To Fix the Climate, We Have to Fix Our Soil

“One of our most important solutions to the global challenge posed by climate change lies right under our feet.” That’s according to Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, a soil biochemist at the University of Merced, and she’s talking about soil, which isn’t acknowledged as a key factor in the fight against climate change.

When it’s healthy, soil is incredibly effective at storing carbon, Berhe said on the stage at TED in Vancouver. Soil stores around 3,000 billion metric tons of carbon, which is double the amount stored in vegetation and in the atmosphere, combined. The ability of natural ecosystems like soil to capture and sequester carbon is essentially bailing us out of experiencing the effects of excessive amounts of CO2 that human activities produce. Around half of the 9.4 billion metric tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere every year are captured in soil, plants, and the ocean, and soil is doing the bulk of that heavy lifting.

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Is Regenerative Agriculture the Answer to the Guilt-Free Burger?

In sustainability circles familiar with programs such as Meatless Monday and author Michael Pollan’s often quoted words — “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” — the message to eat less meat is a known adage. The recent update on dietary guidelines from medical journal Lancet reinforces this message and stresses that agriculture accounts for roughly a quarter of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, most produced by raising of cattle and lamb.

In early April, the Grassfed Exchange conference provided a different message, that restorative or regenerative agriculture — which includes grass-fed, pasture-raised beef — is part of the solution to climate change. I must confess that my body craves a good hamburger every once in a while, and when I indulge this craving, I often feel a twinge of guilt. Last weekend, when I ordered a Marin Sun Farms grass-fed, pasture-raised burger, here are three reasons why I didn’t feel guilty:

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Grassland Ecology 101 for Vegans and Synthetic Meat Marketers

First, congratulations on your commitment to making the world a better place. It’s not always popular (or safe) to take a stand on principle when the rest of the world is unaware or insensitive to matters you find extremely important.

However (you knew that was coming), many of your arguments and statements about global ecology have been clouded by a misunderstanding perpetuated by biotech and global corporate agricultural interests. Briefly, let’s look at the two big Red Herrings. Afterwards, I will suggest a path forward to bring strength and resilience to the plant-based movement. [Read Part 2 at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/grassfed-ecology-101-vegans-calling-change-makes-sense-alan-lewis]

Grassland ecology is quite simple.

  1. Grass puts green leaves upward and roots downward during the growing season. The leaves use air, water and sunlight to make sugars. The carbon and water are stored in the roots as carbohydrates: carbon + water.
  2. If the plant is a food crop, we can often eat the leaves, stem and roots and derive lots of nourishment from them. If the plants are mainly cellulose, our stomachs have no way to digest them.
  3. Grasses (and other plants) evolved with ruminant animals. Ruminants have extra stomachs and sturdy mouths to break down, ferment and digest the cellulose in grasses so the nutrients in them can be absorbed and converted to meat, fat and energy for the animal. What’s left is piss and poop, burps and farts.
  4. Grass must be eaten down by ruminants to survive. Without grazing, grasses grow high, desiccate and oxidize. They slough off their roots and after a few years stop growing altogether. By grazing most of the plant leaves and moving on to new pastures,ruminants revitalize grasslands. Without grazing, the land dies.
  5. Grass is not just what you see above ground. Perennial grasses put down deep roots during the growing season; around the roots a universe of biological activity occurs. The roots exude sugars to attract the previously unconnected microbes and fungi underground. These organisms network themselves and begin to breakdown bedrock into minerals the plant’s roots can absorb. The plant can signal for nutrients and water, or tell the underground miners it is under attack and to create substances to help the plant fight insects and diseases
  6. After a grazing animal eats its leaves, the plant lets most of its root system go dormant. Later it begins growing new roots to reestablish its nutrient and immune support system underground. Here is the magic: the old roots, made of carbon and water, serve as the foundation of new topsoil. Carbon rich soil continues to generate biological activity underground. It forms a sponge that can absorb huge amounts of water from rainfall or flooding, which it slowly releases over time: drought tolerance and flood resilience. This process is critical to carbon sequestration. Health grasslands take carbon from the atmosphere and place it safely underground.
  7. Grasslands without ruminant herds moving from place to place are called deserts. The grass cannot survive. Herds that are left to roam and graze at will don’t hack it. Grasslands need animals to trample the soil crust, digest the leafy matter, deposit poop and pee, and then move on so it can resurrect itself and the soil below: managed grazing.

