable and equitable society.” While given short shrift by the climate summit and the movement  protests surrounding it, critical efforts are afoot to shrink food’s outsized role in climate change. From institutions such as schools and hospitals reducing their meat consumption, to global farmer movements pushing agroecology farming systems that boost resiliency while reducing emissions, there are signs of hope.

The chief question is whether this progress can be radically and rapidly expanded.  For that to happen, the issue must be more heartily embraced by high-profile climate summits, world governments and the climate movement, as a central component of both the crisis and its solutions.

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.

Capturing Co2 from Air: To Keep Global Warming under 1.5°c, Emissions Must Go Negative, Ipcc Says

The UN’s latest global warming report made it clear that if the world is to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, society urgently needs to move away from fossil fuels completely.

Photo credit: Pexels

But to keep the planet from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, the report says, we’ll also have to figure out how to undo some of the damage that’s already been done.

“Given our current knowledge, we can’t get to 1.5 degrees without removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it,” said Kelly Levin, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute.

With 1.5°C of warming just around the corner, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) considered several solutions for removing CO2 from the air—some as simple as planting more trees, others as complex as using technology to filter CO2 from the air. Their practicality and their risks vary considerably.

KEEP READING ON INSIDE CLIMATE NEWS

 

Here’s What Agriculture of the Future Looks Like: The Multiple Benefits of Regenerative Agriculture Quantified

At the Union of Concerned Scientists, we have long advocated agricultural systems that are productive and better for the environment, the economy, farmers, farmworkers and eaters than the dominant industrial system. We refer to such a system as our Healthy Farm vision. Based on comprehensive science, we have specified that healthy farm systems must be multifunctional, biodiverse, interconnected and regenerative.

The scientific case for agricultural systems that renew rather than diminish resources is comprehensive, and research demonstrates the productivity and agronomic feasibility of such systems. Yet, economically viable real-world examples are necessary to spur acceptance and adoption of such schemes. Further, we need to overcome the limitations of economic thinking and measures that were developed in the 19th century—when it seemed that the Earth’s resources and its capacity to absorb waste were inexhaustible—and improve them to create more modern assessments, appropriate for the 21st century and beyond. A new report from our colleagues at Farmland LPDelta Institute and Earth Economics will make a major contribution toward this end.

KEEP READING ON THE UNION OF CONCERNED SCIENTISTS

As Climate Changes, Himalayan Farmers Return to Traditional Crops

Climate change is making food production harder for communities in the Indian Himalayas. Over the past few decades, there have been significant changes including higher temperatures, lower rainfall and more extreme and unpredictable weather.

Making sure communities have the food they need is key. Not just in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals’ target of zero hunger, but to make sure the Himalayas can withstand the challenges created by climate change. This requires agricultural systems that sustain natural resources, biodiversity and traditional crop varieties that give options for adaptation.

The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and its partners, Lok Chetna Manch in Ranikhet, Uttarakhand, and the Centre for Mountain Dynamics in Kalimpong, West Bengal, have been conducting participatory action-research  with a number of traditional farming villages.

These villages lie in the central Himalayas’ Almora district, and Lepcha and Limbu villages near Kalimpong in the eastern Himalayas. The research is part of an EU-funded project, Smallholder Innovation for Resilience (SIFOR), which is designed to understand and strengthen the role of traditional biodiverse farming in food security and climate adaptation.

KEEP READING ON THE THIRD POLE

At Philo Ridge, a Couple Invests in Vermont’s Farming Future

On a mid-August morning at Philo Ridge Farm in Charlotte, sheep were grazing the paddock near the one-acre market garden as a straggler from the cow herd moved out to fresh pasture across Mount Philo Road. A group of 15 visitors sampled farm-grown zucchini sticks and mint leaves offered by tour guides who led them past rows of leafy greens shrouded under white fabric to protect them from pests.

Among the vegetables, perennials such as elderberries, highbush cranberries and hazelbert trees (a hazelnut and filbert cross) had been planted to attract pollinators and other beneficial wildlife, as well as to provide a windbreak for the ridgetop garden, detailed Francine Stephens, Philo Ridge’s food and farm director.

All the farm’s animals, including laying chickens and meat birds, she said, are moved regularly through the fields. This method, called intensive rotational grazing, is optimal for livestock, soil health and overall ecosystem resilience.

Philo Ridge’s approach falls under the category of “regenerative agriculture,” Stephens said, offering what she called a “super-simplistic” definition: “We’re trying really hard to put more nutrients into the soil than we’re taking out.”

KEEP READING ON SEVEN DAYS

An Agro-Ecological Europe: A Desirable, Credible Option to Address Food and Environmental Challenges

Alarming signals about the need for a transition of the agricultural and food system in Europe have been accumulating for several years and social expectation for such a transition is growing. How can we feed Europe – and feed it well – while preserving nature and the climate? This is the purpose of a study, which main conclusions are summarized in this paper.

Key messages

1. Current diets, which are too rich and unbalanced (three times the recommended amount of sugar, double the recommended amount of protein, not enough fruit, vegetables or fibre):

  • contribute to the increase in many conditions (obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases);
  • lead Europe to depend on the rest of the world for food, through its imports of 40 million tonnes of plant proteins, which represent 20 % of its utilised agricultural land and far exceed the level of its exports.

