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Grassroots Rising — A Call to Change the World

In this interview, Ronnie Cummins, founder of the Organic Consumers Association, discusses his new book “Grassroots Rising: A Call to Action on Climate, Farming, Food and a Green New Deal.”

“Much of the book talks about how we need to transform our food and farming system, not only in the United States but worldwide, if we’re going to solve a lot of these problems that we’re seeing — environmental pollution, health problems, the climate crisis and the fact that we have so much poverty in rural areas …” Cummins says.

Regenerative Organic Farming Is the Answer to Many Problems

The transformation Cummins calls for is a transition to regenerative organic farming, which has the ability to solve many if not most of these problems simultaneously.

For example, one of the primary arguments for genetically engineered (GE) crops and foods was that it was going to solve world hunger. Reality, however, has demonstrated the massive flaws in this argument.

GE agriculture actually does the complete opposite, by destroying our soils and making food more toxic and less nutritious. Regenerative farming, on the other hand, has demonstrated its superiority with regard to yield and nutrition, all without the use of toxic chemicals. As noted by Cummins:

“The way we have traditionally grown food for the last 10,000 years and the way we’ve raised animals the last 20,000 or 30,000 years is really organic and pasture-based.

This wild experiment that industry unleashed on us since the second world war, using toxic chemicals, synthetic fertilizers, genetically engineered seeds and animal factory farms has proven to be a disaster, not just for the farmers, the animals and the land, but our public health has also suffered considerably.

Part of our long-term call to take charge of your health, take charge of your diet [is to] take charge of our environment and really our whole economic system [and] transform this degenerative food, farming and land use system into one that is organic and regenerative.”

Four Drivers of Change

In his book, Cummins details four major drivers of any given system, be it, as in this case, the degenerative system we currently have, or the regenerative system we would like to have:

  1. Education and awareness raising — This also includes putting the information into practice, meaning, every time you pull out your wallet, you’re considering whether your money is going to support a degenerative or regenerative system. True change comes when people act out their beliefs in the marketplace
  2. Innovation — This includes innovation of farmers, ranchers, people who take care of our forests and wetlands and people who are innovative in terms of educating the public
  3. Policy changes — This includes policy changes all the way from local school boards and park districts to the White House. At present, our policies favor corporate special interests like Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, Big Pharma and Wall Street. Once we get policies that support organics, regenerative agriculture and natural health, scaling these areas up will be much easier and faster
  4. Funding and investment — This includes both private investors and public monies

As noted by Cummins, “Education, innovation, policy [changes] and investment are the four things that drive this change of paradigm.” Change, however, is often slow, and one of the reasons Cummins wrote “Grassroots Rising” was to inspire optimism and hope.

“Obviously, we are still in a degenerative phase, but we can move out of this,” he says. “I think this year, 2020, is going to be the beginning of a pretty enormous global awakening.”

Scaling Best Practices 

Cummins is co-director of an organic research farm and conference center outside of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where he coordinates a regenerative agricultural system that integrates organic vegetable, seed and forage production with regenerative holistic management of poultry, sheep, goats and pigs. He and others are constantly on the lookout for best practices that can be successfully scaled up and implemented on millions of farms. Cummins explains:

“We have been, for 10 years, running a research and teaching farm [Via Organica] outside of San Miguel de Allende, right smack in the middle of Mexico. It’s the high desert area …

If you look at the statistics, 40% of the world’s surface is characterized as semi-arid or arid, and that’s the type of area we’re in here, so it’s not unusual for the global landscape …

What’s difficult as a farmer or rancher, if you live in the semi-arid or arid parts of the world, is that not only is rainfall seasonal and you don’t get a whole lot of it, but that it is almost impossible to raise crops on a lot of this terrain.

What people have done for hundreds of years is graze livestock on these degraded semi-arid, arid lands. The problem is that they have overgrazed much of this 40% of the world’s surface.”

Simple Innovations Can Solve Serious Problems

During one of Cummins’ workshops on organic compost, two local farmers approached him saying they’d developed a remarkably simple technique using the agave plant and mesquite trees to produce incredibly inexpensive yet nutritious animal fodder.

