Agave Power: How a Revolutionary Agroforestry and Grazing System in Mexico Can Help Reverse Global Warming

“Unsustainable land use and greenhouse gas emissions are delivering a one-two punch to natural ecosystems that are key to the fight against global climate change. And without sweeping emissions cuts and transformations to food production and land management, the world stands no chance of staving off catastrophic planetary warming.”

Agave plants (the best known of which are blue agave, used to produce tequila), along with nitrogen-fixing, companion trees such as mesquite, huizache, desert ironwood, wattle, and varieties of acacia that readily grow alongside agave, are among the most common, prolific, and yet routinely denigrated or ignored plants in the world. As India climate scientist Dr. Promode Kant points out:

“Agave is to the drier parts of the world what bamboo is to its wetter zones. Capturing atmospheric CO2 in vegetation is severely limited by the availability of land and water. The best choice would be species that can utilize lands unfit for food production and yet make the dynamics of carbon sequestration faster. As much as 40% of the land on earth is arid and semi-arid, largely in the tropics but also in the cool temperate zones up north. And on almost half of these lands, with a minimum annual rainfall of about 250 mm and soils that are slightly refractory, the very valuable species of agave grows reasonably well.”

Agave plants and nitrogen-fixing trees densely intercropped and cultivated together have the capacity to draw down massive amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere and produce more above ground and below ground biomass (and animal fodder) on a continuous year-to-year basis than any other desert and semi-desert species. Ideal for arid and hot climates, agaves and their companion trees, once established, require little or no irrigation to survive and thrive, and are basically impervious to rising global temperatures and drought. Agaves alone can draw down and store above ground the dry weight equivalent of 30-60 tons of CO2 per hectare (12-24 tons per acre) per year. One hectare equals 10,000 square meters or 2.47 acres.

Now, a new, agave-based agroforestry and livestock feeding model developed in Guanajuato, Mexico promises to revitalize campesino/small farmer livestock production while storing massive amounts of atmospheric carbon above and below ground. Scaled up on millions of currently degraded and overgrazed rangelands, these agave/agroforestry systems have the potential to not only improve soil and pasture health, but to help mitigate and potentially reverse global warming.

Climate Emergency

As international scientists, activists, and our own everyday experience tell us, we are facing a Climate Emergency. A “profit at any cost,” fossil fuel-supercharged economy, coupled with industrial agriculture and factory farms, destructive land use, and mindless consumption have pumped a dangerous load of CO2 and greenhouse gas pollution into the sky, bringing on global warming and violent climate change. Degenerative food, farming, livestock, and land use practices have de-carbonized and killed off much of the biological life and natural carbon-sequestering capacity of our soils, forests, and ecosystems. This degradation and desertification of global landscapes has oxidized and released billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and eliminated much of the above ground carbon biomass once stored in our forests and landscapes. This global degeneration has depleted so much of the carbon and biological life in our soils, trees, and plants that these natural systems can no longer draw down and sequester (through natural photosynthesis) enough of the excess CO2 and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to maintain the necessary balance between CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the carbon stored in our soils, trees, and plants.

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) estimates that arid and semi-arid lands make up 41.3% of the earth’s land surface, including 15% of Latin America (most of Mexico), 66% of Africa, 40% of Asia, and 24% of Europe. Farmers and herders in these areas face tremendous challenges because of increasing droughts, erratic rainfall, degraded soils, overgrazed pastures, and water scarcity. Many areas are in danger of degenerating even further into desert, unable to sustain any crops or livestock whatsoever.

Most of the world’s drylands are located in the economically under-developed regions of the Global South, although there are millions of acres of drylands in the US, Australia, and Southern Europe as well. Farming, ranching, and ecosystem conservation are becoming increasingly problematic in these drylands, especially given the fact that the majority of the farms and ranches in these areas do not have irrigation wells or year-round access to surface water. Crop and livestock production levels are deteriorating, trees and perennials have typically been removed or seasonally burned, and pastures and rangelands have been overgrazed. Poverty, unemployment, and malnutrition in these degraded landscapes are rampant, giving rise to violence, organized crime, and forced migration

The good news, however, coming out of Mexico, applicable to many other regions, is that if farmers and ranchers can stop overgrazing pastures and rangelands, eliminate slash and burn practices; and instead reforest, revegetate, rehydrate, and re-carbonize depleted soils, integrating traditional and indigenous water catchment, agroforestry, livestock, and land management practices with agave-based agroforestry, we may well be able to green the drylands and store and sequester massive amounts of carbon.

Via Organica, the “Organic Way”

After decades as a food, farm, anti-GMO, and climate campaigner for the Organic Consumers Association in the US, I now spend a good part of my time managing an organic and regenerative farm and training center, Via Organica, in the high-desert drylands of North Central Mexico. Our semi-arid, temporal (seasonal rainfall) ecosystem and climate in the state of Guanajuato is similar to what you find in many parts of Mexico, and in fact in 40% of the world. In our valley, we typically get 20 inches or 500 millimeters of precipitation in the “rainy season” (July-October), greening the landscape, followed by eight months with little or no rain whatsoever.