2. The TYFA scenario is based on abandoning pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, redeploying natural grasslands and extending agro-ecological infrastructures(hedges, trees, ponds and stony habitats) and the generalisation of healthy diets (fewer animal products, more fruit and vegetables).

KEEP READING ON IDDRI

Expanding Organic Agriculture

Farmer, Author & International Organic Authority André Leu Discusses Expanding Scope of Regenerative and Organic Agriculture and its Existing Challenges

As two-term president of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (better known as IFOAM — Organics International), André Leu has logged hundreds of thousands of air and land miles on behalf of sustainable farming. From 2012 until the fall of 2017, his portfolio took him to dozens of countries where he met farmers, government officials, NGO activists, scientists and diplomats. He is a familiar face at various United Nations agencies as well. Somehow he also found time to write an essential book for Acres U.S.A. Press called The Myths of Safe Pesticides and its newest companion, Poisoning Our Children: The Parent’s Guide to the Myths of Safe Pesticides. It is safe to say that precious few people share the depth and breadth of Leu’s knowledge about sustainable agriculture around the globe. Along with devoting more time to his 150-acre fruit farm in tropical Queensland, Australia, Leu will bring his expertise to the presidency of Regeneration International, the education and advocacy organization of which he is a founding member. Thus, the talk below functions as both an exit and an entry interview.

Interviewed by Chris Walters

How IFOAM Supports Organic Agriculture

ACRES U.S.A. When governments come to IFOAM for guidance, how does that relationship work?

ANDRÉ LEU. Whenever we come into these situations, we also work with our local people on the ground and bring them into the process. This is very important. This is where a lot of governments make mistakes — they try to copy the United States’ or Europe’s regulations, but if you try that it’s not going to work so well in Zambia or Peru. It’s really important that countries have regulations that work for the way agriculture works in their countries because what we really want to do is to make it easier for people to become organic rather than the opposite. This is very important to us, and it is one of the reasons that governments come to us. Governments can see how they can make mistakes, and make it very difficult for the average farmer to access organic markets because the requirements are so stringent or inappropriate to the way they produce. We have this expertise, and particularly our members have this strong local knowledge. We can work together, and being regular and consistent benefits the producers in the country, the exporters and the processors in their own domestic market. It can also get them into high-value export markets as well.

ACRES U.S.A. How many countries have the strong local expertise you can tap to help their farmers convert and get into those markets?

LEU. At the moment it is 127 countries. We have 950 member organizations in 127 countries.

ACRES U.S.A. Does this pose a great organizational challenge?

LEU. Of course it does! We’re trying to run an international organization with a budget of about $4 million (U.S. dollars). We’re very lucky that we have the best expertise, employing some of the best people in the world for this. We have an office that is run very well, and we are always working on how to meet these challenges with the least amount of organizational time and cost.

ACRES U.S.A. Over your two terms as president of IFOAM, how has the ground shifted concerning the definitions of the various approaches to sustainable food production — agroecological, organic, regenerative and so on?

LEU. Wearing my Regeneration International hat for a moment, the reason we chose “regenerative” is that we wanted to bring all the like-minded forms of agriculture together. Agroecology, holistic grazing, permaculture, organic — there are so many of them. It was important to have a neutral term as an umbrella. Now — once again wearing my IFOAM hat — what we’ve done with IFOAM is, yes we have standards, and standards are important, especially when people want to put products into markets. However, we have four principles of organic agriculture, and principles go above standards. One is the principle of health, two is the principle of ecology, three is the principle of fairness, and finally there is the principle of care. What we say is that any farming systems that work within those four principles are organic. We could say, for instance, that any agroecology system that is not using GMOs or toxic pesticides is organic whether it’s certified or not — the same goes for permaculture or holistic grazing. But if they start using things that we specifically prohibit like the two I mentioned, then they can’t say they are organic.

ACRES U.S.A. Were these principles crafted to make sure the perfect doesn’t become the enemy of the good?

LEU. Exactly. That’s a nice way of putting it. The reason why I say IFOAM is an umbrella organization is that we want to bring people in, not exclude people. We call ourselves a change agent because what we’d like people to do is continuously improve, bring in better systems.

ACRES U.S.A. Does IFOAM take a position on the Savory Institute and its work in holistic planned management in many countries?

LEU. IFOAM itself doesn’t take a position, but from my perspective I have a lot of regard for holistic planned grazing because I’ve seen it on every arable continent. I’ve seen it in the United States, I’ve seen it Latin America, I’ve seen it in Africa and in Asia. I know that when you look at the good practitioners it makes an incredible difference. What’s really good now is a guy named Richard Teague at Texas A&M University who is doing great research, and getting it published in peer-reviewed publications, showing the multiple advantages of holistic grazing. As more of this gets published, the critics will just disappear because there is now hard science showing the many benefits in terms of improving soil quality, improving productivity and also turning cattle, a major source of greenhouse gases, from a major problem into a major solution. These systems essentially sequester or mitigate more greenhouse gases than they emit. If we could move all the world’s grazing systems into properly managed holistic grazing, we could make a significant difference to climate change.

ACRES U.S.A. Has the carbon capturing potential of regenerative agriculture made an impression on the governments of any authoritarian countries such as China, where a decision by leadership can ripple downward quickly?

