West Africa: Innovative Practices for Restoring Soil Fertility and Capturing Carbon

During a trip to West Africa by the French Minister of Agriculture, Stéphane Le Foll, CIRAD presented farming practices developed with its partners in Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Senegal. The practices are intended to boost soil fertility and carbon capture capacity, while contributing to the food security of local people. Some make use of traditional local know-how…

In Burkina Faso, farmers dig pits on degraded land, adding manure in order to restore fertility. This traditional practice, known as ‘zaï’, facilitates water infiltration and supplies organic matter, which in turn brings local flora species. This fosters biological life within the soil, which recovers its fertility. Scientists have studied and improved this practice, while attempting to reduce the amount of work it requires on the part of farmers.


Stéphane Le Foll, the Minister of Agriculture, Agrifood and Forestry and French government spokesperson, was in Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Senegal from 27 to 30 July to promote ‘4 per 1000, carbon sequestration in soils for food security and the climate’. This initiative set out to identify and disseminate farming practices that will boost the capacity of agricultural soils to capture carbon, hence improving their fertility while also mitigating climate change. Stéphane Le Foll was accompanied by a French delegation including CIRAD President Managing Director Michel Eddi. The Minister met the Heads of State of all three countries – Roch Marc Christian Kabore, Alassane Ouattara and Macky Sall -, his counterparts and several agricultural professionals, and the various Franco-African research teams involved in the ‘4 per 1000’ initiative. The visit was part of the preparations for COP22, to be held in Marrakesh, Morocco, from 7 to 18 November 2016, and implementation of the ‘4 per 1000’ initiative, launched by the French Minister at COP21 in Paris last year.


G20 Agriculture: France defends a proactive approach to reducing the effects of climate change

Stéphane Le Foll attended the G20 Agriculture Ministers’ Meeting held in Xi’an on 3rd June, which covered the topics of food security, sustainable agriculture, innovation and new information technologies.

During the event, and in the wake of COP 21 and the December 2015 Paris Agreement, the minister called on his colleagues to mobilise all innovations – technical (especially agronomic), scientific and social – in favour of a more environmental-friendly and healthy agriculture.

The minister also urged attendees to think about agriculture’s role in finding the solution to the challenges of climate change. In particular, he insisted on the need of working actively and immediately on building avenues to reduce global warming, rather than limiting ourselves to the research of adaptation solutions.

As such, the minister underlined the ambition of the4‰ Initiative: soils for food security and climate” programme supported by France, which aims to conserve agricultural and forest soil and store carbon. He also invited the ministers to get involved with COP 22, to be held in Marrakech next November. The initiative, joined by over 160 States and organisations, rises to the challenge of climate change by promoting carbon storage, and to that of food security by contributing to soil fertility.


A Boon for Soil, and for the Environment

Author: Beth Gardiner

When Gabe Brown and his wife bought their farm near Bismarck, North Dakota, from her parents in 1991, testing found the soil badly depleted, its carbon down to just a quarter of levels once considered natural in the area.

Today the Brown farm and ranch is home to a diverse and thriving mix of plants and animals. And carbon, the building block of the rich humus that gives soil its density and nutrients, has more than tripled. That is a boon not just for the farm’s productivity and its bottom line, but also for the global climate.

Agriculture is often cast as an environmental villain, its pesticides tainting water, its hunger for land driving deforestation. Worldwide, it is responsible for nearly a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Now, though, a growing number of experts, environmentalists and farmers themselves see their fields as a powerful weapon in the fight to slow climate change, their very soil a potentially vast repository for the carbon that is warming the atmosphere. Critically for an industry that must produce an ever-larger bounty to feed a growing global population, restoring lost carbon to the soil also increases its ability to support crops and withstand drought.

“Everyone talks about sustainable,” Mr. Brown said. “Why do we want to sustain a degraded resource? We need to be regenerative, we need to take that carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back into the cycle, where it belongs.”

Since people began farming, the world’s cultivated soils have lost 50 percent to 70 percent of their natural carbon, said Rattan Lal, a professor of soil science at the Ohio State University. That number is even higher in parts of south Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, he added.


Stéphane Le Foll: The Obelix of Agriculture?

