Published: December 4, 2017
During a major soil catastrophe — the Dust Bowl — President Franklin Roosevelt told state governors, “The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”
Still, we treat our soil like dirt. By growing food and storing carbon dioxide and water, the loam and peat that coats the earth sustains us all. In return, we till it, treat it with chemicals and generally walk all over it.
Without healthy soil, food becomes less nutritious and crops become harder to grow. If the crops aren’t healthy, then the 70 percent of the world’s fresh water that’s used for agriculture will be wasted.
A 2012 study found that about a third of the planet’s topsoil is degraded and that without action, the world will be out of soil suitable for farming within 60 years.
Author: Laura Sayre | Published: August 10, 2017
We can’t say we weren’t warned. For years, scientists have argued that human civilization must prevent the planet’s average annual temperature from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius—or face certain catastrophe. Once we pass that critical threshold, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, life on planet earth is going to be a lot less fun. Think droughts, floods, superstorms, food shortages, and widespread extinctions.
Now, as forest fires rage and Delaware-sized chunks break off from Antarctica, scientists have more grim news: We’re going to hit the two-degree mark by the end of this century. Even if we manage to cut carbon emissions drastically, it’s simply too late—with one big caveat. If we can find some way to suck excess greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere, we may still avert the very worst catastrophes.
What’s the best way to do this? That’s still up for debate. A Bill Gates-backed startup, for instance, is experimenting with a factory-like facility that pumps CO2 out of the air, creating carbon pellets that can be buried underground or used for fuel. But a time-honored, low-tech solution may prove to be even more viable. It’s called “carbon farming,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like: using farms not only to grow food, but also to sequester carbon safely in the soil.
In some ways, farmers make unlikely climate heroes. Agriculture is a major contributor to global climate change, since the industry drives deforestation, relies heavily on fossil fuel-powered machinery, and raises methane-emitting livestock by the billions. But farms, when they’re managed properly, can also be formidable carbon sinks.
Think back to biology class: Plants absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, releasing oxygen in exchange. As crops grow, carbon is used to build plant tissues both above and below ground—from stems and leaves to seeds and roots, even root hairs and root exudates. Sequestering more carbon by planting more trees is readily recognized as a strategy for fighting climate change. But what happens underground is just as important: Plant materials that are left to accumulate and slowly decompose in the soil contribute to the formation of soil organic matter, a way of storing carbon in the soil over long periods of time.
Author: Tobias Roberts | Published: August 23, 2017
WHERE WE STAND WITHOUT SOIL
Everything begins and ends with the soil. Unfortunately, close to 70% of it has been lost since the dawn of the agricultural revolution. Since the onset of the Green Revolution only half a decade ago, we´re getting rid of it faster than ever. Besides the ecocide that the loss of topsoil entails, it also is a major threat to our health. Most foods grown by industrial agricultural methods on depleted soil are nothing more than empty food carcasses filled with chemically supplied nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus.
Without healthy soil that includes dozens of other micronutrients as a result of the functioning soil food web, we´re simply not getting the nutrition we need, no matter how cosmetic our food supposedly looks.
THE LOSS OF OUR PLANET´S FERTILITY
It can be easy to be tricked into believing that we live in a world of abundance. Seeing the sheer magnitude of the corn harvest in Iowa, to name just one example, can make us feel like our food security is well provided for by combines, GPS-controlled tractors, and the thousands of other technologies of industrial agriculture. But below that seemingly abundant harvest, a serious problem is emerging. The Great Plains of the United States have been considered one of the most fertile areas of our earth. In some places, top soil reaches over 15 feet into the earth. But that apparently endless fertility has all but disappeared in recent years.
In 2014 alone, Iowa lost over 15 million tons of topsoil, mostly due to unsustainable industrial agricultural practices. That soil, along with the millions of pounds of chemical fertilizers and pesticides eventually make their way down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. The excess nitrates and pollution from this runoff has led to a hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico which is basically a dead area where no marine life can survive.
