An Apple Shows Just How Broken Our Food System Is

Author: Otto Scharmer | Published: May 27, 2018

Buying and eating apples seems a pretty healthy thing to do. But a new study has found that every 1 kilo (2.2 pounds) of conventionally grown apples creates health effects costing 21 cents due to the effects of pesticides and fungicides, resulting in sick leave and eventually shorter life expectancies.

The study, from the Dutch organization Soil & More Impacts, to be published at the end of May, highlights a key problem: The price you pay for apples in the store doesn’t cover the hidden costs of producing them. Instead, these are paid for by society — through the ever-increasing costs of health care and health insurance.

The apple example is not an outlier; it’s indicative of the bigger picture. Agriculture is the world’s largest industry, with 1 billion people engaged in farming worldwide. Pasture and cropland use about 50 percent of the earth’s habitable land. Agriculture also is one of the worst-polluting industries on the planet — even though it could be one of the most powerful forces for good.

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17 Organizations Promoting Regenerative Agriculture Around the Globe

Author: Eva Perroni | Published: May 15, 2018

Transitioning to more sustainable forms of agriculture remains critical, as many current agriculture practices have serious consequences including deforestation and soil degradation. But despite agriculture’s enormous potential to hurt the environment, it also has enormous potential to heal it. Realizing this, many organizations are promoting regenerative agriculture as a way to not just grow food but to progressively improve ecosystems.

Drawing from decades of research, regenerative agriculture uses farming principles designed to mimic nature. To build healthy soils and fertile, thriving agro-ecosystems, this approach incorporates a range of practices like agroforestry and well-managed grazing. Benefits of these practices include richer soil, healthier water systems, increased biodiversity, climate change resilience, and stronger farming communities.

To celebrate the ongoing work of individuals and organizations dedicated to healing agro-ecosystems around the globe, Food Tank is highlighting these 17 organizations building a global grassroots movement for better agriculture.

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Grow Life in the Soil

The need is critical to grow more life in the soil, and it starts by treating it as you would your own body.

Author: Raylene Nickel | Published: May 16, 2018

Soil is filled with living, breathing, hardworking creatures – it’s a natural commodity more important than any cash crop. When soil is alive, it’s teaming with macro- and microorganisms, ranging the gamut from highly visible beetles and worms to microscopic viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Each of these soil citizens provides a service to the healthful functioning of the broader community.

Having lots of healthy and diverse organisms in the soil creates a self-sufficient cropping system that becomes less dependent upon synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

The system itself produces fertility for robust plant growth, resistance to pests, and water-stable soil aggregates that enhance soil porosity to permit rapid water infiltration and to resist erosion.

In a nutshell, such a system produces resilient crops. In today’s uncertainty of climate, the need for plant resilience is growing more urgent by the day.

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Turning Desert to Fertile Farmland on the Loess Plateau

Soil is not just dirt but a living system with many important functions. Degraded soils impact on food production, erosion, and more, affecting the lives of people around the world. Restoration efforts in China, Zambia and other countries seek to reverse this trend.

Author: Richard Blaustein | Published: April 5, 2018

Around 3,000 years ago, farmers settled on the fertile Loess Plateau in western China, a region about the size of France. By the 7th century, the rich soils were feeding about one quarter of the Chinese population. But intense pressure on the land eroded the soil. By the 20th century, desertification had condemned the remaining population to poverty. “It was a desperate place,” says Juergen Voegele, an agricultural economist and engineer at the World Bank who first visited the region in the mid-1980s. But that would soon change.

Voegele returned in the 1990s to lead a major 12-year World Bank project to help restore dirt to healthy soils on a vast scale. “This was absolute desert. A few years later the whole thing came back,” he says. “We saw birds, butterflies, insects – the whole ecosystem began to recover. Even after hundreds of years of complete devastation, the seeds were still in the ground and things began to happen very quickly. We did not expect that.”