On April 28, my colleague from Regeneration International (RI), Precious Phiri, and I found ourselves for the first time in our lives in Meknes, Morocco, trying to navigate in a world of broken French, lots of Arabic and jet lag that I couldn’t seem to shrug off.

We had come to Meknes to be part of the 4 per 1000 presentation organized by the governments of France and Morocco during the SIAM (Salon International de l’Agriculture du Maroc), hoping to find answers to the many questions we had around the next steps for the 4 per 1000 French initiative: Soils for Food Security and the Climate.

RI and the Organic Consumers Association (OCA)  have been actively involved in the promotion of the French initiative that seeks to build up the soils’ organic matter at a rate of four parts per 1000 every year as a way to make the soil what it once was: a carbon reservoir. The initiative’s proposed solution sounded fabulous and the fact that the government of France was supporting it was unprecedented. But we still had many questions on how the initiative was going to be implemented, its governance, financing and administration.

We expected that the meeting, called “What governance and roadmap for the 4 per 1000”? was going to become our Oracle of Delphos. High expectations indeed. In the end, we may not have found all the answers we wanted, but the meeting cleared up any doubts we had. Even better, and unexpected, we left the meeting highly inspired and ready for action.

A ministerial meeting, a pseudo-diplomatic debate that inspires and moves to action? At first it sounded like science fiction. But I soon learned if one of the speakers at such a meeting is French Minister of Agriculture Stéphane Le Foll, anything is possible. Listening to him present, he reminded me of super human strength-possessing Obelix, the sidekick to the cartoon hero Asterix.

A country’s initiative pushed by a minister’s charisma

It’s not a stretch to say that Le Foll’s charisma and personality have been the driving forces behind this initiative. Le Foll shocked the world when he said that agriculture could provide a solution to climate change. He again took everyone by surprise when he explained, in a very simple statement, that the key was in something as simple and straightforward as the good old scientific process, taught in every elementary school science class, of photosynthesis.

Le Foll’s charisma was on full display at the meeting in Meknes. After a long conference with Ministers of Agriculture and representatives of about 30 countries, Le Foll wrapped up the meeting with a powerful message, a call to action that leaves no room for a timid response:

“If we ask ourselves where oil and carbon originally came from, the answer is from the soil. We pulled them out of there during the industrial revolution and via consumption. So by putting carbon back in the soil, we are closing a cycle. Every time we think of fighting climate change, we must always remember the fundamental role of agriculture in reversing climate change. After all, you cannot separate carbon storage from food security.”

Le Foll was intentionally forceful at calling out major countries that were present at the meeting but are not yet signed on to the 4 per 1000 initiative, in particular Brazil and India. (India’s Minister of Agriculture was the only official present who advocated for organic agriculture, and one of the few speakers at the meeting who didn’t into the trap of advocating for the use of more fertilizers to increase yields for a growing population).

Le Foll explained the structure that will be put in place for the governance of the 4 per 1000 initiative. He said that the initiative has to be dynamic and easy to implement, but at the same time it must be backed up by a very detailed, meticulous body of research. In other words, there has to be a balance between action and research that allows for the initiative to be fluid, without losing its consistency.

To accomplish this, the initiative will establish three bodies: 1) a consultation body; 2) a scientific body (14 scientists from different parts of the world have been chosen, with a very clear gender balance); and 3) consortium that will serve as executive body (to avoid conflicts of interest the members of said consortium will belong to the non-profit world). RI recommended one of our steering committee members, André Leu, who is also president of IFOAM Organics International, to serve on the consortium—a move that was met with a favorable response from the directors of the French initiative.

These bodies will be set up during 2016. The goal is to have them up and running before the COP22 climate meeting in Marrakesh, in November. The 4 per 1000 initiative will be part of the final formal document for implementation of the Paris agreement.

Le Foll had it right when he said that putting carbon into soil is closing a cycle, that it is going back to the original order of things. That statement contains in a nutshell the basic idea behind regenerative agriculture, a simple concept, that just like 4 per 1000 has nothing but positive multiplying effects.