These two plants, which are naturally found clustered together in arid and semi-arid areas, do not require any irrigation, and the photosynthesis of the agave is among the highest in the entire world. It grows rapidly, producing massive amounts of biomass, and sequesters and stores enormous amounts of carbon, both above ground and below ground, while producing inexpensive, nutritious animal feed or forage and restoring the earth.

As noted by Cummins, the fact that agave plants and mesquite (or other nitrogen-fixing trees) grow together naturally is nature’s way to repair eroded landscapes. The roots of the mesquite tree can reach down to 125 feet, fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil, and absorbing minerals from deep in the ground.

Agave, meanwhile, adds huge amounts of biomass to the land every year, drawing down excess CO2 from the atmosphere. It pulls nitrogen and other minerals from the ground in order to support its rapid growth, but when grown next to a nitrogen-fixing tree, you’ve got a biodiverse system that will continue to grow and thrive on a continuous basis..

Fermented Agave Is an Inexpensive Animal Feed

The fermented agave animal feed produced in this system costs only 5 cents per kilo (2.2 pounds) to make. The key is fermentation. Raw agave leaves are unpalatable and hard to digest for animals because of their levels of saponins and lectins, but once fermented, they become digestible and attractive to the animals.

The fermentation also boosts the nutrition. I was so impressed with Cummins’ story that I harvested about 10 gallons of aloe plants and applied the process to see if it will convert to great food for my six chickens. A summary of the process is as follows:

  • Cut some of the lower agave leaves off the tree and crudely chop them up with a machete. One of the farmers, Juan Frias, invented a simple machine that grinds the leaf into what looks like coleslaw.
  • Place the cut-up agave leaf into a large bucket, tamping it down once filled half-way to remove oxygen. Continue filling the bucket to the top. Tamp down again and put a lid on it. (As explained further below, adding mesquite pods at an optimum rate of 20% will approximately double the protein content of the final product.)
  • Let it set for 30 days. The fermentation process turns the saponins and lectins into natural sugars and carbs. The final mash will stay fresh for up to two years.

Cummins and other Mexican organic farmers have tested the agave forgage on a variety of animals, including sheep, goats, chickens and pigs, all of which love it.

“The importance of this is, first of all, if you’re a small farmer, you can’t afford alfalfa, and you can’t afford hay during the dry season. It’s too expensive … It makes eggs and meat too expensive in the marketplace for people to buy.

When you start looking at … reducing feed costs by 50%, or even three quarters with this stuff that costs a nickel or a dime, then I don’t need to overgraze my animals. They’d still graze because it’s good for them … but you wouldn’t have to have them outdoors every day, overgrazing on pastures that are not in good shape.

This is pretty amazing stuff … Lab analysis of just the fermented agave [shows] it’s about 5% to 9% protein, which is pretty good. Alfalfa is more like 16% to 18%.

What these farmers, who are also retired scientists, figured out is if you put 20% mesquite in your fermentation, the pods of the mesquite trees, it’ll shoot the protein level up to about 18% — about the same as alfalfa.

There’s a lot of other things too that make it better than alfalfa. One of the things about alfalfa is it takes a lot of water … The agave plant uses one-twenty-sixth the amount of water to produce a gram of biomass as alfalfa.

These desert plants have evolved over millions of years to utilize water and moisture in a really efficient way … The opening in the leaves, called the stomata … only opens at night, after sunset.

These plants literally suck the moisture out of the air all night long, and then when daybreak comes, the stomata closes up … They can go years with no rain, and they can survive pretty harsh temperatures … [and] there’s not one chemical required in this whole process. This whole process is inherently organic.”

Added Benefits

An organic certifier is now evaluating one of the operations using this agave feed process, which may go a long way toward creating less expensive organics. For example, rather than spending 45 cents per kilo for organic chicken feed, chicken farmers can cut that down to between 5 and 10 cents per kilo.

In the end, that will make organic free-range chicken and eggs far more affordable for the average consumer. Ditto for pork, sheep and goat products.

Additional benefits include improved immune function in the animals — similar to that seen in humans eating a lot of fermented foods. What’s more, about 50% of the fermented agave feed is water, which means the animals don’t need to be watered as much.