At Rancho Via Organica, we’ve been trying to regenerate our high-desert (6300 feet elevation) environment, developing farming, livestock, and landscape management practices that produce healthy organic food and seeds, sequester carbon in the soil, preserve our monte or natural densely-vegetated areas, slow down and infiltrate rainwater (including runoff coming down the mountains and hillsides) to recharge our water table, and reforest and revegetate our still somewhat degraded corn fields and pasturelands. Looking across our mountain valley, the most prominent flora are cactus and agave plants (some of which are quite large) along with hundreds of thorny, typically undersized, mesquite, huizache, and acacia shrubs/trees. In order to grow our vegetables and cover crops, maintain our olive, mulberry, citrus, and pomegranate trees, and provide water and forage for our animals, we like most small farmers and ranchers in Mexico, irrigate with only the rainfall that we can collect and store in cisterns, ponds, and soils. Eighty-six percent of Mexican farmers and herders have no source of water, other than seasonal rainfall, and therefore have to struggle to maintain their milpas (corn, beans, and squash) and raise their animals under increasingly adverse climate conditions.

Greening the Drylands: A New Agroforestry Model

Recently Dr. Juan Frias, a retired college professor and scientist, came up to me after attending a workshop at our farm. As we discussed regenerative agriculture practices and climate change, Juan told me about a new system of drylands agroforestry and livestock management (sheep and goats), based upon agave plants and mesquite trees in the nearby community of San Luis de la Paz. They call their agroforestry system Modelo Zamarripa.

By densely planting, pruning, and inter-cropping high-biomass, high-forage producing, fast-growing species of agaves (1600-2000 per hectare) amongst preexisting deep-rooted, nitrogen-fixing tree species such as mesquite, or amongst planted tree seedlings, these farmers are transforming their landscape and their livelihoods. When the agaves are three years old, and for the following five to seven years, farmers can begin pruning the leaves or pencas, chopping them up finely with a machine, and then fermenting the agave in closed containers for 30 days, ideally combining the agave leaves with 20% or more of mesquite pods by volume to give them a higher protein level. In our region mesquite trees start to produce pods that can be harvested in five years. By year seven the mesquite and agaves have grown into a fairly dense forest. In year eight to ten, the root stem or pina (weighing up 100-200 pounds) of the agave is ready for harvesting to produce a distilled liquor called mescal. Meanwhile the hijuelos or pups put out by the mother agave plants are being continuously transplanted back into the agroforestry system, guaranteeing continuous biomass growth (and carbon storage). In their agroforestry system, the Zamarripa farmers integrate rotational grazing of sheep and goats across their ranch, supplementing the pasture forage their animals consume with the fermented agave silage. Modelo Zamarippa has proven in practice to be ideal for sheep and goats, and we are now experimenting at Via Organica with feeding agave silage to our pastured pigs and poultry.

The revolutionary innovation of these Guanajuato farmers has been to turn a heretofore indigestible, but massive and accessible source of biomass, the agave leaves, into a valuable animal feed, using the natural process of fermentation to transform the plants’ indigestible saponin and lectin compounds into digestible carbohydrates and fiber. To do this they have developed a relatively simple machine, hooked up to a tractor, that can finely chop up the tough leaves of the agave. After chopping the agave, the next step is to anaerobically ferment the biomass in a closed container (we use five gallon buckets with lids). The fermented end-product, after 30 days, provides a nutritious but very inexpensive silage or animal fodder (in comparison to alfalfa, hay, or cornstalks), that costs less than one Mexican peso (or approximately five cents US) per kilo (2.2 pounds) to produce. According to Dr. Frias, lambs readily convert ten kilos of this silage into one kilo of body weight. At less than 5 cents per kilo (two cents per pound) agave silage could potentially make the difference between survival and bankruptcy for millions of the world’s small farmers and herders.

Agaves and Carbon Storage and Sequestration

The Zamarripa system of drylands afforestation and silvopasture draws down and stores in the plants large quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere. Agronomists have observed that certain varieties of agave can produce up to 43 tons per hectare of dry weight biomass per year, on a continuous basis.

These high biomass varieties of agave will likely thrive in many of the world’s arid ecosystems, wherever any type of agave and nitrogen-fixing trees are already growing.

Nitrogen-fixing trees such as mesquite can be found in most arid and semi-arid regions of the world. Mesquite grows readily not only in Texas and the Southwestern US, Mexico, Central America, Argentina, Chile, and other Latin American nations, but also “thrives in arid and semi-arid regions of North America, Africa, the Middle East, Tunisia, Algeria, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar (Burma), Russia, Hawaii, West Indies, Puerto Rico and Australia.”

At Via Organica, outside San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, we are utilizing moveable, solar-fenced paddocks for our grazing sheep and goats in order to protect our mesquite tree seedlings, to prevent overgrazing or under-grazing,to  eliminate dead grasses and invasive species, and to concentrate animal feces and urine across the landscape in a controlled manner.  At the same time that we are rotating and moving our livestock on a daily basis, we are transplanting, pruning, finely chopping, and fermenting the heavy biomass leaves or pencas of agave salmiana plants. Some individual agave pencas or leaves can weigh (wet) as much as 40 kilos or 88 pounds.

