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Want Good Soil? Feed the Microbes

Author: Kathy Voth  | Published on: March 20, 2017

In June of 2014, Grist reporter Nathanael Johnson reported on a battle between two men in New South Wales Australia. Clive Kirkby and John Kirkegaard were having it out over the proper handling of crop residues after harvest. Kirkby was trying to get farmers to stop torching wheat stubble. Rather than letting fire release all that carbon into the atmosphere, he told them that they could increase soil organic matter and build healthier, carbon-rich soils by leaving the stubble in the field.  John Kirkegaard, an agronomist, told Kirkby he was wrong. The practice of burning and cultivating was what was growing the best crops.

As most folks will tell you nowadays, cultivating, or plowing, disrupts soil microbes and releases even more carbon into the air. That’s why no-till is becoming increasingly popular. But the practice that Kirkby was promoting didn’t seem to be making a difference either. After six years of leaving stubble in the field, Kirkegaard’s data showed that soil organic matter and the carbon it holds wasn’t increasing, and in some cases, it was even decreasing.

Farmers have been encouraged to leave stubble in the field for the same reason that management-intensive grazing proponents leave plenty of forage behind in pasture: It’s food for the soil. Put more precisely, it’s fuel for a complex, not entirely understood food web of fungi, insects, and microbes eating the residue and each other and transforming plant remains into stable, carbon-rich soil.

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3 Big Myths About Modern Agriculture

Author: David R. Montgomery  | Published on: April 5, 2017

The following essay is reprinted with permission from The Conversation, an online publication covering the latest research.The Conversation

One of the biggest modern myths about agriculture is that organic farming is inherently sustainable. It can be, but it isn’t necessarily. After all, soil erosion from chemical-free tilled fields undermined the Roman Empire and other ancient societies around the world. Other agricultural myths hinder recognizing the potential to restore degraded soils to feed the world using fewer agrochemicals.

When I embarked on a six-month trip to visit farms around the world to research my forthcoming book, “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” the innovative farmers I met showed me that regenerative farming practices can restore the world’s agricultural soils. In both the developed and developing worlds, these farmers rapidly rebuilt the fertility of their degraded soil, which then allowed them to maintain high yields using far less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.

Their experiences, and the results that I saw on their farms in North and South Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ghana and Costa Rica, offer compelling evidence that the key to sustaining highly productive agriculture lies in rebuilding healthy, fertile soil. This journey also led me to question three pillars of conventional wisdom about today’s industrialized agrochemical agriculture: that it feeds the world, is a more efficient way to produce food and will be necessary to feed the future.

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Cows Want to Be Outside As Much As They Want Food

Author: Douglas Main | Published on: April 6, 2017

How ardently do cows desire going out to pasture? Quite a lot, it seems. A new study shows that the animals are as motivated to get their feet into clover as they are to eat.

As detailed in a paper in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers came up with a scheme to measure how driven cows were to either access food, or go out to pasture. The team, led by Marina von Keyserlingk and Daniel Weary at the University of British Columbia, steadily increased the amount of force it took for a cow to open a door, which led to either food or pasture.

The scientists found that the majority of the 22 cows they studied pushed equally hard to get to food or to access the outdoor areas. They noted that the cows at the British Columbia research farm, were much more interested in going outside at night, compared to the day. Once outside, many of them laid on the ground to sleep. (Von Keyserlingk says it may be uncomfortably hot during the day—the study was conducted in the summer—and that the cows prefer to stay inside where it is cooler in the daytime.)

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How Soil Microbes and Intercellular Communication Affect Human Health

Author: Dr. Joseph Mercola | Published on: April 9, 2017

Your health is in large part determined by the health of the soil in which your food is grown. In this interview, Dr. Zach Bush delves into the many reasons why this is so.

Bush, who is triple board-certified in internal medicine, endocrinology and metabolism, and hospice and palliative care has done some fascinating and innovative research in this area and is one of the brightest physicians I have ever met.

He began his career as a conventional cancer researcher funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

When his funding dried up following the 2008-2010 recession, Bush transitioned into nutrition, eventually coming to understand how chronic inflammation and loss of intercellular communication is at the core of all disease, and why so many of our foods have lost their medicinal value.

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Regenerative Organics: Drawing a Line in the Soil

Author: Rose Marcario | Published on: December 8, 2016

In recent years, we’ve seen a boom in production and sales of organic foods worldwide. The global organic food market is expected to grow by 16 percent between 2015 and 2020, a faster rate than conventionally-grown foods.

This seems like good news—but in truth, organic farming makes up just a tiny fraction of the global agriculture system controlled by a few giant corporations generating enormous profits. And it’s about to get worse: If current deals in the works make it past European and U.S. regulators, three companies—Bayer, DowDupont and ChemChina—will own two-thirds of the world’s seeds and pesticides.

This unfortunate reality threatens to hold us hostage for decades as conventional agriculture continues to ravage our planet: gobbling up immense fossil fuels for production and shipping, flooding the earth with toxic synthetic pesticides and deadening our soil’s biodiversity with GMO seeds (along with the taste of our food). Conventional agriculture also generates a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions now baking our atmosphere.

And food is just part of the picture. Consider cotton, a fiber used to make a large majority of our clothing globally: just one percent is grown organically. That figure has stayed mostly stagnant since at least 1996, the year Patagonia started sourcing 100 percent organic cotton. It’s especially appalling considering 16 percent of all pesticides used worldwide are used to grow conventional cotton—exposure to which has been linked to higher rates of cancer and other diseases. Conventional GMO farming practices also reduce soil fertility and biodiversity, require more water and large amounts of herbicides, alter the nutritional content of our food, and result in toxic runoff that pollutes our rivers, lakes and oceans.