With Le Foll’s drive and everyone’s participation, we hope the 4 per 1000 initiative is finally adopted, endorsed and fully funded starting November. We may need thousands of Obelix to make this task possible, but we do know now that we have Asterix on our side.

Ercilia Sahores is Latin America Political Director for Regeneration International.

An African COP

Last week I attended, on behalf of Regeneration International,  a meeting to map out the next steps for France’s 4 per 1000 climate initiative.  The meeting, called “What Governance and Roadmap for the 4 per 1000?” took place during the Salon International de l’Agriculture du Maroc (SIAM), in Meknes, Morocco.

A host of ministerial delegates attended, from Morocco, India, Brazil, Palestine, Senegal and many more African countries, as did representatives of the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) and financial bodies like the Green Fund, African Development Bank and the Islamic development bank.

The meeting confirmed that the French and other governments are unwavering in their support of the 4 per 1000 initiative, launched at the 2015 COP21 Paris Climate Summit, and incorporated into the final agreement. It also set the tone for the COP22, to be held in Marrakech in November, 2016.

The meeting also confirmed that Morocco and Africa are ready to host the COP22, which was recently dubbed as a COP of Action and a COP of Africa by the charismatic leader Stéphane Le Foll, French Minister of Agriculture.

Africa has an integral role to play in the 4 per 1000 initiative. Partly because so little funding has been channeled to agriculture in Africa, and partly because 60 percent of the world’s arable land is in Africa. The upcoming COP will ensure that actions to tackle climate change and improve food security are brought to the table and implemented in Africa.

With this in mind, the President of the COP22, and Minister of Agriculture of the Kingdom of Morocco, Hon. Aziz Akhannouch, led the conversation around a new approach—the Triple A (AAA) or Adaptation de I’ agriculture Africaine (Adaptation of African Agriculture). This conversation became the most prominent in the convention as it will be the focus of the COP22.

Triple A will secure funding to support African agricultural initiatives that are meant to back up the 4 per1000 initiative globally. Minister Aziz explained that 70 percent of Africa’s population is rural and depends on agriculture as a source of livelihoods. At the same time, Africa’s greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint is less than that of most western countries, yet Africa stands to be the most affected by climate change.

Today’s food insecurity problem in Africa will need to be addressed by closing the productivity gap. Agricultural yield is dropping and it is projected that by 2050, the African population will increase by 15-20 percent—making it absolutely critical that we address Africa’s food security crisis.

In his last moving words, Minister Le Foll said “you cannot separate carbon storage from food security” and well-directed agricultural practices will achieve these two ambitions.

The role of agriculture in reversing climate change cannot be underplayed, yet this most hopeful of all climate solutions remains under-acknowledged and under-funded. The 4 per1000 and Triple A initiatives are both crucial for the movement. They are meant to encourage solutions that work for Africa. They will be implemented in both English and French speaking African countries

$100 billion is channeled every year to fund developing world productivity needs. Africa receives less than 50 percent of international funding overall. For climate change initiatives, Africa gets less than 5 percent of available funding. This year the Triple A seeks to lobby for $30 billion to be used as a pool fund for Agriculture.

The next action phase for helping Africa combat climate change and food insecurity will include strategies to tackle critical issues like water. The need for new alliances with skilled countries like Brazil, China and India will be sought to help African countries with technological support in areas like irrigation practices to enhance productivity.

The world is currently looking at Morocco to lead and guide the COP22 process. The ministers at the convention pledged their support to back up stages of Triple A and 4 per 1000 collaboration. As Le Foll rightly pointed out: “Triple A’s integration with 4 per 1000 is important to fight climate change.”

It will take Africans to do what works in Africa and to bring their much needed contribution to both agriculture and reversal of climate change globally.

And so, we look forward, with hope, to Marrakech and the COP22.

Precious Phiri is founding director of EarthWisdom Consulting Co. and a member of the Regeneration International steering committee.

