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Regenerative Agriculture Can Make Farmers Stewards of the Land Again

For years, “sustainable” has been the buzzword in conversations about agriculture. If farmers and ranchers could slow or stop further damage to land and water, the thinking went, that was good enough. I thought that way too, until I started writing my new book, “One Size Fits None: A Farm Girl’s Search for the Promise of Regenerative Agriculture.”

Photo credit: Pexels

I grew up on a cattle ranch in western South Dakota and once worked as an agricultural journalist. For me, agriculture is more than a topic – it is who I am. When I began working on my book, I thought I would be writing about sustainability as a response to the environmental damage caused by conventional agriculture – farming that is industrial and heavily reliant on oil and agrochemicals, such as pesticides and fertilizers.

 

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To Address the Climate Crisis, We Must Completely Rethink How We Produce and Consume Food

The clock on climate upheaval is ticking fast with little time to lose, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made frighteningly clear last week. “Limiting global warming to 1.5ºC would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” the October 8 report warned. Yet just one month earlier, the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) brushed over what may be the most critical “aspect of society,” making only marginal mention of the crisis’s top cause.

Photo credit: Pexels

Tucked away in a pastry-laden conference room in a downtown San Francisco office building, a “high-level roundtable” of international leaders discussed something pivotal to the fate of the planet yet sidelined by the summit: food and agriculture.

Led by New Zealand’s ambassador to the United States, Tim Groser, and top representatives from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Resources Institute and others, the roundtable posed the challenge, “How can we make agricultural climate action more attractive?”

Food and agriculture represents the single-biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions—at between 19 and 29 percent including associated deforestation, more than any other sector in the global economy. Yet, “agriculture is always the last at the party,” noted Groser, former chair of the World Trade Organization agriculture negotiations process, during the roundtable. Other GCAS panels explored issues of deforestation, land use and food production systems—but these pivotal issues were largely absent from the summit’s main stage events, and were barely mentioned in the protests and teach-ins surrounding the summit.

The roundtable, hosted by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, featured a dissonant blend of urgency and lack of clarity: There was no consensus around how to rapidly reduce food’s greenhouse gas emissions, which stem chiefly from industrial agriculture’s removal of forests and other carbon sinks, alongside ballooning meat and dairy production. Livestock production alone spews 14.5 percent of all the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

A failing food system

“The way we produce food is failing us,” said Zitouni Ould Dada, deputy director of the UN FAO’s climate and environment division, in an interview after the event. “The whole system of land use has to change. We need to produce food with the land we have.”

The roundtable raised a host of food and climate crises and challenges:

  • In a survey of 174 countries by the World Resources Institute, just nine had targets for reducing methane emissions from their food production.
  • Despite heaps of evidence showing industrial livestock is a top climate threat, global meat and dairy production and consumption continue to soar.
  • Massive food waste is a major hunger and climate problem: according to the UN FAO, a full one-third of all food is wasted or lost, and “if food wastage were a country, it would be the third largest emitting country in the world.”

As the FAO’s Dada explained, “We are trying to get production to shift toward efficiency because we know there is so much food wastage, from the time you sow the food to the time you have it on your plate,” including long-distance transportation, storage and processing. “Instead of producing more, we can produce more efficiently.”

The roundtable clarified a key dilemma: with nations dependent on trade, exports and economic development to maintain economic growth—and that growth invariably spurring greater meat consumption—how can countries fill their economic coffers while slashing food-related emissions?

As the world’s top exporter of goat and sheep meat, and a major beef producer, New Zealand illustrates this tension between trade and emissions reduction. The far-flung island nation faces a “very acute problem when it comes to our emissions program,” Groser acknowledged.

But, with global meat consumption rising and livestock’s climate hoof-print clear, how would top beef exporters reduce their climate harm while maintaining income for those nations and their farmers? When this reporter posed the question to the roundtable, Groser dodged the core challenge of production and consumption. “Production is not the problem,” he responded. “The problem is the how, the sustainability of production.”

While debate persists between better meat and no meat, more sustainable ranching has been on the rise, including grass-fed, smaller-scale and rotational grazing systems. Scientists and activists continue to debate the emissions reductions and carbon storage potential of these alternatives, but there is little question that producing and consuming less livestock would reduce food’s climate impact.

