To Feed the World Sustainably, Repair the Soil

A reconceived farming system can rapidly improve fertility without chemical fertilizers, and without sacrificing crop yields

Author: David R. Montgomery | Published: July 16, 2018

New technologies and genetically modified crops are usually invoked as the key to feeding the world’s growing population. But a widely overlooked opportunity lies in reversing the soil degradation that has already taken something like a third of global farmland out of production. Simple changes in conventional farming practices offer opportunities to advance humanity’s most neglected natural infrastructure project—returning health to the soil that grows our food.

It is critical we do so. In 2015, a U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization report concluded that ongoing soil degradation reduces global harvests by a third of a percent each year under conventional farming practices. In some parts of the U.S. I’ve visited, the rich black topsoil that settlers once plowed is gone, eroded away leaving farmers tilling anemic subsoil.

And while mechanization, agrochemicals, and the Green Revolution transformed agriculture and boosted crop yields in the 20th century, they also delivered another unexpected downside. The combination of highly disruptive mechanized tillage and heavy fertilizer use took a toll on soil organic matter and beneficial soil life even as it masked the effects of degraded fertility by pumping up crop yields. So far, America’s farms have lost about half their soil organic matter since colonial days.


An Open Goal: Why Forests and Nature Need to Be at the Center of the Sustainable Development Agenda

Author: Alistair Monument and Hermine Kleymann | Published: July 9, 2018

In fewer than 900 days, the world will have halted deforestation, taken urgent action to halt the loss of biodiversity, and ensured that ecosystems are being conserved, restored and sustainably used.

That, at least, is part of what the governments of the 193 countries of the United Nations agreed to in 2015 with the adoption of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The above commitments are just a few of the targets due to be achieved by 2020 under SDG 15, ‘Life on Land.’

So how is it going? Not too well, unfortunately. Recently released figures show that, far from being halted, global tree cover loss actually increased by 51% in 2016; for tropical tree cover loss, 2017 was the second-worst year on record. And with wildlife abundance projected to decline by two-thirds between 1970 and 2020, dramatic changes will be needed to reverse the long-term trend.

This should set alarm bells ringing. Failure to meet these targets wouldn’t simply be a setback towards achieving SDG 15. It would also threaten our ability to meet the other SDGs – which are closely linked to targets set out for Life on Land – and undermine the very foundation of sustainable development.


How This Soap Company Is Changing the World

Author: Ana-Christina Gaeta | Published: July 2018

Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps company (known as Dr. Bronner’s) is doing more than producing natural soaps. The company is also supporting the regenerative agriculture movement worldwide.

Dr. Bronner’s has been internationally recognized for using organic ingredients in their products, and for their commitment to social responsibility. But over the last 10 years, the company expanded its mission to include sourcing raw materials from certified Fair Trade and Organic (FTO) producers. Since 2006, Dr. Bronner’s has built five vertically integrated commercial FTO supply projects comprising of locally managed smallholder farms in Sri Lanka, Kenya, Samoa, and India, growing coconuts, palm oils and mint oils.

Finding the right location and farmer for each project was serendipitous, a sentiment that is now reflected in the name of each local company as well as the umbrella organization, Serendiworld, LLC.  The local projects include Serendipol in Sri Lanka, Serendipalm in Ghana, SerendiCoco Samoa in Samoa, SerendiKenya in Kenya and Serendimenthe in India. The Kenya and India projects have since been transferred to different partners, but they continue to collaborate with Dr. Bronner’s. Dr. Gero Leson, Vice President of Special Operations and Doctor of Environmental Science and Engineering, explains that the inspiration behind the names for each project came from “the Arab name for Sri Lanka, Serendip, which means jewel. But in English, serendipity signifies coming across something by good fortune, and not by plan, which is the theme of all of our projects because we found them by chance. We were always looking for partners who were competent, but the actual location of the projects always came to us by serendipity.”

Harvesting of peppermint leaves at organic and fair trade mint oil project in Uttar Pradesh, India. Photo courtesy of Dr. Bronner’s.


