Enrich the Soil, Cool the Planet

Fairlee, Vermont — American’s are more concerned about climate change than ever. An average of national polls conducted by Gallup this March, showed that 59 percent of Americans “believe the effects of global warming have already begun” and that 45 percent of those asked, “think global warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetime.” It’s unsurprising that climate change has emerged as a central issue in the Democratic primary campaign as voters and concerned citizens across the country ask what they can do to fight global warming.

Thus far, much of the reporting and activism on climate change, from the droughts in Chennai, India, to the burning of the Amazon rainforest, has focused on the increase in the greenhouse effect due to the rise of man-made carbon emissions in the earth’s atmosphere. Climate activist organizations like 350.org have focused their efforts almost solely around encouraging Americans to decrease the amount of carbon emissions they produce, through using renewable technologies and decreasing fossil fuel dependence.

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Regeneration International, Regenerativa Chile and Other Groups Convene in Lead-Up to COP 25 Climate Summit

SANTIAGO, Chile – To measure Chile’s growing interest in regenerative agriculture one need look no further than a one-day conference held in the Chilean capital of Santiago, where an unexpectedly high turnout filled the venue to capacity—some would-be participants were even turned away.

The overarching message to emerge from the July 1 conference held in the Santiago office of Regenerativa Chile? This: Regenerative agriculture is gaining ground in Chile and throughout South America, but there’s still much work to be done. What’s needed to take the regeneration movement to the next level is greater coordination and cooperation among those involved in this work in these regions.

The event was part of Regenerativa Chile’s IPA—Ideas Para la Accion (Ideas for Action)—sessions. Organizers included Regenerativa Chile; Carnes Manada, a Chilean company that promotes regenerative meat production; the Agronomy Department of the Catholic University of Chile; local regeneration ally El Manzano, an ecological and educational research center for sustainability in Bio Bio, Chile; and Efecto Manada, the Savory Institute’s Global Hub in Chile.

The conference was the first of many events being organized by Regeneration International and local allies in the lead-up to the COP 25 Climate Summit, to be held in Santiago December 2-13.

Conference speakers included Javiera Carrión, co-founder and co-director of El Manzano, a farm of more than 400 acres committed to land stewardship. El Manzano is a GAIA university-Latin America leader and one of the pioneer organizations in Chile offering workshops on permaculture, eco-village design, sustainable land management and human development. Carrión reflected on the many years of her regenerative agriculture work in Chile and the need for larger, more coordinated efforts to make the regenerative agriculture movement stronger and more cohesive.

Conference speaker Cristóbal Gatica, co-founder of Carnes Manada, emphasized the need to create a closer connection between producers and consumers. The movement for regenerative meat in Chile is gaining traction, Gatica said, and Chilean consumers are starting to recognize the importance of eating regenerative meat.

Other speakers included Isidora Molina, founder of Efecto Manada, a Savory Network organization that promotes regenerative meat production (unrelated to Carnes Manada). Molina spoke of the changes she has seen in the past few years and of how Efecto Manada has worked to gain the trust and confidence of its neighbors and nearby farm owners who were initially skeptical of Efecto Manada’s holistic management approach to regenerative meat production.

Ercilia Sahores, Latin American director of Regeneration International, discussed the importance of building a regenerative movement by integrating local regenerators with the support of an international umbrella such as Regeneration International. Sahores also examined recent changes in the international discussion around regeneration. 

Dr Rafael Larraín, professor in the Animal Science, Agronomy and Forestry Department of the Catholic University of Chile, stressed the importance of the collaboration between academic researchers and hands-on practitioners. Larraín also suggested closer collaboration between Regeneration International, the 4 per 1000 initiative, the Catholic University of Chile and the entire regenerative movement.

Finally, the conference’s discussions around the rapidly approaching COP 25 summit made clear the importance of having a robust presence at the official COP 25, and the importance of organizing other, parallel activities to help nourish and strengthen the worldwide Regenerative Agriculture movement.

The conference was moderated by Mauricio Ramos of Regenerativa Chile, who stressed the urgency and commitment of being part of global change—every day.  Ramos also spoke on the importance of reflecting on what we do and how we can all contribute to being part of that change.

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

Farming Our Way Out of the Climate Crisis

Could changing our land use and agricultural practices make a dent in addressing climate change? Yes, says Project Drawdown and a new report from the IPCC.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new report that highlights the importance of land use and agriculture in climate change.

Good! It’s a crucial area for us to focus on, and it’s often neglected.

I’ve been working on this topicon and offsince the 1990s, and have been bewildered why it doesn’t get more attention. For some reason, when we think of greenhouse gas emissions, we envision factories, cars, and smokestacks — not farm fields, plantations, and cattle ranches. But, it turns out, land use and agriculture are among the biggest contributors to climate change — and can be among the biggest climate solutions.

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We Can Stop the Climate Crisis

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

We can stop the climate crisis.

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

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

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

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

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

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Structurally Complex Forests Better at Carbon Sequestration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Regenerative Agriculture Is Key for a Sustainable Climate and Food System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted with permission from Common Dreams

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

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

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

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

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Growing Change: Can Agriculture Be Good for the Climate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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