Agave Power: Greening the Desert

Read in Spanish here.

Agave, from the Greek word αγαυή, meaning “noble” or “admirable,” is a common perennial desert succulent, with thick fleshy leaves and sharp thorns. Agave plants evolved originally in Mexico, the Southwestern US, and Central America, but are also found today in the hot, arid, and semi-arid drylands of South America, Africa, Oceana, and Asia. Agaves are best known for producing textiles (henequen and sisal) from its fibrous leaves, and alcoholic beverages, tequila, pulque, and mescal, from its sizeable stem or piña, and more recently bio-ethanol from the bagasse or leftover pulp after the piña is distilled.

Agave’s several hundred different varieties are found growing on approximately 20% of the earth’s lands, often growing in the same desertified, degraded cropland or rangeland areas as nitrogen-fixing, deep-rooted trees or shrubs such as mesquite, acacia, or leucaena. Agaves can tolerate intense heat and will readily grow in drylands or semi-desert landscapes where there is a minimum annual rainfall of approximately 10 inches or 250 mm, and where the temperature never drops below 14 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 10 degrees Celsius).

The several billion small farmers and rural families living in the world’s drylands are often among the most impoverished communities in the world, with increasing numbers being forced to migrate to cities or across borders in search of employment. Decades of deforestation, overgrazing, soil erosion, destructive use of agricultural chemicals, and heavy tillage or plowing have severely degenerated the soils, fertility, water retention, and biodiversity of most arid and semi-arid lands. With climate change, limited and unpredictable rainfall, and increasingly degraded soil in these drylands, it has become increasingly difficult to raise traditional food crops (such as corn, beans, and squash in Mexico) or generate sufficient grass and forage for animals. Many dryland areas are in danger of degenerating even further into literal desert, unable to sustain any crops or livestock whatsoever. Besides struggling with degraded landscapes, poverty, and crop failure, social conflict, drug trafficking, and organized crime often plague these areas, forcing millions to migrate to urban areas or across borders to seek employment.

Agaves

Agaves basically require no irrigation, literally drawing moisture directly from the air and storing it in their thick thorny leaves (pencas) and stem or heart (piña) utilizing their Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM) photosynthetic pathway, which enables the plant to grow and produce significant amounts of biomass, even under conditions of severely restricted water availability and prolonged droughts. Agaves reproduce by putting out shoots or hijuelos alongside the mother plant, (approximately 3-4 per year) or through seeds, if the plant is allowed to flower at the end of its 8-13 year (or more) lifespan.

A number of agave varieties appropriate for drylands agroforestry (salmiana, americana, mapisaga) readily grow into large plants, reaching a weight of 650 kilograms (1400 pounds) to one ton in the space of 8-13 years. Agaves are among the world’s top 15 plants or trees in terms of drawing downlarge amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and producing plant biomass. [Footnote: Park S. Nobel, Desert Wisdom/Agaves and Cacti, p.132] Certain varieties of agave are capable of producing up to 43 tons of dry weight biomass per hectare (17 tons of biomass per acre) or more per year on a continuous basis. In addition, the water use of agaves (and other desert-adapted CAM plants) is typically 4-12 times more efficient than other plants and trees, with average water demand approximately 6 times lower.

Agave-Based Agroforestry

Agave’s nitrogen-fixing, deep-rooted companion trees or shrubs such as mesquite and acacias have adapted to survive in these same dryland environments as well. From an environmental, soil health, and carbon-sequestering perspective, agaves should be cultivated, not as a monoculture, as is commonly done with agave azul(the blue agave species) on tequila plantations in Mexico (often 3,000-4,000 plants per hectare/1215-1600 plants per acre), but as a polyculture. In this polyculture agroforestry system, several varieties of agave are interspersed with native nitrogen-fixing trees or shrubs (such as mesquite or acacias), pasture grass, and cover crops, which fix the nitrogen and nutrients into the soil which the agave needs to draw upon in order to grow and produce significant amounts of biomass/animal forage. If grown as a polyculture, agaves and their companion trees and shrubs can be cultivated on a continuous basis, producing large amounts of biomass and sequestering significant amounts of carbon above ground and below ground, without depleting soil fertility or biodiversity.

In addition to these polyculture practices, planned rotational grazing on these agroforestry pastures not only provides significant forage for livestock, but done properly (neither overgrazing nor under-grazing), further improves or regenerates the soil, eliminating dead grasses, invasive species, facilitating water infiltration (in part through ground disturbance i.e. hoof prints), concentrating animal manure and urine, and increasing soil organic matter, soil carbon, biodiversity, and fertility.

Although agave is a plant that grows prolifically in some of the harshest climates in the world, up until now this plant has been largely ignored, if not outright denigrated. Apart from producing alcoholic beverages, agaves are often considered a plant and livestock pest, along with its thorny, nitrogen-fixing, leguminous companion trees or shrubs such as mesquite and acacias.

But now, the development of a new agave-based agroforestry and holistic livestock management system in the semi-arid drylands of Guanajuato, Mexico, utilizing basic ecosystem restorations techniques, permaculture design, and silage production using anaerobic fermentation, is changing the image of agave and their companion trees. This agave-powered agroforestry and livestock management system is demonstrating that native plants, long overlooked, have the potential to regenerate the drylands, provide large amounts of inexpensive but essential forage for grazing animals, and alleviate rural poverty.

Moving beyond conventional monoculture and chemical-intensive farm practices, and combining the traditional indigenous knowledge of native desert plants and natural fermentation, an innovative group of Mexico-based farmers have learned how to reforest and green their drylands, all without the use of irrigation or expensive and toxic agricultural inputs.

They have accomplished this by densely planting, pruning, and inter-cropping high-biomass, high-forage producing species of agaves (average 2000 per hectare, 810 per acre) among pre-existing deep-rooted, nitrogen-fixing tree or shrub species (500 per hectare) such as mesquite and acacia, or alongside transplanted tree seedlings. These agaves naturally produce large amounts of plant leaf or pencas every year, which can then be chopped up and fermented, turned into silage.  Agave’s perennial silage production far exceeds most other forage production (most of which require irrigation and expensive chemical inputs) with three different varieties (salmiana, americana, and mapisaga) in various locations producing approximately 40 tons per acre or 100 tons per hectare, of fermented silage, annually. The variety crassispina, valuable for its high-sugar piña content for mescal, produces slightly less than 50% of the penca biomass than the other three varieties (average 46.6 tons per year).

The agave silage of the three most productive varieties has a considerable market value of $100 US per ton (up to $4,000 US per acre or $10,000 per hectare gross profit, with 50% of this amount being net profit after subtracting production and labor costs). This system, in combination with rotational grazing, has the capacity to feed up to 60 sheep, lambs or goats per acre/per year or 150 per hectare, doubling net income to S4,000 US per acre or $10,000 per hectare. Once certified as organic, lamb production can easily increase net profits to $5,000 US per acre or $12,000 per hectare annually.

In addition, the agave stem or piña, with a market value of $150 US per ton, harvested at the end of the agave plant’s 8-13 year-lifespan for mescal (a valuable distilled liquor) or inulin (a valuable nutritional supplement) can weigh 150-200 kg. (330-450 pounds), in the three most productive varieties. Again the crassispiña variety has a much smaller piña (160 tons per 2000 plants). The value of the piña from 2000 agave plants for the salmiana, americana, and mapisaga varieties, harvested once, at the end of the plant’s productive lifespan (approximately 10 years) has a market value of $52,500 US per hectare, with the market value for inulin being considerably more.

Combining the market value of the penca and piña of the three most productive varieties we arrive at a total gross market value of $152,500 US per hectare and $61,538 per acre, over 10 years. Adding the value of the 72,000 hijuelos or shoots of 2000 agave plants (each producing an average of 36 shoots or clones) with a value of 12 pesos or 60 cents US per shoot we get an additional $43,200 gross income over 10 years. Total estimated gross income per hectare for pencas ($100,000), pinas ($52,500), and hijuelos ($43,200) over 10 years will be $195,700, with expenses to establish and maintain the system projected to be $13,047 per hectare. As these numbers indicate, this system has tremendous economic potential.

Pioneered by sheep and goat ranchers in the municipality of San Luis de la Paz, Mexico and then expanded and modified by organic farmers and researchers in San Miguel de Allende, “Agave Power” as the new Movement calls itself, is starting to attract regional and even international attention on the part of farmers, government officials, climate activists, and investors. One of the most exciting aspects of this new agroforestry system is its potential to be eventually established or replicated, not only across Mexico, but in a significant percentage of the world’s arid and semi-arid drylands, (including major areas in Central America, Latin America, the Southwestern US, Asia, Oceana, and Africa). Arid and semi-arid drylands constitute, according to the United Nations Convention to Prevent Desertification, 40% of the Earth’s lands.

Alleviating Rural Poverty

Besides improving soils, regenerating ecosystems, and sequestering carbon, the economic impact of this agroforestry system appears to be a long-overdue game-changer in terms of reducing and eliminating rural poverty. Currently 90% of Mexico’s dryland farmers (86% of whom do not have wells or irrigation) are unable to generate any profit whatsoever from farm production, according to government statistics. The average rural household income in Mexico is approximately $5,000-6,000 US per year, derived overwhelmingly from off-farm employment and remittances or money sent home from Mexican immigrants working in the US or Canada. Almost 50% of Mexicans, according to government statistics, are living in poverty or extreme poverty.

The chart below compares the high productivity of agave (in terms of animal forage or silage production) compared to other forage crops, all of which, unlike agave and mesquite, require expensive and/or unavailable irrigation or crop inputs. The second chart compares the productivity, in terms of penca or leaf biomass, from the species salmiana. See appendix for comparisons of other agave species in a number of different locations.

 

Deploying the Agave-Based Agroforestry System

The first step in deploying this agave-powered agroforestry and holistic livestock management system involves carrying out basic ecosystem restoration practices. Restoration is necessary given that most dryland areas suffer from degraded soils, erosion, low fertility, and low rainfall retention in soils. Initial ecosystem restoration typically requires putting up fencing or repairing fencing for livestock control, constructing rock barriers (check dams) for erosion control, building up contoured rows and terracing, subsoiling (to break up hardpan soils), transplanting agaves of different varieties and ages (1600-2500 per hectare or 650-1000 per acre), sowing pasture grasses, as well as transplanting (if not previously forested) mesquite or other nitrogen-fixing trees (500 per hectare or 200 per acre) or shrubs. Depending on the management plan, not all agaves will be planted in the same year, but at times 10-20% per year so as to stagger harvest times for the agave piñas, which are harvested at the end of the particular species’ 8-13- year lifespan.

This in turn is followed by no-till soil management (after initial subsoiling) and sowing pasture grasses and cover crops of legumes, meanwhile temporarily “resting” pasture (i.e. keeping animals out of overgrazed pastures or rangelands) long enough to allow regeneration of forage and survival of young agaves and tree seedlings. Following these initial steps of ecosystem restoration and planting agaves and establishing sufficient tree cover, which can take up to five years, the next step is carefully implementing planned rotational grazing of sheep and goats (or other livestock) across these pasturelands and rangelands, at least during the rainy season (4-6 months per year), utilizing moveable solar fencing and/or shepherds and shepherd dogs (neither overgrazing nor under-grazing); supplementing pasture forage, especially during the six-eight-month dry season, with fermented agave silage. During the dry season many families will choose to keep the breeding stock on their smaller family parcels or paddocks, feeding them fermented silage (either agave or agave/mesquite pod mix) to keep them healthy throughout the dry season, when pasture grasses are severely limited.