Declaration of Civil Society Organizations and Academic Attendees of the “4 per 1000 Initiative: Soil for Food Security and Climate” Presentation held on April 18, 2016 in the Offices of SAGARPA

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Declaration of Civil Society Organizations and Academic Attendees of the “4 per 1000 Initiative: Soil for Food Security and Climate” Presentation held on April 18, 2016 in the Offices of SAGARPA


Mely Romero, Subsecretary of Rural Development
Maryse Bossiere, French Ambassador to Mexico
Raúl Urteaga, General Coordinator of SAGARPA International Affairs.
Roxana Aguirre, General Director of Rural Development Capacity Building and Promotion

Members and representatives of civil society organizations and the scientific community that participated in the aforementioned event applaud the April 18th announcement of the 4 per1000 initiative promoted by the French government and endorsed by the Mexican government last December at the COP 21 on climate change in Paris. The April 18th event provided an opportunity to appreciate the significance of the issues involved, the serious state of land degradation in Mexico and some of the research projects and community experiences developed for the regeneration of, and the sequestration of carbon by, the soil.

We consider this issue fundamental in defending food sovereignty and security, and therefore consider essential the immediate organization and promotion of coordinated and transparent actions and public policies promoting regenerative practices in Mexico that will guarantee small producers’ basic rights, ensure the return of carbon to the soil, increase soil fertility, restore Mexican land and contribute to a safe, healthy, and high quality food system. These actions must begin with the revision and reinforcement of current programs, regulatory and institutional development, increased institutional commitment, and advances in current research and must not remain a temporary push with no prospects or capacity for generating the necessary changes to reverse the vicious cycle we are currently facing.

It is evident that the current climate crisis affecting the planet, and specifically vulnerable countries such as Mexico, requires immediate, committed and consistent responses, coordinated among governments, civil society, scientists and above all, farmers. Now is the time to work together to promote successful on the ground initiatives that have been developed to preserve soil and seeds, and that have a track record of effectiveness in resolving fundamental  agricultural issues.

According to Olivier de Schutter, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, 10% of the the country’s richest farmers received 80% of the Ingreso Objetivo (government subsidy) in 2005 while the bottom 10% of the country’s poorest farmers only received 0.1%..  It is alarming that in a country where 80% of farmers own less than 5 hectares of land, that rural loans are concentrated among the nation’s richest farmers, particularly when small-scale agriculture provides 40% of the food that we consume and could contribute to healthy and regenerative production through regenerative practices.

The Mexican government has demonstrated complete inconsistency and lack of coordination in regards to the international agreements that it has signed to combat climate change and its internal policy which favors and promotes an agroindustrial model based in agrotoxins and transgenics that is increasingly damaging people’s health and seriously deteriorating ecosystems, above all water and soil, elements vital to our very survival.

In order to reaffirm commitments made by the Mexican government, we ask that Lic. Raúl Urteaga, in his role as co-organizer of the event, call on the appropriate departments of SAGARPA as well as other public institutions that should have participated in the event as signers of the Paris agreement – CONAFOR, INECC, CONAGUA and the President of the Republic – to attend a working meeting with civil society organizations and academic groups interested in influencing and monitoring the actions necessary for the advancement of what was discussed during the April 18th event and ensure the fulfillment of the 4X1000 commitment. To this end, we propose creating a roadmap that contains goals for the next four years with a detailed diagnosis of the current state of Mexican soil and agricultural production, drawing from existing research, as well as a work plan with activities, responsible parties, dates, economic and human resources, and criteria and indicators for measuring success, with the objective of advancing regenerative practices that will sequester carbon back into the earth.

We therefore ask that SAGARPA propose various dates for a meeting to establish collaboration and work methods. Such an event must bring together the scientific, rural, indigenous and social communities that are supporting and/or developing regenerative practices that prohibit the use of genetically modified organisms and toxic substances with relevant public institutions promoting policies that either positively or negatively impact the 4X1000 initiative. Among these, we consider the participation of the following institutions fundamental: the coordinators of SAGARPA’s agriculture and livestock departments, the productivity director of SHCP, SEDATU, SEDESOL, SEMARNAT, CONABIO, INECC, COFEPRIS, SE, SENER, CONAFOR, CONANP, CDI, INMUJERES, development banks, and any other public entities working in rural development. Additionally, academic groups such as the Union of Scientists Committed to Society (UCCS), the Autonomous University of Chapingo (UACH) and other civil society groups must be present in order to develop a solid platform that will facilitate and supervise soil regeneration efforts that are crucial to avoiding an even greater crisis than the one we are currently suffering.