LEU. In terms of governments being influenced by the potential of organic agriculture to make an impact on climate change, the answer is yes. It is just starting to happen now. IFOAM has been very active in this since before the Copenhagen meeting on climate change in 2009. We formed a round table there on organic and climate change with help from the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization and FiBL, the organic agriculture research group funded by the Swiss government. With their help, we started getting good peer-reviewed evidence published to underpin what we say when we go to governments. That is really important. When you go to governments you can’t just say ‘we want the whole world to go organic because it’s a great thing’ and all that. You should come to them with good science that has been published and checked by other people — peer reviewed — to make sure it’s accurate. Then you’ve got evidence-based science, and governments become interested. With that science we’ve been very active in getting information out to governments around the world. One of the outcomes of this was at the Paris climate change meeting where the French agriculture minister announced the 4 Pour 1000 initiative. He made the point that if we could increase the amount of carbon contained in soils by 0.04 percent, we could halt the increase in carbon and bring it back to carbon neutral levels like we had before the Industrial Revolution. We could begin to reverse the effects of climate change. Not to discount promoting renewables and all the other important things we need to do.

Organic Agriculture in Different Countries

ACRES U.S.A. Since you began traveling the world and meeting farmers, have you seen a nation or a region where sustainable farming has penetrated the heart of agriculture rather than boring in from the edges of the commodity food production system?

LEU. The main place where I’ve been actively involved is in Bhutan in the Himalayas. It’s a country where instead of gross national product they measure gross national happiness. People may find that ridiculous, but when you look at the criteria and what they are trying to do, you see they say it’s not about how much money you make, it’s about how well you feel about your community. It’s about everybody having this feeling of well-being. It’s not about a few individuals who come in and get rich; it’s about the greater common good. For them, organic agriculture fits firmly within that. They want an agriculture that is healthy, that brings good returns to farmers, that provides healthful, high-quality food to consumers and that looks after the environment. That is why they decided they want to be 100 percent organic, and now they are close to it. The last survey they did showed there is really only about 2 percent of agriculture that uses chemicals in Bhutan. We’re working with them now on their organic regulations. They will become a 100 percent organic country. Their neighbor Nepal has also started down that pathway. For instance, nearly all the coffee grown in Nepal is organic now. Other countries are leaning significantly toward it, such as Austria. In Austria, 25 percent of the farms are organic, and that number is increasing. Denmark is doing exactly the same now. Denmark already has the highest amount of shelf space for organic products in the world, 30 percent or more. The government is facilitating the change strongly in Denmark. Everywhere I go now governments are looking at significant goals. My contacts in Japan say they want to have 20 percent of the farms go organic — it’s probably around 5 percent now.

ACRES U.S.A. Do you know of any countries facing environmental crises where people near the top of the government have made the connection between bad farming techniques and the crises?

LEU. What is interesting is that the governments that are most interested are generally the provincial or state or local governments rather than the federal government. The bigger the government, the further away, and concern drops away. In India the provincial heads of government can now see the damage done by the Green Revolution. For example, in Punjab they have the Cancer Train, because so many people have cancer. It’s an epidemic. They fill this train up to take them to hospital and back. Thousands of people, about 60-75 a day or more, plus family members, go on this train. The soils are destroyed. The rivers are wrecked; they are poisonous. The air is poisonous, and enough is enough. I’ve heard that governor, at an all-India organic conference held in Punjab, say they now have a plan to change 20 percent of the agriculture to organic. Organic is the best known. It’s the one with a proven track record; it’s the one with the proven markets. The Green Revolution has been an absolute disaster there. It left a legacy of children born with birth defects, and even all around the world we are seeing a rise in non-communicable diseases like heart disease, diabetes, depression and obesity. None of these are contagious. We now have the scientific proof showing the link to environmental toxins such as pesticides, chemical fertilizers and other additives put in our food, our soap and the combination of fat, salt and sugar that in some ways is as addictive as heroin.

ACRES U.S.A. Do you see Big Food, the industrial food colossus, emerging in the minds of ordinary people — not just activists and scientists — in various countries as a major culprit behind these maladies that afflict them?

LEU. Exactly and strongly. The reason we are the fastest-growing agricultural sector in the world is because of the amount of consumer concern over food.

ACRES U.S.A. Do we need to improve international watchdog mechanisms because of fraud and corner-cutting internationally?

LEU. We have some very good consumer-conscious organizations. The Organic Consumers Association is one of the best for that, and the Center for Food Safety. You have organizations in the United States that work on behalf of consumer consciousness for Americans but are actually followed all around the world. The Organic Consumers Association is highly regarded internationally, and other countries have formed their own versions of it. Cornucopia Institute as well does an excellent job. It’s online, and people can see things from drones flying overhead, dairies or whatever, where it’s the middle of the day and there is not one animal outside grazing. It’s important to have organizations like Cornucopia and the Center for Food Safety that investigate and let the world know. They are our conscience, and they need to be supported.

Aiding African Agriculture

ACRES U.S.A. Do you ever encounter the Gates Foundation, and can you speak about the influence of billionaire philanthropists who roam the world pushing agendas that may not turn out especially beneficial to farmers?