Unfortunately, the big picture of meat and dairy is grim. Global per capita meat consumption continues to rise (with the United States and other industrial “developed” nations leading the way)—and with it comes climate-wrecking deforestation, along with methane and nitrous oxide emissions.

When asked about using national policy such as subsidies or other incentives to propel more sustainable food production, the roundtable offered meager response. Groser said there are efforts in that direction, but he stressed the contradiction of governments trying to price carbon in the marketplace while also subsidizing carbon production.

For Groser, the dilemma exemplifies “the enormous sensitivity of agriculture” in climate reduction, particularly for nations that rely on agriculture and exports to survive. According to the EPA, agriculture comprises 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—though given farming’s relatively small chunk of the U..S economy, “it is a disproportionately GHG-intensive activity,” the USDA Economic Research Service has noted. New Zealand, meanwhile, generates half of its emissions from agriculture, Ireland 30 percent, France 20 percent, and Uruguay around 80 percent, according to Groser. “There’s no incentive structure for anyone to worry about agriculture other than France, Ireland and New Zealand.”

Like the summit itself, the roundtable focused far more on market-driven approaches than on how governments can regulate or fundamentally change the market systems that require relentless growth and profits. Gail Work, CEO of One Earth Ventures, touted lab research suggesting “we can increase the size of cows and the volume of milk while reducing pollution.” Manish Bapna, executive vice president of the World Resources Institute, emphasized using “market forces” to sway corporate supply chains to address deforestation—but, he added, “what we’ve seen is not nearly enough progress.” Any notion of the public sector spurring or supporting more rapid change was missing from the roundtable conversation.

As the latest IPCC report spells out, aggressively tackling the climate crisis would have “clear benefits to people and natural ecosystems,” and “could go hand in hand with ensuring a more sustainable and equitable society.” While given short shrift by the climate summit and the movement  protests surrounding it, critical efforts are afoot to shrink food’s outsized role in climate change. From institutions such as schools and hospitals reducing their meat consumption, to global farmer movements pushing agroecology farming systems that boost resiliency while reducing emissions, there are signs of hope.

The chief question is whether this progress can be radically and rapidly expanded.  For that to happen, the issue must be more heartily embraced by high-profile climate summits, world governments and the climate movement, as a central component of both the crisis and its solutions.

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.

Restorative Farmland Finance Is Growing Organic Agriculture

Author: Katy Ibsen | Published: August 1, 2018

Iroquois Valley Farmland Real Estate Investment Trust puts organic farmers first. As a restorative farmland finance company, it is helping organic and regenerative farmers gain long-term, secure access to land by through farmland investment. By offering equity and debt investments, the company is able to provide favorable leasing and mortgage opportunities to farmers.

“We’re not as much focused on the real estate as we are the farmers themselves and using land access as a way for them to become more successful in their business,” said Claire Mesesan, communications director.

Rather, Iroquois Valley Farms (IVF), as it’s more commonly known, provides financing for organic farmers who present the company with specific land opportunities. This effort fills the void of banks and traditional forms of financing that are not prevalent in rural areas, especially for organic farmers.

Today the trust is operating in 14 states and, according to Mesesan, that growth was not only strategic but an outcome of the organic-farming community.

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6 Ways We’re Letting Our Soil Die – and How We Can Save It

Author: Malcolm Smith | Published: July 18, 2018

Unless you’re an avid gardener, you probably don’t give much thought to soil. It’s that dark muddy stuff that dirties your shoes. But farmers are utterly reliant on it to grow most of our food crops and to raise livestock  on pasture it nurtures.

So we are all reliant on soil for our breakfast cereals, our milk, our beef…and much more. Are farmers treating soil with the respect it deserves, though? Here are six soil concerns – and some solutions.

Less matter

Organic matter is the lifeblood of a healthy soil. But a government survey this year found that just a third of farmers keep track of it.

Organic matter gets into soil through the decomposition of plants on the soil surface (the stems and leaves after a crop has been harvested), from living and dead soil organisms, or by adding compost or manure.