ANEC México
Álvaro Urreta, Coordinador de PROMESAN
Andrea Rodríguez Osuna, Abogada Senior Asociación Interamericana para la Defensa del Ambiente – AIDA
Dra. Christina Siebe, UNAM
Cooperativa de Consumo Zacahuizco
El Poder del Consumidor
Fernando Bejarano, Red de Acción sobre Plaguicidas y Alternativas en México
Fian México
Dr. Fernando Paz, Programa Mexicano del Carbono
Fundación Filobatrista para el desarrollo de la participación comunitaria AC
Fundar, Centro de Análisis e Investigación
Dr. Gonzalo Chapela, Coordinador de políticas públicas de la Red Mexicana contra la Desertificación RIOD – México
Greenpeace México
Dr. Héctor Robles, Miembro de la campaña Valor al Campesino
Dra. Helena Cotler, UNAM
Henry Miller, El Maíz Más Pequeño AC
Dr. Jorge Etchevers, Colegio de Postgraduados
Dr. Luis Zambrano, UNAM
Organic Consumers Association México
Red Mexicana por la Agricultura Familiar y Campesina
Regeneration International
Semillas de Vida AC
Dra. Silke Cram, UNAM
The Hunger Project México
Vía Orgánica AC
Yosu Rodríguez, Investigador Asociado, Centro Geo

4 per 1000 – Soils for Food Security and Climate

Author: Niel Ritchie

Main Street Project’s poultry-based regenerative agriculture system was featured at an April 18 conference to discuss the 4 per 1000 Initiative: “Soils for Food Security and Climate” in Mexico City. The meeting was hosted by SAGARPA (The Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food of Mexico), Regeneration International, and the Embassy of France in Mexico.

Chief Strategy Officer Reginaldo Haslett Marroquin presented an overview of our system and described our research work in Mexico, highlighting our partnership with Via Organica to establish a working model of our poultry-based system on its farm in San Miguel De Allende in the state of Guanajuato.

Regi challenged the group to consider Mexico’s potential to meet its targets for increased carbon sequestration by helping millions of existing small farms (under 5 hectares) transition to poultry-centered regenerative systems. Not only would a regenerative poultry system deliver on Mexico’s commitment for carbon sequestration under the 4 per 1000 Initiative, it would also improve the dire social and economic conditions that afflict over 2.9 million small farmers in the country.

At the end of the day, it’s the economic stability of farmers and their ability to be part of a new regenerative system that are the keys to building better soils, providing food security, and capturing and keeping carbon in the ground. Our triple-bottom line of social, ecological and economic sustainability begins with people, too often an afterthought in addressing environmental damage. Redressing social equity remains the most effective and ultimately the most comprehensive entry point towards reversing climate change.

Carbon farming is a zero-risk strategy for curbing climate change

Author: David Wolfe

Now that 195 nations, including the U.S., have agreed to ambitious greenhouse gas emission reductions to slow the pace of climate change, the question everyone is asking is: How will we actually meet our targets set for 2035?

Given past performance, many don’t think we will get there without so-called “geoengineering” solutions, such as blasting sulfur dioxide or other particles into the atmosphere to shade the planet and compensate for the warming effect of greenhouse gases. Clever, eh? Maybe not. Some recent modeling studies show these seemingly easy fixes could backfire in catastrophic ways, such as disrupting the Indian monsoon season and completely drying out the Sahel of Africa. Another risk is atmospheric chemical reactions that deplete the ozone layer. Do we really want to run global-scale experiments for 20 or 30 years and see what happens?

There is another way, one that is zero-risk and builds on something farmers around the world are already motivated to do: manage soils so that a maximum amount of the carbon dioxide plants pull out of the air via photosynthesis remains on the farm as carbon-rich soil organic matter. “Carbon farming,” as it is sometimes called, is Mother Nature’s own geoengineering, relying on fundamental biological processes to capture carbon and sequester it in the soil, carbon that would otherwise be in the air as the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.