By 2009, and the programme’s end, approximately 920,000 hectares had been restored of the 65,000,000-hectare region in western China. But elsewhere in China and around the world, soils are still suffering.

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Mesquite in Mexico: The Renaissance of an Ancestral Staple Crop in a Time of Climate Change

Probably no other plant has played such a vital role in the ecologies, and among the human populations of the arid and semiarid regions of Mexico and the US, as the multifunctional mesquite tree. This extremely resilient and adaptable tree has a rich ethnobotanical history and holds great potential to become a major staple food crop for drylands throughout the world, while supporting climate change mitigation efforts and providing food security in the face of desertification, water stress, and climatic instability.

The Ecology of Mesquite

Mesquite is a nitrogen-fixing member of the legume family in the genus Prosopis. This genus includes around 44 species, distributed mainly throughout the Americas with a few species from Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent. Some species native to the American continent are now naturalized around the world after being introduced either as a source of livestock fodder or as part of erosion control programs.

Old mesquite tree (P. laevigata) in the middle of a recently abandoned field in Mexico

The wide climatic range of Prosopis extends from fully tropical to warm temperate. Most species are able to thrive in extremely high temperatures and some of them can withstand temperatures as low as -20° C (-4° F).

With roots that can reach up to 50 meters (164 feet) deep and that are colonized by nitrogen-fixing bacteria and symbiotic fungal allies, mesquite has an extraordinary ability to thrive in very harsh environments and withstand long periods of drought. In general, Prosopis can thrive in regions that receive as little as 9-12″ of average rainfall, although when other sources of moisture are available, it can grow in hyper-arid regions that receive virtually no rainfall like the Atacama Desert or the Arabian Peninsula.

This multipurpose nitrogen-fixing tree is able to grow in extremely degraded soils and can tolerate alkaline soils with a pH as high as 11. In some extreme cases, like on the semiarid Pacific coast of Mexico, Prosopis juliflora grows right on the shore of coastal saltwater marshes.

The pods and leaves of most Prosopis species, both containing a high percentage of protein and other essential nutrients, provide a vital source of food for wildlife. Mesquite is also considered a nurse plant in the ecosystems where it grows, since many native plants are only able to establish under the microclimate that the mesquite provides.

The presence of mesquite and the leaf litter that it produces helps to increase soil fertility and lowers salinity. Soil particles and debris of organic matter are usually retained and fixed by its roots giving Prosopis an important role in erosion control. Studies done by Richard Felger, a world Prosopis expert, estimate that some species of mesquite can sequester as much as 1.2 to 8.94 tons/ hectare/year of carbon, depending on the climate and the soil type.

Traditional and Current Uses of Mesquite

The highly nutritious and sweet pods of the mesquite have been one of the most important staple foods of the native peoples of the Americas for thousands of years before corn was domesticated. The oldest archeological evidence of the use of mesquite as food dates from 6,500 BCE from the Tehuacan Valley in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Pod/seed selection from superior wild P. laevigata trees for propagation and further genetic improvement.

The fruit produced by Prosopis species are legume pods which contain, depending on the species, 7-22% protein, 11-35% soluble fiber, and as much as 41% sugar content. The sugar is mostly fructose, which humans can process without insulin. The mesquite pods have a low- glycemic index and contain lysine and other essential amino acids. They are also a good source of potassium, manganese, and zinc. Studies done by Richard Felger, estimate that one hectare of mesquite can yield between 2-10 tons of fresh pods, depending on climate and species.

During the harvesting season, indigenous people would gather huge quantities of pods. Fresh pods were commonly chewed, and are still consumed raw by children in rural areas of Mexico. The majority of the harvest was either sun-dried or roasted on hot coals. The pods were then ground into a meal using mortars and pestles or large wooden poles. This meal was sometimes sprinkled with water to make dense cakes that, once dry, could last indefinitely, providing vital sustenance during times of drought. The meal was also mixed with water to make a refreshing sweet drink or was fermented slightly.