By implementing these restoration and agroforestry practices, farmers and ranchers can begin to regenerate dryland landscapes and improve the health and productivity of their livestock, provide affordable food for their families, improve their livelihoods, and at the same time, deliver valuable ecosystem services, reducing soil erosion, recharging water tables, and sequestering and storing large amounts of atmospheric carbon in plant biomass and soils, both aboveground and below ground.

Fermenting the Agave Leaves: A Revolutionary Innovation

The revolutionary innovation of a pioneering group of Guanajuato farmers has been to turn a heretofore indigestible, but massive and accessible source of biomass, the agave leaves or pencas, into a valuable animal feed, utilizing the natural process of anaerobic fermentation to transform the plants’ indigestible saponin and lectin compounds into digestible carbohydrates, sugar, and fiber. To do this they have developed a relatively simple machine, hooked up to a tractor, that can chop up the very tough pruned leaves of the agave. After chopping the agave’s leaves or pencas (into what looks like green coleslaw) they then anaerobically ferment this wet silage (ideally along with the chopped-up protein-rich pods of the mesquite tree) in a closed container, such as a five-gallon plastic container with a lid, removing as much oxygen as possible (by tapping it down) before closing the lid.

The fermented end-product, golden-colored after 30 days, is a nutritious but very inexpensive silage or animal fodder, that costs approximately one Mexican peso (or five cents US) per kilogram/2.2 pounds (fermented agave alone) or two pesos (agave and mesquite pods together) per kilogram to produce. In San Miguel de Allende, the containers we use, during this initial experimental stage of the project cost $3 US per unit for a 20 liter or 5 gallon plastic container or cubeta with a lid, with a lifespan of 25 uses or more before they must be recycled.

This means that the current costs per use of the 20-liter container holding the foraje or silage is 15 cents US or three pesos for 20 liters/kg. This brings the production and storage costs up for fermented agave from one peso (5 cents US) to 1.15 pesos (5.75 US cents) per kilo, far less expensive and resource intensive than alfalfa (4 pesos or 20 cents US per kilo with irrigation required) or hay (4 pesos per kilo), and much more nutritious than corn stalks or rastrojo (2 pesos per kilo). One advantage of these recyclable plastic containers is that a 20-liter container filled with fermented silage weighs only 20 kg or 44 pounds, making it easier to handle. However, Agave Power researchers are now developing silage storage alternatives that will eliminate the necessity for the relatively expensive 20 liter/20 kg plastic cubetas or containers.

The agave silage production system provides the cash-strapped rancher or farmer with an alternative to having to purchase alfalfa (expensive at 20 cents US per kg and water-intensive) or hay (likewise expensive) or corn stalks (labor intensive and nutritionally-deficient), especially during the dry season.

According to Dr. Juan Frias, one of the pioneers of this process, lambs or adult sheep readily convert 10 kilos of fermented agave silage into one kilo of body weight. At five to 10 cents per kilo (two cents per pound), this highly nutritious silage can eventually make the difference between poverty and a decent income for literally millions of the world’s dryland small farmers and herders. Typically, an adult sheep will consume 2-2.5 kilograms of silage every day, while a lamb of up to five months of age will consume 500-800 grams per day.  (Cattle will consume 10 times as much silage per day as sheep, approximately 25 kg per day.) Under the agave system for sheep and goats it costs approximately 20 pesos or one dollar a pound (live weight) to produce what is worth, at ongoing market rates for non-organic mutton or goat, 40 pesos or two dollars per pound. (Certified organic lamb, mutton, or goat will bring in 25-50 percent more). In ongoing experiments in San Miguel de Allende, pigs and chickens have remained healthy and productive with fermented agave forage providing 25% of their diet, reducing feed costs considerably.

The bountiful harvest of this regenerative, high-biomass, high carbon-sequestering system includes not only extremely low-cost, nutritious animal forage (up to 100 tons or more per hectare per year of fermented silage, starting in years three-five, averaged out over ten years), but also high-quality organic lamb, mutton, cheese, milk, aquamiel (agave sap), pulque (a mildly alcoholic beverage), inulin (a nutritional supplement), and distilled agave liquor (mescal), all produced organically with no synthetic chemicals or pesticides whatsoever, at affordable prices, with excess agave biomass fiber, and bagasse available for textiles, compost, biochar, construction materials, and bioethanol.

Regenerative Economics: The Bottom Line

In order to motivate a critical mass of impoverished farmers and ranchers struggling to make a living in the degraded drylands of Mexico, or in any of the arid and semi-arid areas in the world, to adopt this system, it is necessary to have a strong economic incentive.  There absolutely must be economic rewards, both short term and long term, in terms of farm income, if we expect rapid adoption of this system. Fortunately, the agave/mesquite agroforestry system provides this, starting in year three and steadily increasing each year thereafter, producing large amounts of low-cost silage to feed to their livestock and a steady and growing revenue stream from selling their surplus pencaspinas, and silage from their farm or communal lands (ejidos).

Given that these farmers have little or no operating capital, there needs to be a system to provide financing (loans and grants) and technical assistance to deploy this regenerative system and maintain it over the crucial 5-year initiation period. Based upon a decade of implementation and experimentation, we estimate that this agave agroforestry system will cost approximately $1300 US dollars per year, per hectare to establish and maintain, averaged out over a ten-year period. See chart below. By year five, however this system will be able to pay out initial operating loans (upfront costs in years one or one through five are much higher than in successive years) and begin to generate a net profit.

The overwhelming majority of Mexican dryland farmers, as noted previously, have no wells for irrigation (86%) and make little no money (90%) from their subsistence agriculture practices (raising corn, beans, and squash and livestock). Although the majority of rural smallholders are low-income or impoverished, they do however typically own their own (family or self-built) houses and farm sheds or buildings as well as title or ownership to their own parcels of land, typically five hectares (12 acres) or less, as well as their livestock. And beyond their individual parcels, three million Mexican families are also joint owners of communal lands or ejidos, which constitute 56% of total national agricultural lands (103 million hectares or 254 million acres).  Ejidos arose out the widespread land reform and land redistribution policies following the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20. Large landholdings or haciendas were broken up and distributed to small farmers and rural village organizations, ejidos.

Unfortunately, most of the lands belonging to Mexico’s 28,000 communal landholding ejidos are arid or semi-arid with no wells or irrigation. But being an ejido member does give a family access and communal grazing (some cultivation) rights to the (typically overgrazed) ejido or village communally-owned land. Some ejidos including those in the drylands are quite large, encompassing 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) or more. In contrast to farmers in the US or the rest of the world, most of these Mexican dryland or ejido farmers have little or no debt. For many their bank account is their livestock, which they sell as necessary to pay for out of the ordinary household and personal expenses. As noted earlier, most Mexican farmers today subsist on the income from off-farm jobs by family members, and remittances sent home from family members working in the US or Canada. They understand first hand that climate change and degraded soils are making it nearly impossible for them to grow their traditional milpas (raising corn, beans, and squash during the rainy season) or raise healthy livestock for family consumption and sales. Most are aware that their livestock often cost them as much labor and money to raise (or more) than their value for family subsistence or their value in the marketplace.

Mexico has a total of 2400 municipios or counties located in 32 states. Across Mexico small farmers are already cultivating agave in 1000 municipios and nine states, harvesting piñas for mescal production. None of these areas, however, except for Hacienda Zamarippa in San Luis de la Paz, and Via Organica (and surrounding ejidos) in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, are currently harvesting pencas or agave leaf to produce fermented silage for livestock. However, as the word spreads about the incredible value of pencas and the agave/mesquite agroforestry developing in the state of Guanajuato, farmers in most of the nation’s edijos and municipios will be interested in deploying this system in their areas.

With modest start-up financing, operating capital, and technical assistance (much of which can be farmer-to-farmer training), a critical mass of Mexican smallholders will be able to benefit enormously from establishing this agave-based agroforestry and livestock management system on their private parcels, and benefit even more by collectively deploying this system with their other ejido members on communal lands. With the ability to generate a net income up to $6-12,000 US per year/per hectare of fermented agave silage (and lamb/sheep/livestock production) on their lands, low maintenance costs after initial deployment, and with production steadily increasing three to five years after implementation, this agave system has the potential to spread all across Mexico (and all the arid and semi-arid drylands of the world.)  As tens of thousands and eventually hundreds of thousands of small farmers and farm families start to become self-sufficient in providing 100% of the feed and nutrition for their livestock, dryland farmers will have the opportunity to move out of poverty and regenerate household and rural community economies, restoring land fertility and essential ecosystem services at the same time.

The extraordinary characteristic of this agave agroforestry system is that it generates almost immediate rewards. Starting from seedlings or agave shoots, (hijuelos they are called) in year three in the 8-13-year life-span of these agaves, farmers can begin to prune and harvest the lower plant leaves or pencas from these agaves (pruning approximately 20% of leaf biomass every year starting in year three) and start to produce tons of nutritious fermented animal feed/silage. Individual agave leaves or pencas from a mature plant can weigh more than 20 kilos or 45 pounds each.

Because the system requires no inputs or chemicals, the meat, milk, or forage produced can readily be certified organic, likely increasing its wholesale value in the marketplace. In addition the piñas or plant stem from 2000 agave plants (one hectare) with an average piña per plant of 150-200 kg (3 pesos or 15 cents US per KG) can generate a one-time revenue of $45,000-60,000 US dollars) at the final harvest of the agave plant, when all remaining leaves and stem are harvested. But even as agaves are completely harvested at the end of their 8-13-year life span, other agave seedlings or hijuelos (shoots) of various ages which have steadily been planted alongside side them will maintain the same level of biomass and silage production. In a hectare of 2,000 agave plants, approximately 72,000 hijuelos or new baby plants (averaging 36 per mother plant) will be produced over a ten-year period. These 72,000 baby plants (ready for transplanting) have a current market value over a ten-year period of 12 Mexico pesos (60 cents US) each or $43,200 US ($4,320 US per year).

Financing the Agave-Based Agroforestry System

Although Mexico’s dryland small-holders are typically debt-free, they are cash poor. To establish and maintain this system, as the chart below indicates, they will need approximately $1300 US dollars a year per hectare ($466 per acre) for a total cost over 10 years at $13,047.  Starting in year five, each hectare should be generating $10,000 worth of fermented silage or foraje per year.

By year five, farmers deploying the system will be generating enough income from silage production and livestock sales to pay off the entire 10-year loan. From this point on they will become economically self-sufficient, and, in fact, will have the opportunity to become moderately prosperous. Pressure to overgraze communal lands will decrease, as will the pressure on rural people to migrate to cities or to the US and Canada. Meanwhile massive amounts of atmospheric carbon will have begun to be sequestered above ground and below ground, enabling many of Mexico’s 2400 counties (municipalidades) to reach net zero carbon emissions. In addition, other ecosystem services will improve, including reduced topsoil erosion, more rainfall/water retention in soils, more soil organic matter, increased tree and shrub cover, increased biodiversity (above ground and below ground), restoration of grazing areas, and increased soil fertility.

