Sustainable Agroecosystems: Research to Assess the Benefits of Regenerative Grazing Principles

Carbon rich soil is healthy and beneficial for the entire ecosystem, based on previous and growing research. Ecosystem health is increased as soil carbon increases, resulting in improved water infiltration and retention; soil stability nutrient status, access and retention; diversity of fungi, microbes, plants, and insects; wildlife diversity, nutrition and habitat; livestock health and output; and farmer net profits, resilience and well-being. Healthy ecosystems with high levels of soil carbon and soil microbial biomass, diversity and function provide valuable ecosystem services (benefits humans gain from nature), which increase the sustainability of farming, enhance natural pest control, boost yields, and reduce costs, thereby increasing profitability.

However, many traditional agricultural practices damage the very ecosystems on which they rely to function optimally. Intensive farming methods, such as extensive soil ploughing, inorganic fertiliser and pesticide use, damage fragile ecosystems over time, reducing yields, and thus often prompting even more intensive farming. This ultimately leads to land that is damaged beyond repair and no longer suitable for grazing or cropping farming.

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Animal Viruses Are Jumping to Humans. Forest Loss Makes It Easier

The destruction of forests into fragmented patches is increasing the likelihood that viruses and other pathogens will jump from wild animals to humans, according to a study from Stanford University published this month.

The research, which focused on contact between humans and primates in western Uganda, holds lessons for a world reeling from the coronavirus outbreak and searching for strategies to prevent the next global pandemic.

“Covid has taught us that once a pandemic starts, it’s very hard to control,” said Laura Bloomfield, a doctoral candidate at Stanford and the study’s lead author. “If we can decrease the potential for people to come into contact with wild animals, that is one way to decrease the likelihood of having recurrent pandemics.”

In Uganda, a rapidly growing population means more people are carving out patches of forest land to feed their families.

Humans have already claimed more than a third of the Earth’s land for agricultural use.

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Why Protecting Soil Carbon Is a Win-win for Farmers and the Planet

In 2019, a United Nations report laid out a bitter truth: The current food system is fueling the destruction of Earth’s forests — and humanity must overhaul how we grow and ship food to stop climate breakdown.

But countries are struggling to keep farming sustainable while meeting the mounting demand for production — which must increase by between 25 percent and 70 percent by 2050 to feed growing populations.

A groundbreaking new study reports that the secret to making this possible lies in the soil — or more specifically, in the carbon stored in the soil.

Conservation News spoke with Conservation International scientist Bronson Griscom, a co-author on the study, about the vast potential of soil to help halt climate change and why protecting soil carbon is a “win-win for farmers and the planet.”

Kiley Price: Let’s start at the beginning. How exactly does soil store carbon?

Bronson Griscom: Trees and plants suck up carbon from the air and use it to store energy and build their stems, leaves and roots.

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You’ve Heard of Offsetting, But What in the World Is Carbon Insetting?

These days, paying to plant trees or investing in green projects as a way to balance out your carbon emissions is a pretty standard method of easing your environmental conscience. Known as carbon offsetting, the process has spawned a thriving business making billions of euros every year as companies trade carbon credits to reach climate change goals.

You can now even offset to undo your own personal environmental damage, with airlines and organisations offering to help you take full responsibility for your residual emissions. For a small fee, of course. Increasingly, however, this sustainability solution has come under fire from activists as being little more than greenwashing. Critics have compared it to the practice of selling indulgences in the ancient Catholic church; you can live how you want as long as you have the money to buy off your sins.

What if, instead of making environmental protection a side issue, businesses made these kinds of carbon-absorbing projects a part of the new normal?

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Cows and Cropland to Help Save the Planet

The calls to shift to a plant-based diet to help mitigate climate change are getting louder. Farmer Daniel Slabbert and their supporters, however, look at it differently. They believe cows and cropland can help save the planet.

In South Africa, there are still plenty of grasslands or veld. Farmers such as Slabbert are practicing regenerative agriculture, farming, and grazing that rebuild soil organic matter and restores degraded soil biodiversity.

The practice, according to Slabbert, is just like trying to mimic nature. He rejuvenates the land by increasing the cattle herd. Herds are enclosed in a rectangular patch of grassland with a low-voltage wire. The herd consumes all the grasses they can find before the wire lifts, and they move to a new section as it replenishes the land. Eventually, crops are planted in the grazing area.

Cows contribute to 145 of all global emissions. A single cow, according to researchers at UC Davis, can belch around 220 pounds or approximately 100 kilograms of methane each year.