Apart from being a prime source of food, native populations used the mesquite wood for fuel, tools, and construction, and a variety of plant parts were used in medicine.

Few native populations in northern Mexico and the southwestern US still rely on mesquite as a source of food. Human uses of processed pods have declined and traditional knowledge about the processing and consumption of the pods has, for the most part, been forgotten. This was a result of cultural colonization and the introduction of alternative foods like wheat, oats, and barley, as well as the widespread deforestation of mesquite savannas and woodlands that came with land clearance for agriculture, industrialization, and mining.

The main present use of Prosopis worldwide is for fuel. In many arid regions, where few other trees grow, mesquite is often the most important source of firewood for rural populations. An important industry exists in both Mexico and the US around the production of mesquite charcoal for barbecues and smoke wood.

Mesquite wood is commonly used for high-end rustic furniture and cabinets. Although the felling and milling of mesquite is now under regulation in Mexico, illegal logging keeps pressure on the few last stands of old growth trees and sustainable forestry programs involving mesquite are virtually non-existent.

The flowers of Mesquite are an abundant and high-quality source of nectar and pollen for apiculture in all regions where species are native and, in several areas, where it has been naturalized. A good example of this is Hawaii, where one of the world’s most expensive gourmet honeys, Kiawe white honey, is produced from the flowers of the introduced Prosopis pallida. Mexico, the world’s largest exporter of honey, also derives much of its production from the 9 species of Prosopis that grow there.

Honeybee foraging a mesquite flower during the dry season.

Mesquite is also known for its value as an animal fodder. The palatable leaves contain between 11-18 % crude protein and the trees maintain green foliage when most other vegetation has dried out. The pods also constitute a significant source of feed for grazing animals. Since the seeds germinate readily after passing through the digestive tract of grazing animals, these animals provide the most important means of mesquite propagation. In many regions of Mexico, mesquite pods are harvested, stored then sold as animal fodder in the drier months of the year.

The Mesquite Renaissance in the Central Mexican Plateau

In 2016 I co-founded the Mexquitl project with the objective of starting a regional mesquite flour operation that would support the renaissance of mesquite as an ecologically and culturally appropriate staple food.

The fresh pods are wildcrafted by local communities that conserve some of the last healthy stands of mesquite woodlands in the area. The pods are selected and hand- harvested straight from the trees by women who get paid the equivalent of $1.40 USD per Kg of fresh pods. As a reference, the current price of mesquite pods for livestock fodder in the region is around $0.16 USD/Kg and the price of corn around $0.22 USD/Kg. As an incentive for these women to bring back mesquite into their own diets, we offer free milling of unlimited amounts of pods for self-consumption.

Pods being sundried for 2-3 days on corrugated metal sheets.

All the harvest goes through a full inspection to make sure all pods are free from mold before they are spread on sheets of corrugated metal to be sun-dried for 2-3 days. During the drying process, the pods are stored in airtight containers overnight as well as during cloudy weather. Once fully dried, pods can be stored safely until milling time.

 

The dried mesquite pods are passed twice through the hammer mill using two different mesh sizes in order to come up with a fine flour texture. We then package and label the flour before it is sold at health food stores in central Mexico.

Portable hammer mill run by a 12 HP gasoline engine used for mesquite flour production.

One of the project’s goals is the creation of a cookbook in Spanish that will include traditional and new recipes that highlight the unique flavor of mesquite, such as tortillas, tamales, bread, cookies, waffles, ice cream, etc. For English speakers, I highly recommend the Eat Mesquite and More cookbook published by Desert Harvesters. The work of this Tucson- based non-profit has been a great inspiration for us.

To promote the edible uses of mesquite and the planting of mesquite trees in the agricultural landscape, we’ve been hosting community workshops and mesquite milling events at different locations in the region. Sharing information about the benefits of integrating mesquite into the diet and creating a local demand of the products is a critical step to achieve the widespread utilization of mesquite as a staple crop.

With the support of Via Organica, a Mexican non-profit organization that promotes regenerative organic agriculture practices, and the Organic Consumers Association in the US, we began working on the design of the first agroforestry system managed for the production of mesquite pods and their processing into flour and other value-added products. The main objective of the project is to showcase and test the agricultural potential of this high-yielding, drought tolerant perennial crop.

This pioneering project is being implemented at the Via Organica Ranch, an inspiring educational center located in the San Miguel de Allende region that hosts a wide range of educational experiences and receives visitors from around the world. The ranch is located in a subtropical, semi-arid region that receives between 480-580 mm (19-23 inches) of annual rainfall. Via Organica recently acquired the 5.5 hectares where the agroforestry system is being implemented. The land has severely degraded soils due to many years of overgrazing by cattle.

Around 650 mesquite seedlings of Prosopis laevigata were propagated on site from selected seeds that came from local wild trees that were superior in terms of annual yield, early maturation, pod sweetness, and pod size. The seedlings were grown in deep forestry tubes that promote healthy tap roots.

Mesquite seedlings planted along a rock terrace follosing a Keyline pattern with chiken wire to protect them from rabbits.

The layout of the agroforestry system is based on rock terraces placed 85′ apart, following a Keyline pattern that enables equidistance between rows, minimizes runoff, and distributes humidity throughout the site. The trees were planted along the rock terraces at different spacings between 4 to 6 meters (13-20′ in) order to find the most efficient spacing for the region. Inside each row, mesquite was interplanted in different combinations with other drought tolerant crops, including: maguey (Agave salmiana), nopal (Opuntia ficus-Indica), jujube (Ziziphus jujuba) and goji (Lycium chinensis). The savanna-style silvopastoral area in between rows includes wide spaced trees of sweet acacia (Acacia Farnesiana), palo dulce (Eysenhardtia polystachya), native oaks (Quercus spp.) and carob (Ceratonia siliqua).

This project is a first step in making mesquite a food crop of commercial importance at a regional level. Much work needs to be done in terms of developing improved mesquite cultivars and more efficient small-scale harvest and post-harvest processing techniques.

Selected seedlings emerging from the forestry tubes with substrate inoculated with mycorrhizal fungi and native rhizobium bacteria.

Arid and semiarid regions occupy around 60% of Mexico’s territory, this model will be a living example of how this high-yielding and reliable perennial crop can be a key component in creating agricultural systems that can regenerate degraded lands and sequester atmospheric carbon, while creating economic opportunities and feeding people in the face of climate instability and water stress.

 

Gerardo Ruiz Smith’s work is mostly focused on the research and propagation of drought tolerant perennial crops and design of agroforestry and silvopastoral systems that help regenerate degraded lands, restore the water balance, sequester atmospheric carbon, support the local economies, and strengthen food security for the people who live in arid and semi-arid regions of Mexico. Email gruizsmith@gmail.com.

This article was originally published in Permaculture Magazine North America Issue 08.

The Lush Spring Prize Celebrates Social and Environmental Regeneration

The £200,00 prize fund redefines what environmental and social responsibility should look like.

Author: Katherine Martinko | Published: April 26, 2018

‘Sustainable’ is an appealing yet complicated word. Since its definition is not officially regulated, any business or organization can describe its product or service as sustainable without being held accountable. This has resulted in a great deal of greenwashing, making things out to be more eco-friendly than they are.

At the same time, however, there are many wonderful organizations that model sustainability at its finest, working to develop systems that meet present-day needs without compromising the abilities of future generations to support themselves. This is good, except that it fails to address the problem of damage already done. For instance, a sustainable food production system could operate on degraded land, but that doesn’t mean the land will ever be improved or brought back to a biologically diverse state.

Enter the concept of regeneration, which some experts are hoping will replace sustainability as the buzzword of the future. Regeneration is sustainability taken a step further. Regenerative systems strive not only to do no harm, but also to improve their social, environmental, and economic contexts. In other words, they leave behind a better world.

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EU Agrees Total Ban on Bee-Harming Pesticides

The world’s most widely used insecticides will be banned from all fields within six months, to protect both wild and honeybees that are vital to crop pollination

Author: Damian Carrington | Published: April 27, 2018

The European Union will ban the world’s most widely used insecticides from all fields due to the serious danger they pose to bees.

The ban on neonicotinoids, approved by member nations on Friday, is expected to come into force by the end of 2018 and will mean they can only be used in closed greenhouses.

Bees and other insects are vital for global food production as they pollinate three-quarters of all crops. The plummeting numbers of pollinators in recent years has been blamed, in part, on the widespread use of pesticides. The EU banned the use of neonicotinoids on flowering crops that attract bees, such as oil seed rape, in 2013.

But in February, a major report from the European Union’s scientific risk assessors(Efsa) concluded that the high risk to both honeybees and wild bees resulted from any outdoor use, because the pesticides contaminate soil and water. This leads to the pesticides appearing in wildflowers or succeeding crops. A recent study of honey samples revealed global contamination by neonicotinoids.

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Native Knowledge: What Ecologists Are Learning from Indigenous People

From Alaska to Australia, scientists are turning to the knowledge of traditional people for a deeper understanding of the natural world. What they are learning is helping them discover more about everything from melting Arctic ice, to protecting fish stocks, to controlling wildfires.

Author: Jim Robbins | Published: April 26, 2018

While he was interviewing Inuit elders in Alaska to find out more about their knowledge of beluga whales and how the mammals might respond to the changing Arctic, researcher Henry Huntington lost track of the conversation as the hunters suddenly switched from the subject of belugas to beavers.

It turned out though, that the hunters were still really talking about whales. There had been an increase in beaver populations, they explained, which had reduced spawning habitat for salmon and other fish, which meant less prey for the belugas and so fewer whales.

“It was a more holistic view of the ecosystem,” said Huntington. And an important tip for whale researchers. “It would be pretty rare for someone studying belugas to be thinking about freshwater ecology.”

Around the globe, researchers are turning to what is known as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) to fill out an understanding of the natural world. TEK is deep knowledge of a place that has been painstakingly discovered by those who have adapted to it over thousands of years. “People have relied on this detailed knowledge for their survival,” Huntington and a colleague wrote in an article on the subject. “They have literally staked their lives on its accuracy and repeatability.”

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Beyond Organic: How Brands Can Be Active Players in Restoring Soil Health and Climate Change Mitigation

To boost sustainability, natural foods brands and retailers have focused on reducing energy consumption, using recycled and recyclable materials—but what about farms and soil? A partnership between small farmers and Annie’s has demonstrated what supply chain relationships could look like in a more sustainable, soil-friendly future.

Published: March 30, 2018

“Do you understand the barriers for the farmers and are you willing to help them?”

Erin Sojourner Agostinelli, Demeter

Part 1: Regenerative agriculture: an overview

Highlights from Erin Sojourner Agostinelli of Demeter:

  • Soil quality brings us the nutrition density we need in food.
  • Bringing regenerative agriculture into the industry involves finding resolution between two attitudes toward timing: You have to be patient and willing to deal with biological timing, but also satisfy the demands of the market, which may want products on shelves tomorrow.
  • Questions for brands to evaluate if you want to support regenerative agriculture: Do you know the farms where your ingredients come from; what are the steps you can take to help educate the farmer on the different certifications and tools available; do you understand the barriers facing the farmers and are you willing to help them? And if you can’t trace back where your materials come from or aren’t willing to influence or engage with the farmer, are you willing to go look for raw materials elsewhere and continually invest in your supply chain?
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Dr. Bronner’s Aims to ‘Heal Earth!’ Through Regenerative Agriculture

Author: Simon Pitman | Published: April 11, 2018

Regenerative agriculture is not exactly a buzz word quite yet, but it is certainly one to watch, and Dr. Bronner’s, known for its natural soaps, is now playing a big part in raising the profile of this vital movement.

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