Natural Carbon Sequestration in Regenerated Soils and Plants

Mexico, like every nation, has an obligation, under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide) through converting to renewable forms of energy (especially solar and wind) and energy conservation, at the same time, drawing down excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing, through the process of enhanced forest and plant photosynthesis, this “drawdown” carbon in its biomass, roots, and soil. Agave-based agroforestry (2000 agave plants per hectare) as a perennial system, with the capacity of agave plants to produce 135 kg. per plant of dry weight biomass per hectare over 10 years, can store aboveground approximately 73.6 tons of carbon per hectare (30 tons per acre) over a ten- year period, on a continuous basis, not counting the carbon stored by companion trees or shrubs such as mesquite and acacias. In terms of above ground (and below ground) carbon/carbon dioxide sequestration capacity over 10 years (i.e. 74 tons carbon per year per hectare or 270 tons of CO2e), this system, maintained as a polyculture with continuous perennial growth, is among the most soil regenerative on earth, especially considering the fact that it can be deployed in harsh arid and semi-arid climates, on degraded land, basically overgrazed and unsuitable for growing crops, with no irrigation or chemical inputs required whatsoever. In Mexico, where 60% of all farmlands or rangelands are arid or semi-arid, this system has the capacity to sequester 100% of the nation’s current Greenhouse Gas emissions (590 million tons of CO2e) if deployed on approximately 1.1% or 2.185 million hectares (2000 agaves and 500 mesquites) of the nation’s total lands (197 million hectares). Communally-owned ejido lands in Mexico alone account for more than 100 million hectares. The largest eco-system restoration project in recent until now has been the decade-long restoration of the Loess Plateau (1.5 million hectares) in north-central China in the 1990s.

In a municipalidad or county like San Miguel de Allende, Mexico covering 1,537 Km2 (153,700 hectares) with estimated annual Greenhouse Gas emissions of 654,360 t/CO2/yr (178,300 t/C/yr) the agave/mesquite agroforestry system (sequestering 270 tons of CO2e above ground per hectare continuously after 10 years) would need to be deployed on approximately 2,423 hectares (5,986 acres) or 1.6% of the land in order to cancel out all current emissions. There are 2400 municipalidades or counties in Mexico, including 1000 that are already growing agave and harvesting the pinas for mescal.

In the watershed of Tambula Picachos in the municipality of San Miguel there are 39,022 hectares of rural land (mainly ejido land) in need of restoration (93.4% show signs of erosion, 53% with compacted soil). Deploying the agave/mesquite agroforestry on 2,423 hectares (6.2%) of this degraded land would be enough to cancel out all current emissions in the municipality of San Miguel.

The economic value of growing agave on this 2,423 hectares (including silage, pinas, and hijuelos) averaged out over 10 years would amount to roughly $47.7 million dollars US per year, a tremendous boost to the economy. In comparison, San Miguel de Allende, one of the top tourist destinations in Mexico (with 1.3 visitors annually) brings in one billion dollars a year from tourism, it’s number one revenue generator.

APPENDIX

Global Alliance for Organic Districts: Scaling Up Organic Agriculture

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of resilient local food systems that promote healthy people, environmental stewardship and a strong local economy. Lobbying governments around the world to adopt and support organic regenerative farming practices is paramount to establishing and maintaining local food systems and access to healthy food. 

During these trying times, Regeneration International (RI) has remained steadfast in its efforts to spread the word about organic regenerative agriculture to local governments, municipalities, cities and regions worldwide.

Our latest endeavor includes participating in the virtual launch of the first Global Alliance for Organic Districts (GAOD), an alliance announced on World Food Day 2020 between Asian Local Governments for Organic Agriculture (ALGOA) and the International Network of Eco Regions (I.N.N.E.R.). 

The goal is for the initiative to create synergy between groups working to promote organic regenerative agriculture across the globe. It’s supported by several founding member organizations including RI, IFOAM Organics International, IFOAM Organics Asia and the League of Organic Agriculture Municipalities and Cities of the Philippines (LOAMCP).

RI’s role in the alliance is to promote and highlight soil health as the most effective tool to curb climate change while providing local communities with nutrient-dense food. 

GAOD and its partners also joined and have voiced their support for the 4Per1000 Initiative: Soils for Food Security and Climate, a project launched in 2015 at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, France. 

The initiative provides an international framework on how to demonstrate the role of agriculture and healthy soil in addressing food security and climate change. 

The project recently launched a strategic plan to use carbon-rich soil to stop climate change and end world hunger by 2050, and by 2030 the project aims to: 

“. . . provide a supportive framework and action plan to conceptualize, implement, promote and follow up actions, on soil health and soil carbon, through an enhanced collaboration between stakeholders of the agriculture, forestry and other land use sectors, in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.”

During the virtual online summit, GAOD’s co-president Salvatore Basile expressed his gratitude  and acknowledged the importance of the 4Per1000 Initiative to provide a framework on agricultural climate mitigation for local policymakers worldwide. He said: 

“From this day, we will promote the potential of organic regenerative agriculture to mitigate climate and build resilient local economies to mitigate the growing environmental threats global communities are facing.”

In a video message aired at the online event, Paul Luu, an agronomist specialized in tropical agronomy and executive secretary of the 4Per1000 Initiative, thanked GAOD, ALGOA and I.N.N.E.R. for becoming members of the project.

“This is an important and strong signal to local authorities to encourage and promote carbon sequestration in soils through appropriate agriculture and forestry practices. Agroecology will remain a mere concept if no farmer or forester implement appropriate practices in their fields or forests and if local authorities do not work to create an enabling environment for such practices.” 

Through the work happening on-the-ground at Via Organica, the Mexico-based sister organization of the Organic Consumers Association, RI will provide GAOD’s 4Per1000 task force groups with insights for implementing localized agriculture designed to mitigate climate change. 

The project at Via Organica, based in San Miguel de Allende, provides training to local communities on how to reforest landscapes with the planting of mesquite (which has nitrogen-fixing capacities) and agave, which has tremendous power to grow in extreme dryland conditions while sequestering huge amounts of carbon with its increased biomass. 

The agave then gets converted into a low-cost animal feed for local sheepherders who practice holistic grazing methods. 

A recently published [LINK] video featuring RI’s Latin America Director Ercilia Sahores and Francisco Peyret, the environment director for the city San Miguel de Allende, showcases the innovative agave-mesquite model. 

“We want to implement the goals of the ‘4Per1000’ Initiative, and this means taking action. This year, we are planting 2,000 hectares [of agave and mesquite] and we have 20,000 hectares that we want to convert into productive and regenerate areas,” said Pevret.

The agave planting project and the work being done at Via Organica has inspired officials in the  Guanajuato government to launch their own pilot project. 

In the featured video, Sahores said: 

“Change happens at the local level, and that is from where we need to act and gather our forces. GAOD and the RI network can have a greater influence on public policies, bringing to evidence that the health of food and climate are one.”

 RI’s participation in the ALGOA/GAOD summit contributed to a working group that includes participants from every continent on the globe to discuss the main challenges for scaling up regenerative agriculture.

The working group identifies what the challenges are, how they can be overcome and what GAOD can do to assist in that mission. 

We found that many of these needs are universal, including access to land, fair compensation for farmers to maintain and regenerate ecosystems, consumer awareness, and training on regenerative agriculture practices.

Stay tuned for more updates on the global regeneration front. 

Oliver Gardiner represents Regeneration International in Europe and Asia. 

To keep up with news and events, sign up here for the Regeneration International newsletter.

The Long-Term Disaster Far Worse than the COVID-19 Pandemic

There is a long-term disaster far worse than the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic will end in a few years; however, the world will lose many millions more to sickness, hunger, poverty and catastrophic weather events because of the unprecedented climate emergency.

The world reached a record of 417.2 parts per million of carbon dioxide (ppm CO2)  in the atmosphere in May 2020 – the most in over 3 million years.

A study published in May 2019 shows that if we don’t succeed in radically reducing emissions, civilization could collapse by 2050. As reported by the New York Post, the authors of the report say: 

“This scenario provides a glimpse into a world of ‘outright chaos’ on a path to the end of human civilization and modern society as we have known it, in which the challenges to global security are simply overwhelming and political panic becomes the norm.

The good news is that we can turn this around by scaling up regenerative agriculture.

Why regenerative agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture is based on a range of food and farming systems that use the photosynthesis of plants to capture carbon dioxide and store it in the soil. The soil holds almost three times the amount of carbon than the atmosphere and biomass (forests and plants) combined. 

Why is it so important to dramatically reduce the current rate of CO2 emissions?

If emissions are not reduced soon, we will be going into catastrophic climate change. This is because it will take centuries to get the heat out of our oceans. Ocean heat is a significant driver of our weather. The oceans and the atmosphere are already more than 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) warmer than the industrial revolution.

The energy needed to heat the atmosphere and the ocean by 1.8 degrees is equivalent to billions of atomic bombs. I am using this violent metaphor so that people can understand how much energy is being released into our atmosphere and oceans and why we will get more extreme weather events wreaking havoc on our communities and environment.

This extra energy is already violently fueling and disrupting our weather systems. It is causing weather events to be far more intense. Winter storms are becoming colder and can be pushed further south and north than normal due to this energy, bringing damaging snowstorms and intense floods. 

Similarly, summer storms, especially hurricanes, tornadoes, tropical lows etc. are far more frequent and intense with deluging destructive rainfall and floods. Droughts and heat waves are more common and are resulting in more crop failures. They are also fueling damaging forest and grass fires that are burning out whole communities and changing regional ecologies due to not allowing time for recovery before the next fires.

The frequency and intensity of these types of events will only get exponentially worse when the world warms to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) which is the upper limit of the Paris climate agreement. We are on track to shoot far past this goal.

Managing climate change is a major issue that we have to deal with now

Atmospheric CO2 levels have been increasing at 2 parts per million (ppm) per year. The level of CO2  reached a new record of 400 ppm in May 2016. However, despite all the commitments countries made in Paris in December 2015, the levels of CO2 increased by 3.3 ppm in 2016 creating a record. It increased by 3.3 ppm from 2018 to set a new record of 415.3 ppm in May 2019. 

Despite the global economic shut down as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic CO2 levels still set a new record of 417.2 ppm in May 2020. This is a massive increase in emissions per year since the Paris Agreement and shows the reality is that most countries are not even close to meeting their Paris reduction commitments and many must be cheating on or ignoring their obligations.

According to peer reviewed research published by Rohling et al. in the scientific journal, Nature Geoscience, the last time the world had 380 ppm, was 3.0–3.5 Million years ago. Temperatures were between 5 to 16 C warmer (9 – 28.8 F) and sea levels were 20 to 30 meters higher (65 to 100 ft) There was a mass extinction event around that period.

Even if the world transitioned to 100 percent renewable energy tomorrow, this will not stop the temperature and sea level rises. The world will continue to heat up because it will take more than 100 years for the CO2 levels to drop naturally.

Global sea level rise will cause the atoll island countries, large parts of Bangladesh, Netherlands, coastal USA, New York, New Orleans, Miami, London, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Manila, Bangkok, Jakarta, Shanghai, Singapore, Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney, Dar es Salam and other low-lying cities and regions to go underwater. 

According to the latest report by Spratt and Dunlop, sea level rise and droughts and floods will cause a huge crisis for over a billion people by 2050, throwing our civilization into chaos. A peer-reviewed paper by Kulp et al. Nature Communications shows that sea level rises will cause a huge refugee crisis for 340 million people by 2050.