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Regenerative Agriculture: Merging Farming and Natural Resource Conservation Profitably

Authors: Claire E. LaCanne, Jonathan G. Lundgren​ | Published: February 26, 2018

Most cropland in the United States is characterized by large monocultures, whose productivity is maintained through a strong reliance on costly tillage, external fertilizers, and pesticides (Schipanski et al., 2016). Despite this, farmers have developed a regenerative model of farm production that promotes soil health and biodiversity, while producing nutrient-dense farm products profitably. Little work has focused on the relative costs and benefits of novel regenerative farming operations, which necessitates studying in situ, farmer-defined best management practices. Here, we evaluate the relative effects of regenerative and conventional corn production systems on pest management services, soil conservation, and farmer profitability and productivity throughout the Northern Plains of the United States.

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Environmentally Friendly Cattle Production (Really)

Author: Michigan State University | Published: March 19, 2018

Three hundred years ago, enormous herds of bison, antelope and elk roamed North America, and the land was pristine and the water clean.

However, today when cattle congregate, they’re often cast as the poster animals for overgrazing, water pollution and an unsustainable industry. While some of the criticism is warranted, cattle production – even allowing herds to roam through grasslands and orchards – can be beneficial to the environment as well as sustainable.

In a study published in the journal Agricultural Systems, Michigan State University scientists evaluated adaptive multi-paddock, or AMP, grass fed operations as well as grain-fed, feedlot herds.

“Globally, beef production can be taxing on the environment, leading to high greenhouse gas emissions and land degradation,” said Jason Rowntree, MSU associate professor of animal science, who led the study. “Our four-year study suggests that AMP grazing can potentially offset greenhouse gas emissions, and the finishing phase of beef production could be a net carbon sink, with carbon levels staying in the green rather than in the red.”

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Nature Can Reduce Pesticide Use, Environment Impact

Author: Michigan State University | Published: March 1, 2018

Farmers around the world are turning to nature to help them reduce pesticide use, environmental impact and, subsequently, and in some cases, increasing yields.

Specifically, they’re attracting birds and other vertebrates, which keep pests and other invasive species away from their crops. The study, led by Michigan State University and appearing in the current issue of the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, showcases some of the best global examples.

“Our review of research shows that vertebrates consume numerous crop pests and reduce crop damage, which is a key ecosystem service,” said Catherine Lindell, MSU integrative biologist who led the study. “These pest-consuming vertebrates can be attracted to agricultural areas through several landscape enhancements.”

For example, Lindell and graduate student Megan Shave led earlier research to bring more American kestrels to Michigan orchards. Installing nest boxes attracted the small falcons, the most-common predatory bird in the U.S., to cherry orchards and blueberry fields. The feathered hunters consume many species that cause damage to crops, including grasshoppers, rodents and European starlings. In cherry orchards, kestrels significantly reduced the abundance of birds that eat fruit. (Results from blueberry fields are pending.)

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In Ethiopia’s Wheat Diversity, the Seeds of a Wheat Rust Solution

With pathogens like Ug99 evolving and adapting quickly, a diverse agricultural gene pool is often the best insurance for the future.

Authors: Kerstin Hoppenhaus & Sibylle Grunze | Published: January 22, 2018

Ethiopia is one of the oldest cultivating regions not only for wheat, but also for other crops like coffee, millet, and barley. Over thousands of years, the environment and farmers have interacted by selecting and breeding in order to adjust old crop varieties to regional conditions. The result is a unique variety of crop variations, and today, Ethiopia is recognized worldwide as a center for genetic diversity.

The Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov identified these centers as early as 1926. He noticed that in Peru, for example, there were thousands of potato varieties, while South and Central America had many different tomatoes and Central Asia saw a wide variety of carrots.

In Ethiopia, the diversity is in wheat — durum wheat in particular.

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Baby Steps – Profile in Soil Health

Moving Beyond Sustainability into a Regenerative System

Ezra Lakey started Lakey Farms in 1945 with a focus on small grain production.  Half the acres were in small grains and the other half were summer fallow, with the occasional plow down nitrogen pea crop.  The farm progressed and grew through the years as did the family.  Ezra’s five children all helped on the farm, but Dwight and his younger brother Jerry were the two who were most involved.  Dwight’s eldest son, David, returned after college to the farm to help the operation grow to nearly 9,000 acres at one point.  With the passing of Ezra in 2009 and the retirement of Jerry, additional help was needed.  At that time, Dwight’s youngest son, Dan, was 2 years out of college where he had obtained a bachelor’s degree in Business Management and was living in Twin Falls working in outside sales.  With the pending birth of his first child, the desire to raise his children on the farm was growing.  When presented with the opportunity to return to the farm, Dan and his wife, Marie, made the decision to return to the small East Idaho town.