Cummins and other organic farm advocates are now trying to convince the Mexican reforestation program to get involved as well. This would solve several problems. First, it’s difficult to reforest in arid climates, which includes 60% of Mexico, as even mesquite trees need water in their first stage of development until they’re established. Growing agave in locations in areas that already have mesquite or other nitrogen-fixing trees would speed the process and lower the water demands.

Secondly, growing agave and mesquite together for reforestation purposes, while incorporating facilities to create fermented agave feed for sale, farmers who aren’t willing to grow their own can still benefit from this inexpensive feed alternative. Thirdly, such a project would also help reduce rural poverty, which is what’s driving immigration into the U.S.

“If people weren’t so darn poor, which leads back to if they didn’t live in such dry, degraded landscapes, they wouldn’t be seeking to come to the U.S. except for a visit,” Cummins says.

“We can solve this immigration problem. We can solve this problem of rural poverty. Many of these small farmers, they can’t even afford to eat their own animal, like the lamb, on a regular basis.

They have it for celebrations, but they should be able to eat lamb burgers on a regular basis in the rural countryside. Now, they will be able to. In the long run, if we restore the landscape, things like corn, beans and squash will grow again …”

Yet another little cottage industry is also starting to grow around agave. Its fibers are very strong, so people are now starting to make lightweight construction blocks or bricks from it.

Lastly, Cummins estimates that with 2.5 million agave plants planted on 30,000 acres over the next decade, they’ll be able to eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions created by San Miguel county right now.

More Information

To learn more about how regenerative agriculture can help solve many of the problems facing the world right now, be sure to pick up a copy of “Grassroots Rising: A Call to Action on Climate, Farming, Food and a Green New Deal.”

“This regenerative practice in dry lands is a game changer,” Cummins says. “There are practices in wetlands and in the global North, [where] we’re already seeing things like a holistic management of livestock and biointensive organic practices.

It’s all these practices together — the best practices from the different parts of the world, different ecosystems — that are going to make a difference.

It’s you the consumer, it’s you the reader, that needs to spread these good news messages, and I hope you’ll consider buying a copy of my new book, ‘Grassroots Rising,’ where I try to paint a roadmap of how we can regenerate the world’s landscapes as quickly as possible so that we can get back to enjoying life.”

Reposted with permission from Mercola.com

Six Rules for Organizing a Grassroots Regeneration Revolution

Over the past five decades, as a food, natural health and environmental campaigner, anti-war organizer, human rights activist and journalist, I’ve had the inspiring and at times depressing opportunity to work and travel across much of the world.

Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned through my work is that people respond best to a positive, solutions-oriented message. Gloom-and-doom thinking—the kind that offers no plausible solution—doesn’t generally inspire people to get involved or take action.

That doesn’t mean we should downplay the seriousness of our current situation. We face unprecedented life-or-death threats. We’re up against formidable political, economic and cultural obstacles. We must continue to highlight and criticize, with passion, facts and concrete examples, the bad actors, practices and policies that have brought us to the brink of a global crisis.

That said, I believe that the main obstacle we must overcome, in the U.S. and worldwide, is that many (if not most) people are locked into disempowering situations that are causing them to suffer from a pervasive sense of hopelessness. It’s not that they don’t want to change. But unfortunately, most people don’t really believe things can change.

I disagree. I believe we can shift the global conversation on food, farming, politics, health and climate from one of hopelessness to one of hope. I believe we can empower the grassroots to rise up and take action, both individually and collectively.

In my latest book, “Grassroots Rising: A Call to Action on Food, Farming, Climate and a Green New Deal,” I outline what I call “Rules for Regenerators,” a roadmap for positive change. I go into each rule in-depth in my book, but here are the basics.

Rule 1: Search Out and Emphasize the Positive

In the face of global ecosystem collapse and widespread corporate and political corruption, we need to think in terms of this: The darkest hour is right before dawn. That means not losing sight of the fact that the dawn is coming—so we should focus on, and prepare for it.

Instead of dwelling on the negative, we must seek, highlight and promote positive trends and practices. On the contemporary scene, there are many signs of change and powerful countervailing trends to the degenerative status quo, not only in the U.S., but across the world.

We need to focus on these world-changing trends—not dwell on the gloom and doom.