ECOLOGICAL DANGERS OF TOP SOIL LOSS
When the soil is gone, we as a species will be completely dependent on petroleum for creating chemical fertilizers give the plants we eat the nutrients they need to grow. The problem, of course, is that oil isn’t going to be around forever either. Peak oil is a moment in time when the maximum extraction of oil is reached, and some studies believe that we´re already reached that bleak milestone.
Our dependence on petroleum based agricultural inputs for fertility purposes, then, is simply unsustainable. Furthermore, without top soil to provide naturally occurring fertility, the use of chemical inputs is creating a host of ecological damages. Chemical fertilizers are almost all salt based leading to increased soil salinity. Though plants will grow with increased vigor initially, chemical fertilizers disrupt the natural soil cycle leading to eventual barrenness.
Top soil loss doesn’t only cause a serious challenge to our long term food security, but it also causes other serious ecological catastrophes. The run off of top soil increases pollution and sedimentation in our waterways causing serious population declines in certain species of fish. Also, lands without top soil are more prone to serious flooding and increased desertification. Already 10-20% of our planet´s drylands face desertification, and needless today, plants don´t grow well in deserts.
Author: Eva Perroni | Published: August 9, 2107
On the 2017 International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, the United Nations is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The Declaration, formally adopted in 2007, is an international human rights instrument that sets a standard for the protection of indigenous rights. UNDRIP addresses the most significant issues affecting indigenous peoples regarding their civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights. It recognizes a range of fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples including their right to self-determination, spirituality, language, lands, territories, resources, and free, prior, and informed consent.
Over the centuries, indigenous peoples have provided a series of ecological and cultural services to humankind. The preservation of traditional forms of farming knowledge and practices help maintain biodiversity, enhance food security, and protect the world’s natural resources. There are approximately 370 million indigenous peoples in the world occupying or using up to 22 percent of the global land area, which is home to 80 percent of the world’s biological diversity. The Declaration affirms that indigenous peoples have the right to own and develop their land and resources and to follow their own traditional ways of growing food.
To celebrate the 10th Anniversary of UNDRIP, Food Tank is highlighting five indigenous farming practices that have helped shape sustainable farming systems and practices all over the world.
Agroforestry involves the deliberate maintenance and planting of trees to develop a microclimate that protects crops against extremes. Blending agricultural with forestry techniques, this farming system helps to control temperature, sunlight exposure, and susceptibility to wind, hail, and rain. This system provides a diversified range of products such as food, fodder, firewood, timber, and medicine while improving soil quality, reducing erosion, and storing carbon.
NGOs Green Hope Fund and Forestever initiated the Sustainable Indigenous Orchards Project in 2010 to fight deforestation and help improve the living and health conditions of Amazonian indigenous communities. Working with indigenous leaders across seven communities, the project works to diversify agricultural production, secure food security, and maintain and protect local biodiversity through agroforestry methods.
The Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) is dedicated to research and graduate education in sustainable agriculture and natural resource conservation throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. CATIE”s agroforestry research projects work to translate scientific findings into practices that small producers can apply on their farms to improve the production of ecosystem services and diversify crop production.
The Ghana Permaculture Institute has established several community tree nurseries to produce large numbers of trees that support reforestation and agroforestry farming projects. Working to support community-based sustainability, the institute provides education to small farmers on agroforestry techniques and planting combinations of fast-growing beneficial tree species.
Authors: Mike Amaranthus and Bruce Allyn | Published: June 11, 2013
We have been hearing a lot recently about a revolution in the way we think about human health — how it is inextricably linked to the health of microbes in our gut, mouth, nasal passages, and other “habitats” in and on us. With the release last summer of the results of the five-year National Institutes of Health’s Human Microbiome Project, we are told we should think of ourselves as a “superorganism,” a residence for microbes with whom we have coevolved, who perform critical functions and provide services to us, and who outnumber our own human cells ten to one. For the first time, thanks to our ability to conduct highly efficient and low cost genetic sequencing, we now have a map of the normal microbial make-up of a healthy human, a collection of bacteria, fungi, one-celled archaea, and viruses. Collectively they weigh about three pounds — the same as our brain.