The bountiful harvest of this regenerative, high-biomass, high carbon-sequestering system will eventually include not only extremely low-cost, nutritious animal silage, but also high-quality organic lamb, mutton, cheese, milk, aquamiel (agave sap), pulque (a mildly alcoholic beverage) and distilled agave liquor (mescal), all produced organically and biodynamically with no synthetic chemicals or pesticides whatsoever, at affordable prices, with excess agave biomass and fiber available for textiles, compost, biochar, and construction materials.

Massive Potential Carbon Drawdown

From a climate crisis perspective, the Modelo Zamarripa is a potential game-changer. Forty-three tons of above ground dry weight biomass production on a continuing basis per hectare per year ranks among the highest rates of drawing down and storing atmospheric carbon in plants in the world, apart from healthy forests. Imagine the carbon sequestration potential if rural farmers and pastoralists can establish agave-based agroforestry systems over the next decade on just 10% of the worlds five billion degraded acres (500 million acres), areas unsuited for crop production, but areas where agave plants and suitable native nitrogen-fixing companion tress (such as acacia varieties in Africa) are already growing. Conservatively estimating an above ground biomass carbon storage rate of 10 tons of carbon per acre per year on these 500 million acres, (counting both agave and companion trees, aboveground and below ground biomass) we would then be able to cumulatively sequester five billion tons of carbon (18 billion gigatons of CO2e) from the atmosphere every year. Five billion tons of additional carbon sequestered in the Earth’s soils and biota equals nearly 50% of all human greenhouse gas emissions in 2018.

More Background on Agaves

To better understand the potential of this agroforestry/holistic grazing system, a little more background information on agave plants, and nitrogen-fixing or trees such as mesquite, huizache, or other fodder and food producing trees such as inga or moringa may be useful. Various varieties of agave plants (along with their cactus relatives and companion nitrogen-fixing trees) are found growing on approximately 20% of the earth’s lands, essentially on the half of the world’s drylands where there is a minimum annual rainfall of approximately 10 inches or 250 mm, where the temperature never drops below 14 degrees Fahrenheit. Dr. Promode Kant has described the tremendous biomass production and carbon-storage potential of agaves in dry areas:

“Agave can … be used for carbon sequestration projects under CDM [the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Climate Protocol] even though by itself it does not constitute a tree crop and cannot provide the minimum required tree crown cover to create a forest as required under CDM rules. But if the minimum required crown cover is created by planting an adequate number of suitable tree species in agave plantations then the carbon sequestered in the agave plants will also be eligible for measurement as above ground dry biomass and provide handsome carbon credits… It causes no threat to food security and places no demand for the scarce water and since it can be harvested annually after a short initial gestation period of establishment, and yields many products that have existing markets, it is also well suited for eradication of poverty…”

Agaves, of which there are 200 or more varieties growing across the world, can thrive even in dry, degraded lands unsuitable for crop production because of their Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM) photosynthetic pathway (cacti and other related desert plants also have a CAM pathway) that essentially enables these plants to draw down moisture from the air and store it in their thick tough leaves during the nighttime, while the opening in their leaves (the stomata) close up during daylight hours, drastically reducing evaporation. Meanwhile its relatively shallow mycorrhazal-fungi powered roots below the soil surface spread out horizontally, taking in available moisture and nutrients from the topsoil, especially during the rainy season. In addition, its propagation of baby plants or pups, (up to 50 among some varieties) that grow out of its horizontal roots makes the plant a self-reproducing perennial, able to sustain high biomass growth, and carbon-storage and sequestration on a long-term basis. Even as a maturing agave plant is pruned beginning in year three (to produce fermented silage) and the entire mature agave plant (the pina) is harvested at the end of its lifespan, in order to make mescal, in our case after 8-10 years, it leaves behind a family of pups that are carrying out photosynthesis and producing biomass (leaves and stem) at an equal or greater rate than the parent plant. In other words, a very high level of above ground carbon storage and below ground sequestration can be maintained year after year. All with no irrigation, and no synthetic fertilizers or chemicals required, if intercropped in conjunction with nitrogen-fixing tree such as mesquite, huizache, inga, moringa, or other dryland species such as the acacias that grow in arid or semi-arid areas.

Agaves and a number of their tree companions have been used as sources of food, beverage, and fiber by indigenous societies for hundreds, in fact thousands of years. However, until recently farmers had not been able to figure out how to utilize the massive biomass of the agave plant leaves, which, unless they are fermented, are basically indigestible and even harmful to livestock. In fact, this is why, besides the thorns and thick skins of the leaves, animals typically will not, unless starving, eat them. But once their massive leaves (which contain significant amounts of sugar) are chopped up and fermented in closed containers, livestock, after a short period of adjustment, will gobble up this sweet, nutritious forage like candy.

Developing a native species/agroforestry/livestock system on 5-10 million acres of land unsuitable for food crops in a large country like Mexico (which has 357 million acres of cropland and pastureland, much of which is degraded) could literally sequester 37-74% of the country’s net current fossil fuel emissions (current net emissions are 492m tons of CO2e). And of course wherever these agave/agroforestry/holistic grazing systems are deployed, farmers and ranchers will also be restoring the fertility and moisture holding capacity of millions of acres of pasturelands and rangelands, thereby promoting rural food self-sufficiency and prosperity.