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A Green Reboot After the Pandemic

NEW YORK – The COVID-19 coronavirus has forced entire countries into lockdown mode, terrified citizens around the world, and triggered a financial-market meltdown. The pandemic demands a forceful, immediate response. But in managing the crisis, governments also must look to the long term. One prominent policy blueprint with a deep time horizon is the European Commission’s European Green Deal, which offers several ways to support the communities and businesses most at risk from the current crisis.

COVID-19 reflects a broader trend: more planetary crises are coming. If we muddle through each new crisis while maintaining the same economic model that got us here, future shocks will eventually exceed the capacity of governments, financial institutions, and corporate crisis managers to respond. Indeed, the “coronacrisis” has already done so.

The Club of Rome issued a similar warning in its famous 1972 report, The Limits to Growth, and again in Beyond the Limits, a 1992 book by the lead author of that earlier report, Donella Meadows.

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Restoring Soils Could Remove up to ‘5.5bn Tonnes’ of Greenhouse Gases Every Year

Replenishing and protecting the world’s soil carbon stores could help to offset up to 5.5bn tonnes of greenhouse gases every year, a study finds.

This is just under the current annual emissions of the US, the world’s second largest polluter after China.

Around 40 per cent of this carbon offsetting potential would come from protecting existing soil carbon stores in the world’s existing forests, peatlands and wetlands, the authors say.

In many parts of the world, such soil-based “natural climate solutions” could come with co-benefits for wildlife, food production and water retention, the lead author tells Carbon Brief.

Ground up

The top metre of the world’s soils contains three times as much carbon as the entire atmosphere, making it a major carbon sink alongside forests and oceans.

Soils play a key role in the carbon cycle by soaking up carbon from dead plant matter. Plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and this is passed to the ground when dead roots and leaves decompose.

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Activists Share Powerful Stories at Bangkok Climate Meeting

BANGKOK, Thailand – Days before the United Nations COP25 Climate Summit, Regeneration International took part in “The Inner Dimensions of Climate Change,” held at the UN building in Bangkok.

The event, organized by the Global Peace Initiative of Women and the Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Association, gathered young environmental activists from five continents. The activists came together with one common message: “If we want to reverse the current climate catastrophe, we must reconnect with nature.”

“The Inner Dimensions of Climate Change” kicked off without the usual science and policy experts who typically dominate the conversation at climate change conferences. Instead, it ceded the floor to youth activists working on a range of issues, including biodiversity, indigenous rights, gender equality, regenerative agriculture and deep ecology.

“Many of these activists often work alone and we think it’s important to bring these young people together to build a global trustworthy community where they can build on each and others’ knowledge and inspiration,” said Marianne Marstrand of the Global Peace Initiative of Women.

I attended the conference with my partner, Hsu Zin Maung, to share Regeneration International’s work around developing agricultural projects in Myanmar, and around promoting regenerative organic development worldwide.

We met with people of different faiths, cultures and realities—activists who are working in areas of the world where ideologies on environment and social justice are often new, and sometimes misunderstood, concepts.

All of these individuals shared powerful stories about what brought them to the role they embrace today. Here are just a few of the youth activists who inspired us that day:

Riddhi Shah (India)

Shah is 28 years old. She works in rural areas of southern India plagued with severe water scarcity. She launched a program across an entire region to build swales and channels to increase ground water seepage. After four years, her work lead to the replenishment of a dry lake that is now supporting a local community all year round.

Riddhi Shah, Activist Education in India

“To address the climate crisis, we just need to see how beautifully nature is being a facilitator and fall into its process,” Shah said.

But Shah doesn’t stop at land. Her passion for education and for linking social and environmental justice has led her to become one of India’s top philanthropical consultants. She has become an empowerment catalyst for regenerative projects all over India.

Ramphai Noikaew (Thailand)

Noikaew lives in a community at her Pun Pun Organic Farm located in Northern Thailand where she enjoys sharing her knowledge on seed saving and indigenous herbal medicines from the Mekong region.

She and her husband volunteer their time to educate people about organic farming, deep ecology, place-based living and community development. She recently launched an organic farmers market in Bangkok, where the Pun Pun farm community is expanding its knowledge.

“Climate change is happening and we have to change with it, so we grow diversity to ensure that whatever the climate ,we have something to fall back on when one crop fails,” Noikaew said. “And we teach people seed saving so that they know to use the seeds, and how to grow and share them.”