Over the past century soils worldwide have been degraded due to expansion of agriculture and poor soil management. Today, there is a revolution in agriculture that recognizes the importance of building “healthy” soils by replacing the organic matter that has been lost over time. One way to do this is to use carbon- and nutrient-rich organic sources of fertilizers such as manure or compost rather than synthetic chemical fertilizers. Another is to include carbon- and nutrient-rich crops like legumes (e.g., peas, beans) in rotations, and plant winter cover crops that contribute additional organic matter in the off-season. We’ve also discovered that reducing the amount of plowing and tilling of the soil (“conservation tillage”) slows the microbial breakdown of organic matter that leads to carbon dioxide emissions from soils.


A Great Day: Saving the World from Catastrophic Climate Change

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Author: Courtney White

“Dec 1, 2015, will be one of the most important days in human history. It will be seen as the tipping point when the world was saved from catastrophic climate change.” – André Leu, President of the IFOAM (Organics International)

One of the most significant events at the recent UN climate summit in Paris went largely unnoticed.

We know the headlines: In an effort to slow dangerous climate change, representatives from 197 nations concluded a two-week marathon of negotiations by signing a breakthrough agreement that commits governments to targeted reductions in greenhouse gas emissions starting in 2020.

This was justifiably big news. After 20 years of failed attempts to craft an international consensus on climate action, most spectacularly in Copenhagen in 2009, the world simply had to get its act together. It did so, to well-earned applause, on December 12, 2015.

So what happened on December 1?

That’s the day the French government launched the 4 per 1000 Initiative: Soils for Food Security and Climate, a plan to fight climate change with soil carbon. The initiative’s goal is this: to increase global soil carbon stocks by 0.4 percent per year by drawing down atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) via the increased photosynthesis of regenerative farming and land use.

On the surface, that may not sound like a lot of carbon, (it amounts to 10 billion tons of carbon per year sequestered in global soils), but French scientists say it’s enough to halt human-induced annual increases in CO2 globally.

That sounds like a front page headline to me!

How will the initiative succeed? The key is regenerative agriculture. France, for example, intends to hit its 4/1000 target by employing agro-ecological practices on 50 percent of its farms by 2020.

Agro-ecological practices restore damaged land and build biologically healthy soil through the use of cover crops, perennial plants, no-till farming, and livestock grazing patterns that mimic nature. If managed properly, these nature-based practices not only increase carbon stocks in soil, they also can dramatically reduce the amount of greenhouse gases produced by the use of fossil fuel in industrial agriculture, one of the biggest polluters on the planet.

Agro-ecological practices also increase resilience to climate change. In an op-ed published days after the French announcement in Paris, Michael Pollan and Deborah Barker wrote:

Regenerative farming would also increase the fertility of the land, making it more productive and better able to absorb and hold water, a critical function especially in times of climate-related floods and droughts. Carbon-rich fields require less synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and generate more productive crops, cutting farmer expenses.

Those are bold, but as we’ll see later, realistic claims. But here’s the best news: Regenerative agriculture is a shovel-ready solution to climate change.

Agro-ecological practices are practical, profitable and have been ground-tested by farmers and ranchers around the world for decades. In fact, shovel-readiness is a big reason why more than 100 nations, international NGOs and farmers’ organizations signed onto the 4/1000 Initiative–and why many more have signed on since then.

After years of neglect, soil carbon is now viewed as key to how the world manages climate change. “[It] has become a global initiative,” said French Agriculture Minister Stéphane Le Foll. “We need to mobilize even more stakeholders in a transition to achieve both food security and climate mitigation thanks to agriculture.”

“The time for talking is finished,” said IFOAM’s André Leu. “Now is the time for doing. The technology is available to everyone. It is up to us to mobilize in time. Let’s start working to get this done and give our world a better future.”

Paying for regeneration

A critical step will be creating a viable carbon economy where regenerative farmers and ranchers can be paid to build soil carbon. This has been a difficult challenge so far, but thanks to the Paris Agreement, 197 nations now have a huge incentive to draw down their emissions to meet official targets. And regenerative agriculture can help get them there.

