Revisiting a Geography of Hope

To be a farmer, at any point in history, means you grow food. You steward the land—soil, water, air, energy, plants, and animals—and make a living from its increase. It seems simple, at least in purpose, if not in practice: Grow good food. Now, in the twenty-first century, awareness is growing that we depend on farmers for more than food. We need farmers and their farmland to sequester carbon, to buffer against floods, and to provide wildlife habitat. Perhaps less evidently, we also need farms to inspire us with their beauty, to cultivate our respect and awe of the more-than-human, and to light the pathways to a more just and prosperous world.  

This is a lot to ask of farmers, but the scope of climate change and biodiversity loss demands more than isolated solutions such as limiting emissions and protecting forests can accomplish.

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Native Shrubs and Why They’re Essential for Carbon Sequestration

“Shrubbiness is such a remarkable adaptive design that one may wonder why more plants have not adopted it.” (H. C. Stutz, 1989)

In light of the newest IPCC and US climate change reports, coupled with reports of the ongoing declines of wild species—birds, insects—you name them, just so long as they aren’t human, I have turned to thinking about shrubs. It is precisely their adaptive characteristics that give shrubs their potential to be powerful players in soil carbon sequestration and ecosystem regeneration in certain parts of the world, such as the Midwest.

Photo credit: Pixabay

Although alarming, the reports are not surprising to anyone who’s been keeping track. The IPCC report says human global society has 12 years to reduce carbon emissions to 45% below 2010 levels if there is to be any hope of holding overall average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F).

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As Climate Changes, Himalayan Farmers Return to Traditional Crops

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

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

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

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

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Scientists Find Grasslands Important as Carbon ‘Sinks’

Author: David Reese | Published: July 9, 2018

With five of California’s most destructive wildfire seasons happening since 2006, that state should include grasslands and not just forests as promising carbon sinks, according to researchers at the University of California, Davis.

The environmental scientists found that California grasslands are better at storing carbon from the atmosphere than fire-prone trees and forests, which have transitioned from carbon sinks (reserves) to carbon generators.

Forests have been a major way to store atmospheric carbon, but when they burn they become carbon generators, and years of wildfire suppression and drought have increased wildfire risks.

Grasslands have the capacity to be more drought- and fire-resilient than forests, and should be considered in California’s carbon cap-and-trade market, which was established in 2012, according to the study published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

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Paul Hawken: Why We Need to Regenerate More Than Just Agriculture

In this talk, Paul Hawken, noted environmentalist and author, talks about why we need to regenerate more than just agriculture to heal our diseased earth and bodies. He discusses the difference between climate change and global warming and how our food choices impact the environment, before sharing innovative solutions to tackling some of our world’s biggest problems.

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What is No-Till Farming?

The Earth loses roughly 23 billion tons of fertile soil every year. At this rate, all fertile soil will be gone within 150 years, unless farmers convert to practices that restore and build soil organic matter, an essential component of soil fertility.

Many industrial agricultural practices are lethal to soil fertility, including deforestation and burning, and excessive use of synthetic fertilizers and other toxic chemicals. One of the biggest contributors to soil degradation is the common practice of soil tilling. Fortunately, a growing number of farmers realize the importance of preserving and improving their soil by adopting no-till practices.

Young soybean plants thrive in the resiue of a wheat crop. This form of no till farming provides good protection for the soil from erosion and helps retain moisture for the new crop. Photo credit: USDA NRCS Photo Gallery

The invention of the plow—progress or problem?

No-till farming is nothing new. It was used as far back as 10,000 years ago. But as plow designs and production methods improved during Europe’s Agricultural Revolution in the 18th and early 19th centuries, tilling became increasingly popular. Farmers adopted the method because it allowed them to plant more seeds while expending less effort.

Tilling involves turning over the first 6 – 10 inches of soil before planting new crops. This practice works surface crop residues, animal manure and weeds deep into the field, blending it into the soil. It also aerates and warms the soil. Sounds like a good thing, right? Unfortunately, in the long run, tilling does more harm than good. Here’s why.

Tillage loosens and removes any plant matter covering the soil, leaving it bare. Bare soil, especially soil that is deficient in rich organic matter, is more likely to be eroded by wind and water. Think of it this way: Undisturbed soil resembles a sponge, held together by an intricate structure of different soil particles and channels created by roots and soil organisms. When the soil is disturbed by tilling, its structure becomes less able to absorb and infiltrate water and nutrients.