Ying Liang (China)

Ying Lian runs the Schumi Learning Garden (SLG) and Organic Farm, in Zhongshan, a traditional village at the foot of Wugui Mountain, in southern China. SLG is a transformative learning center for adults based on three pillars of education: Community living, Connection with self, others and nature, and Right Livelihood.

The center also serves as an incubator for community livelihood projects, such as a Weekend Farmers’ Market to revitalize the local economy.

“I am most inspired by forest eco-systems, where life flourishes and all elements nourish each other, where life and death are circular processes,” Liang said. “I am working to re-create this kind of system and to manifest it in human society to help enhance socio-ecological resilience.”

Gao Heran (China)

Heran is the founder of Citan Village Nature School in Hainan Province, China. This initiative, is designed to teach environmental and nature education programs and games to village children and urban families mainly coming from Beijing.

The focus of the curriculum is environmental stewardship, local biodiversity, nature conservation, permaculture practice in the field and village team building.

The school also organizes weekend village trips for city-based families to encourage rural-urban environmental educational exchanges and partnerships.

“We are nature but being in the city we often live like caged animals,” Heran said. “My work is to get city families out into the countryside, especially the younger generations.”

Crystal Foreman (USA)

Foreman is a certified permaculture designer and certified Baltimore City Gardener. She works to improve food justice, food sovereignty and organic food access.

Crystal Foreman, a certified permaculture designer and certified Baltimore City Gardener

Foreman teaches people how to cook healthy meals and how to use food they might not be familiar with, while working hand-in-hand with local organic growers and teaching people how to forage in both urban and rural areas.

Foreman recognizes we have the power to make environmental and societal changes by carefully choosing what we put on our plate.

“Food inequity, poor food quality and inhumane labor can be traced to conventional farming that causes extreme environmental harm,” Foreman said. “I want to teach people how to be self-sufficient with food choices. Teaching people how to live with the land and how the land can nurture us is very important to my mission.”

Inner Dimensions of Climate Change

Regeneration International took part in the Inner Dimensions of Climate Change, a global gathering of young climate leaders at the United Nations in Bangkok. Their message? If we want to avoid climate catastrophe, we must reconnect with nature.Video via Oliver Gardiner

Posted by Regeneration International on Friday, 10 January 2020

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

 

What If We Could Eat Our Way to a Healthier Planet?

Climate change, and related issues, dominate the headlines, our news feeds and infiltrate our daily conversations. It’s a critical problem that weighs heavily on our society, but research shows we might be able to eat our way out of the problem. That’s right, a promising solution is lying right beneath our feet — in the soil.

The practice of regenerative agriculture is an approach to farming that treats farms holistically, as part of whole ecosystems. Modern conventional farms segment crops into separate monocultures, which strips the soil of nutrients and releases stored carbon into the atmosphere. In contrast, regenerative agriculture draws carbon out of the air and into the soil while replenishing and nourishing the land. The result is more productive farms, healthier and more nutritious crops — and it might be the magic we need to fight climate change.

According to the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, increasing the level of carbon in soils by just 0.4% could halt the progress of climate change. Raising that level to 4% might actually reverse the damage done to our planet.

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Grassroots Rising — A Call to Change the World

In this interview, Ronnie Cummins, founder of the Organic Consumers Association, discusses his new book “Grassroots Rising: A Call to Action on Climate, Farming, Food and a Green New Deal.”

“Much of the book talks about how we need to transform our food and farming system, not only in the United States but worldwide, if we’re going to solve a lot of these problems that we’re seeing — environmental pollution, health problems, the climate crisis and the fact that we have so much poverty in rural areas …” Cummins says.

Regenerative Organic Farming Is the Answer to Many Problems

The transformation Cummins calls for is a transition to regenerative organic farming, which has the ability to solve many if not most of these problems simultaneously.

For example, one of the primary arguments for genetically engineered (GE) crops and foods was that it was going to solve world hunger. Reality, however, has demonstrated the massive flaws in this argument.

GE agriculture actually does the complete opposite, by destroying our soils and making food more toxic and less nutritious. Regenerative farming, on the other hand, has demonstrated its superiority with regard to yield and nutrition, all without the use of toxic chemicals. As noted by Cummins:

“The way we have traditionally grown food for the last 10,000 years and the way we’ve raised animals the last 20,000 or 30,000 years is really organic and pasture-based.

This wild experiment that industry unleashed on us since the second world war, using toxic chemicals, synthetic fertilizers, genetically engineered seeds and animal factory farms has proven to be a disaster, not just for the farmers, the animals and the land, but our public health has also suffered considerably.