From the carbon emitter’s perspective, offsetting carbon dioxide emissions with verifiable increases in soil carbon, validated now by the French government’s 4/1000 Initiative, will likely stimulate other nations to create market-based mechanisms which, in turn, will encourage farmers and ranchers to adopt regenerative practices, round and round. From society’s perspective, all this is great news!

Creating carbon markets isn’t a new idea. Over the past twenty years, a variety of efforts have been made to energize a voluntary carbon credit trading system, including programs in Europe, Australia, New England, California, and Vancouver, British Columbia, each with varying degrees of success. In New Mexico, where I live, the state legislature considered a bill in 2015 that would have created a policy framework for enacting a carbon credit system–a first for the state.

New Mexico attempted to established a carbon credit as a contract right and to create a five-member board to review and audit the credits as potential offsets for carbon emitters. The board specifically identified the removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and its accumulation within plants, soils and geologic formations as a legitimate means by which a credit can be created–also a first (specifically, one carbon credit equaled one metric ton of CO2 or its equivalent).

Unfortunately, the bill didn’t become law, and it’s not the only model for paying for regeneration. But the bill represents an important step toward stimulating market-based responses to climate change.

Serious concerns about the shortcomings of carbon offset markets (sometimes called cap-and-trade) have been raised. This is especially true for organic, regenerative and family-scale agriculture, which could easily be pushed aside by large industrial producers. Here’s a useful primer on how climate-friendly agriculture can be treated fairly in a carbon economy.

The bottom line is this: We need state and federal policies that make the polluters pay, create publicly-controlled pools of money, and pay regenerative farmers and ranchers for building carbon stocks in their soils.

Science is on our side

Markets and their regulators will require sound science and hard numbers–credible and verifiable–to work effectively. This is a challenge, however, because understanding soil carbon involves chemistry, biology, ecology, hydrology, and agronomy—which means the science can get complex quickly, for researchers and laypeople alike. Fortunately, there has been a veritable explosion of soil carbon science recently, creating a clearer portrait of carbon’s potentials.

One researcher whose work has shed exciting light on regenerative agriculture is Dr. David Johnson, a molecular biologist at New Mexico State University. Johnson believes that “getting the biology right” is critical to creating significant increases in soil carbon stocks.

It’s essentially a two-step process, according to Johnson: (1) get life back into soils that have been stripped of their biological fertility by industrial agriculture; and (2) employ practices that bring about a shift in the soil from bacteria-dominated to fungi-dominated communities. The latter is important because fungi are the “carbon brokers” between plant roots and soil microbes. This process also improves soil structure which improves its ability to resist erosion–equally crucial to long-term carbon storage.

Of course, all of this soil rebuilding can be undone by the plow, which exposes microbes to the killing effect of heat and light. That’s why not turning the soil over is a key component of regenerative agriculture.

Johnson’s research also shows that “getting the biology right” reduces the amount of carbon that is “burped” back into the atmosphere (as CO2) by microbes as a waste product. This is important because the viability of long-term carbon storage in soils–and thus the size of monetary payments to farmers and ranchers from markets–depend on there being more carbon flowing into the soil system than flowing back out.

It’s not just about money. Additional carbon improves plant productivity, improves water infiltration and soil water-holding capacity, reduces the use of synthetic amendments, and promotes a healthy environment for pollinators and other beneficial insects.

A win-win for the land and ourselves!

Johnson notes that nature is three to four times more productive than any agricultural system yet devised by humans. And nature achieves that productivity without pesticides, synthetic amendments, irrigation or monocropping.

“Shouldn’t we be asking what we’re doing wrong?” Johnson said in an interview. “Plus, nature had the capacity to increase soil carbon in the past. Our task is to find out how it was done and mimic it in our current practices.”

Improved soil fertility, better food, more efficient use of water, reduced pollution, fewer energy requirements, better animal health, increased biodiversity, and keeping global warming in check–all possible for as little as 4 per 1000 a year!

For more information see:

Carbon Sequestration Potential on Agricultural Land by Daniel Kane, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

Soil Carbon Restoration: Can Biology Do the Job? by Jack Kittredge, Northeast Organic Farming Association


Courtney White, co-founder and former executive director of the Quivira Coalition, is the author of multiple essays and books, including “Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country” and “The Age of Consequences.”  