LEU. Gates is a good example of that. Everybody thinks it’s this wonderful, benevolent organization that’s saving the world. They are very active in Africa, and they are very good at getting governments on their side for their African Green Revolution, as they call it. There they are trying to get farmers who are largely what we call organic by default — not organic by management — into buying fertilizers, pesticides and GMO seeds. It’s the same market economy that has destroyed farmers around the world as they went into debt to buy these products. They push microfinance as this wonderful tool to help farmers buy things. The reality of microfinance is that now these farmers who were too small to go into debt to the finance industry are now captured and go into debt. Then what happens is the crops fail, they can’t pay back their debt, and they lose their land. I’ve seen this in many cases. On the other hand, there is no evidence showing that these communities are better off. A good example of this is Malawi. Malawi was the poster child of this new green revolution. First they got an increase in yield and they thought, how wonderful, this is the way to go. After the government gives out free fertilizer and free pesticides, at some point the farmers have to start paying for it. Then they go into debt because they can’t afford it. Then the yields plummet because they can’t get access to these chemicals.

ACRES U.S.A. We’re talking about people who may not even have telephones or bank accounts, and now they are in debt?

LEU. That’s right. Microfinance is not always this wonderful thing it is made out to be, more often than not it puts people into debt. When you are now working to pay your debt, you are a slave to debt. Whether we like it or not, this is the model for most farmers in the world, both in my country and the United States. They are always running a certain amount of debt. When the bank has to take the farm and the value of the land becomes less than the debt, they become tenant farmers on their own land. Back in Africa, you see them in the shantytowns on the edges of the cities scavenging for goods in rubbish heaps or working in factories to make ends meet. The model needs to be changed so that farmers can stay on their farms.

ACRES U.S.A. What finally happened in Malawi?

LEU. At the moment Malawi, East Africa, southern Africa and parts of West Africa are in the middle of the worst drought in recorded history. Malawi has gone from the poster child the chemical companies bring out to speak at all these UN events to the basket case. The World Food Program has to go in now and bring in food aid, but they’re not getting enough. They are experiencing what is called “donor burnout.” Since there are all these major issues going on right now, people just can’t donate to all of them. The issue in Malawi is people starving to death. You remember the Live Aid concerts in the ’80s to relieve the Ethiopian famine? It was a drought and people were starving. That was a drought where thousands of people died, and it was nothing as severe as the one at the moment. After the Live Aid effort helped them through and the good seasons returned, one of our member organizations, the Institute for Sustainable Development, started working in northern Ethiopia at a place called Tigray. It borders Djibouti where the Red Sea starts, that area. That’s a pretty dry area where they regularly had droughts during which thousands of people died. One of the reasons they had severe droughts or crop failures was degradation of the land through overgrazing — eroded, topsoil washed away. They worked with the local community to restore the whole environment, not just the farms but also the whole environment.

ACRES U.S.A. What steps did they take?

LEU. The first was managed grazing. They didn’t stop grazing because people needed it for milk and such. All the hillsides began to regenerate. They were able to have more animals than in the past. At the same time, they worked with the local farms to fix up erosion gullies and in many cases turn them into ponds for fishing. They encouraged them to build up the organic matter in their soils by planting edible legumes such as fava beans. They then had those as a very good protein source in their diet. The planted alternate rows of the fields with legume trees to work as windbreaks, and they planted insectary plants that bring in the beneficial insects and birds to eat up the pests. They mixed crop waste and manure in biodigesters to make biogas. As a result, they had clean cooking so they no longer had to chop down trees for firewood. They used it for light at night so they could read to their children. They could also use it for running small electrical generators and small machinery. So they got all the benefit for the biogas, and that slurry they once used to compost got put out in the fields. The net result after several years of doing this was that the yields more than doubled.

ACRES U.S.A. How are they doing now?

LEU. I recently got in touch with the ISD folks and asked them how Tigray was holding up under the drought. They said, “Look, they’re fine. They’re doing okay.” What was really interesting came two months later when she sent me a preliminary report about a research program they’re doing. It’s called push-pull. It’s a way of integrating a cover crop with your cash crop at the same time. You use it for pest control, increasing water retention, nitrogen and a lot of other benefits. You can get dramatic increases in yield by bringing this into different farming systems. I get the report and I look at the first page. It says the yield increases weren’t as big as we hoped because of the drought, and they were disappointed. I looked at the figures and thought it was absolutely incredible! Here is a drought where millions of people had their crops fail and now need food aid, and Tigray got a yield increase! That should be in headlines. The other thing I want to say is that because organic farmers don’t go into debt to buy chemicals, the farmers in Tigray have a surplus of money at the end of the year. They can save and buy things. They’re building nice houses, their children are in school, and they can afford medical costs whereas before they had no money and people died. One story I heard was that the women started to buy new clothing. I thought, okay, what is so great about that? It was explained to me that because they were so poor, women had holes in their clothes and they felt indecent. They couldn’t go out in public. Once they could buy nice clothing, they could go out and socialize. And that brings us back to the point of community. Once they had been so poor to the point where people died of hunger or the children would leave for the city as soon as they got old enough. Now, because they regenerated the forest, they have another activity — making honey. The young people are coming back now to run beehives and work on the farm because they have a future in their community. They can earn more money than they can in the city. That is the model that we need to scale up globally.

ACRES U.S.A. It is wonderful, hopeful and exemplary. Unfortunately it seems like a chunk of Africa the size of Benelux has been bought up by land investors for massively scaled agriculture, mirroring the consolidation of farmland here in the United States.

