NASA Langley Scientist Touts Biochar: An ‘Environmental Superstar’

Author: Tamara Dietrich | Published: January 9, 2017

Over many centuries — perhaps millennia — primitive peoples plowed biochar into farm fields, turning poor soil into rich cropland.

In fact, it’s such a miraculous soil amendment that 20 years ago researchers found that biochar applied in the Amazon basin more than 500 years before is still enriching soils there.

“It hadn’t broken down, it hadn’t rotted or degraded or anything,” said Doris Hamill, a physicist at NASA Langley Research Center with a deep interest in green technologies. “And that made people say, ‘Hmmm, you know, if biochar can be put in soils and not break down for hundreds of years, this could be a real solution to global warming.’ ”

That’s right — global warming. That’s because an added benefit of carbon-packed biochar is that, by plowing it into farm fields, it removes the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide indefinitely from the carbon cycle.

But that’s not all.

Biochar can be made from common organic waste material — from chicken and cow poop to sticks and brush from your yard. It can make environmentally unfriendly synthetic fertilizers obsolete. It can trap nutrient runoff before it pollutes places like the Chesapeake Bay. It can even filter out toxic heavy metals from water.

“It’s an environmental superstar,” Hamill said. “It’s global warming, it’s soil fertility, it’s sustainable agriculture, it is protection of groundwater — it just does everything. It’s really kind of amazing.”


Our Best Environment Stories of 2017

From soil to algae and fish to flowers, food and the environment are entwined; here are some of Civil Eats’ top stories exploring the connection.

Published: December 26, 2017

Climate change puts farmers in a double bind: The food system is both a major contributor to global warming, and food producers are also already reeling from the effects of a warming planet. Throughout 2017, Civil Eats profiled the interconnection of food and the environment, both how the changing planet is reshaping food systems and also how to produce food in harmony with the planet.

Below, in chronological order, are our top environmental stories from 2017:

California’s Drought Continues to Harm Native Tribes and Fishermen
By Kristine Wong
Communities that depend on salmon among those that suffer the most during drought.

Can Organic Food Prevent a Public Health Crisis?
By Elizabeth Grossman
From children’s development to antibiotic resistance, a European Parliament report charted the many benefits of organic food.

[Editor’s note: In July 2017, we lost Lizzie Grossman, our senior reporter and a pioneering environmental health journalist, to cancer. We published a tribute to Lizzie after her passing, and all of her work for Civil Eats is published in this archive.]

Mapping the Benefits of Farm Biodiversity
By Liz Carlisle

Scientists are finding that simply growing more kinds of food (and rotating crops) can make farms less reliant on pesticides—and more financially solvent.

Monsanto’s Driverless Car: Is CRISPR Gene Editing Driving Seed Consolidation?
By Twilight Greenaway
Gene editing technology is being heralded as a game-changer, but it raises serious questions as five of the Big Six agriculture and chemical companies seek to merge.

Can California Reverse EPA’s U-Turn on Pesticide Ban?
By Elizabeth Grossman
Lawmakers in the Golden State have the power to go beyond the agency’s recent decision not to ban chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxin that impacts thousands of children, farmworkers, and rural communities.


Responding To Climate Change Through Community Involvement

Author: Rana Ashish Singh | Published: January 7, 2018

Climate Change

The climate of the world is changing constantly due to global warming, which is being caused by both natural and man-made activities. These changes have an enormous impact on people’s lives and ecosystems. Developing countries, and particularly the poorest people in these countries, are the most vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate variability and ongoing climate change. Their economies depend heavily on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture, forestry, fisheries, a reliable water supply, and other natural resources. They are generally hindered by limited human capacity and limited access to technology and capital to invest in risk reduction. Thus, it is imperative that climate change adaptation is not separated from other priorities but is integrated into development planning, programs, and projects.

Impacts Of Climate Change On Hills And Mountains

Mountains are rich repositories of biodiversity and water. Downstream flow of water is heavily dependent on mountains. Climate change can impact biodiversity and the flow of ecosystem services either directly or indirectly through many impact mechanisms. Changes in phonology, physiology, behavior, and evolutionary changes are the most often cited species-level responses. At the ecosystem level, changes in structure, function, patterns of disturbance and the increased dominance of invasive species is a noted concern. Following are the major potential impacts of climate change on species, landscape, water and human well-being.


The IPCC (2007a) defines ‘resilience’ as the ability of a social or ecological system to absorb disturbances, while retaining the same basic structure and ways of functioning, the capacity for self-organization, and the capacity to adapt to stress and change. Resiliency can also be defined by a capacity to cope successfully in the face of significant future risk.


Framework Agreement on Climate Change Reached at COP23 Climate Negotiations

Author: Michael Peñuelas | Published: December 2017

For the first time in the 25-year history of international climate negotiations, the 197 member countries of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have reached an agreement on agriculture. The milestone came near the close of the 23rd Conference of Parties (COP23) of the UNFCCC and formally establishes a process called the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture.

This process lays the groundwork for the two subsidiary bodies of the UNFCCC, one focused on technical advice and one on implementation measures, to review and consolidate experience and information on issues related to agriculture through workshops and technical expert meetings.