Rule 2: Link up with People’s Primary Concerns and Connect the Dots

The world is full of different people, living in different situations, with differing perspectives, passions and priorities. That means we can’t take a “one-size-fits-all” approach to problem-solving.

Instead, we must integrate our green justice and regeneration messages with the specific issues and concerns that are most important to grassroots constituencies. Then lay out, in everyday language, a strategy that helps people understand that we can actually solve the problems they care about most, while solving a host of other pressing problems at the same time.

Only by starting from where people are at, and then connecting the dots, can we capture the attention and imagination of a critical mass of the global grassroots and get them started thinking about how they can participate in our new movement and new economy.

Rule 3: Stop Organizing Around Limited Single Issues

Global campaigning and activism is plagued with single-issue thinking that routinely gives rise to divided movements and fractured constituencies.

To bring about true regeneration, or even to pass sweeping new regenerative legislation like the Green New Deal, we must not be divided and fractured, but united, inclusive and holistic in our understanding of the the global crisis we face, and in our approach to problem-solving.

Too often we hear that “My issue is more important than your issue,” or “My constituency or community is more oppressed than yours,” or “My solution is the only solution.”

That type of thinking won’t get us anywhere. Our global Regeneration Movement must be built on the principle that all grassroots issues and all constituencies are important. We have to help each other recognize that the burning issues bearing down on the global body politic—climate change, poverty, unemployment, declining health, political corruption, corporate control, war and more—are the interrelated symptoms of the diseased system of degeneration.

Rule 4: Stop Pretending that Partial Solutions or Reforms Will Bring About System Change

Activists often fall into the trap of malpractice when they project partial solutions or tactics as if they are systemic solutions. One of the most alarming examples of this is the notion that 100-percent renewable energy will, in and of itself, solve the climate crisis.

This theory is both misleadingly hopeful and dangerously flawed. Renewable energy will not get us to net-zero emissions by 2030 or even 2050 unless it is accompanied by a massive drawdown (of 250-plus billion tons) of excess carbon from the atmosphere through regenerative food, farming, land use and commerce.

Both of these things—renewable energy and carbon drawdown—need to be carried out simultaneously over the next 20 years.

Similarly naive, narrow-minded thinking might lead us to believe that campaign finance reform,  or the election of this or that candidate, will solve the national and international crisis of elite domination and political corruption—or that in general, change in one community or country can solve what are essentially national and global problems.

Unless we can lift our heads, connect the dots and fight for unifying systemic changes, any changes that we do make won’t be sufficiently effective.

Rule 5: Act and Organize Locally, but Cultivate a Global Vision and Solidarity

If civilization is to survive, we need to rebuild healthy, organic and relocalized systems of food and farming, and repair and restore our local environments.

To do this will require regenerators to put a priority on local and regional education, action and mobilization, in our personal lives and households, as well as in the marketplace and the political arena.

At the same time, we have to inject or integrate a national and global perspective into our local grassroots work and community building. The battle against severe climate change, environmental destruction, deteriorating public health, poverty, political corruption and societal alienation will be fought and won based on what billions of us—consumers, farmers, landscape managers, public officials, business owners, students and others—do (or don’t do) in our million local communities as part of a global awakening and paradigm shift.

We must think, act and organize locally, while simultaneously cultivating a global vision and global solidarity.

Rule 6: Become a Positive Example of Regeneration

The personal is political. People hear not just the overt message of what we say or write, but also our subliminal message—that is, our presence, behavior and attitude.

Only by striving to embody the principles of regeneration—hope, solidarity, creativity, hard work, joy and optimism—in our everyday lives and practices (i.e. our work, food, clothes, lifestyle and how we treat others and the environment, how we vote, spend our money, invest our savings and spend our time—will we be able to inspire those around us.

In the 1960s, when I came of age as an activist, we had a saying: “There is only one reason for becoming a revolutionary: because it is the best way to live.” I believe this slogan is as relevant now as it was then.

One of the wonderful things about regeneration is that it not only is our duty and our potential salvation, but it can actually become our pleasure as well. As the farmer-poet Wendell Berry once said:

“The care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.”

Ronnie Cummins is co-founder of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and Regeneration International, and the author of “Grassroots Rising: A Call to Action on Food, Farming, Climate and a Green New Deal.” To keep up with RI’s news and alerts, sign up here.