LEU. It’s disastrous. First of all, it’s not their land to buy up, since native peoples have traditionally owned it for thousands of years. The term we have for what’s happening in Africa is “land grabbing.” You have governments that are corrupt, and they just go ahead and sell that land to big investors, and then people are kicked off the land without any compensation. The justification is, “Oh, they’ll get good jobs on the farm.” And they’ve lost everything. Those that do get jobs have to work under pretty poor conditions, and they are spraying all those toxic chemicals without any training, without any protective clothing. A whole host of diseases appear along with birth defects the children have to start off life with. It really is a poor model. They’re not even growing food; they’re growing commodities, things like palm oil used to make soap and biodeisel. The only time palm oil is put in food, it’s in the types of industrialized food we call obesogenic.

Sustainable Land Trusts for Organic Agriculture

ACRES U.S.A. Here in the United States, in Iowa, there is something called a sustainable land trust. They buy a piece of land and lease it to a farmer under something called an organic easement, meaning it can never be farmed industrially. The terms of the lease are generous to encourage young farmers. Do you see anything like that going on overseas?

LEU. The best one I know is called Common Land, and in various countries they have worked with farmers on about 4 million acres. They want to restore ecosystems on parts of this land and at the same time they operate organic/regenerative farms on the rest of it. That’s the biggest one. There are smaller, more local initiatives. Most of these initiatives have to fight for funding. It’s very hard to get enough money to buy land to do this with. The other important initiative to stop land grabbing is a United Nations organization called the Committee for Food Security. IFOAM, along with a lot of other non-governmental organizations, worked with that agency to put into place a series of voluntary guidelines about land tenure. It outlines what should be done and how governments ought to act. Of course no government would accept it if it was made compulsory. Many countries watered down these guidelines from what we originally wanted. The document is not as strong as we wished, but it’s a start. You can take it to governments and say, “You signed this, but you are not doing it.” Essentially it’s the governments that take this land from their own people and give it to these foreign companies.

ACRES U.S.A. It’s not hard to imagine that some of these deals will rear up and bite back, since the industrial techniques will wreck the topsoil, then a drought will hit, you’ll have pests and desertification, and then they’ll want to get rid of the land.

LEU. This is already happening. They don’t care. The people who grab this land are not there because they want to look after the land and it’s precious to them. They want to make money off of it. If it’s not productive they’ll grab some other land and work that until it’s destroyed. The only driver for them is a return to shareholders.

ACRES U.S.A. After years of traveling the world for IFOAM, what are you hoping to do for Regeneration International?

LEU. My hopes and goals for Regeneration International are for it to become the global change agent that facilitates a fundamental shift from one type of agriculture to another. We need to move from agriculture that presently constitutes a significant cause of climate change and environmental destruction while fueling the epidemic of non-contagious chronic diseases. It also destroys farming communities globally. Our goal is an agriculture that will have a major role in reversing climate change while regenerating our soils, environment, health and communities while promoting democracy and making a considerable contribution to the well-being of our planet.

Poisoning Our Children: The Parent’s Guide to the Myths of Safe Pesticides by André Leu, is coming soon from Acres U.S.A. For more information, visit acresusa.com or call 800-355-5313.

André Leu spoke on a panel of internationally known experts at the 2017 Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference and Trade Show in Columbus, Ohio. For more information call 800-355-5313.

Reposted with permission from Eco-Farming Daily.

Soil Organic Matter: Tips for Responsible Nitrogen Management

For soil organic matter to work the way it should, it depends on a careful balance of nutrients and minerals, including one of the most important elements — nitrogen. One of the great paradoxes of farming is that lack of nitrogen is regarded as one of the great limitations on plant growth, and yet plants are bathed in it because the atmosphere is 78 percent nitrogen.

Most plants cannot use nitrogen in this form (N2) as it is regarded as inert. It has to be converted into other forms — nitrate, ammonia, ammonium and amino acids for plants to utilize it.

In conventional agriculture most of these plant-available forms of nitrogen are obtained through synthetic nitrogen fertilizers that have been produced by the Haber-Bosch process.

Many experts credit the Haber-Bosch process for producing the nitrogen needed for high-yielding agriculture. Others fur­ther state that without using this energy-intensive method to synthesize ammonia, we will not be able to feed the world. At the same time, the loss of soil fertil­ity is resulting in yield decline around the world. Farmers have to dramatically in­crease synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to maintain yields.

According to the United Nations Mil­lennium Assessment Report (MA Re­port) on the environment, there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of nitrogen fertilizers used and these are causing a range of problems.

Since 1960, flows of reactive nitrogen in terrestrial ecosystems have doubled, and flows of phosphorus have tripled. More than half of all the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer … ever used on the planet has been used since 1985.

Soluble nitrogen fertilizers from con­ventional farming systems are causing the eutrophication of freshwater and coastal marine ecosystems and acidification of freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems. These are regularly creating harmful algal blooms and leading to the formation of oxygen-depleted zones that kill animal and plant life. The dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and parts of the Mediterranean are caused by this and other soluble nutri­ents from farming.

Biological Systems

The process of turning nitrogen in the air into plant-available forms occurs naturally in healthy soil systems through a multitude of microorganisms. This is called biological nitrogen fixation and is done by symbiotic organisms such as Rhizobium bacteria in legumes and free-living nitrogen-fixers: azobacters, cyano­bacters/blue green algae and countless thousands of other species of free-living nitrogen-fixers.