“Climate change is already affecting agriculture and food security,” said José Graziano da Silva, the Director-General of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. “Without urgent action to adapt agriculture and meet a growing global demand for food, there will be more hungry people in the world. [The Koronivia] decision is a major step to address this problem, and to enable the agricultural sectors to also engage in worldwide efforts to limit global warming.”

The framework requests reports in three years, at COP26 in 2020, from the two bodies, the Subsidiary Body for Science and Technological Advice (SBSTA) and the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI).

Countries identified five initial focus areas for the work: methods and approaches for assessing adaptation, adaptation co-benefits, and resilience; improved soil carbon, soil health and soil fertility under grassland and cropland; improved nutrient use and manure management towards sustainable and resilient agricultural systems; improved livestock management systems; and socioeconomic and food security dimensions of climate change in the agricultural sector.


Local View: Ode to the Cow: Cattle as Climate Champions

Author: Eric Enberg | Published: January 8, 2018

In science, it pays to have an open mind to new ideas and concepts. I recently ran across some research from the Land Stewardship Project (myth buster #47: “Cattle are a Climate Change Catastrophe”) and the bestseller book, “Drawdown,” which challenged a lot about the way I view the lowly cow and its role in climate change.

We’ve all been told that raising and eating cattle is the worst thing we can do for the climate, and it probably is true considering that we have separated the cows from the land, mono-cultivating corn and soybeans, which erodes the topsoil, and ship the feed to the cows in large confined animal feedlot operations, or CAFOs. There, cows spend their last miserable months standing and sleeping in their own waste. Small mountains of manure pile up, as there is no other place to put it. Farmers who grow the corn and soybeans don’t even have the machinery with which to handle the manure anymore; they only use energy-intensive synthetic fertilizers. And, of course, you are happy to know your tax dollars go a long way toward supporting all of this in the name of feeding the world.

Only in America could we have designed a set of government incentives that simultaneously mine the only soil we have and pollute the water with synthetic fertilizer on one end and manure on the other — all of it mixed with a strong whiff of small-farm bankruptcy, animal misery, and climate change.

Why climate change? The black in healthy topsoil is atmospheric carbon that has been incorporated into the soil over many thousands of years. Understanding how it got there is key to reversing climate change. It turns out that healthy soil needs animals on the land to eat the plants. When a cow or any other herbivore, like the millions of bison that once roamed North America, tears off part of a plant, a portion of the root system dies for lack of support from the leaves. The roots are largely made of cellulose, which is one glucose molecule attached to another in long chains. Each glucose molecule has six carbon atoms, and this carbon is consumed by the soil organisms. Once it enters the bodies of these organisms, the carbon is locked into the soil.


Unexpectedly Large Impact of Forest Management and Grazing on Global Vegetation Biomass

Author: Karl-Heinz Erb, et. al. | Published: December 20, 2017


Carbon stocks in vegetation have a key role in the climate system1,2,3,4. However, the magnitude, patterns and uncertainties of carbon stocks and the effect of land use on the stocks remain poorly quantified. Here we show, using state-of-the-art datasets, that vegetation currently stores around 450 petagrams of carbon. In the hypothetical absence of land use, potential vegetation would store around 916 petagrams of carbon, under current climate conditions. This difference highlights the massive effect of land use on biomass stocks. Deforestation and other land-cover changes are responsible for 53–58% of the difference between current and potential biomass stocks. Land management effects (the biomass stock changes induced by land use within the same land cover) contribute 42–47%, but have been underestimated in the literature. Therefore, avoiding deforestation is necessary but not sufficient for mitigation of climate change. Our results imply that trade-offs exist between conserving carbon stocks on managed land and raising the contribution of biomass to raw material and energy supply for the mitigation of climate change. Efforts to raise biomass stocks are currently verifiable only in temperate forests, where their potential is limited. By contrast, large uncertainties hinder verification in the tropical forest, where the largest potential is located, pointing to challenges for the upcoming stocktaking exercises under the Paris agreement.


How Food Survives Extreme Weather Events

Published: December 30, 2017

Who wouldn’t agree? 2017 was a year of mind-blowing events.

We won’t even try to address the politics here. Instead we’ll take a look at a (heretofore) safe subject: The weather. Specifically, what several natural disasters meant for our food supply.

In February, ongoing drought in Nigeria, South Sudan, Yemen and Somalia resulted in famine so severe the U.N.’s Under Secretary General described it as “the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations.”

In March, Cyclone Debbie ravaged Queensland, Australia and caused unprecedented losses for vegetable, sugar and horticultural farmers.

April’s monsoon rains in Sri Lanka created the worst floods in decades, compromised up to fifty percent of agricultural land and left nearly a million people food-insecure. (This, by the way, followed the country’s worst drought in forty years.)

In August, more epic flooding in Southeast Asia created severe food shortages and polluted the water supply for 16 million people across Nepal, India and Bangladesh. Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, costing the United States US$200 million in agricultural losses.

