China Moves to Implement More Sustainable Ag Practices, Which Is Good for Everybody

Author: Andrew Amelinckx | Published: February 9, 2017 

On Sunday, the Central Government released its Number One Central Document, the first policy statement of the year, and as in the previous 13 years, it focused on agriculture and rural development. While previous Number One Documents have included mentions of sustainability measures, this year’s had a particularly strong focus on developing “green” policies.

“Green production and sustainable farming practices, under the overall framework of supply-side reform, was one of the highlights of this year’s document. ‘Green’ actually becomes one of the most frequently used words in the document,” Vincent Martin, the representative for China from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations tells Modern Farmer. “The gist of supply-side reform in China’s agricultural sector is to increase the output of high-quality products based on green and innovative production.”

China is now the fourth largest consumer of organically-produced food in the world, so expanding domestic organic production makes sense. The Central Government plans to push organic products in part by promoting favorable taxes for start-ups in rural areas, and by creating innovation centers to help support the production of high quality farm produce, according to Reuters.


Climate Change and Farming: Let’s Be Part of the Solution!

Author: Anna Bowen | Published on: January 9, 2017

What with rising rainfall in the west, and hotter, drier summers in the east, British farmers place plenty of challenges from global warming, writes Anna Bowen. But there are also positive opportunities for agricultural innovators to adapt their farming systems to changing conditions, make their operations more resilient and sustainable, and make themselves part of the solution.

I think it’s time to change my farming system”, said my client. “A switch from dairy to rice paddies.”

Looking at his sodden fields, it wasn’t hard to imagine.

When you work with farmers, conversations about the weather are inevitable. Their livelihoods are intrinsically linked to the climate, and very often they and their animals are at the mercy of the elements.

As a consultant I work with long-term financial projections and business plans. In light of rising global temperatures it would be foolish to overlook the impact that climate change may have on my dairy farming clients in the dampness of West Wales.

The last decade has seen record-setting wet years for Britain, and the risk of flooding and the problems associated with sodden ground look likely to be an increasing challenge for farmers. The Environment Agency state that precipitation in the West of the country is expected to increase by up to 33%, a significant rise for an area that already experiences some of the highest rainfall in the UK.


Why Owning Your Own Farm Isn’t Necessarily a Ticket for Financial Well-Being

Authors: Michael Colby & Will Allen | Published on: December 10, 2016

These are economically tragic times for America’s farmers. This year, the average on-farm income for a farm family will be -$1,400. Yes, negative. In other words, they’re paying to produce the nation’s food and fiber. And it’s been going on for decades, all the result of a food system, from production and processing to sales and regulations, that is dominated and controlled by a handful of integrated corporate behemoths. That control, coupled with an economic model centered on the devaluation of production (farming!), has spelled nothing but doom for farmers.

While it’s happening everywhere, we live amidst its damage in Vermont, seeing firsthand the impact commodity-priced dairy is having on our agriculture. It’s a horror, really, with thousands of farms lost in the last few decades, all squeezed and pinched and eventually forced to leave the only thing they knew—working the land. And again, it’s all the result of a cheap food model, dictated by the corporate few and allowed by a largely shrugging public.

There’s plenty of money in food. It’s just not getting to the farmers. Vermont’s dairy industry, for example, is dominated by two well-known corporate giants: Ben & Jerry’s and Cabot Creamery. Last year, Ben & Jerry’s grossed around $600 million and Cabot and its parent, Agri-Mark, grossed nearly a billion dollars. Both have bragged in financial reports about how well they’re doing, with increased executive pay and all kinds of bells and whistles for the office set. Ben & Jerry’s makes so much money that they have a foundation to give some of it away.


Five Key Messages From the 2016 Acres U.S.A. Conference

Published: December 28, 2016

The Acres U.S.A. Conference & Trade Show is one of the premiere events nationwide for commercial-scale sustainable and organic agriculture, bringing together the world’s leading farmers, consultants, scientists and activists. Skillfully navigating diverse topics ranging from water management, GMOs, soil fertility and carbon sequestration to pastured livestock, biological weed control, human health and natural beekeeping, the 2016 Acres U.S.A. Conference in Omaha, Neb, provided an invaluable learning and networking opportunity for more than 1,200 attendees from across the U.S. and many countries, including Guam, Mexico, Germany, Japan, Canada, Brazil, New Zealand and more.


How Can Agriculture Address the Growing Economic and Environmental Pressures of Climate Change?