This process is strongly associated with the amount of soil organic matter (SOM). Stable soil organic matter will have carbon-to-nitrogen ratios between 11:1 to 9:1. Soil organic matter is the greatest store of soil nitrogen and most of this nitrogen is plant available.

Minute amounts of useable nitrogen can be fixed by electrical storms and be dissolved in the following rain. This is rarely enough for crop growth and in most areas with heavy or prolonged rain, if the soil has low levels of organic matter, most of these types of N will be leached out of the soil and into our river systems.

Biological fixation is the major source of plant-available nitrogen in natural soil systems.

The issue of soil organic matter and nitrogen continues to be largely ignored by most agronomists and this dates back to the 1840s when the father of synthetic fertilizers, Justus von Liebig, dismissed the roles of humus in plant nutrition.

Professor Albrecht’s Nitrogen Theory

Von Liebig was the first scientist to show that plant growth is dependent on adequate levels of nutrients in the form of ions — cations and anions and this formed the basis of modern agronomy with water-soluble synthetic fertilizers.

Emeritus Professor of Soils at the Uni­versity of Missouri Dr. William A. Al­brecht was the first soil scientist to show the importance of having all the soil minerals in a balanced ratio along with adequate levels of organic matter

Whereas Professor von Liebig felt that organic matter was not important and all necessary plant minerals could be sup­plied by soluble chemical fertilizers, Pro­fessor Albrecht wrote extensively on the importance of organic matter in acting as the primary source for plant nitrogen and as the buffer and storehouse of all the minerals that plants needed along with the importance of the correct soil biology to do this.

Albrecht strongly supported the con­cept of the soil as living body and the fundamental importance of organic mat­ter and soil biology in this process.

In the 1930s he wrote:

Decomposition by microorgan­isms within the soil is the reverse of the process represented by plant growth above the soil. Growing plants, using the energy of the sun, synthesize carbon, nitrogen, and all other elements into complex compounds. The energy stored up in these compounds is then used more or less completely by the mi­croorganisms whose activity within the soil makes nutrients available for a new generation of plants. Or­ganic matter thus supplies the “life of the soil” in the strictest sense. When measured in terms of carbon dioxide output, the soil is a live, ac­tive body. (Albrecht 1938)

Albrecht had science degrees in biol­ogy, agricultural science and botany. His life-long study was devoted to the roles of soil nutrients, soil organic matter and microbiology in producing high-yielding healthy crops. He was one of the first multidisciplinary scientists who took a whole systems approach to agriculture rather than a reductionist approach in the laboratory.

Albrecht also firmly established the link between plant health, particularly the role of soil mineral deficiencies, and the health of the animals and ultimately the humans who fed on the plants and ani­mals. He showed the direct link between poor-quality forage crops and the health of the stock that fed on it. For Albrecht soil health was the fundamental basis of crop health, good yields and animal and human health.

This clearly fits within the organic paradigm of building a healthy soil to grow a healthy plant, rather than the conventional farming paradigm of just adding the soluble nutrients for the plant to take up from the soil solution.

The two critical issues that Albrecht wrote about was to have soils that have adequate amounts of all the minerals that plants need and that these should be in the correct balance or ratios to achieve the highest yields.

While Albrecht wrote about calcium being the most important cation, his pa­pers on organic matter clearly state that nitrogen in the form of nitrate (an anion) is the nutrient that plants needed in the largest quantities, and insufficient nitro­gen was the one of the major limitations in yield.

In addition to carrying nitrogen, the nutrient demanded in largest amount by plants, soil organic mat­ter either supplies a major portion of the mineral elements from its own composition, or it functions to move them out of their insoluble, useless forms in the rock minerals into active forms within the col­loidal clay. Organic matter itself is predominantly of a colloidal form resembling that of clay, which is the main chemically active fraction of the soil. But it is about five times as effective as the clay in nutrient exchanges. Nitrogen, as the largest single item in plant growth, has been found to control crop-pro­duction levels, so that in the Corn Belt crop yields roughly parallel the content of organic matter in the soil. (Albrecht 1938)

Albrecht did his doctorate on soil ni­trogen and legumes and was an expert on the subject. In Albrecht’s writing the nitrate form of nitrogen is the most im­portant of all nutrients for plant growth.

Decades of research shows that nitrate anions, along with other anions, do not have many spaces in the soil where they can adsorb (stick) to be stored for later use by plants. Most of the electrostatic charges on the clay colloids are negatively charged. This means that that they will at­tract and store cations, however they will repel the negatively charged anions. This is one of the reasons why anions like ni­trate, sulfur and boron are readily leached from the soils with low levels of organic matter. The humus in organic matter has charged sites that will attract and store anions like nitrate. The majority of the nitrogen in the soil is stored on humus.

Albrecht’s research showed that soil organic matter is the most important source of nitrogen for plants. He wrote:

Soil organic matter is the source of nitrogen. In the later stages of decay of most kinds of organic mat­ter, nitrogen is liberated as ammonia and subsequently converted into the soluble or nitrate form. The level of crop production is often dependent on the capacity of the soil to pro­duce and accumulate this form of readily usable nitrogen. We can thus measure the activity that goes on in changing organic matter by mea­suring the nitrates. It is extremely desirable that this change be active and that high levels of nitrate be pro­vided in the soil during the growing season. (Albrecht 1938)

Albrecht was the first soil scientist to write widely on the relationship between nitrogen and soil organic matter and showing that the correct way to maintain sustainable fertility was to have farm­ing systems that recycled enough organic matter to have the quantities of nitrogen that are needed by the crop.