The world cannot cope with a few million refugees from Africa, Central America and the Middle East. How do we cope with hundreds of millions of climate change refugees? There will be widespread conflict over food, water and land.

The United Nations Paris Agreement proposes net CO2 neutrality by 2050. The evidence shows this will be too late to stop the enormous damage of catastrophic climate change. At the current rate of emissions there would be close to 500 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere.

The fact is we are in a serious climate emergency now. We must speed up the transition to renewable energy, stop the clearing of all forests and we have to make a great effort to drawdown CO2  in the atmosphere to the pre industrial level of 280 ppm.

Reversing climate change

Four hundred and seventeen ppm is way past the Paris objective of limiting the temperature increase to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius).

In order to stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels, regenerative agricultural systems would have to draw down the current emissions of 3.3 ppm of CO2 per year. Using the accepted formula that 1 ppm CO2 = 7.76 Gt CO2 means that 25.61 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 per year needs to be drawn down from the atmosphere. We have to draw down more than this to reduce the levels of CO2 in order to regenerate our climate and prevent a catastrophic climate emergency.

The potential of three best-practice regenerative agriculture systems

There are numerous regenerative farming systems that can sequester CO2  from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, and turn it into soil organic matter through the actions of the roots and soil biology or the soil microbiome. 

We don’t have time to waste on farming systems that only sequester small amounts of CO2. We need to concentrate on scaling up systems that can achieve high levels of sequestration. The simple back of the envelope calculations used for the three examples below are a good exercise to show the considerable potential of these best-practice regenerative systems to reverse the climate emergency.

Biologically Enhanced Agricultural Management (BEAM)

BEAM (Biologically Enhanced Agricultural Management), developed by Dr. David Johnson of New Mexico State University, produces compost with a high diversity of soil microorganisms. 

Multiple crops grown with BEAM have achieved very high levels of sequestration and yields. 

Research published by Dr. Johnson and colleagues show: 

“. . . a 4.5 year agricultural field study promoted annual average capture and storage of 10.27 metric tons soil C ha-1 year -1 while increasing soil macro-, meso- and micro-nutrient availability offering a robust, cost effective carbon sequestration mechanism within a more productive and long-term sustainable agriculture management approach.” 

These results are currently being replicated in other trials.

These figures mean that BEAM can sequester 37,700 kilos of CO2 per hectare per year which is approximately 37,000 pounds of CO2 per acre.

BEAM can be used in all soil-based food production systems including annual crops, permanent crops and grazing systems, including arid and semi arid regions. If BEAM was extrapolated globally across agricultural lands it would sequester 185 Gt of CO2 per year.

The Johnson-Su composting method creates compost teeming with microorganisms that improve soil health and plant growth and increase the soil’s potential to sequester carbon.

 

Potential of “No Kill No Till”

Singing Frogs Farm is a highly productive “No Kill No Till” richly biodiverse organic, agro-ecological horticulture farm on three acres. The key to their no-till system is to cover the planting beds with mulch and compost instead of plowing them or using herbicides, and planting directly into the compost, along with a high biodiversity of cash and cover crops that are continuously rotated to break weed, disease and pest cycles.

According to Chico State University, they have increased the soil organic matter (SOM) levels by 400 percent in six years. The Kaisers have increased their SOM from 2.4 percent to an optimal 7-8 percent with an average increase of about 3/4 of a percentage point per year. This farming system is applicable to more than 80 percent of farmers around the world as the majority of farmers have less than two hectares or five acres. 

If the Singing Frog farm was extrapolated globally across arable and permanent crop lands it would sequester 179 Gt of CO2 per year.

The potential of regenerative grazing

The Savory Institute and many others have been scaling up holistic managed grazing systems on every arable continent. There is now a considerable body of published science and evidence based practices showing these systems regenerate degraded lands, improve productivity, water holding capacity and soil carbon levels.

Around 68 percent of the world’s agricultural lands are used for grazing. The published evidence shows that correctly managed pastures can build up soil carbon faster than many other agricultural systems and this is stored deeper in the soil.

Research by published Machmuller et al. 2015 found: 

“In a region of extensive soil degradation in the southeastern United States, we evaluated soil C accumulation for 3 years across a 7-year chronosequence of three farms converted to management-intensive grazing. Here we show that these farms accumulated C at 8.0 Mg ha−1 yr−1, increasing cation exchange and water holding capacity by 95% and 34%, respectively.”

That means they have sequestered 29,360 kilos of CO2 per hectare per year. This is approximately 29,000 pounds of CO2  per acre. If these regenerative grazing practices were implemented on the world’s grazing lands they would sequester 98.6 Gt of CO2 per year.

Regenerative grazing systems regenerate degraded lands, improve productivity, water holding capacity and soil carbon levels.

Ending the climate emergency

Transitioning a small proportion of global agricultural production to these evidence based, best-practice, regenerative systems will sequester enough CO2 to reverse climate change and restore the global climate.

Ten percent of agricultural lands under BEAM could sequester 18.5 Gt of CO2 per year.

Ten percent of smallholder farms across arable and permanent crop lands using Singing Frog Farm’s “No Kill No Till” systems could sequester 18 Gt of CO2 per year.

And a further 10 percent of grasslands under regenerative grazing could sequester 10 Gt of CO2 per year.

This would result in 46.5 Gt of CO2 per year being sequestered into the soil which is more than the amount of sequestration needed to draw down the 25.61 Gt of CO2 that is currently being emitted.

These back-of-the-envelope calculations are designed to show the considerable potential of scaling up proven high-performing regenerative systems. The examples are “shovel ready” solutions, as they are based on existing practices. 

There is no need to invest in expensive, potentially dangerous and unproven technologies such as carbon capture and storage or geo-engineering.

We are in a climate emergency and we need every tool in the toolbox to fix this problem. We don’t have the luxury of wasting precious time on intellectual arguments about whether this is possible or to convince skeptics and land managers unwilling to change.

It is time to get on with drawing down the excess CO2 by scaling up existing regenerative agriculture practices. This is very doable and achievable. It would require minimal financial costs to fund existing institutions, training organizations and relevant NGOs to run courses and workshops. 

Most importantly, this needs to be scaled up through proven farmer-to-farmer training systems. The evidence shows that these types of peer-to-peer systems are the most effective way to increase adoption of best practices.

The widespread adoption of best-practice regenerative agriculture systems should be the highest priority for farmers, ranchers, governments, international organizations, elected representatives, industry, training organizations, educational institutions and climate change organizations. 

We owe this to future generations and to all the rich biodiversity on our precious living planet.

 References/sources:

Johnson D, Ellington J and Eaton W, (2015)  Development of soil microbial communities for promoting sustainability in agriculture and a global carbon fix, PeerJ PrePrints | CC-BY 4.0 Open Access | rec: 13 Jan 2015, publ: 13 Jan 2015

Jones C, (2009) Adapting farming to climate variability, Amazing Carbon.

Lal R (2008). Sequestration of atmospheric CO2 in global carbon pools. Energy and Environmental Science, 1: 86–100.

Kulp SA & Strauss BH (2019), New elevation data triple estimates of global vulnerability to sea-level rise and coastal flooding, Nature Communications, (2019)10:4844.

McCosker, T. (2000). “Cell Grazing – The First 10 Years in Australia,” Tropical Grasslands. 34:  207-218.

Machmuller MB, Kramer MG, Cyle TK, Hill N, Hancock D & Thompson A (2014). Emerging land use practices rapidly increase soil organic matter, Nature Communications 6, Article number: 6995 doi:10.1038/ncomms7995, Received 21 June 2014 Accepted 20 March 2015 Published 30 April 2015

NOAS (2017). National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (US)

https://www.climate.gov/news-features/climate-qa/how-much-will-earth-warm-if-carbon-dioxide-doubles-pre-industrial-levels, Accessed Jan 30 2017

Rohling EJ, K. Grant, M. Bolshaw, A. P. Roberts, M. Siddall, Ch. Hemleben and M. Kucera (2009) Antarctic temperature and global sea level closely coupled over the past five glacial cycles, Nature Geoscience, advance online publication.

Spratt D and Dunlop I, 2019, Existential climate-related security risk: A scenario approachBreakthrough – National Centre for Climate Restoration, Melbourne, Australia, May 2019 Updated 11 June 2019

Tong W, Teague W R, Park C S and Bevers S, 2015, GHG Mitigation Potential of Different Grazing Strategies in the United States Southern Great Plains, Sustainability 2015, 7, 13500-13521; doi:10.3390/su71013500, ISSN 2071-1050

Global Agricultural Land Figures

United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO),  FAOSTAT data on land use, retrieved December 4, 2015

The total amount of land used to produce food is 4,911,622,700 Hectares (18,963,881 square miles).

 This is divided into: Arable/Crop land: 1,396,374,300 Hectares (5,391,431 square miles)

Permanent pastures: 3,358,567,600 Hectares (12,967,502 square miles)

Permanent crops: 153,733,800 Hectares (593,570 square miles)

 BEAM Calculations

A basic calculation shows the potential of scaling up this simple technology across the global agricultural lands. Soil Organic Carbon x 3.67 = CO2 which means that 10.27 metric tons soil carbon = 37.7 metric tons of CO2 per hectare per year (t CO2/ha/yr). This means BEAM can sequester 37.7 tons of CO2 per hectare which is approximately 38,000 pounds of CO2 per acre.

 If BEAM was extrapolated globally across agricultural lands it would sequester 185 Gt of CO2/yr.

(37.7 t CO2/ha/yr X 4,911,622,700 ha = 185,168,175,790t CO2/ha/yr) 

Singing Frogs Farm Calculations

The Kaisers have managed to increase their soil organic matter from 2.4% to an optimal 7-8% in just six years, an average increase of about 3/4 of a percentage point per year (Elizabeth Kaiser Pers. Com. 2018 and Chico State University https://www.csuchico.edu/regenerativeagriculture/demos/singing-frogs.shtml)

“An increase of 1% in the level of soil carbon in the 0-30cm soil profile equates to

sequestration of 154 tCO2/ha if an average bulk density of 1.4 g/cm3” (Jones C. 2009)

3/4 % OM = 115.5 metric tons of CO2 per hectare (115,500 pounds an acre per year)

This system can be used on arable and permanent crop lands. Arable/Crop land: 1,396,374,300 Hectares plus Permanent crops: 153,733,800 Hectares = 1,550,108,100 Hectares

Extrapolated globally across arable and permanent crop lands it would sequester 179 Gt of CO2/yr (1,550,108,100 Hectares x 115.5 metric tons of CO2 per hectare = 179,037,485,550 metric tons)

Regenerative Grazing Calculations

To explain the significance of Machmuller’s figures: 8.0 Mg ha−1 yr−1 = 8,000 kgs of carbon being stored in the soil per hectare per year. Soil Organic Carbon x 3.67 = CO2, which means that these grazing systems have sequestered 29,360 kgs (29.36 metric tons) of CO2/ha/yr. This is approximately 30,000 pounds of CO2 per acre.

If these regenerative grazing practices were implemented on the world’s grazing lands they would sequester 98.6 Gt CO2/yr.