Scaling up best regenerative practices on the world’s billions of acres of croplands, pasturelands, and forest lands—especially those degraded lands no longer suitable for crops or grazing can play a major role, along with moving away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, in stopping and reversing climate change.

References and Sources
1. HuffPost August 8, 2019
https://www.huffpost.com/ entry/united-nations-ippc-report-climate-land_n_5d4b872ce4b09e729740d9fb

2. Institute of Green Economy, Could Agave be the Species of Choice for Climate Change Mitigation?
http://www.igrec.in/ could_agave_be_the_species_of_choice_for_climate_change_ mitigation.pdf

3. Facebook, Hacienda Zamarripa https://www.facebook.com/ haciendazamarripa/

4. Institute of Green Economy, Could Agave be the Species of Choice for Climate Change Mitigation?
http://www.igrec.in/ could_agave_be_the_species_of_choice_for_climate_change_ mitigation.pdf

5. Texas Almanac, The Ubiquitous Mesquite
https://texasalmanac.com/topics/environment/ubiquitous-mesquite

6. Institute of Green Economy, Could Agave be the Species of Choice for Climate Change Mitigation?
http://www.igrec.in/ could_agave_be_the_species_of_choice_for_climate_change_mitigation.pdf

Letter from Santiago: Regeneration Now

SANTIAGO, Chile – Defying the machinations of discredited President Sebastian Pinera—who abruptly cancelled the Global Climate Summit in Santiago, Chile in reaction to the nationwide grassroots uprising that erupted here on October 18—an intrepid band of North and South American farmers, food activists and climate campaigners, under the banner of Regeneration International, came together in the Chilean capital of Santiago to share experiences and ideas, and to develop a common strategy for reversing global warming and resolving the other burning issues that are pressing down on us.

With global attention focused on Madrid, which hosted the December 2-13 official COP 25 Climate Summit after Chile pulled out, a number of us decided nevertheless to hold our own North and South America mini-summit here, expressing our solidarity with the Chilean people’s epic struggle, and, at the same time, giving some of the best practitioners and campaigners in the Regeneration Movement the opportunity to focus on what’s holding us back and how we can most quickly move forward.

More and more people in Madrid this week, and all over the world, are finally talking about how regenerative agriculture and ecosystem restoration can sequester large amounts of excess atmospheric carbon in soils, trees and plants, while providing other valuable ecological, public health, and economic benefits.

Yet overall progress is still too slow. We need total system change, and a Regenerative Revolution—now—if we hope to turn things around in time.

 

Accelerating public awareness and movement-building

Public awareness of how photosynthesis works, of what agroecology and agroforestry mean, of how healthy plants and trees and properly grazed livestock draw down and sequester significant amounts of carbon in the soil, of how Big Food and Big Ag’s chemical and fossil fuel-intensive food system is a major factor driving global warming and poverty, is still in the early stages—as is public awareness of the multiple benefits of regenerative food, farming and land use.

Most climate activists are still focused narrowly on reducing fossil fuel use. They are still ignoring the fact that it will take both a rapid conversion to renewable energy and a massive drawdown of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (especially here in the Global South) if we are to achieve net zero emissions by 2030, (and net negative emissions from 2030-2050) as called for by the Sunrise Movement and Bernie Sanders in the U.S., and by various national and international coalitions for a Green New Deal.

But in order to gain critical mass, political power and sufficient resources—North and South—we have no choice but to move beyond single-issue campaigns and minor reforms to building a qualitatively stronger and more diverse Movement. To head off catastrophe and bring the world’s corporate criminals and fascist politicians to heel, we must unite all the different currents of our local-to-global resistance. We must create a world-changing synergy between our myriad demands and constituencies for economic justice, social equity and renewable energy and our demands for radical and regenerative transformations in our food, farming, forestry and land-use policies.

 

Gaining political power

Unfortunately, many organic and agro-ecological farmers, food and consumer organizations, and anti-GMO and anti-factory farm activists are still either apolitical, or afraid of being called “radical.”

For example, too many organic consumers and farmers in the U.S. are still questioning why they should support revolutionary change, such as a multi-trillion-dollar Green New Deal, or a radical presidential candidate like Bernie Sanders, who is calling for political revolution (eco-social justice, universal health care, and free public education), as well as renewable energy and a new food system based upon organic regenerative practices.

What many of our well-meaning but often naïve, timid or overly pessimistic compatriots fail to understand is that without a radical shift in political power and public policies, including finance policies—facilitating a massive infusion of public money and private investments—our growing organic and regeneration revolution will likely shrivel up and die on the vine. And of course such a dramatic cultural and political transformation will be possible only with the massive participation and leadership of youth, women, African-Americans, Latinos and workers, carrying out a Ballot Box Revolution that includes, but is not limited to, our life-or-death food, farming and climate imperatives.