The other very important role for or­ganic matter that Albrecht wrote about was its buffering role. While Albrecht wrote widely about the need for the cor­rect percentages and ratio of available cations in soils, he also showed that ad­equate levels of organic matter would act as a buffer where the ratios were not exact and ensure that plants would receive the correct amounts of nutrients. The key was that there were no deficiencies and that there were adequate levels of all the nutrients that plants needed.

Equally important Albrecht showed that adequate levels of nitrogen, calci­um and other minerals were essential to building soil organic matter.

Bacterial activity does not oc­cur in the absence of the mineral elements, such as calcium, magne­sium, potassium, phosphorus, and others. These, as well as the nitro­gen, are important: Recent studies show that the rate of decomposi­tion is reduced when the soil is de­ficient in these elements. In virgin soils high in organic matter, these elements also are at a high level, and are reduced in available forms as the organic matter is exhausted. A decline in one is accompanied by a decline in the other.

It has recently been discovered that the fixation of nitrogen from the atmosphere by legumes is more effective where high levels of calcium are present in available form … Thus, if in calcium-laden soils, excellent legume growth results and correspondingly large nitrogen additions are made, such soils may be expected to contain much organic matter. Liberal calcium supplies and liberal stocks of organic matter are inseparable. The restoration of the exhausted lime supply exerts an influence on building up the supply of organic matter in ways other than those commonly attributed to liming.

In the presence of lime (calcium) the legumes use other el­ements more effectively, such as phosphorus … and probably other nutrients. Thus heavier production results on soils rich in minerals, including more intensive and ex­tensive root development; the most effective means of introducing organic matter into the soil. The presence of large supplies of both organic matter and minerals points clearly to the fact that the soils were high in the latter when the former was produced. (Albrecht 1938)

Biology Fixes Nitrogen into the Soil

The most well-known form of biologi­cal fixation of N for plants is the Rhizo­bium bacteria that forms nodules in the roots of legumes and live symbiotically with them. The Rhizobium transform the N2 in the soil air into forms that plants can use. The legumes in exchange give the Rhizobium a home and glucose.

Researchers are continuing to find that there are an enormous number and types of symbiotic and free-living microorganism species that fix nitro­gen. Unfortunately most agronomy texts will only mention Rhizobium bacteria that live in symbiosis in the nodules of legumes. A few more will mention the free-living nitrogen-fixing organisms such as Azotobacter, Cyanobacteria, Ni­trosomas and Nitrobacter.

Many of these species live in the rhi­zosphere (the zone around plant roots) and help plants take up nitrogen from the soil. Very importantly they are finding that there are multiple species that work in symbiosis to achieve this.

Researchers are also finding new ni­trogen fixing species in the rhizospheres associated with most species including hostile environments like mangroves growing in seawater. Scientists from the Department of Microbiology, The Center for Biological Research in Mexico stated:

These findings indicate that (i) other species of rhizosphere bacte­ria, apart from the common diazo­trophic species, should be evalu­ated for their contribution to the nitrogen-fixation process in man­grove communities; and (ii) the nitrogen-fixing activity detected in the rhizosphere of mangrove plants is probably not the result of indi­vidual nitrogen-fixing strains, but the sum of interactions between members of the rhizosphere com­munity. (Holguin et al 1992)

The critical issue is that the majority of these species are associated with the or­ganic matter cycles of soils. Continuously building and maintaining soil organic matter is the key.

Amino Acids and Soil Nitrogen

A high percentage of the nitrogen in soil organic matter is in amino acid form. Amino acids are some of the most important building blocks of life because they are the basis of DNA, RNA, proteins, hormones and many of vital functions.

Plants generally synthesize the amino acids that they need by combining the nitrate form of nitrogen with the glucose sugar that they form through photosyn­thesis. This is why nitrate is so important.

Until recently scientists believed that plants rarely took up organic nitrogen in the form of amino acids. It was assumed these molecules were too big for roots to absorb. They believed that most of the amino acid nitrogen in the soil was not useful for plants unless it was trans­formed into nitrate.

An extensive body of published sci­ence is showing that amino acids are one of the most important forms of nitrogen, especially in natural systems such as for­ests where in some cases they can be the dominant form of nitrogen.

Scientists are challenging the tra­ditional view on organic nitrogen. Re­searchers from Griffith University in Aus­tralia wrote:

In recent years, there is increas­ing evidence that some plants are able to directly utilize and generally prefer amino acids over inorganic N (e.g. Schimel & Chapin 1996, Lipson & Monson 1998, Näsholm et al. 1998, Henry & Jefferies 2003, Weigelt et al. 2005). This challenges the traditional views of the ter­restrial N cycle that plants are not able to access the organic N directly without depending on microbial mineralization to produce inorgan­ic N and that plants cannot com­pete efficiently with soil microbes for uptake of nutrients from the soil. (Xu 2006)

Researchers are finding an increasing number of crops that readily take up large amounts of amino acids from the soil organic matter.

This emerging body of research is very important as it shows:

  • That the large pool of organic nitro­gen associated with organic matter is readily available to the crop.
  • That these forms of organic nitro­gen are very stable in the soil if or­ganic matter levels are maintained or increased.
  • And most importantly that the crop can access this organic nitrogen at the critical growth or seed produc­tion periods when they need large amounts of nitrogen.