Part of our long-term call to take charge of your health, take charge of your diet [is to] take charge of our environment and really our whole economic system [and] transform this degenerative food, farming and land use system into one that is organic and regenerative.”

Four Drivers of Change

In his book, Cummins details four major drivers of any given system, be it, as in this case, the degenerative system we currently have, or the regenerative system we would like to have:

  1. Education and awareness raising — This also includes putting the information into practice, meaning, every time you pull out your wallet, you’re considering whether your money is going to support a degenerative or regenerative system. True change comes when people act out their beliefs in the marketplace
  2. Innovation — This includes innovation of farmers, ranchers, people who take care of our forests and wetlands and people who are innovative in terms of educating the public
  3. Policy changes — This includes policy changes all the way from local school boards and park districts to the White House. At present, our policies favor corporate special interests like Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, Big Pharma and Wall Street. Once we get policies that support organics, regenerative agriculture and natural health, scaling these areas up will be much easier and faster
  4. Funding and investment — This includes both private investors and public monies

As noted by Cummins, “Education, innovation, policy [changes] and investment are the four things that drive this change of paradigm.” Change, however, is often slow, and one of the reasons Cummins wrote “Grassroots Rising” was to inspire optimism and hope.

“Obviously, we are still in a degenerative phase, but we can move out of this,” he says. “I think this year, 2020, is going to be the beginning of a pretty enormous global awakening.”

Scaling Best Practices 

Cummins is co-director of an organic research farm and conference center outside of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where he coordinates a regenerative agricultural system that integrates organic vegetable, seed and forage production with regenerative holistic management of poultry, sheep, goats and pigs. He and others are constantly on the lookout for best practices that can be successfully scaled up and implemented on millions of farms. Cummins explains:

“We have been, for 10 years, running a research and teaching farm [Via Organica] outside of San Miguel de Allende, right smack in the middle of Mexico. It’s the high desert area …

If you look at the statistics, 40% of the world’s surface is characterized as semi-arid or arid, and that’s the type of area we’re in here, so it’s not unusual for the global landscape …

What’s difficult as a farmer or rancher, if you live in the semi-arid or arid parts of the world, is that not only is rainfall seasonal and you don’t get a whole lot of it, but that it is almost impossible to raise crops on a lot of this terrain.

What people have done for hundreds of years is graze livestock on these degraded semi-arid, arid lands. The problem is that they have overgrazed much of this 40% of the world’s surface.”

Simple Innovations Can Solve Serious Problems

During one of Cummins’ workshops on organic compost, two local farmers approached him saying they’d developed a remarkably simple technique using the agave plant and mesquite trees to produce incredibly inexpensive yet nutritious animal fodder.

These two plants, which are naturally found clustered together in arid and semi-arid areas, do not require any irrigation, and the photosynthesis of the agave is among the highest in the entire world. It grows rapidly, producing massive amounts of biomass, and sequesters and stores enormous amounts of carbon, both above ground and below ground, while producing inexpensive, nutritious animal feed or forage and restoring the earth.

As noted by Cummins, the fact that agave plants and mesquite (or other nitrogen-fixing trees) grow together naturally is nature’s way to repair eroded landscapes. The roots of the mesquite tree can reach down to 125 feet, fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil, and absorbing minerals from deep in the ground.

Agave, meanwhile, adds huge amounts of biomass to the land every year, drawing down excess CO2 from the atmosphere. It pulls nitrogen and other minerals from the ground in order to support its rapid growth, but when grown next to a nitrogen-fixing tree, you’ve got a biodiverse system that will continue to grow and thrive on a continuous basis..

Fermented Agave Is an Inexpensive Animal Feed

The fermented agave animal feed produced in this system costs only 5 cents per kilo (2.2 pounds) to make. The key is fermentation. Raw agave leaves are unpalatable and hard to digest for animals because of their levels of saponins and lectins, but once fermented, they become digestible and attractive to the animals.

The fermentation also boosts the nutrition. I was so impressed with Cummins’ story that I harvested about 10 gallons of aloe plants and applied the process to see if it will convert to great food for my six chickens. A summary of the process is as follows:

  • Cut some of the lower agave leaves off the tree and crudely chop them up with a machete. One of the farmers, Juan Frias, invented a simple machine that grinds the leaf into what looks like coleslaw.
  • Place the cut-up agave leaf into a large bucket, tamping it down once filled half-way to remove oxygen. Continue filling the bucket to the top. Tamp down again and put a lid on it. (As explained further below, adding mesquite pods at an optimum rate of 20% will approximately double the protein content of the final product.)
  • Let it set for 30 days. The fermentation process turns the saponins and lectins into natural sugars and carbs. The final mash will stay fresh for up to two years.