Ten to 25 percent market share for organic and local food and grass-fed meat and animal products by 2030 is better than what we have now, but it’s not going to make much difference on a burnt planet. Our planetary house, as Greta Thunberg reminded us once again this week in Madrid, is on fire.

Without mass grassroots awareness and collective action, without a political revolution, as well as an energy and farming revolution and a massive influx of funds, public and private, the business-as-usual machinations of the billionaires, the multinational corporations (Bayer/Monsanto, Cargill, JBS, Wal-Mart, Amazon, Facebook, Google et al) and the one percent will drive us past the point of no return and destroy us all.

In order to replicate and scale up the game-changing, carbon-sequestering regenerative food, farming and ecosystem restoration practices that are finally taking root and spreading across the Americas and the planet—these include bio-intensive organic, agroecology, holistic grazing, agroforestry, permaculture, reforestation and biochar—we need all of the major drivers of regeneration to be operating in synergy and at full power.

As we affirmed in our Regeneration International General Assembly meeting on December 10 in Santiago:

Given the unprecedented and accelerating global-scale climate emergency that is upon us, global governments and civil society must rapidly prioritize, invest in, and scale up the following:

  • Public education on climate and regeneration and a sharp focus on grassroots movement-building
  • Rapid expansion of existing regenerative agriculture practices that promote ecosystem restoration, carbon-capture in soils, and food security
  • Reorientation of public policies to support regenerative agricultural practices and ecosystem restoration
  • Reorientation of economic priorities to facilitate a massive increase in public and private investment in regenerative practices…”

 

Despite the continuing bad news on the climate front, and the rise of authoritarian and fascist regimes in South America and across the world, our counterparts here in Santiago have been very happy to hear about some of the recent positive developments in North America, including the growing support for a Green New Deal and the campaign of Bernie Sanders for president, as well as the growth of radical, youth-led, direct action groups such as the Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for the Future.

In the short span of 12 months, the Green New Deal Resolution in the U.S. has gained massive support from disenfranchised youth, minority communities, embattled working class constituencies, the food movement and climate activists. The resolution, according to a number of polls, now has the support of more than 60 percent of the population, despite increasingly frantic opposition by Trump, the corporate mass media and the neo-liberal wing of the Democratic Party, represented by Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and billionaires like Michael Bloomberg.

The growing understanding that we need “System Change,” i.e. a political revolution, in the U.S. if we are to stop climate change and resolve our other burning crises, is echoed in the call for a “Fourth Transformation” in Mexico, in the growing movement for the overthrow of the climate-denying, Amazon-burning, fascist Bolsonaro junta in Brazil (ditto Bolivia, Honduras, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, et al), and now the thunderous demand from all sectors of the population for a New Constitution and a democratic revolution in Chile.

 

Taking it to the streets

Marching and chanting with our Chilean brothers and sisters along riot-scarred streets in central Santiago, past an astonishing number of smashed-up billboards, burnt-out subway stations, battered storefronts, broken traffic lights, boarded-up banks, hotels and businesses, it’s clear that elite control and “business as usual,” at least here in Chile, is no longer tolerable. Along the major thoroughfares such as Avenida Providencia, neighborhood or family-owned businesses, “somos pyme” have generally been spared, while colonial monuments, government buildings, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Oxxo, Domino’s Pizza the Crown Plaza Hotel, and other symbols of multinational control and consumerism have been spray painted, smashed and vandalized.

Supposedly prosperous Chile—the Latin America “free market” jewel of U.S. foreign policy (where President Nixon, Kissinger, AT&T and the CIA overthrew the democratic socialist government of Salvador Allende in 1973)—today has the surreal feeling of a post-modern dystopia. Block after block, mile after mile, with anti-government youth directing traffic at many of the intersections, every wall of the central city is covered with messages of resistance and solidarity, including heartbreaking photos of young protesters (my son’s age) murdered, blinded (the Carbineri have reportedly been deliberately shooting rubber bullets into the eyes of protestors) and imprisoned.

Chile’s workers, indigenous Mapuches, farmers and the once-middle class, led by youth and students, are rising up against the one percent, despite tremendous repression.

Meanwhile the glaciers that supply much of Chile’s water and agriculture are melting. Record-breaking temperatures, forest fires and drought are spreading here and throughout Latin America. Last Sunday, just as thousands of young protestors on bicycles converged on President Pineda’s mansion calling for his resignation and a new Constitution, a massive wildfire broke out on one of the seriously deforested and parched mountains surrounding the city. The scene reminded me of what’s happening in California, and even now in the Boreal forests of Canada and Alaska.

Our collective house, our politics and our climate, are all on fire. As India activist Arundhati Roy said:

“It is becoming more and more difficult to communicate the scale of the crisis even to ourselves. An accurate description runs the risk of sounding like hyperbole…”

The hour is late. The crisis is dire. But as those of us in the Regeneration Movement understand, heart and mind, we’ve still got time to turn things around. But the time to act, to educate, to build stronger movements, to scale up our best practices, to gain political power, is now.

 

Ronnie Cummins is a founding steering committee member of Regeneration International and co-founder and international director of the Organic Consumers Association. His new book, “Grassroots Uprising: A Call to Action on Climate, Farming, Food and a Green New Deal,” will be out in February 2020. To keep up with Regeneration International, sign up for our newsletter.