Understanding the Ratios

It is important to get an understanding of the potential for how much nitrogen can be stored in the soil organic matter for the crop to use. Soil organic matter contains nitrogen expressed in a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. This is usually between 11:1 to 9:1, however there can be further variations. The only way to firmly estab­lish the ratio for any soil is to do a soil test and measure the amounts.

For the sake of explaining the amount of organic nitrogen in the soil we will use a ratio of 10:1 to make the calculations easier.

The amount of carbon in soil organic matter is expressed as soil organic carbon (SOC) and is usually measured as the number of grams of carbon per kilogram of soil. Most texts will express this as a percentage of the soil to a certain depth.

There is an accepted approximation ratio for the amount of soil organic car­bon in soil organic matter. This is SOC × 1.72 = SOM.

The issue of working out the amount of SOC as a percentage of the soil by weight is quite complex as the specific density of the soil has to be factored in. This is because some types of soils are denser and therefore heavier than other soils. This will change the weight of car­bon as a percentage of the soil.

However for the sake of this article we will avoid the complex mathematics and to make these concepts readily under­standable we will use an average estima­tion developed by Dr. Christine Jones, one of Australia’s leading soil scientists and soil carbon specialists.

According to Dr Jones:

… a 1% increase in organic car­bon in the top 20 cm [8 inches] of soil represents a 24 t/ha [24,000 kilograms] increase in soil OC…

Note that kilograms per hectare (kg/ha) is almost identical to pounds per acre. They are close enough so that people not familiar with the metric system can use the U.S. system and it is much the same.

This means that a soil with 1% SOC would contain 24,000 kilograms of car­bon per hectare. With a 10 to 1 carbon to nitrogen ratio this soil would contain 2,400 kilograms of organic nitrogen per hectare in the top 20 cm — which is around 2,400 pounds of organic nitrogen per acre in the top 8 inches of the soil.

Good management of soil organic matter means that the soil around the root layer of the crop will contain amounts of organic nitrogen. It con­tains tons and tons of nitrogen rather than the hundreds of pounds or kilo­grams that are recommended to be add­ed in most agronomy texts. This shows that there is no need for farmers to pay the huge cost to purchase the synthetic nitrogen produced by the Haber-Bosch process. Good farm management will mean that the farms can get considerably more crop-available nitrogen for free.

Building Up Total Soil Nitrogen

The key to increasing soil nitrogen is to increase soil carbon by increasing the SOM levels.

A typical soil is supposed to be 25 percent air, 25 percent water, 45 percent mineral and 5 percent soil organic matter.

The primary reason for good soil aeration is to get oxygen into the roots. Most plants acquire oxygen directly through their roots. What most experts forget is that air is 78 percent nitrogen in the form of the inert N2.

Biologically active soils continuously fix the N2 in the soil air into plant avail­able forms as well as build the total stores of organic N, provided that the systems are continuously fed with organic matter.

The key is the continuous supply of organic matter. How do you get it on to the farm? You grow it. Farm management should be about producing as much bio­mass as possible and avoiding bare earth.

Legumes should be incorporated as much as possible in all rotation systems in cropping and should be a permanent component in all perennial systems such as pastures and orchards.

The aim of the management systems should be to let cover crops get as tall as possible and as mature as possible. This not only produces more biomass on the surface, it ensures that the roots get deep into the soil depositing organic matter as they grow down.

The Importance of Mineral Balance

The efficient production and use of N requires the correct mineral balance. Some of the key nutrients to achieve this are calcium, phosphorus, sulfur, sele­nium, molybdenum and cobalt.

Molybdenum is essential for plants to turn the nitrate and glucose in the leaves into the amino acids — the basis of the proteins, hormones, DNA and other criti­cal components of life. It works as a cata­lyst and without it the plant can’t grow and reproduce (flower, fruit and seed).

Sulfur is critical as it is needed to form the key sulfur-based amino acids such as methionine and cysteine.

Selenium is also critical to forming the sulfur-based amino acids. An emerging body of research shows higher levels of these essential amino acids when soils have good levels of selenium.

Cobalt is needed to help the nitrogen-fixing micro-organisms make vitamin B12. Without it they cannot survive. Low levels of cobalt will significantly reduce the numbers of these organisms.

Calcium is critical to good legume growth and to healthy systems of soil microorganisms.

Phosphorus is very important as it is needed to power the activity of most cells — this includes the cells of the legumes, the cells of the Rhizobium bacteria that live in the root nodules of legumes and fix nitrogen as well the cells of the free-living nitrogen-fixing microorganisms.

Just adding organic matter may not al­ways be sufficient to achieve good results if it does not contain enough nutrients to correct deficiencies. Soil mineral balance is critical to optimizing the fixation of N in the soil and the use of that by the cash and cover crops.

Albrecht wrote about this in the 1930s: It seems logical to ascribe caus­al significance to the minerals in the production of organic matter, whether or not they are effective in preserving it. If the soils that have lost their organic matter are to be restored, the loss of minerals, which has probably been fully as great, must be taken into account, and provision must be made to restore these mineral deficiencies before attempting to grow crops for the sake of adding organic matter. (Albrecht 1938)

Andre Léu first published this in the August 2012 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine. Leu is the author of The Myths of Safe Pesticides.

Reposted with permission from EcoFarming Daily.