Published on: November 18, 2016

The devastating consequences of climate change threaten our natural resources, food security, and the productivity and economic viability of farming operations. Agriculture has an important role to play in helping us mitigate and adapt to climate change, and as we approach a major administrative transition and early discussions around the 2018 Farm Bill, the connection between agriculture and climate change will need to be further explored. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and our members believe that by giving farmers the tools to invest in their soil and become an active part of climate change mitigation, we can develop effective strategies that work for farmers, the environment, and the economy.

The Economic Impact of Climate Change

A new report released by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) warns that the impacts of climate change will cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars. The report, “Climate Change: The Fiscal Risks Facing the Federal Government,” provides analysis showing that the fiscal impact of climate change is already very real. According to the report, those risks will only continue to grow over the next century unless we take ambitious action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and adapt to a changing climate.

The report lists several significant economic threats facing the nation as a result of climate change, including increases in: the need for disaster relief and flood insurance to address the heightened frequency of storms; investments to protect, repair, and relocate federal facilities impacted by rising sea levels and heavy rain events; health care costs as a results of degraded water quality, air quality, and unpredictable weather conditions; costs for fire suppression as a result of an increased frequency and intensity of wildfires across the country; and risk management for the nation’s farmers and ranchers who most directly feel the impacts of changing weather patterns and increased storm intensity. On this last point, OMB estimates there will be a 50 percent increase in the cost of the federal crop insurance subsidy program due to a changing climate in the coming decades.


Farm Workers Earn Through Carbon Credit Programme

Author: Megan Van Wyngaardt | Published on: December 13, 2016

Twenty-seven employees of the Spier wine estate, in Stellenbosch, have, through a climate change mitigation initiative, shared half the R204 000 paid out from carbon credits – derived from practicing regenerative farming on a section of the organically certified wine farm.

An average of R4 000 was given to each worker, with those managing the cattle component receiving a larger portion of the credits.

“The farm acquired the credits for sequestering 6 493 t of carbon dioxide in its soil, which is cultivated in as natural a way as possible by using regenerative farming practices like high-density grazing,” said Spier Wine Farm livestock farm manager Angus McIntosh.

“This is a technique that involves frequent stock rotations aimed at using livestock to mimic nature by restoring carbon and nitrogen contained in livestock and poultry urine into the soil profile.”


Our Modern Food System Is Not Set up for Good Health

Author: Paul Ebeling | Published on: Nov

Cheap food is really more of a curse than a blessing.

Agriculture has undergone huge changes over the past 70+ years. Many of them were heralded as progress that would save people from hunger and despair.

But, today, we are faced with a new set of problems driven by the innovations and interventions that were meant to provide people with safety and prosperity.

Since WWII food production has been all about efficiency and lowering cost. Today, we see what this approach has brought on heightened disease statistics and a faltering ecosystem.

The success of the processed food industry has come at a tremendous price to the people who eat it. As their lives are now at stake due to diet-related diseases. Many people have also become incorrectly convinced that eating healthy is a complicated equation requiring lots of nutritional data.

They are wrong.

It is very much simpler than one might think. Eating healthy is really about eating REAL food, meaning food as close to its natural state as possible. Avoiding agricultural toxins like pesticides is also part of the answer. But sadly this is not the kind of food American farmers are currently focused on producing.


Curbing Climate Change Starts With Healthy Soil

It’s barely May, but Aspen Moon Farm is bustling with fall harvest-like activity. The inclusion of seedlings in its offerings makes today’s farmers market preparations hum. At least half a dozen helpers line the long dirt drive up to the house, where owner Jason Griffith breaks for a sandwich in his enclosed patio. At 45, Griffith has been farming this plot of land in Hygiene, Colorado, for just a few years—but long enough to expand to 10 acres and learn some critical lessons.

“When I first started farming I was gearing all of my production toward ‘how many crops can I get out of this bed or that bed and how intensely can I plant?'” he says. That approach—despite organic and biodynamic cultivation—resulted in soil degradation, evidenced by diminished plant health and increased pests. Griffith reassessed his multiple annual harvests.”We realized we were going to wear that field out quickly. It was interesting to see how fast it could happen.” Wearing out the field is not unique—modern agriculture relies on synthetic chemicals for fertility, too often viewing soil simply as an inert growing medium. What’s unique about Griffith—as with other small-scale organic farmers dependent on nutrient- rich soil—is he chose to do something about it.