Now that we have this map of what microorganisms are vital to our health, many believe that the future of healthcare will focus less on traditional illnesses and more on treating disorders of the human microbiome by introducing targeted microbial species (a “probiotic”) and therapeutic foods (a “prebiotic” — food for microbes) into the gut “community.” Scientists in the Human Microbiome Project set as a core outcome the development of “a twenty-first century pharmacopoeia that includes members of the human microbiota and the chemical messengers they produce.” In short, the drugs of the future that we ingest will be full of friendly germs and the food they like to eat.
The single greatest leverage point for a sustainable and healthy future for the seven billion people on the planet is arguably immediately underfoot: the living soil, where we grow our food. But there is another major revolution in human health also just beginning based on an understanding of tiny organisms. It is driven by the same technological advances and allows us to understand and restore our collaborative relationship with microbiota not in the human gut but in another dark place: the soil.
Just as we have unwittingly destroyed vital microbes in the human gut through overuse of antibiotics and highly processed foods, we have recklessly devastated soil microbiota essential to plant health through overuse of certain chemical fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, pesticides, failure to add sufficient organic matter (upon which they feed), and heavy tillage. These soil microorganisms — particularly bacteria and fungi — cycle nutrients and water to plants, to our crops, the source of our food, and ultimately our health. Soil bacteria and fungi serve as the “stomachs” of plants. They form symbiotic relationships with plant roots and “digest” nutrients, providing nitrogen, phosphorus, and many other nutrients in a form that plant cells can assimilate. Reintroducing the right bacteria and fungi to facilitate the dark fermentation process in depleted and sterile soils is analogous to eating yogurt (or taking those targeted probiotic “drugs of the future”) to restore the right microbiota deep in your digestive tract.
The good news is that the same technological advances that allow us to map the human microbiome now enable us to understand, isolate, and reintroduce microbial species into the soil to repair the damage and restore healthy microbial communities that sustain our crops and provide nutritious food. It is now much easier for us to map genetic sequences of soil microorganisms, understand what they actually do and how to grow them, and reintroduce them back to the soil.
Since the 1970s, there have been soil microbes for sale in garden shops, but most products were hit-or-miss in terms of actual effectiveness, were expensive, and were largely limited to horticulture and hydroponics. Due to new genetic sequencing and production technologies, we have now come to a point where we can effectively and at low cost identify and grow key bacteria and the right species of fungi and apply them in large-scale agriculture. We can produce these “bio fertilizers” and add them to soybean, corn, vegetables, or other crop seeds to grow with and nourish the plant. We can sow the “seeds” of microorganisms with our crop seeds and, as hundreds of independent studies confirm, increase our crop yields and reduce the need for irrigation and chemical fertilizers.
These soil microorganisms do much more than nourish plants. Just as the microbes in the human body both aid digestion and maintain our immune system, soil microorganisms both digest nutrients and protect plants against pathogens and other threats. For over four hundred million years, plants have been forming a symbiotic association with fungi that colonize their roots, creating mycorrhizae (my-cor-rhi-zee), literally “fungus roots,” which extend the reach of plant roots a hundred-fold. These fungal filaments not only channel nutrients and water back to the plant cells, they connect plants and actually enable them to communicate with one another and set up defense systems. A recent experiment in the U.K. showed that mycorrhizal filaments act as a conduit for signaling between plants, strengthening their natural defenses against pests. When attacked by aphids, a broad bean plant transmitted a signal through the mycorrhizal filaments to other bean plants nearby, acting as an early warning system, enabling those plants to begin to produce their defensive chemical that repels aphids and attracts wasps, a natural aphid predator. Another study showed that diseased tomato plants also use the underground network of mycorrhizal filaments to warn healthy tomato plants, which then activate their defenses before being attacked themselves.