Tilling also displaces and/or kills off the millions of microbes and insects that form healthy soil biology. The long-term use of deep tillage can convert healthy soil into a lifeless growing medium dependent on chemical inputs for productivity.

The case for a no-till farming future

From a soil perspective, the benefits of no-till farming far outnumber those of tillage-based systems. No-till practices allow the soil structure to stay intact and also protect the soil by leaving crop residue on the soil surface. Improved soil structure and soil cover increase the soil’s ability to absorb and infiltrate water, which in turn reduces soil erosion and runoff and prevents pollution from entering nearby water sources.

No-till practices also slow evaporation, which not only means better absorption of rainwater, but it also increases irrigation efficiency, ultimately leading to higher yields, especially during hot and dry weather.

Soil microorganisms, fungi and bacteria, critical to soil health, also benefit from no-till practices. When soil is left undisturbed, beneficial soil organisms can establish their communities and feed off of the soil’s organic matter. A healthy soil biome is important for nutrient cycling and suppressing plant diseases. As soil organic matter improves, so does the soil’s internal structure—increasing the soil’s capacity to grow more nutrient-dense crops.

It’s clear that adopting no-till practices is good for the soil. But what’s in it for the farmer? Remember, tilling became popular because it meant farmers could plant more seeds, faster. Modern no-till tractor implements allow farmers to sow seeds faster and cheaper than if they tilled their fields. Conventional tillage practices require the farmer to make several passes over the field, first tilling the soil and then returning to plant seeds. No-till removes the step of tilling the soil and therefore saves the farmer time and money. According to a report published in Scientific America, this decreases the fuel expense by 50 to 80 percent and the labor by 30 to 50 percent.

Conventional vs. organic no-till farming

One of the common misconceptions about no-till farming is that farmers can use this practice only if they grow genetically engineered (GMO) crops, which require the use of herbicides. To clear up this confusion, it’s important to understand that there are two types of no-till farming: conventional and organic.

In conventional no-till farming, farmers use herbicides to manage the weeds before and after sowing the seeds. The amount of herbicides used in this approach is even higher than the amount used in tillage-based farming, which causes a threat to the environment and human health.

Organic no-till farming uses a variety of methods to manage weeds and reduce or eliminate tillage without resorting to the use of chemical herbicides. These methods include cover crops, crop rotation, free-range livestock and tractor implements such as the roller crimper, which farmers can use to lay down a weed-suppressing mat that can be planted through in one pass.

Organic no-till farming on its own isn’t an all-cure solution to the world’s soil crisis. But it’s one of the many important practices that move us toward a regenerative agriculture model that is better for human health and the environment.

How no-till farming fits into the bigger climate solution

Until recently, the “how do we solve global warming” conversation focused almost exclusively on the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It’s absolutely critical that we do that, and that we do it fast.

But it’s equally, if not more critical, that we figure out how to draw down the carbon that’s already in the atmosphere. Thankfully, climate scientists now recognize that healthy soil plays an essential role in drawing down and sequestering carbon.

According to Rodale Institute, adopting regenerative agricultural practices across the globe could sequester global annual greenhouse gas emissions, which is roughly 52 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide.

Where does no-till farming fit into the carbon sequestration story?

Soil naturally stores carbon. When soil is plowed under, carbon, in the form of organic material such as plant roots and microorganisms, rises to the soil’s surface. This temporarily provides nutrients for crops. But as the soil carbon is exposed to oxygen in the atmosphere, it transforms into carbon dioxide, contributing to the greenhouse gas emissions that warm the planet.

No-till farming minimizes soil disturbance, which helps keep carbon in the soil. It also enriches soil biodiversity, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers that emit greenhouse gases. Studies have shown that organic no-till practices, when combined with cover cropping and organic management, help increase soil organic carbon by up to 9 percent after two years and 21 percent after six years.

No-till practices, when combined with other regenerative methods, such as cover cropping, agroforestry and the rotation of multispecies livestock, can help establish truly regenerative and climate-resilient farms.

Read next: Why Regenerative Agriculture?