For Griffith, the solution unfolded by reframing the farming effort. “It’s really just about changing the focus from the crop to the soil and what does the soil need so we don’t have to add a ton of fertility every year.” Reducing added fertilizers—natural or otherwise—meant giving scheduling priority to soil-building crops above revenue-producing ones. “Instead of setting up my schedule and saying, ‘I need to plant carrots, beets and all this stuff where I want, whenever I want,’” Griffith says, “I’m basically saying: ‘I need to have a cover crop in this field by this date.’” Then he determines what vegetables work in rotation. The result is a productive farm with a year-round focus on maintaining or improving soil fertility.

The dirty truth

It would be difficult to find a more passionate soil advocate than Tom Newmark. The former CEO of New Chapter supplement company, Newmark is cofounder and board chair of The Carbon Underground and co-owner of Finca Luna Nueva lodge and biodynamic farm in Costa Rica.

By phone, Newmark launches into a landslide of daunting truths. “Because of the worldwide destruction of between 50 and 70 percent of the fertile soil in which we grow our food … ” he says, also citing the FAO, “we have only 60 harvests [years] left before the world loses its ability to produce any food.”

Beyond dwindling food production, Newmark lists impending dangers, such as desertification—or drying up—of farm and range lands and a water cycle “so warped and distorted that much of the planet is whipsawed by either drought or flood.” If you’re concerned about the devastating weather extremes that have become far too common, he says, “You have to be concerned about soil.”

He explains how soil carbon correlates with soil organic matter: the rich, decomposing material and microbiology of the soil ecosystem. Acting as what he calls “the soil/water battery,” each percentage point of soil organic matter is able to hold between 20,000 and 70,000 gallons of water per acre. “When you don’t have the top soil, when you don’t have the organic matter in the soil, then the soil can’t store the rain, and plants can’t handle climate extremes because they don’t have water reserves in the soil,” Newmark says. The ripple effect of this includes local relative humidity, which distorts cloud formation and rain. “The destruction of the planet’s soil therefore has an immediate and direct effect on drought, crop failure and desertification.”

Possibly the biggest and most overlooked ecological service soil provides, however, is its role in climate change—via carbon sequestration. Global soils are, in fact, massive carbon storehouses—yes, that carbon: the temperature-raising, sea level-raising stuff of inconvenient headlines. The opportunity to lock this excess atmospheric carbon into the ground is at the root of a movement called regenerative agriculture. But with this comes awareness of the inverse impact: the vast release of carbon by agricultural means. “In fact,” Newmark says, “somewhere around 40 percent of the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes directly from the soil.” That’s astounding in a world where human solutions to human-caused climate change tend toward the cars we drive and the lights we turn off. Newmark’s 40 percent is difficult to substantiate.

A U.N. paper puts it closer to 30 percent. But, says Newmark, that doesn’t account for the soil organic matter oxidized due to tilling or nitrogen fertilization.

Regardless, in the broad view of climate change there’s a double win that comes from carbon-rich soil. In addition to slowing or even reversing atmospheric carbon, soils richer in carbon (read: sticky, quenched) are also more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

This is good news, and it sounds even better the astonishingly simple way Newmark puts it: The soil lost its carbon, it wants it back and it knows how to get it. “There’s actually technology that is time-tested, safe and available worldwide for free that will take all the carbon we have irresponsibly let loose in the environment and bring it back to earth. That technology is called photosynthesis.” There’s a third win, too: Getting that carbon into the soil is synonymous with the soil fertility Griffith is looking for.

“The bad news is, we’ve absolutely botched things up with agricultural malpractice in the last 50 years,” Newmark says. “The good news is we can put the carbon back in the soil, recreate fertility, recreate the soil/water battery, recreate food stability and reverse climate change by using agriculture that is in accordance with the laws of nature and not at war with the laws of nature.”

Fixing nitrogen

“The number-one thing we absolutely have to do is to stop using synthetic nitrogen fertilizer,” Newmark says. “It’s just that simple, and the research worldwide is clear: The use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer corresponds with the destruction of soil organic matter and the release of CO2 into the atmosphere.”

We have long known the dangers of nitrogen fertilizer. Its rampant use has been linked to coastal dead zones, fish kills, groundwater pollution, air pollution and even “reduced crop, forest and grassland productivity,” according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). What is newer to the dump on nitrogen is its direct correlation to carbon release and climate change. But, hold on: Nitrogen is a necessary plant nutrient, and the now 100-year-old ability to synthesize nitrogen from thin air is a key part of the agricultural “Green Revolution” that brought more food, more quickly, to more mouths in the mid-twentieth century. The need for nitrogen is what makes synthetic fertilizer so effective, and effectiveness is what makes its use so widespread.