(29.36t CO2/ha/yr X 3,358,567,600 ha = 98,607,544,736t CO2/ha/yr)

Trails of Regeneration: Agroforestry Works With Nature, Uses Trees to Grow Food

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM – In our latest “Trails of Regeneration” episode, we explore the roots of agroforestry and how industrial agriculture has pushed aside ancient farming practices that produce healthy food while also caring for the environment. 

The old saying “nature knows best” rings true when it comes to agriculture. Working with nature instead of against it is a mindset that dates back early in human history when farmers relied on ancestral knowledge and traditions to grow food. 

Our new episode, “Agroforestry Today Part 1: A Brief History of Agroforestry,” features Patrick Worms, senior science policy advisor for the Nairobi-based World Agroforestry Centre and president of the European Agroforestry Federation.

Agroforestry is a form of agriculture that incorporates trees and shrubs with food crops. It puts nature first and is one of the most ancient forms of farming. Agroforestry considers the natural landscape and the integration of trees to create a food system with environmental, social and economic benefits. 

Worms has spent decades researching and developing agroforestry systems around the world. He is one of a handful of political and scientific agroforestry lobbyists in Brussels and elsewhere in Europe where he lends his expertise on agricultural policies.

Agroforestry: The art of reading a landscape to enhance agricultural productivity 

In a Zoom interview with Regeneration International, Worms explained how the introduction of modern technology in the agricultural sectorthink pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and farming equipment such as tractors, plows and combineshas in many ways brought thousands of years of agricultural evolution using trees to a standstill. 

The bright side is that as the limitations of industrialized agriculture become more obvious, we are rediscovering the wisdom of ancient agroforestry knowledge, said Worms. 

At the World Agroforestry Centre, Worms is working on new ways to implement agroforestry systems worldwide and in regions faced with food shortages and the impacts of climate change and desertification. 

Trees have proven to be an important resource through human history. Trees provide food and fuel, help fertilize soils and protect farmland from pests, diseases and extreme weather conditions. 

Combining trees, shrubs and grasses with food crops and livestock creates a functional ecosystem that’s efficient at producing a variety of healthy foods. In the featured video, Worms explains that natural landscapes where fruits and grasses grow together almost always have trees in them. 

Farmers learned early on the benefits of growing food alongside trees

Farmers who saved and planted seeds harvest after harvest learned early on that trees are beneficial when grown with certain food crops, said Worms. A good example of this exists in the high plateaus of Papua New Guinea, an island researchers believe is where the banana was first domesticated

Humans first settled in Papua New Guinea about 50,000 to 60,000 years ago. Despite the cool-to-cold climate, agriculture was in full swing in the region’s highlands by 7,000 B.C. The environment, dotted with swamps and rich in flora and fauna, helped make it one of the few areas of original plant domestication in the world. 

Early foods systems such as those in Papua New Guinea are prime examples of ancient agroforestry, said Worms, adding: 

“If you look at those landscapes, they are typical agroforestry landscapes with multi-strata gardens, annuals on the ground, vines climbing along with trees, mid-level shrubs and taller trees with animals and crops in between.”

Agroforestry is practiced throughout ancient human history

Examples of agroforestry systems span the globe throughout human history. From the domestication of the cacao tree in Central and Latin America, to the fig treewhich originated in southwest Asia and is one of the oldest fruits eaten by humansagroforestry systems have produced some of today’s most popular foods.

Early humans that practiced agroforestry developed successful farming systems not because they had scientists in white lab coats, but because they had a constant process of trial and error. The good things were adopted and passed on, and the bad things were abandoned, said Worms, adding: 

“But modernity has swept that away. Knowledge that was painstakingly gained by millennia of our ancestors has completely disappeared.”

Replacing farming practices based on thousands of years of ancestral knowledge with chemical-dependent industrial agriculture has degraded the soil, eliminated biodiversity, stripped food of essential nutrients and enslaved and indebted farmers to major agriculture corporations. 

The good news is that a return to agroforestry and the scaling up of organic and regenerative agriculture systems can reverse the damage caused by industrial agriculture. 

Environmentally focused food and farming systems can improve the social and economic livelihood of farmers, rebuild soil health, promote biodiversity and clean watersheds, produce healthy food and mitigate climate change by drawing down and storing carbon in the soil. 

As Food Tank: The Think Tank For Food wrote so eloquently in October: 

“If we are going to protect our planet and keep healthy food on our table, agroecology is the way forward.”

To learn more about agroforestry and some of today’s best practices, stay tuned for the next episode, “Agroforestry Today P 2: Today’s Good Practices,” in this two-part series.

Oliver Gardiner represents Regeneration International in Europe and Asia. Julie Wilson, communications associate for the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), contributed to this article.

To keep up with news and events, sign up here for the Regeneration International newsletter.

One Empire Over Seed: Control Over the World’s Seed Banks

Since the onset of the Neolithic Revolution some 10.000 years ago, farmers and communities have worked to improve yield, taste, nutritional and other qualities of seeds. They have expanded and passed on knowledge about health impacts and healing properties of plants as well as about the peculiar growing habits of plants and interaction with other plants and animals, soil and water. The free exchange of seed among farmers has been the basis to maintaining biodiversity and food security.

A great seed and biodiversity piracy is underway, not just by corporations — which through mergers are becoming fewer and larger— but also by super rich billionaires whose wealth and power open doors to their every whim. Leading the way is Microsoft mogul, Bill Gates.

When the Green Revolution was brought into India and Mexico, farmers’ seeds were “rounded-up” from their fields and locked in international institutions, to be used to breed green revolution varieties engineered to respond to chemical inputs.1

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), were the first to roundup the diversity from farmers’ fields and replace it with chemical monocultures of rice, wheat, and corn. Others quickly followed.

This hijacking of farmers’ seeds is best highlighted with the shameful removal of India’s pre-eminent rice research scientist Dr. R.H. Richaria, as the head of India’s Central Rice Research Institute (CRRI) in Cuttack, Orissa, which housed the largest collection of rice diversity in the world, for refusing to allow the IRRI in the Philippines to pirate the collection out of India. With his removal at the behest of the World Bank, Indian peasant intellectual property was hijacked to the IRRI in the Philippines which later became part of the newly created Consultative Group of International Agriculture Research (CGIAR).2

Farmers’ seed heritage was held in the private seed banks of CGIAR, a consortium of 15 international agricultural research centers, controlled by the World Bank, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, as well as of course the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), which since 2003, has poured more than $720 million into the CGIAR centres. CGIAR gene banks presently manage 768,576 accessions of farmer’ seeds. Taken together, CGIAR gene banks represent the largest and most widely used collections of crop diversity in the world.3

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation operates a bit like the World Bank, using its financial power and prowess to take control of agriculture and influence government and institutional agricultural policies. By far the largest funder of the CGIAR, Gates has successfully accelerated the transfer of research and seeds from scientific research institutions to commodity-based corporations, centralizing and facilitating the pirating of intellectual property and seed monopolies through intellectual property laws and seed regulations.

The urgency with which this restructuring of CGIAR and centralization of control is being done is reflected in the IPES Food open letter of 21 July 2020 as follows: “The process now underway to reform the CGIAR is therefore imperative and of major public interest. The ‘One CGIAR’ process seeks to merge the CGIAR’s 15 legally independent but cooperating centres, headquartered in 15 countries, into one legal entity. The impetus has come from some of its biggest funders, notably the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank, and the US and UK governments.”4

The aim of “One CGIAR”, overseen by “One CGIAR Common Board’ is to merge it to become part of “One Agriculture”, aka “Gates Ag One” – Gates’ latest move in controlling the world’s seed supply.5 Gates has indicated he will more than double the CGIAR present budget, from $850 million to $2 billion a year.

Despite the long-recognized failure of the Green Revolution in India and Mexico, in 2006 Gates launched AGRA, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. The folly of imposing this failed technology in Africa is well documented in the two following articles by Nicoletta Dentico and Tim Wise.

The Seed Freedom movement has been calling for the CGIAR gene banks to return these stolen farmers varieties back to the farmers. The lessons of the Green Revolution since the 1960’s have shown us that the chemical path of monocultures has undermined Earth’s capacity to support life and food production by destroying biodiversity, soil and water67 as well as contributing to climate change.8 It has dispossessed small farmers through debt for external inputs. And it has undermined food and nutritional security.9 The experience of the last half century has made clear that Seed Sovereignty, Food Sovereignty and Knowledge Sovereignty is the only viable future of food and farming.

Besides taking control of the seeds of farmers in the CGIAR seed banks, Gates (along with the Rockefeller Foundation) is investing heavily in collecting seeds from across the world and storing them in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic archipelago – aka the Doomsday Vault – created to collect and hold a global collection of the world’s seeds. It is in association with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and the Crop Trust.10

The Crop Trust, based in Germany, funds and coordinates the Svalbard Seed Vault. In addition to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, its funders include the Poison Cartel adherents CropLife Dupont/ Pioneer Hi-bred, KWS SAAT AG, and Syngent AG.

The largest numbers of accessions stored in the Seed Vault are varieties of rice, wheat, and barley crops; more than 150,000 samples of wheat and rice, and close to 80,000 samples of Barley. Other well represented crops are sorghum, phaseolus bean species, maize, cowpea, soybean, kikuyu grass and chickpea.

Crops such as potatoes, peanuts, cajanus beans, oats and rye, alfalfa, the cereal hybrid Triticosecale and Brassica’s are represented by between 10,000 and 20,000 seed samples.11

CROP TRUST DONORS

DONORS RECEIVED US$
Australia 20,165,706
Bundesverband Deutscher Planzenzuechter 25,735
CropLife International 43,726
Czech Republic 40,000
Dupont/ Pioneer  Hi-bred 2,000,000
Egypt 25,000
Ethiopia 25,000
Gates Foundation/UN Foundation 8,003,118
Germany 50,726,348
India 456,391
International Seed Federation 80,785
Ireland 4,144,250
KWS SAAT AG 35,589
Norway 31,491,161
Netherlands 489,000
New Zealand 1,453,800
Republic of Korea 442,556
Slovak Republic 20,000
Spain 2,629,650
Sweden 11,886,620
Switzerland 10,992,704
Syngenta AG 1,000,000
United Kingdom 19,468,582
United States – before Farm Bill 42,825,073
United States – US Farm Bill* 11,585,120
Sub Total 220,055,915
Concessional Loan ** 59,055,611
Sub Total 59,055,611
Grand Total 279,105,526

Source: ‘Our Donors’. Crop Trust, https://www.croptrust.org/about-us/donors/.

It should come as no surprise that Gates is also funding Diversity Seek (DivSeek), a global project launched in 2015 to map the genetic data of the peasant diversity of seeds held in gene banks to then take patents on these seeds through genomic mapping.12 Seven million crop accessions are in public seed banks.

Biopiracy is carried out through the convergence of information technology and biotechnology where patents are taken on seeds through “mapping” their genomes and genome sequences.