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Can Carbon Farming Help Save the Outback?

In Western Australia, pastoral lease reform raises hopes for people and their land

Authors: Pepe Clarke & David Mackenzie | Published: June 18, 2018

In the Outback of Western Australia, pastoral leaseholders have for years faced a tough choice: Graze livestock in an unsustainable and land-damaging way, or go easy on the land while sliding toward financial hardship.

That’s because the Western Australia pastoral lease system, which covers one-third of the state and an area bigger than Texas, historically restricted leaseholders to grazing livestock as their primary business, even though degraded land has rendered grazing unprofitable in many areas. As a result, a growing number of Western Australians have chosen a third option—leaving the region—just at a time when the Outback needs more occupants, not fewer, to prevent the spread of feral animals, noxious weeds, and uncontrolled wildfires.

In an effort to reverse that trend and help repair the landscape, the Western Australian government in April began allowing a new line of business—carbon farming—on lands once reserved for grazing. Carbon farming, which essentially means working the land in a way that maximizes the amount of carbon dioxide stored in the native vegetation and soil, is a way for landowners to gain carbon credits that they can then sell to companies seeking to offset their emissions.

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Climate Change Could Lead to Major Crop Failures in World’s Biggest Corn Regions

Two new studies looking at corn and vegetables warn of a rising risk of food shocks and malnutrition with unchecked global warming.

Author: Georgina Gustin | Published: June 11, 2018

Climate change will increase the risk of simultaneous crop failures across the world’s biggest corn-growing regions and lead to less of the nutritionally critical vegetables that health experts say people aren’t getting enough of already, scientists warn.

Two new studies published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences look at different aspects of the global food supply but arrive at similarly worrisome conclusions that reiterate the prospects of food shocks and malnutrition with unchecked global warming. While developing tropical countries would likely be hardest hit, the destabilizing financial effects could reach all corners of the globe, the authors say.

One paper analyzed corn—or maize—the world’s most produced and traded crop, to project how climate change will affect it across the major producing regions. Much of the world’s corn goes into feeding livestock and making biofuels, and swings in production can ripple through global markets, leading to price spikes and food shortages, particularly for the 800 million people living in extreme poverty.

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This ‘Carbon Removal Marketplace’ Will Make Buying Offsets Easier

As companies like Lyft start to invest to make up for their carbon footprints, the world of offset buying needs more transparency and accountability.

Author: Adele Peters | Published: June 14, 2018

On his small family farm in Petaluma, California, Don Gilardi hopes to begin spreading compost over his pastures next year as a way to fight climate change. The technique helps plants pull more carbon from the air and store it in the soil. The farm will also use other “carbon farming” methods, like planting trees on pastures and managed grazing. In doing so, it could sequester an average of 295 metric tons of CO2 a year, more than the emissions of driving a Toyota Camry a million miles. In 20 years, the farm could sequester 32 times as much carbon.

A new “carbon removal marketplace” hopes to make it easier for consumers and businesses to directly support farmers who, like Gilardi, want to shift to climate-friendly practices. It will also later connect consumers to other types of carbon offsets, such as those from tree-planting projects. Called Nori, the new platform, which will launch by the end of the year, will use blockchain to streamline the process of buying and selling offsets.

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Can Farming Save Puerto Rico’s Future?

As climate change alters how and where food is grown, Puerto Rico’s agro-ecology brigades serve as a model for sustainable farming.

Author: Audrea Lim | Published: June 11, 2018

Our climate is changing, and our approaches to politics and activism have to change with it. That’s why The Nation, in partnership with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, is launching Taking Heat, a series of dispatches from the front lines of the climate-justice movement, by journalist Audrea Lim.

In Taking Heat, Lim will explore the ways in which the communities that stand to lose the most from climate change are also becoming leaders in the climate resistance. From the farms of Puerto Rico to the tar sands of Canada, from the streets of Los Angeles to Kentucky’s coal country, communities are coming together to fight for a just transition to a greener and more equitable economy. At a time when extreme-weather events and climate-policy impasse are increasingly dominating environmental news, Taking Heat will focus on the intersection of climate change with other social and political issues, showcasing the ingenious and inventive ways in which people are already reworking our economy and society. There will be new dispatches every few weeks (follow along here).

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