So where does that leave us? The Big Lie you have been told over and over is that plant-based foods will save the environment. Don’t eat meat! But notice that Mother Earth disagrees. She needs those animals, whether humans eat them or not. The Big Lie depends on you dismissing the natural laws of grassland ecology and focusing solely on industrial livestock practices. You know this one, so I’ll summarize.

Most meat animals are fed by growing GMO corn and soybeans in vast chemical-intensive monocultures that devastate the land (and farmers and rural communities, but I’ve covered that elsewhere). The animals are kept in concentrated feeding areas, served rations that are inappropriate to their digestive systems, fed antibiotics and hormones to make them grow faster, given medications to keep them somewhat healthy in horrible circumstances, then led off to slaughter without ever having set hoof on vegetation or having grazed fresh grass. Their contaminated manure is collected in fetid lagoons until it floods into waterways or is sprayed on fields. Yeah, that’s all horrible and it rightfully has led many folks, including not a few ranchers, to swear off meat. Agreed.

The problem is, many vegans and vegetarians have become convinced that concentrated animal feeding operations described above are the only standard by which to judge plant-based foods and synthetic meat. Nope. We need to judge what we eat based on the best practices of livestock husbandry as it is done in concert with natural systems that we as a species on this planet are fundamentally dependent on. We must have managed ruminant grazing to stop and reverse desertification. We must integrate livestock into agriculture to place atmospheric carbon back underground and provide protection against floods and droughts brought on by climate change. A plant-based diet, and anti-livestock advocacy, fails to take this ecological science into account.

After considering this article, take another look at the marketing messages used by synthetic meat companies like Impossible Burger. They state their product is fundamentally better than beef, but their measures are all based on bad industrial livestock practices. Let’s be blunt: if we all ate Impossible Burgers and abandoned livestock husbandry, the planet would die within a few years. Impossible Burger depends on your ignorance of Grassland Ecology 101. Comparing lab-grown meat only to industrial beef is the Red Herring that keeps the plant-based food movement from being taken seriously by real farmers and ranchers. When you repeat the claims of the makers of synthetic food, especially meat, you are repeating nonsense created by marketing teams and tested on people just like you.

Synthetic meat (and “heme”) is grown by organisms that have been genetically modified, and which are fed steeps derived from genetically modified crops. These are things the human species has never eaten or digested before. They are unregulated, unlabeled and undisclosed. It’s not normal, which is why the global biotech lobby is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on influence campaigns to make it seem normal.

Here’s what’s normal: ruminant animals grazing in a herd and moving along when the grass is sufficiently low. Happy health animals with no need for medicines or grain. Healthy soil with no need of fertilizers or herbicides. So, sure, go plant-based. But don’t fail to respect the plants.

It makes sense to advocate against the terrible practices of the livestock industry. It also makes sense to advocate for regenerative humane practices that global ecology depends on. And it’s not a bad idea to reduce consumption of good meat, too. The Earth can support a finite number of grassland animals.

Last word, to head off some comments. It’s true that there is no such thing as “humane” slaughter. I get that. I’ve seen cattle “put down” (shot through the head with a .357 magnum, in case the euphemism is offensive). You don’t get used to it. However (you knew that was coming), animals are going to die one way or another. It’s not “humane” either when an old cow or young calf is left to be attacked by predators, or when disease takes hold and an animal suffers at the edge of the pasture. If we are not going to kill and eat the animals, but we want to save our planet, we must accept their deaths either way. And if ranchers can’t harvest animals to pay the cost of managing herds and improving the soil, eating vegan will require a hefty tax to keep those farmers on the land and providing those services.