Small-But-Mighty Delegation Carries the Regeneration International in Madrid

MADRID, Spain — Our Madrid delegation carried the Regeneration International banner at the official COP25 event, participating in official events, representing Regeneration International at the 4 per 1000 Initiative meeting and strengthening our network and partnerships.

In this video, Precious Phiri, Regeneration International steering committee member and coordinator of all things Africa-based, talks with Oliver Gardiner about her work in various regions in Africa training ranchers in holistic management techniques, and how regenerative grazing practices restore degraded grasslands. A great message, delivered on International Farmers Day!

Phiri also participated in the official UNFCC Side Event, “Transforming our Food System to Support Natural Carbon Sinks.” The event focused on how farmers, pastoralists, marine biologists, scientists and food advocates are collaborating in new ways to regenerate ecosystems to meet the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Phiri described the  drought situation and other struggles facing farmers in Southern and East Africa, and the work being done by pastoralists and cropping farmers. 

“Regenerative farmers are influencing and leading the way in regional policy decisions,” Phiri said. “That is the value they bring, along with building strong partnerships to help amplify the voices of farmers and spread the message of regenerative agriculture’s social and economic benefits, in addition to its healing impact on Earth’s ecosystems and climate stability.”

The side event was organized by Regeneration International,  International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), Biovision – Foundation for Ecological Development (BV) and Shinji Shumeikai (Shumei).

Phiri also spoke on behalf of Regeneration International at the official 4 per 1000 Initiative meeting, co-sponsored by Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment. As part of her presentation, she read a statement developed at the Regeneration International Assembly, held in Santiago. The statement called on global governments to adopt a four-prong strategy to solving the climate crisis. 

According to the statement:

“The current global emergency and eco-social crisis that is now at our doorstep urgently demands that we immediately implement all four of these strategies if we hope to avert a total collapse of our ecosystem and global society as we know it.”

The strategy includes: 

  1. Public education and movement-building
  2. Implementation of existing regenerative agriculture practices that promote ecosystem restoration, carbon-capture in soils, and food security 
  3. Reorientation of public policies to support regenerative agricultural practices
  4. Incentivization of massive public and private investment for regenerative practices

Also representing Regeneration International in Madrid was our roving reporter, Oliver Gardiner. Gardiner conducted a series of interviews (you’ll find all of them here), including this one with Dr. Martin Frick, senior director of policy and program coordination for the United Nations Framework on Climate Change.

Frick didn’t mince words when it comes to the link between healthy soils, healthy food and a healthy climate. “I think soils are absolutely instrumental in fixing the climate,” he said. And with over half the world’s arable land moderately to severely degraded, the restoration potential is “enormous,” he said.

As for who will lead the soil restoration efforts, Frick said farmers can do it—but they’ll need to be paid for not only growing healthy food but for restoring healthy soils so that those soils can sequester the carbon drawn down by healthy plants.

Though the Regeneration International Madrid delegation was small, Phiri said it generated “amazing synergy” and was able to have a presence at all  the right events and to serve as a bridge between the meetings in Chile and those in Madrid.

As for the overall outcome of the COP25 global summit, Phiri said: “Even though the main government negotiation rooms didn’t come up with solid conclusions, the COPs remain a useful space for everyone to stand in solidarity and rekindle the passion to keep regenerating. But it’s clear that the people are no longer waiting for governments to act. There’s a huge uprising from civil society, farmers and the world’s youth. This is how change will happen—the people will lead, from the grassroots up, and the governments will follow.”

 

Katherine Paul is communications director for Regeneration International. Subscribe to Regeneration International’s newsletter to keep up with our work.

 

 

 

Constelación Semillas Agroecológicas: A Seed Takes Root in Argentina

MERLO, Argentina – “It’s been a monumental year around here,” Alex Edleson said on the phone from his home in Argentina.

He wasn’t kidding. This year (2019), Edleson and four co-workers launched Constelación Semillas Agroecológicas (Constellation Agroecological Seeds) in the small town of Merlo, in the central Argentine province of San Luis. In August, Edleson and his wife, Belén, welcomed their first child into the world, a daughter.

Constelación is not entirely new. Using unsurprising language for a seed distributor, Edleson, Constelación’s director, told me Constelación was “incubated” for a few years by the Argentine Biodynamic Association. But this year Constelación began to strike out on its own. And like a lot of start-ups, it’s flying by the seat of its pants—at least for now.

Constelación recently bought a seed-cleaning machine, and in September, rented a space in downtown Merlo for its administrative and commercial operations. But Constelación has yet to move into the new space. And until it does, Edleson is working in his kitchen—that is, when he’s not farming.

“I try to farm in the morning and do office work in the afternoon,” said Edleson. “Keeping to my farming is my life source that inspires my work to make change on a larger scale. On our farm, along with seed production, we also carry out variety trials and breeding research.”

That seems to be working well so far. Constelación is growing fast and has ambitious plans for the future.