Thus the microbial community in the soil, like in the human biome, provides “invasion resistance” services to its symbiotic partner. We disturb this association at our peril. As Michael Pollan recently noted, “Some researchers believe that the alarming increase in autoimmune diseases in the West may owe to a disruption in the ancient relationship between our bodies and their ‘old friends’ — the microbial symbionts with whom we coevolved.”
Author: UN Food and Agriculture Organisation | July 6, 2017
Climate change poses a major risk for rural people in developing countries, often leading to distress-driven migration, and bolstering sustainable agriculture is an essential part of an effective policy response, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said today.
Citing figures showing that since 2008 one person has been displaced every second by climate and weather disasters – an average of 26 million a year – and suggesting the trend is likely to intensify in the immediate future as rural areas struggle to cope with warmer weather and more erratic rainfall, he said the “solution to this great challenge” lies in bolstering the economic activities that the vast majority of rural populations are already engaged in.
Graziano da Silva and William Lacy Swing, Director-General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), spoke at a meeting during FAO’s Conference.
“Although less visible than extreme events like a hurricane, slow-onset climate change events tend to have a much greater impact over time,” Swing said, citing the drying up over 30 years of Lake Chad, now a food crisis hotspot. “Many migrants will come from rural areas, with a potentially major impact on agricultural production and food prices.”
As California farmers and ranchers, our livelihoods as well as the ability to feed America entirely depends on the climate. Working close to Nature, we are the first to notice shifts in weather. On our land and in our harvests, we bear the brunt of floods, drought and rising temperatures.
We are soil stewards who belong to a community beyond our own fields; we don’t plant for seasons but for generations. It’s with this legacy in mind that we pledge our support for the science, commitment and goals outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement.
We vow to continually improve our own on-farm practices to conserve energy and sequester carbon, but we also believe in the dire importance of a collective, worldwide commitment by all nations—including our own—to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius target stated in the Paris Climate Agreement, all while building a cleaner, 21st century economy.
As members of the agricultural community, we are concerned by our president’s decision to pull America out of this agreement. We disagree with the current administration that this international accord will harm our economy without mitigating the climate crisis.
We ask that our leaders return America to its role as a collaborative, global leader in combating Climate Change. And in the meantime, we support state-based initiatives as well as citizen-funded programs—unbeholden to federal policy shifts—that recognize not only the dire consequences that inaction will have on our farms, ranches and food supply, but also the regenerative role that we farmers and ranchers can play in reversing these dangerous trends and restoring a healthy carbon cycle.
America depends on farmers. And farmers depend on the climate. Now is the time to act.
Published: June 8, 2017
Tang Donghua, a wiry 47-year-old farmer wearing a Greenpeace T-shirt, smokes a cigarette and gesticulates towards his paddy fields in the hills of southern Hunan province. The leaves of his rice plants poke about a foot above water. Mr Tang says he expects to harvest about one tonne of rice from his plot of a third of a hectare (0.8 acres) near the small village of Shiqiao. There is just one problem: the crop will be poisoned.
Egrets and damselflies chomp lazily on fish and insects in the humid valley below the paddy fields. But just beyond this rural scene lurks something discordant. Mr Tang points to a chimney around 2km away that belches forth white smoke. It belongs to the smelting plant which he blames for bringing pollution into the valley. Cadmium is released during the smelting of ores of iron, lead and copper. It is a heavy metal. If ingested, the liver and kidneys cannot get rid of it from the body, so it accumulates, causing joint and bone disease and, sometimes, cancer.