While living seed needs to evolve “in situ”, patents on seed genomes can be taken from seed “ex situ. DivSeek is designed to “mine” and extract the data in the seed to “censor” out the commons. In effect it robs the peasants of their seeds and knowledge, it robs the seed of its integrity and diversity, it erases evolutionary history and the seed’s link to the soil, reducing it to a simple “code”. This ‘genetic colonialism’ is an enclosure of the genetic commons.13

The participating institutions in DivSeek are the CGIAR nodes and ‘public’ universities like Cornell and Iowa State, which are being increasingly privatized by the biotechnology industry as well as the Gates Foundation. BMGF funds Cornell’s Alliance for Science, the corporate worlds’ pseudo-science propaganda outlet while Iowa State is the institution promoting the unethical human feeding trials of GMO bananas. Other Gates-funded DivSeek partners are the African Agricultural Technology Foundation and Africa-Brazil Agricultural Innovation Marketplace developed by the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa).14

Through a new ‘front’ corporation, Editas Medicine,15 BMGF is investing in a one-year-old experimental genetic engineering tool for gene editing, CRISPR-Cas9. Though the technology itself is immature and inaccurate, it has become a gold rush for new patents. The language of “gene editing” and “educated guesses” is creeping into scientific discourse.

Piracy of common genomic data of millions of plants bred by peasants is termed “big data”. Big data however is not knowledge, it is not even information. It is ‘privateered’ data, pirated and privatised.

Seeds are not just germplasm. They are living, self-organizing entities, subjects of evolution, history, culture, and relationships.

In the 1980s, Monsanto led the push for GMOs and patents on seed and life. Today the flag bearer is Bill Gates. In a nutshell: one billionaire given free access to use his wealth to bypass all international treaties and multilateral governance structures to help global corporations highjack the biodiversity and wealth of peasants by financing unscientific and undemocratic processes such as DivSeek, and to unleash untested technologies such as the CRISPR technology on humanity.

Over the last two decades, thousands of concerned citizens and organizations have taken action and written laws to protect the biodiversity of the planet and the rights of farmers to seed, and the rights of consumers to safety, among them, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD); the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol to the CBD; and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources Treaty for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA).

This article is extracted from Navdanya International Global Citizens’ Report “Gates to a Global Empire“, which was presented on October 14th, 2020, through an online event with the authors. The report gathers evidence and throws light on the dangers of philanthrocapitalism, which is boosting the corporate takeover of our seed, agriculture, food, knowledge and global health systems, manipulating information and eroding our democracies. Contributors to the Seed and Biopiracy sections  outline how Bill Gates and his foundation routinely undermine international treaties created to protect biodiversity, farmers rights, and the sovereignty of countries and communities of their seed and biodiversity wealth.


1 Shiva, V. (1991). The Violence of the Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Ecology, and Politics. Other India Press. https://books.google.it/books?id=jPNRPgAACAAJ

2 Alvares, Claude. “The Great Gene Robbery.” Vijayvaani.Com, January 13, 2012. https://www.vijayvaani.com/ArticleDisplay.aspx?aid=2137

3 “CGIAR Genebank Platform.” CGIAR. https://www.cgiar.org/the-genebank-platform/

4 IPES food. “OPEN LETTER | ‘One CGIAR’ with Two Tiers of Influence?”, July 21, 2020. http://www.ipes-food.org/pages/OneGGIAR

5 Shiva, V., Anilkumar, P., & Ahluwalia, U. (2020). Ag one: Recolonisation of agriculture. Navdanya/RFSTE. https://navdanyainternational.org/publications/ag-one-recolonisation-of-agriculture/

6 IPBES. “UN Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating.’” UN | Sustainable Development, May 6, 2019. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report

7 FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. “The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture 2019,” 2019. http://www.fao.org/state-of-biodiversity-for-food-agriculture/en

8 “Land Is a Critical Resource, IPCC Report Says”. IPCC, August 8, 2019. https://www.ipcc.ch/2019/08/08/land-is-a-critical-resource_srccl/

9 El Hage Scialabba, Nadia. “Feeding the Word: Delusion, False Promises and Attacks of Industrial Agriculture.” Navdanya International, December 7, 2019. https://navdanyainternational.org/publications/feeding-the-word-delusion-false-promises-and-attacks-of-industrial-agriculture/

10 “India Deposit to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.” Crop Trust, May 15, 2014. https://www.croptrust.org/blog/india-deposit-svalbard-global-seed-vault/

11 Mooney, Chris. “Why the World Is Storing so Many Seeds in a ‘Doomsday’ Vault.” Washington Post, April 15, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/04/15/why-the-world-is-spending-half-a-billion-dollars-to-protect-humble-seeds/

12 “Two contributions to an integrated, global, accession-level information system for ex situ conservation” | Input Paper to the ITPGRFA Consultation on the Global Information System on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (COGIS-PGRFA) Provided by: The Global Crop Diversity Trust. January 2015. IT/COGIS-1/15/Inf.4.a5. http://www.fao.org/3/a-be678e.pdf

13 “‘DivSeek Initiative’ Loses Support of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.” International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC), February 28, 2017. https://www.foodsovereignty.org/divseek-initiative-loses-support-international-treaty-plant-genetic-resources-food-agriculture/

14 Shiva, V., & Shiva, K. (2020). Oneness Vs. The 1 Percent: Shattering Illusions, Seeding Freedom. CHELSEA GREEN PUB. https://books.google.it/books?id=4TmTzQEACAAJ

15 Herper, Matthew. “Bill Gates And 13 Other Investors Pour $120 Million Into Revolutionary Gene-Editing Startup.” Forbes, August 10, 2015. Accessed September 8, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/matthewherper/2015/08/10/bill-gates-and-13-other-investors-pour-120-million-into-revolutionary-gene-editing-startup/

Agro-Eco Philippines Helps Transition Filipino Farmers to Agroecological and Organic Regenerative Practices

DAVAO, PHILIPPINES – Nearly one year ago today, Regeneration International (RI) signed the “Regeneration Philippines” pact, a Memorandum of Understanding between the Filipino League of Organic Municipalities Cities and Provinces (LOAMCP) and RI. 

Fast forward to today and we are blessed to have reconnected virtually with our friends in the Philippines, this time, through the addition of a new RI partner, Agro-Eco Philippines (AEP), an organization dedicated to “building resilient farming communities and sustainable economies.”

AEP began its work with small farmers in Mindanao or the Southern Philippines in 1991. Today, the non-profit government organization (NGO) works with 4,000 individual farmers in 300 farmers’ organizations in Mindanao, eastern Visayas and eastern Luzon. 

Its mission is to advocate for Filipino’s right to healthy food, alleviate hunger in poverty-stricken farming communities and teach farmers organic regenerative and agroecological practices that produce healthy food, increase the socio-economic livelihood of farmers, and build resilience against the effects of climate change. 

AEP also invests in the development of local markets through community-led research to help boost profits for smallholder farmers.

AEP and its work transitioning conventional Filipino farmers to agroecological and organic regenerative agriculture practices is showcased in our “Trails of Regeneration” video series, which highlights stories of regeneration throughout the globe. 

In our latest episode, “Agro-Eco Philippines Helps Farmers Go Organic,” AEP’s Executive Director Geonathan Barro discusses how the NGO has trained an impressive number of farmers on organic practices. Barro told us in a Zoom interview:

“So far, we have trained roughly 10,000 conventional farmers to go organic. The key is to build on the hard labor of the previous years without relying on middle men or corporate entities to distribute and process our products.”

AEP is firm in its belief that the role humans play on farms is a key component of agroecology. According to its website

“Farmers . . . are critical actors in agroecological practice and agroecological transformation. They are stewards of biodiversity and the real keepers of relevant knowledge for this agenda. It is therefore important that agroecological knowledge and technologies are developed on the basis of farmers’ own knowledge and experimentation. Further, this means that agroecology has to be context-specific and culturally appropriate. Agroecology makes best use of the human, social, and environmental capital available locally.”

Green Revolution forces farmers into degenerative farming model

The future hasn’t always been so bright for some farmers in the Philippines.

Since the launch of the Green Revolution in the 1960s, Filippino farmers have largely depended on degenerative agricultural models that have forced millions of farmers into debt due to the high cost of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that over time eroded the soil and polluted waterways. 

More than half a century ago, the Filipiino government, with influence from the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, created the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). In 1962, the IRRI crossed Dee-Geo-woo-gen and Peta rice strains to create IR8 or “miracle rice.” By 1981, “miracle rice” accounted for more than 80 percent of total rice crops in the Philippines.

The “miracle rice” produced high yieldsten times the amount of traditional rice varietiesallowing the Philippines to go from being an importer of rice to a global exporter.

Unfortunately, the benefits of the Green Revolution were short-lived. They were also outweighed by the rising costs of high-debt, falling income and the environmental consequences of chemical-intensive agriculture. 

This chain of events is found in many developing countries that fell victim to big agricultural corporations selling high-yielding seeds that provide productive harvests the first year, but then require major increases in chemical inputs the following year. 

The allure of high (but unsustainable) crop yields has led to a system of enslaved farmers whose farmlands have been rendered unproductive without the application of synthetic and chemical inputs.

Over time, pesticides destroy key microbes in the soil and alter its ability to retain nutrients and water, which makes farmers more vulnerable to drought, floods, pests and crop-related diseases. This escalates production costs that put smallholder farmers at risk of bankruptcy. 

Filippino farmers campaigning against Monsanto’s Golden Rice, promoting regenerative systems of rice intensification and defending local seed sovereignty.

AEP teaches farmers organic regenerative practices that benefit the environment and the community

AEP is working to break the patterns of conventional food and farming systems by providing smallholder farmers with free access to local indigenous seeds and information on practices such as composting, cover cropping, seed saving, crop rotation and the integration of livestock. 

It also teaches farmers about agroforestry, the incorporation of trees into agriculture, and encourages the exchange of knowledge between fellow farmers.

Agroecological and organic regenerative farming practices have never been more important. Like many nations around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to food shortages in the Philippines. 

The silver lining, however, is that empty store shelves have encouraged locals to buy directly from their farmer. Not only does this help small farmers, but it also provides families with safe, nutritious food that builds a strong immune system, Barro told RI.

Selling direct to consumers, and removing grocery stores from the equation, has allowed Filippino farmers to sell their products for less money. 

Luz Astronomo, an AEP member and small farmer from Davao City, Philippines, told RI in a Zoom interview that he’s able to sell his produce for 60 percent less than other produce because everything he needs to grow it comes from his farm, including the seeds and organic inputs.

“So, we don’t have to sell our products at a high price,” he said. 

In many localities, conventional farmers are now buying food from organic farmers because the monoculture systems they depend on are failing to compete with the diversified agroecological systems practiced by AEP’s members. Barro told RI:

“These are very difficult times brought about by COVID-19, but these very difficult times have painted us a picture of what kind of agriculture the world needs to overcome such crises.”

Organic regenerative agriculture helps fight climate change

In addition to producing healthier food, agroecological and organic regenerative farming practices help mitigate climate change by building healthy soil that draws down excess atmospheric carbon and stores it in the ground.

Farmers are instrumental in addressing climate change because they experience the impacts of a changing climate, Barro said.

AEP recognizes this, too, which is why it now offers a course on soil quality management to teach farmers how to better manage soil when dealing with pests, disease and climate extremes. 

Mr. René Garcia, also a small farmer and member of AEP, says regenerative agriculture practices help restore key microbes in the soil. Garcia told us in a Zoom interview:

 “We are practicing regenerative agriculture to return microorganisms to the soil that feed the plants. By using the systems of rice intensification, which can reduce flooding in rice paddies and dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and can also help conserve water and boost yields.”

AEP believes that all farmers can grow resilient to the effects of climate change by caring for their soil, ditching the toxic chemicals, producing and distributing food locally, and practicing and advocating for organic regenerative farming systems.