Cummins and other Mexican organic farmers have tested the agave forgage on a variety of animals, including sheep, goats, chickens and pigs, all of which love it.

“The importance of this is, first of all, if you’re a small farmer, you can’t afford alfalfa, and you can’t afford hay during the dry season. It’s too expensive … It makes eggs and meat too expensive in the marketplace for people to buy.

When you start looking at … reducing feed costs by 50%, or even three quarters with this stuff that costs a nickel or a dime, then I don’t need to overgraze my animals. They’d still graze because it’s good for them … but you wouldn’t have to have them outdoors every day, overgrazing on pastures that are not in good shape.

This is pretty amazing stuff … Lab analysis of just the fermented agave [shows] it’s about 5% to 9% protein, which is pretty good. Alfalfa is more like 16% to 18%.

What these farmers, who are also retired scientists, figured out is if you put 20% mesquite in your fermentation, the pods of the mesquite trees, it’ll shoot the protein level up to about 18% — about the same as alfalfa.

There’s a lot of other things too that make it better than alfalfa. One of the things about alfalfa is it takes a lot of water … The agave plant uses one-twenty-sixth the amount of water to produce a gram of biomass as alfalfa.

These desert plants have evolved over millions of years to utilize water and moisture in a really efficient way … The opening in the leaves, called the stomata … only opens at night, after sunset.

These plants literally suck the moisture out of the air all night long, and then when daybreak comes, the stomata closes up … They can go years with no rain, and they can survive pretty harsh temperatures … [and] there’s not one chemical required in this whole process. This whole process is inherently organic.”

Added Benefits

An organic certifier is now evaluating one of the operations using this agave feed process, which may go a long way toward creating less expensive organics. For example, rather than spending 45 cents per kilo for organic chicken feed, chicken farmers can cut that down to between 5 and 10 cents per kilo.

In the end, that will make organic free-range chicken and eggs far more affordable for the average consumer. Ditto for pork, sheep and goat products.

Additional benefits include improved immune function in the animals — similar to that seen in humans eating a lot of fermented foods. What’s more, about 50% of the fermented agave feed is water, which means the animals don’t need to be watered as much.

Cummins and other organic farm advocates are now trying to convince the Mexican reforestation program to get involved as well. This would solve several problems. First, it’s difficult to reforest in arid climates, which includes 60% of Mexico, as even mesquite trees need water in their first stage of development until they’re established. Growing agave in locations in areas that already have mesquite or other nitrogen-fixing trees would speed the process and lower the water demands.

Secondly, growing agave and mesquite together for reforestation purposes, while incorporating facilities to create fermented agave feed for sale, farmers who aren’t willing to grow their own can still benefit from this inexpensive feed alternative. Thirdly, such a project would also help reduce rural poverty, which is what’s driving immigration into the U.S.

“If people weren’t so darn poor, which leads back to if they didn’t live in such dry, degraded landscapes, they wouldn’t be seeking to come to the U.S. except for a visit,” Cummins says.

“We can solve this immigration problem. We can solve this problem of rural poverty. Many of these small farmers, they can’t even afford to eat their own animal, like the lamb, on a regular basis.

They have it for celebrations, but they should be able to eat lamb burgers on a regular basis in the rural countryside. Now, they will be able to. In the long run, if we restore the landscape, things like corn, beans and squash will grow again …”

Yet another little cottage industry is also starting to grow around agave. Its fibers are very strong, so people are now starting to make lightweight construction blocks or bricks from it.

Lastly, Cummins estimates that with 2.5 million agave plants planted on 30,000 acres over the next decade, they’ll be able to eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions created by San Miguel county right now.

More Information

To learn more about how regenerative agriculture can help solve many of the problems facing the world right now, be sure to pick up a copy of “Grassroots Rising: A Call to Action on Climate, Farming, Food and a Green New Deal.”

“This regenerative practice in dry lands is a game changer,” Cummins says. “There are practices in wetlands and in the global North, [where] we’re already seeing things like a holistic management of livestock and biointensive organic practices.

It’s all these practices together — the best practices from the different parts of the world, different ecosystems — that are going to make a difference.

It’s you the consumer, it’s you the reader, that needs to spread these good news messages, and I hope you’ll consider buying a copy of my new book, ‘Grassroots Rising,’ where I try to paint a roadmap of how we can regenerate the world’s landscapes as quickly as possible so that we can get back to enjoying life.”

Reposted with permission from Mercola.com