Last year, Constelación had only seven seed producers in five provinces. Now it has 15 producers in six of Argentina’s 24 provinces. The company currently offers 17 seed varieties. But Edleson hopes to double or triple that number by the end of this year, and he plans to expand into cover crop mixes, and books and tools for small farmers.

In fact, the sky may be the limit for Constelación. Demand for organic food is growing fast in Argentina, which has the ninth-largest agricultural economy in the world, said Edleson. Argentina also ranks second in the world, after Australia, for land area under organic production, though most organic production is destined for export. Organics account for only a few percent of food consumption in Argentina. However, consumption of organics is doubling every year, Edleson said.

“In Argentina, no organic seed was available,” Edleson told me. “One of our motives was to respond to this.”

Constelación’s mission isn’t without its challenges. Though there is widespread organic certification for exports, certification for domestic consumption is limited because of the cost of certification. Limited domestic certification makes it easier for non-organic producers to cash in on the growing popularity of organics by selling fake organic products, and their ability to sell false organics in turn diminishes the demand for organic seeds.

But Constelación is working with the Argentine Biodynamic Association on a “system of guarantee” that will be more accessible to small farmers with limited financial resources.

It was a long road that brought Edleson to Merlo. He was born and raised in Indonesia, of U.S. parents who have lived in Asia for 50 years. He went to college in the U.S. and landed in Argentina in 2001, in the middle of Argentina’s biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Edleson says he was “captured” by the resilience shown by Argentines in the face of such economic hardship. In Patagonia, he co-founded and farmed for a pioneering Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project. He started to build collaborative networks, and he met his wife.

But Edleson’s work isn’t done yet.

“We are building a seed-growing network,” he said. “Seed growers are the essence of the project. In the next year we’re going to bring consumers and growers into the decision-making process. We are responding to specific needs expressed by farmers, who have minimal structure for processing seeds and administration for marketing seeds. We have the infrastructure.”

As Constelación’s first monumental year draws to a close, the future looks bright indeed for Edleson and Constelación Semilla Agroecológicas.

Click here to watch Alex Edleson talk about the importance of food sovereignty and seed saving at Regeneration International’s General Assembly in Santiago, Chile.

 

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

 

 

Regeneration International Chilean COP25 Delegation Calls for Four-Prong Approach to Scale Up Regenerative Solutions in Time to Restore Global Climate Stability

Delivered by Regeneration International Steering Committee Member, Precious Phiri, on behalf of the Regeneration International COP25 Chilean Delegation, at the Official COP25 4p1000 Initiative Day in Madrid

Contact:

Latin America: Ercilia Sahores, ercilia@regenerationinternational.org, +52 (55) 6257 7901

US: Katherine Paul, katherine@regenerationinternational.org; 207-653-3090

SANTIAGO, Chile – December 11, 2019 –When COP25 was moved from Chile to Madrid, Regeneration International chose to send a delegation to Madrid. However, in solidarity with farmers and civil society organizations with whom we had spent months organizing COP25 events in Chile, we also sent a strong delegation to Santiago.

I am here today on behalf of the delegation present in Chile, representing farmers, NGOs and local governments from Canada to Tierra del Fuego, who are meeting this week in Santiago to discuss the need— including the immediate action steps required—to rapidly scale up regenerative agriculture and land restoration solutions for the global climate emergency.

Chile is proud to be a 4p1000 signatory, and Regeneration International remains committed to recruiting NGOs and national and local governments to sign on to the 4p1000 Initiative.

However, our message today, given the unprecedented and accelerating global-scale emergency that scientists warn is upon us, is that farmers, governments, organizations and citizens must insist on, and immediately begin implementing a four-prong approach to regeneration, one that includes but is not limited to the implementation of scientific and technical regenerative agriculture practices. 

Today, the Regeneration International COP25 delegation in Chile calls on global governments and societies to rapidly invest in and scale up the following:

  1. Public education and movement-building
  2. Implementation of existing regenerative agriculture practices that promote ecosystem restoration, carbon-capture in soils, and food security 
  3. Reorientation of public policies to support regenerative agricultural practices
  4. Incentivization of massive public and private investment for regenerative practices

The current global emergency and eco-social crisis that is now at our doorstep urgently demands that we immediately implement all four of these strategies if we hope to avert a total collapse of our ecosystem and global society as we know it.

We know this is possible, if we achieve a critical mass of awareness, technical expertise, political will, collaboration and financial commitment.

Thank you,

We are counting on you and you can count on our collaboration and support.

On #GivingTuesday, we are in Madrid—and Chile.

Some members of our team are in Madrid this week, to help kick off the official COP25 global climate summit.

But many of us are in Santiago, Chile. Chile was supposed to host COP25—until mass protests, triggered by social and economic injustices, forced a last-minute change in venue.

Rather than abandon our South American allies in the Regeneration Movement, we chose to follow through with plans, initiated early in 2019, for strategy and training sessions to bring regenerative solutions to a country in crisis.

Please help support this important international work. Donate today, and a generous Regeneration International founding member will match your #GivingTuesday contribution. Click here to donate online now, or find out how to donate by phone or mail.

On the opening day of COP25, Politico, a U.S.-based media outlet, ran this headline: “Gloom Hangs Over COP25 Climate Summit.” 