What Newmark describes, though, is a distorted ecosystem, starting with an artificial growth factor—synthetic nitrogen—that stimulates a “rapid, wild cascade of growth of soil microbiome in an almost cancerous form.” Microbiological aliveness is a measure of soil health, but its unchecked growth creates an imbalance. It all comes
down to complex underground trade negotiations, Newmark explains. In order to uptake nitrogen naturally, plants undergo an elaborate exchange with soil bacteria. Although both carbon and nitrogen are amply available in the air, they are inaccessible depending on who’s asking for it. Plants can’t get at the nitrogen; bacteria can’t get the carbon. “But,” says Newmark, “the bacteria have the nitrogen and the plants have this carbohydrate [carbon in the form of plant sugars] so at the tip of the root of every plant there’s an exchange that can happen, where the plants can swap their carbon-rich sugars for the biologically available nitrogen that the bacteria have. Brilliant!” And natural.

Until the introduction of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, that is. With it the plant has received biologically available nitrogen without having to put forth the effort of feeding the bacteria. A conditioned laziness ensues, closing a trade that includes not just nitrogen, but a host of micronutrients, too. “The whole underground economy shuts down,” says Newmark, “because we’ve been giving crack cocaine to the plants.”

What needs to happen, Newmark says unequivocally, is “all agricultural systems that rely on synthetic nitrogen fertilizers have to be abandoned, and they have to be abandoned quickly. We don’t have time to debate this issue.”

The second thing we have to do, Newmark says, is leave the carbon in the soil when it gets there. “If you have carbon that is in a relatively stable form in the soil, you have to leave it there, leave that structure undamaged.” But, he says, deep and repeated plowing, or tilling, breaks apart soil structure and releases CO2 back into the atmosphere. “We have to stop doing that,” says Newmark. “We have to stop ripping apart the thin layer of topsoil that covers much of our land surfaces on the planet.”


American Agriculture in the Cross-Hairs — Is the Farm Bill Helping or Hindering Food Security, Health and Democracy?

Food security. Health. Environmental sustainability. Democracy. All of these things are interconnected like spokes around the hub of agriculture. Agriculture, in turn, has undergone massive changes over the past several decades. Many of them were heralded as progress that would save us from hunger and despair.

Yet today, we’re faced with a new set of problems, birthed from the very innovations and interventions that were meant to provide us with safety and prosperity.

The Price of Divorcing Ourselves From Nature

You don’t have to go very far back in history to get to a point where “What should I eat?” was a nonexistent question. Everyone knew what “food” was. They harvested food off trees, bushes and out of the ground, and they ate it, either raw or cooked in some fashion.

Our current confusion about what is healthy and what is not is basically rooted in having divorced ourselves from the actual growing of food. What’s worse, this separation has led to an even greater forgetfulness about our place in the ecosystem, and our role as shepherds of the natural world.

Soil health, for example, is a crucial component of human health that many are clueless about these days. And because people don’t understand this connection, they fail to realize the importance of regenerative agriculture, and the dangers of industrial farming.

For decades, food production has been all about efficiency and lowering cost. Today, we see what this approach has brought us — skyrocketing disease statistics and a faltering ecosystem.


Gabe Brown’s Five Keys to Soil Health

Gabe Brown from North Dakota is one of the most influential farmers in the developed world. Insights from his property are inspiring commercial farmers to understand soil health from a whole new perspective and scientists are catching on to his success.

Brown recently visited Australia to rub shoulders with communities of farmers pioneering low input farming and looking to enjoy benefits of greater profits and less stress.  His message is simple: To change what you do on-farm, make little changes; to change what you see on-farm, make big changes.

Sustainability as seen by most agronomists and policy makers simply means to sustain a degraded resource like soil.  As Brown argues, unless soil is regenerating there is little hope for farmers and their communities to improve water quality.  Right now US farmers are being sued by cities for contaminating drinking water with nitrogen.

Three things made Brown question industry advice: Four years of no income from drought and hail; pioneering soil scientists pointing out how agrichemicals degrade soil function; being a keen observer of native prairie grasslands.

His cash crops now yield 25 per cent above his county average without any inputs except very occasional herbicide and he is looking to cut that completely, too.

Now scientists, and even National Geographic magazine, are banging on his door to study how soils are improving on his 2000-hectare property.  Their studies find increasing NPK and organic carbon despite no inputs used. To anybody looking in, it’s not just his use of cover crops which is eliminating fertiliser use.

Brown promotes five keys to soil health. The first is least amount of soil disturbance possible, preferably no-till.