September’s Hurricane Irma damaged up to 90 percent of agricultural lands in the Caribbean, Cuba and the Florida peninsula and Hurricane Maria delivered the same devastation in Puerto Rico.

October brought historic wildfires: Northern California wine country suffered US$3 billion in damages and the fire ruined the livelihoods ofseasonal farm workers.

And, as we write this in December, the largest wildfire in California’s history rages in the biggest avocado and lemon-producing region in the U.S. The agricultural losses are yet to be calculated.


How to Feed Ourselves in a Time of Climate Crisis

Authors: Raj PatelTracy & Matsue Loeffelholz | Published: September 8, 2017

Changing the food system is the most important thing humans can do to fix our broken carbon cycles. Meanwhile, food security is all about adaptation when you’re dealing with crazy weather and shifting growing zones. How can a world of 7 billion—and growing—feed itself? Here are 13 of the best ideas for a just and sustainable food system. 

Land Ownership 

1. Indigenous land sovereignty

The world is watching as historic land reforms on the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu show how to return land sovereignty to indigenous people. The decade-long effort led by Ralph Regenvanu, leader of the Land and Justice Party, is returning control of lands to “customary owners.” More than 80 percent of land in Vanuatu is considered customary: owned by extended families as custodians for future generations.

2. Agroecology, not chemicals

Instead of single crops and fossil fuel-based amendments, agroecology relies on complex natural systems to do a better job: Bean crops that help soil retain nitrogen are rotated with other crops. Farm animal waste is used as fertilizer. Flowers attract beneficial insects to manage pests. Intensive planting of diverse crops requires less water and helps keep weeds under control. 

3. Carbon sequestration

A benefit of soil regeneration practices, which make soils more fertile and resilient to land degradation, is that carbon from the atmosphere is captured in soil and plant biomass. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says carbon sequestration accounts for 90 percent of global agricultural mitigation potential by 2030.

4. Resilient polyculture

After Hurricane Ike hit Cuba in 2008, researchers found polyculture plantain farms had fewer losses than monoculture farms. In general, strongly integrated agroecological farms sprang back to full production two months sooner than conventional farms.


5. Open source seeds

The Open Source Seed Initiative was created by plant breeders, farmers, and seed companies as an alternative to patent-protected seeds sold by agricultural giants such as Monsanto. Its goal is to make seeds a common good again, equipping new crop varieties with an open source license. This allows farmers to save and trade seeds and develop their own hybrids for climate adaptation.


Agroforestry Should Play a Bigger Role in Tackling Climate Change

Author: Cathy Watson | Published: December 13, 2017

Never has it been so pressing to address climate change. So let’s hurry to embrace a proven part of the solution. The radical (but not new) concept of agroforestry – be it integrating trees to create shade over coffee bushes, adding trees to Colombian cattle ranches, or managing and encouraging shea trees to flourish amid millet crops in the Sahel – must move to centre stage.

The Global Carbon Project estimates that 2017 will see a two percent rise in worldwide carbon dioxide emissions, reversing the downward trend of the previous few years.

Almost a quarter of these emissions come from agriculture and the conversion of forests and wetlands into farmland.

This year is also set to be one of the hottest three ever recorded, according to the World Meteorological Organization. And, unlike 2016, 2017 has managed this even without a temperature-boosting El Niño weather system.

Flash floods in Southeast Asia, drought in East Africa, and melting glaciers in Latin America are just three examples of the extreme weather events linked to climate change that affect all corners of the world.

This is, truly, a global disaster, and one largely of our own making.

Solution at hand

But we also have the power to mitigate global warming, through reducing emissions of CO2 and increasing its absorption by expanding or protecting “carbon sinks” such as forests.

One especially effective but still yet to be fully recognised mitigation strategy is agroforestry – the purposeful regeneration, planting, and maintenance of trees and woody bushes on farms and rangeland.

Already, almost a billion hectares of agricultural land across the world contains trees that farming families deliberately manage side by side with their crops and livestock. Around 1.2 billion people depend on these agroforestry systems.

The soil, vegetation, and biomass on every hectare of such land can capture 3.3 tonnes of carbon per year – much more than that captured by land without trees.

Recent research indicates that tree cover on agricultural land across the planet absorbs some 0.75 gigatonnes of carbon a year. That’s a sizable chunk of the 9.75 gigatonnes of CO2 the world emits annually.


Explaining Extreme Events from a Climate Perspective

This BAMS special report presents assessments of how human-caused climate change may have affected the strength and likelihood of individual extreme events.

This sixth edition of explaining extreme events of the previous year (2016) from a climate perspective is the first of these reports to find that some extreme events were not possible in a preindustrial climate. The events were the 2016 record global heat, the heat across Asia, as well as a marine heat wave off the coast of Alaska. While these results are novel, they were not unexpected. Climate attribution scientists have been predicting that eventually the influence of human-caused climate change would become sufficiently strong as to push events beyond the bounds of natural variability alone. It was also predicted that we would first observe this phenomenon for heat events where the climate change influence is most pronounced. Additional retrospective analysis will reveal if, in fact, these are the first events of their kind or were simply some of the first to be discovered.