Politico blamed the cloud of gloom on society’s growing frustration over the failure of world leaders to address the climate emergency with the speed, and on the scale, required to avert a total collapse of Earth’s ecosystem—and the inevitable accompanying collapse of global societies.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We have all the tools we need to regenerate Earth’s natural carbon cycle. We just need to educate and mobilize millions of people around a global Regenerative Green New Deal—and do it now.

As Politico noted, there’s a glimmer of hope. Societies are rising up, all over the world, to call for an end to degenerative and extractive fossil fuel and agribusiness practices—and meaningful and widespread support for a Regenerative Revolution.

It’s happening in Mexico. It’s happening in the U.S. It’s happening in Iran. And it’s happening in Chile.

Our mission is to promote, advance and help rapidly scale up regenerative agriculture in these, and other parts of the world, as a solution to climate change, poverty, hunger and environmental and social injustices.

This past summer, the United Nations issued a report, by more than 100 experts from 52 countries, warning that if we don’t change the way we produce food and manage land, the global climate crisis will lead to a global food crisis.

We can do this. But we need your help.

Please help support this important international work. Donate today, and a generous Regeneration International founding member will match your #GivingTuesday contribution. Click here to donate online now, or find out how to donate by phone or mail. 

Thank you for being part of this movement.

In gratitude,

Andre Leu

International Director

P.S. We appreciate that there are many good organizations asking for your help today. We greatly appreciate your support. Please help us take advantage of this generous one-day only matching gift offer, by making a donation today. Thank you!

Madrid Will Now Host COP25. Here’s Why We’re Still Going to Chile.

Last week, Chile pulled out of hosting the United Nations COP25 climate conference, citing recent protests and civil unrest in Santiago where the summit was to be held December 2 – December 13.

The global climate conference will take place instead in Madrid, on the same dates.

Regeneration International launched in June 2015. In December 2015, we led our first delegation—nearly 60 people—to the COP21 conference in Paris.

Every year since, we’ve participated in this international conference, bringing with us the message of regenerative agriculture as a solution to global warming, and also to so many other issues, including poverty and hunger.

We’re committed to this mission, so we will send a delegation this year to Madrid.

But we’re equally committed to supporting the farmers and civil society groups—from Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay—that we’ve been working with for many months, in preparation for the events in Santiago.

We fear that the last-minute venue change to Madrid will mean that the voices of civil society won’t have a platform at this year’s COP. To ensure that they do, Regeneration International will serve as a “bridge” between the official COP25 in Madrid, and the unofficial COP25 events that will take place in Chile.

Our goal is to ensure that both institutions and civil society have a say in the final outcome of COP25.

Crisis as an opportunity

The recent protests in Santiago were triggered by a rise in subway ticket prices. But the protests are symptomatic of the much deeper issues of social, economic, political and environmental injustices that have left the majority of Chileans with few options and little hope.

The people of Chile are rising up to demand systemic change, change on a scale commensurate with the many crises facing them, including the climate crisis.

It’s the kind of change that the Regeneration Movement is advocating for around the globe. That’s why we believe it’s important to show solidarity with Chileans in this critical moment, and to carry on as planned with as many of the roundtables, activities and other events we’ve been organizing with our allies there.

After all, agriculture plays a significant role in Chile’s economy. But farmers are suffering under an unjust system. Privatization of the country’s water, for example, doesn’t help in times of drought.

Together with our Latin American friends, we’ve organized official and unofficial events in Santiago, so that local and regional voices can be heard.

We organized a delegation of nearly 60 people to participate in these events, including the Civil Society for Climate Action, the International Innovation Social Festival, the People’s Summit and the Regeneration International General Assembly (December 9-10).

Who else will be in Chile?

We will continue to work with the many organizations in our network that have invested time and resources in planning for COP25 in Chile. This list of partner organizations shows just how much interest there is in regenerating Chile:

Organizations in Chile: Regenerativa Chile, El Manzano, Efecto Manada, Carnes Manada, Universidad Católica de Chile, Universidad de Chile, Pio Pio, Costa Sur, Ecobioteca, Un alto en el Desierto, Civil Society for Climate Action, People’s Summit.

International Organizations and international allies: Savory Hubs (Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay), I Give Trees, Seed Council of the Argentine Biodynamic Association, Constelación Argentina, Mutirão Agroflorestal Brazil, Arte na Terra, Brazil, Environment and Sustainability Director, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, Kiss the Ground, Durga’s Den, Pretaterra, Argentinean Movement of Organic Production, Mexican Biointensive Network, Sao Paulo Community Gardens.

It’s a shame that the recent events in Santiago forced Chile to pull out of COP25. But we look forward to creating opportunity out of crisis. We’ll keep you updated as our revised plans unfold!

Ercilia Sahores is Latin America director for Regeneration International. Sign up here for our newsletter.

El Manzano: Pioneers in an Ocean of Pine Trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progress in the Mekong region of Vietnam includes:

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

On progress in Africa:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What dangerous chemicals,” I asked?

“They come from Thailand, I think.”

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

Yes, she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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