Thankfully, the status quo isn’t our only option. Regenerative organic agriculture includes any agricultural practice that increases soil organic matter from baseline levels over time, provides long-term economic stability for farmers and ranchers, and creates resilient ecosystems and communities. Put simply, this approach presents an opportunity to reclaim our farming system on behalf of the planet and human health—while fulfilling the obvious need to feed and clothe billions of people around the world. We can produce what we need and revitalize soil at the same time, thereby sequestering carbon currently polluting the atmosphere and warming our planet.

The good news: a small but growing list of organizations with good intentions have embraced regenerative organics in recent years. In particular, this approach (and terminology) has been championed by groups like the Rodale Institute and Regeneration International, and as a result, some businesses have begun taking serious interest. At Patagonia, our interest and knowledge has grown over many years: We began rebuilding our natural fiber supply chains to include organic practices 25 years ago, starting with cotton; more recently, we’ve been prioritizing regenerative practices for apparel and with our food business, Patagonia Provisions.

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Research Center Proposes Carbon Tax on Unsustainable Food

Author: Nithin Coca | Published on: December 2, 2016

Agriculture has a huge negative impact on the environment, including being responsible for 11 percent of global carbon emissions. Could a carbon tax on food, as proposed by the International Food Policy Research Institute, help make our food system not only more green, but healthier too?

In a report published in the journal Nature, researchers from the institute argue there is immense climate mitigation potential if we just change our diets.

Right now we, as a planet, have an unsustainable food system. We take up huge swaths of the earth for intensive, chemical-laden food production. The least sustainable food, the researchers insist, is red meat. But the problem is that these very foods are, often, the cheapest choices.

This is something all of us experience every day. The true impacts of food are not included in the price we pay at the store, not at all. Go to your local grocery, and you’ll see that organic produce is far more expensive than a factory-farmed piece of red meat, despite the fact that the former has a far smaller carbon footprint. It is why a healthy sit-down, farm-to-kitchen meal is far more costly than a trip to McDonald’s.

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How “Open Source” Seed Producers From the U.S. To India Are Changing Global Food Production

Frank Morton has been breeding lettuce since the 1980s. His company offers 114 varieties, among them Outredgeous, which last year became the first plant that NASA astronauts grew and ate in space. For nearly 20 years, Morton’s work was limited only by his imagination and by how many different kinds of lettuce he could get his hands on. But in the early 2000s, he started noticing more and more lettuces were patented, meaning he would not be able to use them for breeding. The patents weren’t just for different types of lettuce, but specific traits such as resistance to a disease, a particular shade of red or green, or curliness of the leaf. Such patents have increased in the years since, and are encroaching on a growing range of crops, from corn to carrots — a trend that has plant breeders, environmentalists and food security experts concerned about the future of the food production.

A determined fellow dedicated to the millennia-old tradition of plant breeding, Morton still breeds lettuce — it just takes longer, because more restrictions make it harder for him to do his work.

“It’s just a rock in the river and I’m floating around it. That’s basically what we have to do, but it breaks the breeding tradition,” he says. “I think these lettuce patents are overreaching and if they [were to hold up in court], nobody can breed a new lettuce anymore because all the traits have been claimed.” He continues to work with what is available, breeding for traits he desires while being extra careful to avoid any material restricted by intellectual property rights. He has also joined a movement that is growing in the U.S. and around the world: “open source” breeding.

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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.

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New Report Shows Continued, Dramatic Losses of American Grasslands

Published: November 23, 2016

For years, grasslands across the country have been plowed up to make way for the production of commodity crops, such as wheat, alfalfa, corn, and soybeans. The loss of grasslands is devastating for local ecosystems, and also has long-term, negative effects for ranchers, the hunting industry, and for communities that depend on them for flood prevention and water filtration.

Last week, the World Wildlife Fund published its annual Plowprint report, which uses National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) data to track grassland conversion. The report’s primary finding is striking:

“Since 2009, 53 million acres of grassland—an area the size of Kansas—have been converted to cropland across the Great Plains alone. That represents almost 13% of the 419 million acres that remained intact in 2009…In 2015, 3.7 million [additional] acres were converted to cropland.”

The highest conversion rate over the last year was found in northern Texas, which is in the southernmost portion of the Great Plains. Grassland conversion rates were also high in parts of North Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, and Kansas.

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World Soil Day Hails Symbiotic Role of Pulses to Boost Sustainable Agriculture

Author: UN Food and Agriculture Organization | Published on: December 5, 2016

New report explores how nitrogen-fixing plants enhance nutritious diets, carbon sequestration and soil fertility.

5 December 2016, ROME- Soil and pulses can make major contributions to the challenge of feeding the world’s growing population and combating climate change, especially when deployed together, according to Soils and Pulses: Symbiosis for Life, a new report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization released on World Soil Day.

“Soils and pulses embody a unique symbiosis that protects the environment, enhances productivity, contributes to adapting to climate change and provides fundamental nutrients to the soil and subsequent crops,” said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva.

Pulses are environmentally resilient crops that deliver high-nutrition foods to people and critical nutrients to biological ecosystems. Soil, a non-renewable resource, is essential for plant life and 95 percent of the global food supply.

Pulses such as lentils, dry beans and chickpeas are nitrogen-fixing plants that can benefit soil health, leading to better growing conditions for themselves and for other plants. On average, cereals grown after pulses yield 1.5 tonnes more per hectare than those not preceded by pulses, which is equal to the effect of 100 kilograms of nitrogen fertilizer.

The new book illustrates a variety of ways that pulses and soils can be “strategic allies” in forging more sustainable food and agriculture systems.

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