French Ministry of Agriculture Official, Leading U.S. Soil Scientists Outline Plan to Stall Global Warming through Soil Carbon Sequestration

Regeneration International, IFOAM Organics International and other NGOs Host Experts and Media for Critical Climate-Agriculture Discussion


March 9, 2016

CONTACT: Katherine Paul,, 207-653-3090; Alexis Baden-Mayer,, 202-744-0853; Ercilia Sahores,

WASHINGTON DC—Today Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, Director General for the Economic and Environmental Performance of Enterprises of the French Ministry of Agriculture spoke to climate and agriculture reporters and climate and food activists about “4 per 1000: Soils for Food Security and Climate,” an initiative to mitigate, and eventually reverse, climate change. The Initiative, launched in December at the COP21 Climate Summit in Paris, calls for countries to increase soil carbon worldwide by 0.4% per year. So far, 26 countries and more than 50 organizations have formally signed on to the initiative.

Also speaking at today’s event, held at the National Press Club, was André Leu, president of IFOAM Organics International, and leading soil scientists: David C. Johnson, Ph.D., New Mexico State University; Kris Nichols, Ph.D., Rodale Institute; Tim LaSalle, Ph.D., Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; and Richard Teague, Ph.D., Texas A & M. (Full bios here)

Leu told the audience: “The French Government 4 per 1000 Initiative is a fantastic win, win, win for the planet. By changing agriculture to one that regenerates soil organic carbon we not only reverse climate change we can improve farm yields, increase water holding capacity and drought resilience, reduce the use of toxic agrochemicals, improve farm profitability and produce higher quality food.”

LaSalle said: “If we stopped all GHG emissions today, the planet would still warm for the next 40 years.  We absolutely must stop the emissions.  But what is now also imperative is that we reduce this legacy of CO2 in our atmosphere and oceans.  We have mechanism to do this through photosynthesis and our soils.  And with the right incentives in place, our farmers and ranchers the world over can perform this heroic feat. But this is key: We must create the proper incentives for our civilization’s survival.”

Teague said: “Data from leading conservation ranchers in North America indicates that with appropriate grazing management the goal of the COP21 Climate Summit in Paris to increase soil carbon on grazed agricultural land by 0.4% per year can be exceeded by a factor of 2 or 3. With appropriate grazing management, ruminant livestock consuming only grazed rangeland and forages can increase C sequestered in the soil to more than offset their GHG emissions. This would result in a GHG-negative footprint, while at the same time supporting and improving other essential ecosystem services for local populations. Affected ecosystem services include water infiltration, nutrient cycling, soil formation, reduction of soil erosion, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and wildlife habitat.”

Nichols said: “Research shows that soils are carbon-deficient, which is not only causing problems with soil erosion, but also negatively impacting air and water quality, water management, increasing flooding and drought, and negatively impacting nutrient cycling in soil and nutritive quality of food. Organic farming practices will regenerate soils by putting carbon back into the earth.”

Johnson said: “Microbes have fashioned the destiny of our planet for over 4 billion years, and they currently facilitate the day-to-day cycling of all earth’s elemental components flowing between terrestrial, oceanic and atmospheric environments. In efforts to sustain our civilizations over the past 200-plus years, we have employed agricultural practices that exhaust soil carbon resources, a practice that in the past has invariably led to the downfall of many civilizations. Restoring the population, structure and function of microbes in soils of our agroecosystems will begin the process of building soil health, and in turn promote development of mutualisms between plants and microbes towards improving soil fertility and soil carbon reserves while concurrently reducing atmospheric CO2.”

Joining Regeneration International in organizing today’s event were Biodiversity for a Livable Climate, GrassPower, IFOAM Organics International, Rodale Institute and Soil4Climate.

Additional materials:

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Fact Sheet

Regeneration International,  a project of the Organic Consumers Association, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to building a global network of farmers, scientists, businesses, activists, educators, journalists, governments and consumers who will promote and put into practice regenerative agriculture and land-use practices that: provide abundant, nutritious food; revive local economies; rebuild soil fertility and biodiversity; and restore climate stability by returning carbon to the soil, through the natural process of photosynthesis.