Otherwise, we better get used to a dry, sandy planet.

Reposted with permission from Alan Lewis

Andrea Asch: Healthy Soils, Healthy Farms

The snow in Vermont is slowly melting and the woods and fields are springing to life with shoots of new growth. The soil is also re-awakening and is rich with an abundance of organisms and nutrients. Vermont relies on its soil for its most important economic driver – agriculture, and dairy farms. To keep that engine strong, many dairy farmers have turned to regenerative agriculture. More than just a set of practices, regenerative agriculture broadly supports many important environmental benefits.

Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming that develops the soil as a habitat for organisms, making the soil robust and resilient for the production of healthy crops that ultimately support good animal nutrition and contribute to quality milk.

The foundation of regenerative agriculture is a set of practices based on concepts that improve soil health:

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Will Soil Save Us? Carbon Sequestration Through Agriculture

When I taught kindergarten many years ago, I remember when 6-year old Flo fixed her china-blue eyes on me one morning and said she had just figured something out: “Everything in the world is alive,” she declared, “but in its own way.”

Flo’s words come to mind this spring as I get my hands into the earth. I am always awestruck in nature, but these days there’s also an undercurrent of dull grief and panic about climate change. All life, present in all of its variation and complexity, is cherished more than ever before. Every bee and butterfly that enters my garden will get the best seat at the table.

I’m also mindful of my grandfather, a Dutch immigrant who acquired land in southwestern Minnesota in the late 1800s and “broke the prairie” with a sharpened plow and a team of good horses.

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Farmers Are Excited about Soil Health. That’s Good News for All of Us

“When we think about the challenges in agriculture, carbon—and how to sequester it—is near the top.” So said Roger Johnson, the president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), in opening the grassroots organization’s 2019 annual convention in March. Storing carbon in farm soils is an important climate change solution, but building the health of those soils is also critical for ensuring clean water for communities and helping farmers be productive while coping with the consequences of a climate that is already changing. And throughout the NFU’s three-day gathering, the phrase “soil health” and talk about strategies to achieve it seemed to be on everyone’s tongue.

Though it is hard to quantify, surveys suggest that many US farmers are already taking steps to build soil health and store carbon in their soils.

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Making the Most of the ‘UN Decade on Ecosystems Restoration’: Bioregional Regenerative Development as a Deep Adaptation Pathway

Ecosystem Restoration Camps is a non-profit organisation founded by a movement of people who wanted an action-based solution to address accelerating climate change. The camps are a practical, hands on way to restore land degraded by humans. Our mission is to work with local communities and build camps that transform degraded landscapes into lush, abundant, life-giving ecosystems. We are committed to preserving our planet for future generations. (Source)

On a crisp and frosty April morning in the North of Scotland in 2002, at the Findhorn Foundation ecovillage, some 250 activists and landscape restoration practitioners from all over the world declared the 21st Century as the ‘Century for Earth Restoration’. The conference was called by Alan Watson Featherstone who set up Trees for Life, a project that has since planted close to two million native trees to restore Scotland’s great ‘Caledonian Forest’.

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There’s a Better Way to Help the Climate than Abstaining from Beef

Jan. 4 Community Voices commentary posed this question: “Why aren’t we all addressing climate change at each meal by skipping the meat?”

The campaign to fight climate change by avoiding eating meat is well-intentioned but not well-informed. In 2017, agriculture contributed 8.4 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and meat production was responsible for some part of that. But peer-reviewed studies show that even eliminating all of our cattle would have a relatively minor effect on climate change. In contrast, incorporating cattle into a regenerative agriculture system could sequester enough carbon to turn agriculture into a carbon sink, while also eliminating much other environmental damage caused by industrial agriculture.

Photo credit: Pexels

The problem

About 97 percent of the beef produced in the United States comes from cattle that spend half their lives in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), also known as feedlots, each of which might hold tens of thousands of animals.