A Legacy of Conservation

Soil conservation is nothing new to the Lakey’s.  In the early 1980s, they transitioned away from moldboard plowing into chisel plowing to reduce erosion.  They also incorporated water and sediment basins and contour farming for the same reason.  Then in the late 1990s ,they moved away from fallowing so many dryland acres and moved to annual cropping. Dwight served on the Caribou Soil Conservation District from 1989 to 1998.  Through the years, they have tried to implement the best conservation techniques of the time.

When Dan came back to the farm in 2009, changes were in the works.  The Lakey’s were seeing the negative effects of using Anhydrous Ammonia (NH3) fertilizer and starting to transition away from it.  Dwight was looking at incorporating mustard into their limited crop rotation.  Then a JD-1895 no-till drill was purchased. Dan was tasked with figuring out how to operate it and run it.  By 2013, mustard was in the rotation and giving the ground a much needed break from cereal grains, but they still were seeing some concerns on other cropland.   “At that time, I thought that what we needed was a different tillage tool or something to dump out of a jug that we could use to cure the problem,” Dan recalls.

Changing Views

The farm was looking at additional tillage implements such as disk rippers and high speed vertical tillage tools to deal with compaction and residue.  At one point, he thought possibly more fallowing and returning to the plow might be the answer.  Then, Dan began attending soil classes in 2014.

“I started to realize that what I was seeing and treating on the cropland were merely symptoms, and they weren’t addressing the real problem,” he said.

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Why Healthy Humans and Ecosystems Need Healthy Soil

Author: Eva Perroni | Published: January 2018

Emanuela Pille da Silva and Anabel González Hernández are working at the nexus of land rehabilitation, soil health, and sustainable agriculture. Their project Agricultural Production in Recovered Areas After Coal Mining in Brazil was a finalist in the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition (BCFN) Yes! Competition. The project assesses whether land that has been degraded by coal mining in southern Brazil is suitable for the production of safe and nutritious food. Their ongoing research at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil, uses plant microorganisms and soil microbes to monitor and aid the recovery of degraded lands.

Food Tank had the opportunity to talk with Pille da Silva and González Hernández about their project, the impact of coal mining on sustainable food production, and the links between soil and public health.

Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to become involved in food and agriculture research, and in particular to focus on soil microbiology?

Emanuela Pille da Silva & Anabel Gonzalez Hernandes (EPS & AGH): Our research team is multidisciplinary. We have experts in different areas from three universities in Latin America: a microbiologist from the University of Havana, Cuba, a biologist from the University of Antioquia, Colombia, and an agronomist from the Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil. We have all finished or are completing studies in the Plant Genetic Resources Graduate Program at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, which has been dedicated for almost 20 years to identifying conservation strategies and the sustainable use of plant genetic resources. Within the program, we chose to work on projects related to the recovery of degraded areas after mining, since the Brazilian mining industry is a significant contributor to the economy of Brazil. In the past, coal mining has been inadequately developed in southern Brazil, without observing the biotic and abiotic aspects necessary and indispensable to maintaining the quality of the environment around the mined areas. We believe that the land that has been degraded as a consequence of these mining activities can and should be reclaimed and regenerated for food production, especially for local communities. However, food quality and safety need to be monitored and ensured in this context.

FT: Congratulations on your project Agricultural Production in Recovered Areas After Coal Mining in Brazil making the BCFN YES! Competition finals in 2016. Can you tell us about the project?

EPS & AGH: Thank you. Our project is based on the idea that there may be a global scarcity of suitable farmland in the future. We believe that this scenario is even more likely in southern Brazil, where coal mining has put great pressure on land use and lead to environmental impacts, such as the contamination of soil and water with heavy metals. These elements are known to be bioaccumulative and pose a danger to human health. For these reasons, the Brazilian government and the coal industry were forced to conduct environmental recovery projects, implementing measures such as revegetation of affected areas and land reclamation for future use. Food production has been identified as a potential future use for these areas. However, there is uncertainty about the risk of transfer of toxic and heavy metals to humans, animals, and agricultural crops in these locations. The objective of the project was to assess the quality of food produced in these so-called recovered areas and their potential risks to human health. We hope that the monitoring of food contamination with heavy metals will be adopted as a public health policy in the region.

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