Hunan province is the country’s largest producer of rice—and of cadmium. The local environmental-protection agency took samples of Mr Tang’s rice this year and found it contained 50% more cadmium than allowed under Chinese law (whose limits are close to international norms). Yet there are no limits on planting rice in polluted areas in the region, so Mr Tang and his neighbours sell their tainted rice to the local milling company which distributes it throughout southern China. Mr Tang has sued the smelter for polluting his land—a brave act in China, where courts regularly rule in favour of well-connected businesses. His is an extreme case of soil contamination, one of the largest and most neglected problems in the country.
Soil contamination occurs in most countries with a lot of farmland, heavy industry and mining. In Ukraine, for example, which has all three, about 8% of the land is contaminated. A chemical dump in upstate New York called Love Canal resulted in the poisoning of many residents and the creation of the “superfund”, a federal programme to clean up contaminated soil. But the biggest problems occur in China, the world’s largest producer of food and of heavy industrial commodities such as steel and cement.
China’s smog is notorious. Its concentrations of pollutants—ten or more times the World Health Organisation’s maximum safe level—have put clean air high on the political agenda and led the government to curtail the production and use of coal. Water pollution does not spark as much popular outrage but commands the attention of elites. Wen Jiabao, a former prime minister, once said that water problems threaten “the very survival of the Chinese nation”. China has a vast scheme to divert water from its damp southern provinces to the arid north.
Dishing the dirt
Soil pollution, in contrast, is buried: a poisoned field can look as green and fertile as a healthy one. It is also intractable. With enough effort, it is possible to reduce air or water pollution, though it may take years or decades. By contrast, toxins remain in the soil for centuries, and are hugely expensive to eradicate. It took 21 years and the removal of 1,200 cubic metres of soil to clean up the Love Canal, a site covering just 6.5 hectares.
China’s soil contamination is so great that it cannot adopt such a course (see map). The country is unusual in that it not only has many brownfield sites (contaminated areas near cities that were once used for industry) but large amounts of polluted farmland, too. In 2014 the government published a national soil survey which showed that 16.1% of all soil and 19.4% of farmland was contaminated by organic and inorganic chemical pollutants and by metals such as lead, cadmium and arsenic. That amounts to roughly 250,000 square kilometres of contaminated soil, equivalent to the arable farmland of Mexico. Cadmium and arsenic were found in 40% of the affected land. Officials say that 35,000 square kilometres of farmland is so polluted that no agriculture should be allowed on it at all.
Stick in the mud
This survey is controversial. Carried out in 2005-13, it was at first classified as a state secret, leading environmentalists to fear that the contamination might be even worse than the government let on. Not everyone, however, is as pessimistic. Chen Tongbin, head of the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research in Beijing, thinks the figure of 19.4% is too high. Based on local studies, he says 10% is nearer the mark. Even that would be a worrying figure, given that China is trying to feed a fifth of the world’s population on a tenth of the world’s arable land. The conclusion seems to be that China’s soil pollution is widespread and that information about it is disturbingly unreliable.
There are three reasons why the contamination is so extensive. First, China’s chemical and fertiliser industries were poorly regulated for decades and the soil still stores the waste that was dumped on it for so many years. In 2015, for example, 10,000 tonnes of toxic waste was discovered under a pig farm in Jiangsu province in the east of China after a businessman proposed plans to build a warehouse on the plot and tested the soil. In 2004 construction workers on the Beijing metro suddenly fell ill when they started tunnelling under a site previously occupied by a pesticide factory.
Author: Umberto Bacchi | Date Published: June 7, 2017
Britain’s Prince Charles called on Wednesday for greater diversity in crop planting to feed a growing population in the face of global warming.
Access to a large pool of genetic information held by different plant varieties is key for scientists, who are racing to find crops capable of tolerating increasingly high temperatures, water shortages and dry conditions.
Three quarters of the world’s plant genetic diversity has been lost since the 1900s, as farmers shift from local varieties to genetically uniform, high-yielding crop breeds, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Speaking in a video message in support of an international lobby group, Food Forever, Charles said the trend to grow fewer varieties was “profoundly alarming”.
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