 

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The Climate Solution Right Under Our Feet

here are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground; there are a thousand ways to go home again. —Rumi

The way to stop climate change might be buried in 300 square feet of earth in the Venice neighborhood of Los ­Angeles, amid kale and potatoes. A half-dozen city youth are digging through the raised bed on a quiet side street, planting tomato seedlings between peach and lime trees. Nineteen-year-old ­Calvin sweats as he works the rake. There’s a lot at stake here. The formerly homeless youngsters are tentatively exploring farming through a community outreach program started by a California nonprofit called Kiss the Ground. More importantly, they are tending to the future of our planet.

Photo credit: Unsplash

“Soil just might save us,” filmmaker Josh Tickell says, “but we are going to have to save it first.”

 

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A Climate Change Solution No One’s Talking About: Better Land Use

It was a nightmarish Iowa blizzard in 1998 that made Seth Watkins rethink the way he farmed.

Before then, he’d operated his family business—he raises livestock alongside hay and corn crops for feed—pretty much as his parents had, utilizing practices like monocropping and unseasonal calving cycles, methods designed to cheat nature. The blizzard, which imperiled the lives of many newly born calves that year, made him realize there must be a better way to steward the land and the animals on it — methods more attuned to the natural scheme of things.

Photo credit: Pixabay

In the 20 years since, Watkins has shepherded in a number of major changes—such as prairie strips, cover crops and rotational grazing—that prevent soil erosion, curb toxic nitrate and phosphorus runoff into nearby waterways, stimulate the biodiversity of the local ecosystems, and improve soil moisture and nutrient content, all the while increasing profits, he said.

These regenerative farming practices also achieve one other key outcome — they improve the soil’s ability to sequester carbon. This is something that brings practical impacts at the local economic level. But soil carbon sequestration also has the potential to tackle one of the single greatest threats to humanity: anthropogenic climate change.

“Carbon is life,” said Watkins. “Carbon really does belong in the soil where it sustains us.”

The science is in: From increased wildfire damage and the threats from rising sea levels, to ocean acidification and the impacts on human migration patterns, the effects of global warming are already being keenly felt. To prevent these developments from turning potentially catastrophic, we must stop the planet from warming 1.5°C above pre-industrial figures, say the world’s climate experts. To do this, global carbon emissions must decrease by about 49 percent from 2017 levels by 2030. Carbon output must be squashed to zero by around 2050. As an indication of how difficult this is going to be, greenhouse gas emissions rose last year in the United States.

Much of the conversation surrounding what to do has our heads turned skyward—reduced emissions from power plants, for example. Many companies are also vying to produce the first to-scale, commercially viable negative emissions technology—one that sucks and stores away more CO2 than it uses.

But a growing number of experts say we need to look downward, arguing that the carbon sequestering capacity of the soil under our feet has the potential to help tackle and reverse, perhaps significantly, human-caused global warming. That’s because soil holds about three times more carbon than the atmosphere. But the way humans have cultivated and managed the planet over millennia—think industrial farming practices and drainage of wetlands—has led to the loss of huge quantities of carbon from the soil. Different estimates pin this number at anywhere from 130 gigatons—one gigaton is a billion metric tons—to 320 gigatons of carbon lost.

So, with a fundamental shift in the way we cultivate the world’s soils to revitalize their carbon content, it is “possible that we could make a major dent” in atmospheric CO2 levels, said Marcia DeLonge, senior scientist in the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. DeLonge is far from alone in her thinking.

A recent National Academy of Sciences report discusses how “uptake and storage” of carbon by agricultural soils could be ready for “large-scale deployment.” But the report also warns of the limited rates of carbon uptake by “existing agricultural practices.” And while much research still needs to be done to understand the degree to which soil can sequester more carbon, the myriad “co-benefits” from better land use practices—like improved farm productivity and reduced environmental impacts—means it’s time to give “serious attention” to the issue, DeLonge said.

“Soil can hold a lot of carbon. It can hold a lot more [than it is]. Just how much more is a matter of more research,” she added. “But we can’t be dilly-dallying anymore. We need to be assessing the landscape for opportunities, and then start to take some action.”