“Success stories of farmers that are working to mitigate and adapt to climate change will inspire people all over the world,” said Barro, adding that it gives people hope to know others are coming together to make this world a better place. 

Stay tuned for more stories of regeneration both in the Philippines and around the world. 

Oliver Gardiner represents Regeneration International in Europe and Asia. To keep up with news and events, sign up here for the Regeneration International newsletter.

Seeds of Change in Times of Crisis

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations in the U.S. and Latin America that save, produce and sell seeds have seen a significant increase in the demand for native seeds. This new interest in seeds comes with great opportunities, but also some challenges.

Motivated to learn more about this phenomenon, Valeria García López, a researcher in agroecology in Colombia and Mexico, and David Greenwood-Sánchez, a political scientist specializing in GMO regulation in Latin America, set out to do some research.

Both López and Greenwood-Sánchez are independent researchers who in recent years have been part of different movements in defense of seeds in Latin America and the U.S. Both believe that this new interest in seeds, in the context of the current economic, food and health crisis, highlights the challenges local seed systems are facing in a post-pandemic scenario.

We recently spoke with López and Greenwood-Sánchez to learn more about their work, their love for seeds and biocultural diversity, as well as the motivations for their research.

Seeds and biocultural diversity: a love story

Greenwood-Sánchez is a native of Minnesota but his mother is Peruvian. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and a Master’s Degree in Public Policy. During his studies, he had to do an internship and decided to do it in Peru, looking for his roots.

Over the course of his research, Greenwood-Sánchez found out that Cusco, a city in the Peruvian Andes, had declared itself a GMO-free region, thanks to a push by potato growers and the existing moratorium on GMOs in Peru. Curious to know more, Greenwood-Sánchez ended up doing an internship at the Parque de la Papa (Potatoe’s Park), an association of five indigenous communities that manages more than 1000 varieties of potatoes and works on issues related to biodiversity, intellectual property and biocultural records. There, he discovered agrobiodiversity and its link to culture and traditions, and how people can promote agrobiodiversity through their culture and day-to-day life. He then decided to pursue a Doctorate in Public Policy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

David Greenwood-Sánchez planting potatoes in Minnesota

Greenwood-Sánchez’s research has focused on the construction of systems that regulate GMOs in Latin America, using Mexico and Peru as case studies. In Mexico, certain GM crops can be planted, while in Peru, there is a moratorium on GMOs. His research focuses on the different groups that come together for the defense of biodiversity, on how the state, society and global markets join their efforts to demand policies that regulate the use of GMOs. This is closely related to the identity of each country, its people and how that identity is connected to their biodiversity, for example corn in Mexico, or potatoes in Peru.

García López is Colombian, but has been living in Mexico for five years. For the past six years she’s worked with networks of seed keepers, mainly in Antioquia, where she is originally from. She studied biology and then did her internship on agrobiodiversity and orchards in southern Colombia, near the border with Ecuador. There she discovered the wonders of agrobiodiversity. Being in love with the High Andean region, she went to Ecuador, where she did a Master’s Degree in conservation of the páramo ecosystem and its relationship with climate change.

Back in Colombia, García López discovered the Colombian Free Seeds Network (RSLC). But in Antioquia, her native region, there was no local seed network, so she and other people were assigned to work to create a division of the network RSLC. Since the end of 2014, she worked to support the creation of community seed houses that would represent the first steps to create a Participatory Seed Guarantee System (GSP). That system would allow a certification of agroecological seeds under criteria internally established by the territories themselves, by indigenous and small farmers’ organizations—not by external entities, whether private or public.

This process has also allowed for progress toward the declaration of GMO-free territories. By taking advantage of protected indigenous reserves, which are exempt from complying with the Free Treaties Trade, García López and others were able to ban GMOs from the indigenouse reserves, and create a program to promote the conservation of native seeds.

García López recently completed her PhD in Ecology and Rural Development at the Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), Mexico. The topic of her research was how seed guardian networks use different strategies to defend seeds. She studied cases both in Mexico and Colombia after observing that in both countries, the defense of native and creole seeds has intensified and how seed networks have come together to face threats. In fact, seed initiatives that had already existed but worked in isolation are now joining forces around a common goal.

Valeria García López holding a huge and beautiful squash she just harvested.

COVID-19 as catalyst for the agroecological movement

The pandemic of 2020 has exposed the fragility of the conventional food system, with its agribusiness corporations and long supply chains. Food supply problems, especially in urban centers, as well as an increase in prices and speculation have only been symptoms of this fragility.

Today, it is the small farmers who in many places keep local supplies going. In Brazil, for example, farmers from the Landless Workers Movement (MST for its Portuguese acronym) are donating food to people living in the cities. Organized movements in the countryside are mobilizing a lot of food, showing the capacity of alternative movements to respond.

The relationship between food and health is another topic spotlighted by the pandemic. People with chronic diseases linked to bad eating habits—diseases such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension and high cholesterol caused by bad eating habits—are more vulnerable to the virus. In fact, the strength or weakness of the immune system is greatly determined by our diet.

Hippocrates, father of modern medicine, said it more than 2,500 years ago: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” This is why many people today are paying more attention to the food on their plates, its origin, how it was cultivated. People are more interested than ever in healthy eating, planting and having home gardens, and buying local food directly from the producers.

The pandemic has been shown the need to promote local agro-ecological food systems, which have proven to be more resilient than agribusiness systems. In this context, local and resilient seed systems become especially relevant, as they are the foundation upon which food sovereignty is built.

Pandemic times: Panic or hope? Looking for the seeds of change

García López and Greenwood-Sánchez are motivated to show there is hope despite the current global health and economic crisis. They decided to look beyond the mass media’s panic-inducing narrative about food insecurity, and investigate for themselves what was happening with producers. In particular, they wanted to know more about the initiatives related to the defense, reproduction, exchange and commercialization of native seeds, with the aim of learning and preserving traditional knowledge and practices in times where resilient and regenerative systems are much needed.

 To carry on their research, they followed up on the news, and they conducted a series of surveys and personal interviews (though not face-to-face, to comply with current social distancing). More than 25 initiatives from six countries in the Americas participated in the research: U.S., Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Argentina and Peru. Medium-sized and family owned companies and individual, community, rural and urban initiatives gave their insights.

Here are some of the conclusions they drew from their research:

  • People are going back to appreciating what’s essential, the common goods, what sustains life. The crisis highlights the need to know where our food comes from, the importance of soil, water, and food justice.
  • More people are realizing the importance of growing their own food. Many people and organizations are now more aware of the importance of growing food for self-consumption. Many are starting their own gardens for the first time.
  • There’s a greater appreciation for the work seedkeepers do. The pandemic has generated greater awareness regarding the importance of food and farmers, as well as the role of seedkeepers who have preserved agrobiodiversity in a traditional way and who also have the knowledge on how to cultivate and care for seeds.
  • There’s renewed interest in seeds and food exchanges. Many traditional practices from indigenous people, such as Ayni in the Andean region, are becoming even more valuable today and inspire new forms of collaboration through networks of trust, support and solidarity.
  • People are realizing the need to be more creative to meet the rising demand for seeds. Many seed initiatives and ventures have been overwhelmed by the growing demand, exceeding their capacity to respond, and have had to creatively restructure their work in order to cope with the explosion of orders.

Collective planting. Photograph by Valeria García López.

 Who is behind the growing demand for seeds?

García López and Greenwood-Sánchez have found that it is not so much the institutions, companies or the government but the people and the communities who have been organizing themselves to acquire seeds and plant them. People are very interested in finding solutions and helping other people, out of pure solidarity.

Greenwood-Sánchez mentions, for example, an initiative that he promoted together with a group of friends, which today brings together about 700 people. The “Twin Cities Front Yard Organic Gardeners Club” encourages people to grow food on their front yard. Traditionally, in U.S. cities, people would have their vegetable gardens in the backyard, a custom that was especially adopted after the Second World War (Victory Gardens). In general, in the front yard there is just grass. But this is changing with the growing movement to replace grass with food. 

Front yard being turned into a vegetable garden. Photo by David Greenwood-Sánchez

Another example in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where Greenwood-Sánchez lives, is the “Outplant the Outbreak” campaign, which consists of making seed packets and putting them inside boxes where books are normally put, for public use and for free.

Envelopes with seeds for free. Photo by David Greenwood-Sánchez

In Peru, the government has started a campaign called “Hay que papear” to address the crisis by promoting potato consumption, as a complete, nutritious and cheap local food, and also to counter the general tendency to devalue this crop and to make its producers more invisible.

With growing interest come new challenges

While interest in seeds and growing food has spiked during the pandemic, the uptick in  interest has revealed new challenges. As part of their research, García López and Greenwood-Sánchez identified some of these challenges and potential solutions, including:

  • The greater demand for open-pollinated seeds requires a necessary increase in supply, which poses challenges in the organizational, technical, training, economic and legislative areas. Structural changes are needed to facilitate the growth and development of this sector.
  • Current seed laws and international treaties favor transnational seed companies and the promotion of GMOs. These laws threaten local seed systems, which are the basis of food sovereignty. Some examples are UPOV 91, the Seed Production, Certification and Commercialization Law or the Reforms to the Federal Law of Plant Varieties, in Mexico. To strengthen people’s food sovereignty, the first step should be to curb these treaties and laws and promote those that strengthen local seed systems, which have proven to be much more resilient against supply chain outages and the climate crisis. Fortunately, the greater awareness of the importance of agriculture and food, as well as the greater interest in growing your own food, is also bringing to the table the importance of these seed laws and treaties.
  • There need to be efforts to create public policies and laws that stimulate and strengthen local seed systems, including structural reforms at the market level to allow commercialization and seed exchange initiatives that cannot be subject to the same certification criteria as large transnational corporations.
  • One of the main arguments against the creation of seed laws that regulate and control the production of native and creole seeds is that the production of these seeds is not stable, unique or homogeneous. The main value of native and creole open-pollinated seeds is their genetic diversity, which gives them enormous capacity to respond and adapt to new geographic and climatic conditions. In Colombia, over a period of three years, several workshops and forums were held at the local and national level in order to identify the most important principles for seed guardians. The Participatory Guarantee Systems (SPG) has put together its own criteria, based on seven principles. It should be noted that one of the criteria of the Network of Free Seeds of Colombia regarding the sale of seeds specifies that in fact seeds themselves are not sold. What is sold is all the work behind the seeds, and what makes their existence possible. This is great progress, since it recognizes seeds as a common good which cannot be commercialized.
  • It is necessary to promote and protect the autonomy of the communities that have been practicing agriculture and that have cared for, selected and multiplied seeds for thousands of years. They do not need external validation, because these are practices that they have done for a long time. The challenge, rather than imposing external rules, is to ask ourselves how we can support them, how we can be useful for their work to prosper.
  • As more and more people start to grow their own food for the first time, it is essential to generate and promote educational spaces or gardens where these people can learn how to plant and maintain their gardens. It is important to understand the seeds should be planted, not saved and accumulated. Using them, multiplying them, exchanging them, donating them is the way to go.

 Next steps

Once García López and Greenwood-Sánchez complete the analysis of their research, they will share the results with all those who participated. They will also create a report, using plain language so it is suitable for the general public, to highlight the challenges that local seed systems face with this growing interest for native and native seeds.

Would you like to know more about the work Valeria and David do?

Write them a message: vagarcialopez@gmail.com, davidgreenwoodsanchez@gmail.com

Claudia Flisfisch Cortés is an agroecology specialist who is part of the commission of seeds and the articulating commission of RIHE (Chilean Network of Educational Gardens).To keep up with Regeneration International news, sign up for our newsletter.

Living Off the Fat of the Land—Not the Fat of the Lab

All of my life I have heard, and used, the expression “Living off of the Fat of the Land.”

To me, that expression means doing well from the excesses that come from what you have. It is kind of like living on the interest that is paid on your savings account.

The definition of the idiomatic phrase supports that meaning:

To live off the fat of the land means to live well, to live off the surrounding abundance. The term live off the fat of the land was first used in the King James Version of the Bible, translated 1611, Genesis 45:18: “And take your father and your households, and come unto me: and I will give you the good of the land of Egypt, and ye shall eat the fat of the land.”

An ecosystem that is operating optimally results in an abundance, which is true wealth. This abundance occurs only when the carbon cycle, water cycle, mineral cycle, energy cycle, microbial cycle, and all of the myriad of other cycles are operating properly.

Food that is produced naturally in a good working ecosystem is good for you. It is what nature produces, and what we evolved to eat. It is the true Fat of the Land.

Sadly, industrial, centralized, commodity farming practices are very effective at breaking these natural cycles. Much of the food that we now eat is manufactured in a laboratory. I think of it as the Fat of the Lab.

We now make meat in laboratories through methods that come from reductionist science. We are told that this fat [and protein] of the lab are better for us than the fat [and protein] of the land.

In a recent interview with CNBC, Impossible Foods CEO Patrick Brown expressed how he thinks the meat market will be obsolete in 20 years.

“From a nutritional standpoint our products match the protein quality and content of the animal products that they replace” and “ours is a clear winner from a health and nutrition standpoint,” [Brown] said in a “Mad Money” interview.

“This is why I think people are increasingly aware plant-based products are going to completely replace the animal-based products in the food world within the next 15 years. That’s our mission. That transformation is inevitable,” he told host Jim Cramer.

What could possibly go wrong in these laboratories? Many scientific processes and technologies are invented through reductionist science. These scientific methods almost always have unintended consequences that go unnoticed, often, for decades.

Of course, there can be good consequences (like penicillin for example). But more often than not, what we may call a “scientific breakthrough” at the time can later be recognized and recalled for dangerous unintended consequences.

Think about the number of modifications that we tried to impose on natural cycles, only to find out the unintended consequences later: using chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as a refrigerant or in aerosol sprays that depleted the ozone, adding antibiotics in poultry and livestock feed that are growing antibiotic-resistant diseases, eliminating wolves from national parks that led to overpopulation and starvation.

Brown says that the transformation from meat to to plant-based products made in a lab is “inevitable”. To that I say:

• There is no natural cycle that creates fake meat.

• There is no regeneration of land when meat is made in a lab.

• Nor is there any reversal of the impoverishment of rural America that was caused by industrialized agriculture.

• There is nothing inevitable or permanent about creating a new manufacturing process, unknown to nature.

The Fat of the Lab is very new. The Fat of the Land has been under testing for a really long time. In our family, we’ve been living and eating The Fat of our Land since 1866. I trust cows and hogs a Helluva lot more than I trust chemists and marketers.

Wall Street and Silicon Valley will lie to you. Livestock don’t lie. CEO’S are self-serving. Cows are sincere.

Will Harris, owner of White Oaks Pastures Farm in Bluffton, Georgia, is a fifth-generation farmer and rancher. Harris is a co-chair of the national coalition of U.S. Farmers & Ranchers for a Green New Deal.

Perspectives from Chad, Africa: COVID-19, Climate Change and Indigenous Knowledge

REPUBLIC OF CHAD, Africa – While COVID-19 has forced most of the world into lockdown, we are fortunate to report that our “Trails of Regeneration” video series is alive and well. Over the last few months we’ve focused on reporting the effects of the pandemic on farmers and ranchers and indigenous peoples from around the world. 

In our latest “Trails of Regeneration” episode, “Perspectives from Chad, Africa: Covid-19, Climate Change and Indigenous Knowledge,” we proudly feature Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, an award-winning environmental activist and indigenous woman from the Mbororo pastoralist community in Chad, which practices nomadic cattle herding.

Ibrahim is an expert in adaptation and mitigation of indigenous peoples and women in relation to climate change, traditional knowledge and the adaptation of pastoralists in Africa. She is founder and coordinator of the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad (AFPAT), which works to empower indigenous voices and improve quality of life by creating economic opportunities and protecting the natural resources to which pastoralist communities depend on.

Ibrahim was recently named Emerging Explorer 2017 by National Geographic. She has worked on the rights of indigenous peoples and the protection of the environment through the three Rio Conventions—on Biodiversity, Climate Change and Desertification—which originated out of the 1992 Earth Summit. 

The Mbororo pastoralist community reside near Lake Chad, located in the far west of Chad and the northeast of Nigeria. It was once Africa’s largest water reservoir in the Sahel region, spanning 26,000 kilometers. However, the lake has continued to shrink over time and is now thought to be one-fifth of its original size. 

Experts say climate change, population growth and inefficient damming and irrigation systems are to blame. The loss of water in Lake Chad is having serious adverse effects on communities, such as the Mbororo people, who are forced to migrate greater distances in search of water and green pastures. 

In a Zoom interview with Regeneration International, Ibrahim explained that in one year, the Mbororo people can travel up to a thousand kilometers and beyond, relying solely on nature and rainfall. Ibrahim told us:

“Nature is our main health, food and education system. It represents everything for us. In our culture, men and women depend equally on nature in their daily activities. The men herd the cattle towards water and pastures, while the women collect firewood, food and drinking water for the community. This provides a socially strong gender balance to our community.”

However, the degradation of natural resources is threatening these traditions, leading to human conflicts, particularly between farmers and pastoralists whose cattle sometimes roam onto nearby cropland and cause damage. These conflicts have forced Mbororo men to urban areas in search of a new line of work. Sometimes they don’t return, and the women, children and elderly are left behind to fend for themselves, Ibrahim told us.

In an effort to preserve the Mbororo’s nomadic way of life, and to help resolve conflicts between farmers and herders, Ibrahim established a project in 2012 with the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and the World Meteorological Organization. The project uses indigenous knowledge and 3D mapping technology to map Chad’s Sagel region, home to 250,000 Mbororo people. 

Through its 3D maps, the project brings together rival farmers and pastoralists to collaboratively draw lines of land ownership and reach agreements on grazing pathways and corridors. The work has helped farmers and pastoralists agree on land boundaries, as well as established a calendaring system to coordinate grazing patterns with the harvesting of crops. 

The result is a win-win solution where cattle fertilize and enrich the land through purposeful grazing. This prevents crop damage and helps to mitigate climate change. According to Ibrahim:

“When we experience climate change, we use our nomadic way of life as a solution. When we go from one place to another, resting two or three days per location, the dung from our cattle fertilizes the land and helps the ecosystem regenerate naturally.

“Our traditional knowledge is based on the observation of nature which is the common denominator of all the traditional indigenous knowledge around the world. We live in harmony with biodiversity because we observe insects that give us information on the health of an ecosystem.

“We look at bird migration patterns to predict the weather and we learn from the behavior of our animals who communicate a lot of information. We look at the wind. When the wind transports a lot of particulates from nature during the dry season, we know that we are going to have a good rainy season. This is free information we use to help balance community and ecosystem health and adapt to climate change.”

Ibrahim believes that events such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, are nature’s way of letting us know she is mad because we are mistreating her. In order to heal the planet, we must listen to our wisdom and respect nature, she says.

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.

A Vision for the Social and Ecological Regeneration of Mexico City’s Xochimilco Wetlands

By Mayra Rubio Lozano

MEXICO CITY – Xochimilco is a city south of Mexico City best known for its canals. The area’s wetlands,  recognized for their important biological and cultural value, are why Xochimilco is named as a World Heritage Site (UNESCO) and Site of Agricultural Importance (FAO). 

Humedalia is a Mexican organization that works for the conservation and restoration of the Mexican wetlands. It is part of the Regeneration International partner network and as such, has applied for the Scientific and Technical committee evaluation program of the 4 per 1000 initiative

Humedalia’s work focuses on the chinampas of Xochimilco. (Chinampas refers to a system of growing crops in floating gardens created in shallow lake beds, using farming techniques developed by the Aztecs).

Agricultural production in chinampas, or islands of arable land, started over 800 years ago.  When the first tribes that settled in the Mexico basin, they were able to produce 4t/ha of crops. These high yields allowed the development of big urban settlements, such as what we have today in Mexico City. These cities generated a big demand for water resources, and ultimately led to the transfer of agriculture to urban soil.

Today, Xochimilco’s wetland and its landscape of chinampas retain only 2 percent of the fresh water that was originally in the basin. This agricultural landscape is highly threatened by processes linked to urbanization and the devaluation of the farmers’ labor. About  80 percent of the chinampas are abandoned, and water pollution has deteriorated the soil’s fertility. The few agricultural producers that remain face steep competition and low profits, because the intensive agricultural model, mostly subsidized, has forced these producers to lower the prices.

Despite the negative impact of urbanization, Xochimilco’s wetlands remain vital for Mexico City. They provide multiple environmental benefits, such as microclimate regulation, water catchment and recharge of the groundwater reserves, oxygen and food production, nutrient recycling and carbon sequestration. In a city where air pollution levels usually exceed healthy standards, carbon sequestration is fundamental for the city’s resilience. Wetlands sequester large amounts of carbon (0.4-32 Mg ha-1 year-1) in their sediments because of their anaerobic conditions, which slow the rate of decay of organic matter, facilitating carbon accumulation. In turn, carbon sequestration can be optimized by using traditional farming techniques (sustainable) in the chinampas in combination with new organic farming techniques, such as the biointensive method. 

This project seeks to increase carbon sequestration through a water-soil systemic approach. By restoring canals and rehabilitating hectares of idle land, the quality of the water available for watering will improve, and the chinampas’ soil will be regenerated, leading to an increase in the amount of the ecosystem’s carbon sequestration.

The project also will contribute to the local endemic flora and fauna’s habitat protection, such as the axolotl Ambystoma mexicanum, a type of salamander known as the Mexican walking fish. Protecting local flora and fauna will help restore the cultural identity linked to ancestral agriculture that survives in the hands of traditional farmers.

This project for regenerating the chinampas soil (rehabilitation, growing and maintenance) will provide the local community opportunities to increase family income and engage multiple generations, creating a space for the exchange of knowledge and experiences about ancestral farming techniques. Women and children who typically don’t participate directly in food production can become involved in marketing, sales and processing. 

In turn, regenerated chinampas will produce healthier foods. 

As part of the Regeneration International partner network, and applying for the 4 per 1000 initiative, Humedalia project helps improve socio-ecological conditions of Xochimilco’s wetland. Carbon sequestration will have a positive direct impact on the air quality of one of the most polluted cities in the world. But the project will also focus on the social aspect, improving the wellbeing of the community by generating self-employment at the chinampas, and creating the right conditions for social participation through collaborative networks that strengthen the community. 

Mayra Rubio Lozano is director of scientific research and sustainable development for Humedalia A.C. To keep up with Regeneration International news, sign up for our newsletter.