According to Leson, the company’s initial motivation to shift to organic raw materials in 2003 stemmed from concerns that farmers and farm workers were exposed to pesticides and other unsafe working conditions. By 2005 they realized that buying organic materials was not sufficient because it did not provide adequate transparency about the social conditions involved in farming and processing. The company felt it needed to be directly involved in the production process, Leson says, to impact the livelihoods of workers in their supply chain. It was also the only way to guarantee a reliable source of raw materials with high ecological and social standards. Leson says that with this initiative, “at the very least you knew where your raw materials came from.”

When the collaborations between Dr. Bronner’s and the local farmers first began, not only were FTO practices non-existent in these regions, but the use of pesticides was prevalent, labor conditions were poor, crop prices were low, and workers were paid unfair wages, says Leson. Dr. Bronner’s first introduced the benefits of FTO practice to these regional farmers. As Dr. Leson confirms, it has “taken twelve years to get here.” Since then, Dr. Bronner’s has developed close relationships with other FTO projects, such as Canaan Fair Trade, its supplier of FTO olive oil since 2006.

Harvesting and transportation of harvested oil palm fruit bunch. Photo courtesy of Rapunzel.


Dr. Bronner’s is leveraging the success of the Serendiworld projects to work towards strengthening other FTO markets. Leson says, “our concept is to help build projects and then step back. Several of our Serendi projects don’t only sell to Dr. Bronner’s, but also sell to companies like Rapunzel, Germany’s largest organic brand, and to GEPA, Germany’s largest fair trade brand. We want [the local companies] to have an impact, be able to scale, and naturally, have other customers.”

Serendiworld has been providing Rapunzel with palm oil to use in their chocolate spreads and Dr. Bronner’s is helping to create additional markets that support FTO farming techniques for more controversial products, such as palm oil. The company is practicing what is called, “dynamic agroforestry,” which grows palm oil without exacerbating deforestation. After 30 years of pineapple production in the Ivory Coast, a reforestation project applied this technique to reforest land that had been degraded using unsustainable techniques. This project planted crops such as cocoa, cashew nuts, palm oil, rubber, fruit, and timber trees together on the same 60-hectare plot of land. Within a few seasons, the health of the soil was completely restored. It is now expected to generate even higher yields compared to their previous strategy of monoculture planting.

Mixed agroforestry plot, 1-year-old, including oil palm, cocoa, bananas and others in Ghana. Photo courtesy of Dr. Bronners.


Agroecology and regenerative agriculture are increasingly important to Dr. Bronner’s for their valuable role in improving soil fertility and for addressing climate change through increasing agricultural resilience. According to Leson, droughts pose the most detrimental climatic threat to the Serendiworld projects. In Sri Lanka, significant droughts occur every three years, causing productivity to drop up to 50 percent, and in 2017, Kenya experienced a 50 percent loss in productivity due to drought conditions. “There have always been droughts. They are probably getting worse or less predictable. Do I know for sure? No. But is it worth taking protective measures? Yes. Absolutely. And that’s where regenerative agriculture comes in,” Leson says. He explains that re-establishing the quality of the soil can increase its capacity to retain moisture which makes crops more resilient to catastrophic events, such as extended periods of drought.

All of Dr. Bronner’s products rely on four main crops: coconut, palm, olive, and mint, accounting for 90 percent of the company’s use of raw materials. They use smaller quantities of numerous other ingredients, which they procure from other companies that also apply FTO practices including Lavandin farmers in France, tea tree farmers in South Africa, and sugar producers in South America. Leson affirms “We won’t just stop with our raw materials, we will continue looking at minor ingredients, and at ways to promote more regenerative agriculture and fair trade conditions on the ground.”

Serendiworld is currently exploring the potential of incorporating cacao into its existing coconut oil project in Samoa. When asked about how this came about, Leson explains that this “was just serendipity, as usual.” It happened that many of their palm oil growers in Ghana also grow cocoa on separate plots of land, but previously they were using free pesticides supplied by the government. The farmers approached Dr. Bronner’s and asked for their support in transitioning to FTO practices, which inspired the collaboration. At the same time, a customer expressed interest in diversifying its supply of organic cocoa beans to West Africa and “then it just expanded from there to a point where now Dr. Bronner’s is thinking, maybe we should make chocolate one of these days,” explains Leson, “since Samoa used to be a major source of cocoa, we then decided to extend the concept of dynamic agroforestry, with coconuts and cocoa as main crops, to that country.”

Leson recognizes that “what we [Dr. Bronner’s] do is almost crazy,” and understands “that for many companies of our size it is a little too much” of a challenge to replicate. However, he reassures that there are many things companies can do to be more socially responsible without procuring their own raw materials. He encourages other companies to learn more about their supply chains and to select suppliers that are ecologically and socially minded. “At the very least, look at where your raw materials come from and not just whether it’s fair trade and organic. Often, organic means nothing. Actually, engage with the supplier, see where you can support them, scrutinize them, and make sure that what they do is real. Also, cooperate with other socially conscious companies and pool your purchasing power to improve conditions on the ground. I believe that it’s something that more and more companies in the natural product sector can do and should do.”

This article is reposted with permission from Food Tank.

‘Soil My Undies’ Challenge Has Farmers Burying Underwear In Their Fields

Across North America, farmers are burying tighty-whities in their fields.

Author: Dan Nosowitz | Published: July 9, 2018

Started by the Farmers Guild in California, the Soil Your Undies Challenge is a test designed to show the power and importance of healthy soil.

The Challenge is easy: Simply bury a pair of 100 percent cotton underwear—generally white briefs have been the garment of choice—in your farm, garden, or pasture. Two months later, dig them up and inspect and document the changes.

Healthy soil contains all sorts of bacteria, earthworms, fungi, and other little organisms that like to eat organic matter, like, just for example, cotton underwear. In two months, underwear buried in healthy soil will be completely eaten through, leaving little but an elastic waistband.


Restoring Degraded Landscapes in Niger with Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration

Author: Cathy Watson | Published: June 29, 2018

Farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR) of trees made headlines several years ago when 5 million hectares of Niger were found to have re-greened via the practice. FMNR is the encouragement of regeneration (and then management) of trees and shrubs that sprout from stumps, roots, and seeds found in degraded soils, such as those currently under agricultural production. Once established in farm fields, these new woody plants improve soil fertility and moisture for crops planted in combination with them, in a system known as agroforestry.

The news from Niger provided hope that a low-tech and low-cost approach could succeed after many years of failed tree planting efforts. Researchers crowded in and found that FMNR increased grain yields by 30%, boosted incomes, and was climate smart.

But a decade later, two scientists from Burkina Faso associated with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) are still drilling down into the data.

Dr. Jules Bayala is Chief Scientist for the Sahel and Dr Patrice Sawadogo is a senior scientist. Cathy Watson, Chief of Programme Development at ICRAF, interviewed them for Mongabay about trees, soil carbon, and productivity to discuss whether FMNR is the fastest way to restore degraded landscapes, and if it has utility beyond drylands.

Cathy Watson: Why are you studying FMNR?

Patrice Savadogo: Since childhood I’d seen farmers regenerate trees. Then, when I grew up, experts claimed that FMNR is climate smart. Yet in the literature, we didn’t have sound evidence. I wanted to build scientific knowledge.

A farmer removes side stems from a Guiera senegalensis, the first step in encouraging the strong central stem to take advantage of the root system. Photo courtesy of ICRAF/P. Savadogo


Jules Bayala: FMNR had been practiced in Niger for quite some years. Yet nobody had assessed it systematically. We knew it was good, but by how much? Our idea was to be neutral.

Cathy Watson: You wanted more than positive stories. What else?

Patrice Savadogo: Well, we already knew that the most important thing that trees can do in the Sahel to sustain soil productivity is to improve soil carbon because that improves soil structure. The soil stays moist longer and that increases the ability of cereals to take up nutrients. So, we wanted to look at FMNR and carbon sequestration in trees and carbon accumulation in the soil.

Cathy Watson: And how have you been doing this?

Jules Bayala: Earlier studies used classes of adopters – people who adopted FMNR 15, 10, five years ago and those who had not adopted. So, we divided 160 farmers into those classes and sampled soil from the trunks of trees to the open area where we expected no tree effect.

Patrice Savadogo: We calculated above ground carbon by inventorying the species and numbers of trees and measuring the diameter of the stem and crown. To see what is going on below ground, we sampled soil to one meter deep.

At the World Agroforestry Centre, Dr Jules Bayala is Principal Scientist in the Sahel. Dr Patrice Savadogo is its Dryland Agroforestry System Scientist. Both from Burkina Faso and grew up watching their fathers work with trees. Image courtesy of ICRAF


Cathy Watson: What did you find?

Jules Bayala: If we look at the pattern of carbon, we see a decreasing amount going from tree trunk to the open area. It shows clearly that trees contribute to soil carbon. We can say definitively that FMNR replenishes carbon in soil.

Patrice Savadogo: Also important was that the more the soil is sandy, the bigger the effect of carbon addition. That is very critical because most soil in the Sahel is sandy. Generally, for carbon, FMNR is very good. We’ve measured other elements but, for the soil in the Sahel, carbon is key. You can bring in nitrogen. It is much more difficult to bring in carbon.

Cathy Watson: What do you mean by above and below ground carbon, and how do they relate to trees?

Jules Bayala: Carbon comes through photosynthesis. Photosynthesis takes carbon from the atmosphere and accumulates it as biomass. This biomass is recycled in the soil through leaf litter and root decay. In the soil’s top layer, carbon comes from leaves and animal droppings. Deeper down, it comes from fine root hairs that break down. By far the greatest amount of carbon in the soil comes from these roots for the simple reason that leaves get blown away and you have bush fires. What enters the soil from leaves is very little compared to what stays in the soil layer. Roots behave like leaves. The period you have the maximum leaves, you have a corresponding maximum of fine root hairs. When leaves decay, roots decay too.

Cathy Watson: And the relationship between FMNR, carbon and crop production?

Patrice Savadogo: Very strong. In fact, we believe that without FMNR, soil will have a very low yield or not produce any crop. Because the main problem with soil in the Sahel is the low carbon. We found that on farms where you have FMNR, soil carbon is better, and it relates to the presence of trees. Where you find a very limited number of trees, you find low production of cereals – maybe 200 kg/ha. As tree density increases, yield reaches 300 kg/ha. The most we found was 500 kg, usually where FMNR had been for quite some time. That doubling of yield is due to trees.

A field of millet in Mopti, Mali, already showing benefits from newly preserved individuals of Combretum glutinosum that a farmer is assisting to resprout from stumps. This is a fast-growing drought-resistant shrub common in the Sahel where rainfall is 200-700 mm per year. Photo courtesy of ICRAF/P. Savadogo

Cathy Watson: What about other benefits from FMNR?

Patrice Savadogo: Farms with no trees or a very limited number are more fragile when there is a shock. When you have a drought spell, the crops suffer more than in places with more trees. Crops that grow next to trees perform better than those further away because of the soil carbon but also the microclimate around the tree. You see the millet plant being taller with a bigger head of grain.

Cathy Watson: How does FMNR work? Is there a particular sequence?

Jules Bayala: FMNR is when farmers encourage naturally-occurring trees. In the 1970s in the Sahel, trees were top killed by a period of aridity and then cut for firewood. But the roots kept living in an underground forest. Farmers prune the stems from the living stumps to encourage the strongest ones to shoot up into trees. There is also germination of seeds from the bank of seed in the soil. But about 95% of the trees come from stumps.

Patrice Savadogo: The younger the farm is in its practice of FMNR, the less the tree diversity. Regeneration of those stumps and the germination of existing seed gives you trees. Those trees attract birds or mammals that bring in more seed, and you start to see new species and more diversity. In Niger, you start with Guiera senegalensis. The farmer will say, “This species was there when I started.” Then species like Acacia seberiana and Bosia sengalensis appear, and Balanitis aegyptiaca is brought in by camels in their droppings.

Cathy Watson: How many trees can a farmer achieve?

Jules Bayala: In the beginning they have few. They select and nurture them. Livestock are roaming around. You have to protect them until they reach a certain stage. It’s long. But the density can reach more than 200 stems per acre. Then farmers reach a point where they must reduce them. They get a lot of firewood that generates substantial income in countries like Niger where the fallows, bush and forest are gone.

Bayala showing a newly regenerated Faidherbia albida in a cotton field in Southern Burkina Faso. Besides fixing nitrogen, this species sheds its leaves during the cropping season thus competing less with annual crops for light. During the dry season, it puts out leaves, providing protein rich forage to livestock during this critical period of quality feed shortage. Image courtesy of ICRAF


Cathy Watson: Is it best to have many species or fine to have just Guiera, for instance?

Patrice Savadogo: Different species is best. We looked at the nitrogen-fixing trees and non-nitrogen fixers that farmers preserve. A farm with five to eight species, of which one to two are nitrogen fixers, will have more benefits for its soil than if you only have Guiera and Piliostigma, which don’t fix nitrogen.

Cathy Watson: Is FMNR better than planting trees?

Jules Bayala: It’s much easier. “Better” depends on what you want. If you are targeting soil restoration and wood energy, FMNR is far better. If you are targeting fruit trees and the seed for fruit trees is not in the soil, you will not get them. In the first years of FMNR, the farmer can only work from the stocks and seeds he has.

Cathy Watson: Are there limits to FMNR?

Patrice Savadogo: Yes, we cannot regreen only with FMNR. We must combine it with tree planting because if the farmer does not have rootstock, what do you regenerate? We also need to improve soil moisture because even with FMNR, if you don’t have good soil moisture, trees will not develop well. Zai pits, stone lines, and half-moon techniques hold water.

Jules Bayala: I agree. In this very harsh climate where you have eight months of no rain, you need those water conservation structures. They catch a seed as rain washes it along, and the space around them is a niche with higher humidity which helps the seed survive.

Cathy Watson: Is the case closed? FMNR is good?

Patrice Savadogo: No, we need to know more to recommend the optimum density and diversity of trees to optimize crop production.

Jules Bayala: It is not closed. We need permanent plots where you go back frequently and do the same measurements and get solid data showing the trend with time.

Cathy Watson: What about the farmers?

Patrice Savadogo: In Niger, farmers now preserve trees and are very discerning. They can say, “We don’t want Acacia. The thorns puncture our bike tires.” But they preserve Balanitis despite its thorns because it is big, the leaves are sauce and fodder, and the seeds give oil. Farmers know a lot. They regenerate trees by feeding seed to livestock – some germinates better if it goes through the gut. But we need still more uptake of FMNR in Niger and across the Sahel.

This feature is part of an ongoing series about the global implementation of agroforestry, view all articles in the series here.

Reposted with permission from Mongabay.

Soil Farmers: How A Renewed Focus On The Land Is Building More Resilient Farms

Author: Brian Kaufenberg | Published: June 26, 2018

Peter Allen wants to bury a fence.

Tucked within the rolling landscape of the driftless region, on a farm outside of Viola, Wisconsin, a barbed wire fence runs along the spine of a ridge separating a strip of pasture from the valley below. The noticeable three-foot drop between the fence and the field is the result of years of soil washing away while the field was being used as conventional cropland.

“When we got here, this soil was in really bad shape; it hardly grew anything and there was no topsoil left, it was all just sand subsoil,” Peter Allen recalls in a January 2018 episode of the television show “Outdoor Wisconsin.” “So we immediately brought the animals in, […] planted about 30 different species of native prairie grasses and flowers and then a bunch of trees in rows, and then we ran chickens here behind them. And now, just two years later, this is some of the best forage we have on the farm, right where we ran the chickens through.”

As Allen’s animals—cattle, hogs, sheep, and chickens—graze the forage, they return nutrients and organic matter to the land, slowly rebuilding what’s been lost—adding between a quarter of an inch to an inch of soil per year, he says, and slowly restoring the savannah ecosystem once native to the area, a mix of trees and prairie. The livestock are key to this process, providing the cornerstone to a farming system that now yields perennial fruits and nuts, annual crops like corn, and pastured beef, pork, and chicken.


To Realize Land’s True Value, We Need to Invest In It Wisely

Authors: Lulu Zhang and Kai Schwärzel | Published: June 19, 2018

It takes 200-400 years to form one centimeter of soil, while the estimated rate of soil erosion is 100 times greater than soil formation. Where erosion is prevalent, the rate of soil loss reaches 4 mm per year (FAO 2015); 70% of drylands suffer from land degradation in varying degrees (Gibbs and Salmon 2015). While global population grows rapidly, land is finite in quantity.

With an annual financial loss of US$400 billion due to soil erosion from arable lands, as estimated by the FAO-led Global Soil Partnership, investing in sustainable land management and practices such as restoring degraded land can recover soil health and enhance soil functions and land productivity to provide critical ecological and economic benefits for human needs. Goal 15 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) explicitly outlines the international community’s resolve to halt and reverse land degradation.


Soil Biodiversity and Soil Organic Carbon: Why Should Nations Invest in It to Keep Drylands Alive?

Author: Graciela Metternicht | Published: June 18, 2018

The 2018 World Day to Combat Desertification calls to reflect on the true value of land and the need to invest in it; healthy soils are central to sustainable development. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development increases the demand on soils to provide food, water and energy security, protect biodiversity, and mitigate climate change, increasing the centrality of soils in global environmental and development politics. SDG target 15.3, on Land Degradation Neutrality, reflects the growing awareness that land, and by extension soil biodiversity and soil organic carbon, is both a natural resource and a public good that underpins wider sustainable development.

Soil Organic Carbon (SOC) and soil biodiversity are key to the multifunctionality of a landscape, and the reason why strengthening investment and legislation in sustainable land management is considered to be central to achieving many of the Sustainable Development Goals.


The Winner of Drawdown INNOVATE: Encouraging Regenerative Farming

Published: May 18, 2018

The 2018 Drawdown INNOVATE program supported members in developing original ventures that impacted climate change, and incubated the best ones, moving us all to a better climate future. Program participants developed ideas that sought to maximize the impact of Project Drawdown’s 100 most substantive solutions to reverse global warming, which range from the impact of educating women and girls to energy, among others.

From Korea to Costa Rica to Copenhagen, students and young professionals gathered locally, using toolkits and videos from Net Impact to explore Project Drawdown’s solutions. Then, using design thinking and business planning they imagined, tested, and refined product, service, and other venture ideas to bring solutions to reverse global warming to market.


Carbon Farming Isn’t Worth It for Farmers. Two Blockchain Companies Want to Change That

Can the tech that powers cryptocurrency spark a regenerative ag revolution?

Author: Jessica McKenzie | Published: June 4, 2018

When the price of Bitcoin skyrocketed at the end of 2017, analysts crunched the numbers and concluded that the cryptocurrency was set to consume the entire global energy supply by the end of 2020. “Mining” Bitcoin involves solving increasingly complex mathematical equations that secure the network in exchange for newly-minted cryptocurrency—which incidentally requires lots of energy. Huge server farms have popped up around the world for the express purpose of generating the virtual cash, from China to upstate New York, where one town put a moratorium on new commercial cryptocurrency mining operations to protect “the City’s natural, historic, cultural and electrical resources.”

But in spite of Bitcoin’s eco-unfriendly reputation, some organizations propose using blockchain, the technology that makes the cryptocurrency possible, to power a regenerative agricultural revolution. The ultimate goal is to reverse the flow of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere until atmospheric levels fall to a degree that scientists agree will stabilize the climate.

Regenerative agriculture describes a range of farming practices that prioritize soil health and biodiversity over short-term gains that can be derived from tilling and weeding, heavy pesticide use, or artificial fertilizers. Advocates of regenerative agriculture have long argued that holistic land management is better for the farmer and for the earth, but the movement has recently gotten a boost from interest in one of its other benefits: carbon sequestration.