Carbon belongs in the soil

Carbon is an essential ingredient of healthy soil, helping it maintain its structure, and water and nutrient content. So, how does it get there? Conventional wisdom has been that carbon is transferred to the soil through decomposing plant and animal debris. But cutting-edge research in soil science is revealing a much more complex set of circumstances at play. One example of this is an evolving understanding of the “liquid carbon” pathway, which describes the way in which liquid carbon—in the form of dissolved sugars formed during photosynthesis—is passed through roots into the soil to support the complex microbial life there.

“We know that organic matter in the soil is super important in terms of promoting crop growth via several mechanisms,” said Lisa Schulte Moore, a professor in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management at Iowa State University. Indeed, carbon levels are an important function of soil’s water-absorbing potential, for example. According to the NRDC, a 1 percent increase in soil organic matter enables each acre to hold onto an additional 20,000 gallons of rainfall (though that finding is dependent on a number of variables, like soil texture).

“You have the fostering of a whole food-web of life in the soil that can help make nutrients available to the crop,” Schulte Moore added. “[While] a third way by which soil organic matter helps promote crop growth is by promoting structure that facilitates root growth.”

Given the symbiotic relationship between soils and the vegetation they sustain, soil carbon loss happens all sorts of ways, deforestation being a prime example. We’re already losing about 18.7 million acres of forests per year. One international studyfinds that, under Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, the deforestation rate of the Amazon could triple. At least 33 percent of global wetlands had been lost as of 2009, a recent paper suggests. A certain portion of the world’s grasslands has also been lost to desertification, which is when lands are stripped of their productivity due to things like drought and inappropriate farming methods (though there remain divided opinions as to the exact amount of grassland lost through human practices).

In the U.S., industrial farming practices like monocropping and routine tillage have led to the massive erosion of topsoil, where most of the carbon is stored. “Those practices are things that can be easily avoided,” said Roger Aines, chief scientist of the energy program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “When we’re dealing with sensitive soils, like in these wetlands and peat soils, you shouldn’t plow them or dig them up. When you’re dealing with soils that could blow away, you should keep a cover crop.”

That said, there is movement away from industrial agriculture toward regenerative farming methods, as evinced by the “4 per 1000” initiative launched by the French in the wake of the Paris Climate Conference in 2015. The overarching thrust of this initiative? That an increase by 0.4 percent a year in soil carbon content would “halt the increase in the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere related to human activities.” Same here in the U.S., where a farm in Northern California, for example, eschews plowing and weeding and all chemical or organic sprays in favor of a compost-intensive model. It apparently produces 10 times the average per-acre income of comparable California farms.

Holistic grazing—a method of farming that ties livestock production to the cycles of nature, all the while minimizing bare ground and maximizing plant mass—is an “extremely valuable tool” in the fight against climate change, said Karl Thidemann, co-founder and co-director of Soil4Climate, a non-profit advocating for different land use practices. “I’ve been to many grazers who have begun using this practice,” said Thidemann. “All of them have told me how important it has been to their financial situation, and to the environment and to the ecology of these areas.”

Charles Eisenstein is a teacher and writer focusing on themes of civilization and the human cultural evolution. In his most recent book, “Climate: A New Story,” he discusses syntropic agriculture, which has revitalized devastated areas of land in Brazil, turning them into thriving agroforests, all within the space of 30 years. “Part of my work involves challenging the basic direction of human civilization,” he said. “And I think the change that the current ecological crisis is leading us into goes that deep.” The problem, added Eisenstein, will be in enacting these sorts of changes in time to make a difference.

Indeed, Seth Watkins discussed how, in Iowa, there’s a prominent vein of thinking, grounded in the Bible, which encourages farmers there to manage intensively every inch of their land. “Something I’ve asked myself is, ‘how do we start having these conversations in church basements?’” said Watkins. “I don’t know what happens when we die for sure, but what I’ve studied about it is that we’re supposed to try to do the best we can with what we have. We’ve got to be good stewards of the land.”

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams