Healthy Soil Microbes, Healthy People

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.”


New State Program to Recognize Outstanding Farmers

 Published: July 13, 2017 

You can tell a lot about a farm by looking closely at the soil. That’s why the new, statewide program to recognize Vermont’s most environmentally friendly farmers will be based on soil-sampling and monitoring. Today, Governor Phil Scott announced the pilot launch of the new Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program (VESP), which will use soil-based analysis to identify farmers who are going above and beyond to protect our natural resources.

Surrounded by state and federal officials at the North Williston Cattle Company, owned by the Whitcomb family, Governor Scott emphasized the important role farmers play in Vermont communities.

“Vermont farmers are contributing to our economy and keeping our landscape beautiful and productive,” said Governor Phil Scott. “This new, science-based program will use soil health data to help us identify and honor farmers who are going above and beyond the regulations to protect our natural resources.”

The program is a partner effort by the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Vermont Association of Conservation Districts, Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, and the University of Vermont Extension.

“We are still accepting VESP applications, and encourage farms of all types and sizes to apply,” added Vermont’s Ag Secretary, Anson Tebbetts. “We want farmers who are going the extra mile to be recognized and celebrated for their efforts.”

Tebbetts noted that many partners across the state and federal government came together to create this innovative program.

Following Governor Scott’s remarks, farmers Lorenzo and Onan Whitcomb gave a tour of their farm, including their robotic milker, and discussed some of the conservation practices they employ. To see aerial footage, captured by drone, of some of the Whitcomb’s conservation practices, including no-til corn, cover-cropping, and buffer strips, click here: [link](link is external)

To apply for the VESP Pilot, farmers must be in compliance with all State and Federal environmental regulations, and be actively farming their land.

Applicants for the VESP Pilot will be selected for participation through a competitive application ranking process on a rolling basis; there is no fee to participate. Five to 10 farms will be accepted into the pilot program, which will inform the final parameters of the Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program, launching in 2019. For more information, please visit: is external)

About the Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program:

Conceptualized in 2016 in response to statewide water-quality and environmental challenges, the Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program (VESP) is a voluntary program that encourages and supports local agricultural producers to achieve environmental and agricultural excellence. VESP’s goal is to accelerate water-quality improvements through additional voluntary implementation efforts, and to honor farmers who have already embraced a high level of land stewardship.


Finding Common Ground on Carbon

Author: Chelsea Chandler | Published: June 9, 2017 

Even though global warming is a politically polarizing topic, it’s worth considering some areas of common ground—both figuratively and literally—when it comes to how we manage the carbon dioxide (CO2) that we’re releasing into the atmosphere. Natural carbon storage, for instance, is a win-win for Wisconsin’s citizens, our land, and the global climate, and the type of common sense solution we can all get behind.

To understand natural carbon storage, it’s important to recognize that carbon naturally cycles between different reservoirs on the planet: the atmosphere, oceans, biosphere, and geosphere. We can think of it like a budget: the carbon stored in one place generally offsets carbon naturally emitted in another place, creating a sort of carbon equilibrium. However, too much carbon moving into any one of these reservoirs—especially the atmosphere and oceans—can wreak havoc on this delicate balance.

Carbon overload happens when we have too much input from sources, and not enough capacity in sinks in which to store the carbon. Since the Industrial Revolution, scientists have measured more and more CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere through the burning of hydrocarbons long-stored as fossil fuels such as oil and coal. Meanwhile, by removing and degrading important ecosystems that act as carbon sinks, such as forests cleared for lumber and prairies converted to farmland or urban use, we diminish our capacity to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Just as humans can manage the sources of COwe add to the atmosphere, we can also play a big role in managing carbon sinks that can take up and store CO2. Forests, for instance, are important biological sinks in which carbon is stored long-term in wood and soil. Sustainably managing forestlands and working to preserve large tracts of forests are two ways in which we can help to decrease levels of atmospheric carbon.

Prairies, where the majority of carbon storage is in the soil, were once massive biological carbon sinks. However, the USGS reports that since 1830, tallgrass prairie in Wisconsin has decreased over 99%, greatly diminishing our capacity for capturing carbon. In addition to preventing further agricultural or urban land conversion, landowners can help increase our natural carbon storage capacity by working to restore prairies, forests, and wetlands.

Farmers are active land stewards. It is in their best interest to sustain the soil because it in turn sustains them. More than many other professions, farmers are intimately linked to long-term changes in the weather. When someone makes a living off the land—and provides food and resources essential to others—long-term thinking is about sustainability in every sense of the word. Many farmers are already implementing common sense land management practices for storing more carbon, though there are many other opportunities. We’re only currently tapping about 10% of the soil carbon storage potential in U.S. cropland, and there’s a lot more we can do to maintain health of our environment, locally and globally.


Living Soils: The Role of Microorganisms in Soil Health

Author: Christopher Johns | Published: June 20, 2017 

Soil fertility comprises three interrelated components: physical fertility, chemical fertility and biological fertility. Biological fertility, the organisms that live in the soil and interact with the other components, varies greatly depending upon conditions and it is highly complex and dynamic. It is the least well-understood fertility component. In addition to soil fertility, soil microorganisms play essential roles in the nutrient cycles that are fundamental to life on the planet. Fertile soils teem with soil microbes. There may be hundreds of millions to billions of microbes in a single gram of soil. The most numerous microbes in soil are the bacteria, followed in decreasing numerical order by the actinomycetes, the fungi, soil algae and soil protozoa.



In July 2015, FDI published a Strategic Analysis Paper entitled Under Our Feet: Soil Microorganisms as Primary Drivers of Essential Ecological Processes. Since the publication of that article there has been a moderate trend toward the study of soils holistically rather than the detailed study of soil components in isolation.  Holistic study is particularly pertinent to an understanding of soil microbiology. Microorganisms are not only directly influenced by fundamental soil characteristics such as moisture, oxygen and chemistry but also by each other in both beneficial and predatory ways. By becoming holistically aware of the fundamental importance of soil organisms and then developing and understand how biological processes in soil are influenced by changes in the soil environment, we can learn how to manage soil in a way that enhances the benefits provided by soil organisms.

The information to follow draws largely from the referenced title above. It is present here to outline the complexity and variety of soil microbiology and to propose a more holistic approach to soil research and management.

Soil fertility, or its capacity to enrich natural and agricultural plants, is dependent upon three interacting and mutually dependent components: physical fertility, chemical fertility and biological fertility. Physical fertility refers to the physical properties of the soil, including its structure, texture and water absorption and holding capacity, and root penetration. Chemical fertility involves nutrient levels and the presence of chemical conditions such as acidity, alkalinity and salinity that may be harmful or toxic to the plant. Biological fertility refers to the organisms that live in the soil and interact with the other components. These organisms live on soil, organic matter or other soil organisms and perform many vital processes in the soil. Some of them perform critical functions in the nutrient and carbon cycles. Very few soil organisms are pests.

Of the three fertility components, it is the microbiological element, the rich diversity of organisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and algae that form interactive microbial communities, that are the most complex and, paradoxically, the least well-understood. A near decade-long collaboration between the CSIRO and the Bio-platforms Australia company ranks the understanding of soil microbial communities as important as mapping the galaxies in the universe or the biodiversity of the oceans. It provides an opportunity to discover new species currently unknown to science. Soil microbial communities underpin the productivity of all agricultural enterprises and are primary drivers in ecological processes such as the nutrient and carbon cycling, degradation of contaminants and suppression of soil-borne diseases. They are also intimately involved in a range of beneficial and, at times essential, interrelationships with plants.


Soil microbiology is the study of organisms in soil, their functions and how they affect soil properties. Soil microorganisms can be classified as bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, algae, protozoa and viruses. Each of these groups has different characteristics that define the organisms and different functions in the soil it lives in. Importantly, these organisms do not exist in isolation; they interact and these interactions influence soil fertility as much or more than the organism’s individual activities.


Soil Networks Become More Connected and Take up More Carbon As Nature Restoration Progresses

Authors: Elly Morriën and S. Emilia Hannula | Published: February 8, 2017 

Many ecosystems worldwide face exposure to intensified human use1,2,3, which has resulted in loss of biodiversity4, altered functioning5and altered provisioning of ecosystem services6. The abandonment of disturbed land represents one of the most widely used restoration strategies implemented at a global scale7, with the potential to promote biodiversity, and associated ecosystem services. However, the restoration of natural ecosystem functioning and soil properties is known to be a long-term process7,8, dependent upon the time it takes to restore connections between different components of the community9. Over half a century ago, Odum10 identified mechanistic linkages between the successional dynamics of natural communities and the functioning of natural ecosystems. Specifically, as communities progress through succession, diversity is expected to increase and nutrients will become ‘locked-up’ in the biota, with consequences for the build-up of soil organic matter and closure of the mineral cycles10. More recently, the interplay between aboveground and belowground biodiversity has emerged as a prominent determinant of the successional dynamics in biological communities11. However, little is known about how changes in the soil biota contribute to the associated changes in ecosystem functioning.

In ecosystems undergoing secondary succession, it is evident that available nitrogen diminishes, primary productivity decreases and the plant community shifts from fast- to slow-growing plant species12. There is less evidence of an increase of soil biodiversity13, and evidence of a relationship between soil biodiversity and ecosystem functioning is mixed, at best5,13,14,15. As a result, it is still unclear how soil and plant community composition relate to each other and what is the relative role of plants and soil biota in driving soil processes and plant community development12,17.

Interestingly, studies on a time series (chronosequence) of abandoned arable fields revealed that carbon and nitrogen mineralization by the soil food web increases during secondary succession18. This implies a more active soil microbial community in later successional stages19,20,21where bacterial-dominated systems are expected to be replaced by fungal-dominated systems22 with more carbon turnover via fungi23 and their consumers24. However, data to test these assumptions are largely lacking. Therefore, the aim of the present study was to examine how biodiversity, composition and structure of the soil community change during successional development of restored ecosystems.

We used a well-established chronosequence of nature restoration sites on ex-arable, formerly cultivated, lands that represent over 30 years of nature restoration. We determined biodiversity of almost all taxonomic groups of soil biota, analysed their network structure and added labelled carbon dioxide and mineral nitrogen to intact plant–soil systems in order to track their uptake by the soil food web. We tested the hypothesis that functional changes in carbon and nitrogen flows relate more strongly to the belowground community network structure than to belowground biodiversity.

We analysed variations in species co-occurrence and considered enhanced correlations as network tightening, which we define as a ‘significant increase in percentage connectance and an increase in the strong correlations as a percentage of all possible correlations’25. Our results reveal increased tightening and, therefore, connectance, of the belowground networks during nature restoration on the ex-arable land. A combination of correlation-based network analysis and isotope labelling shows that soil network tightening corresponds with enhanced efficiency of the carbon uptake in the fungal channel of the soil food web, without an increase in the total amount of soil biodiversity or in fungal-to-bacterial biomass ratios. For nitrogen, the non-microbial species groups revealed a similar pattern as for carbon. Tightening of the networks reflects stronger co-occurring patterns of variation in soil biota25. Increased carbon and nitrogen uptake capacity by the fungal channel in the soil food web can be explained by stronger co-occurrence of preys and their predators24, which enhances the efficiency of resource transfer in the soil food web compared with a soil food web where preys and predators are spatially isolated.


The Most Neglected Threat to Public Health in China Is Toxic Soil

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.


Rodale Institute Launches Organic Industrial Hemp Research

Date Published: June 12, 2017 

Rodale Institute, the nation’s leading organic farming research institution, has started a new industrial hemp research project focused on examining the crop’s role in soil health and regenerative organic agriculture.

The PA Department of Agriculture Industrial Hemp Pilot Project granted 16 permits for research. It is the first time in 80 years that hemp will be grown legally in Pennsylvania. Rodale Institute was one of the permit recipients. Industrial hemp, a versatile plant grown for its fiber, seed or oil, was a valuable cash crop and a major industry in Pennsylvania for more than 260 years. Due to its close relationship to the marijuana plant, hemp production became a casualty of a 1933 law banning marijuana, and was later named a Schedule 1 drug by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. However, changes made to the 2014 Federal Farm Bill now allow for hemp to be grown for research purposes by departments of agriculture or institutions of higher education.

Rodale Institute’s multi-year hemp research project is being partially funded by a generous contribution of $100,000 from Dr. Bronner’s. Overall cost of the project is projected to be $75,000-100,000 per year.

“We have the utmost respect for the values and mission of the Rodale Institute, and the paramount work they are pursuing to scientifically demonstrate the efficacy of regenerative agriculture and organic farming,” said David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s. “Their new foray into hemp cultivation will reveal important data about the crop’s role in the sustainable agriculture systems of the future, furthering the evidence that hemp farming should be legalized throughout the U.S. so that all farmers can benefit from hemp’s economic and environmental opportunities.”

An additional $5,000 pledge of support for Rodale Institute’s hemp research was made by Nutiva’s CEO and founder John Roulac to contribute to the overall cost of the research. Roulac announced the donation at Hemp Industries Association’s Hemp History Week event, held at the Rodale Institute farm on June 5. Hemp History week ran June 5-11, 2017.

“This is an exciting venture for Rodale Institute, as we explore the implications that industrial hemp could have for organic farmers,” said Jeff Moyer, executive director of Rodale Institute. “This could give us an opportunity to expand farmers crop rotation, while helping farmers combat weed pressure, improve soil health, and sequester carbon. For us, it all comes back to healthy soil and regenerative organic agriculture. We know that Healthy Soil= Healthy Food= Healthy People and a Healthy Planet.”


Tilling Best Left to Mother Nature

Published: May 8, 2017 

Whether talking to farmers in France, Ghana or southern Ohio, Rafiq Islam’s message is consistent: Tilling the land does more long-term damage than good.

As an Ohio State University soil scientist, Islam is among the disciples in the movement to convince farmers that plowing their fields before they plant or after they harvest harms the health of the soil and its ability to spur growth and resist erosion.

Soil plowed repeatedly can lose key ingredients that enrich it, including carbon, which can evaporate as carbon dioxide gas into the air.

Left undisturbed, soil can maintain that carbon, and the dry decaying stalks in an untilled field add to the organic materials in the dirt.

After crops such as soybeans or corn are picked, a farmer can plant a cover crop in a field instead of plowing it. The cover crop keeps the soil porous and contributes carbon to it, Islam said.

Land left bare is more susceptible to erosion and cannot absorb water from rain or snow as efficiently as when cover crops are planted on it.

Earlier this spring, Islam was part of a team of soil specialists who traveled to France to present four workshops on climate change, soil health, cover crops and no-till farming, sponsored by two farm organizations in France.

More workshops are planned for the summer in Ukraine and China, in the fall in Uzbekistan, and in the winter in Ghana.

In most parts of the world, the majority of farmers regularly plow. So it’s not easy to convince longtime conventional farmers or even younger farmers not to plow their land, said Islam, who is the soil, water and bioenergy program leader at Ohio State’s South Centers in Piketon.

“You try to open their eyes by showing them the actual field results and demonstrating the user-friendly field tests and tools,” Islam said. “It’s tough. Farmers are businessmen. Some don’t want to take risks.”

To many, tilling makes sense. Running a disk or plow through the land breaks up the soil and helps mix in fertilizer to ready the field for new seeds.

But, Islam and other proponents of no-till and cover crop farming said, plowing the land can kill some of the crucial beneficial microorganisms in the soil.

Even on fields crowded with the dry remains of last season’s crop, new seeds can be sown using drill attachments to planters. And the root system of cover crops helps break up the soil to make room for the roots of newly planted seeds.


Carbon Farming & Cutting Food Waste: Climate Solutions That Don’t Require Trump’s Buy-in

Author: Twilight Greenaway | Published: June 5, 2017 

Donald Trump’s recent decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate has many wringing their hands. But Paul Hawken doesn’t have time for despair. In fact, the veteran author and entrepreneur has spent the last several years working with a team of scientists and policy experts to map and quantify a set of climate solutions he says have the power to draw down the carbon in the atmosphere and radically alter our climate future. And he’s confident that many of these efforts will continue to take place with or without government buy-in.

Hawken’s new book, Drawdown, illuminates 100 of the most effective of these solutions and points to food and agriculture as hugely important when it comes to both sequestering current greenhouse gases and releasing fewer of them in the first place. From composting and clean cookstoves to managed grazing and multistrata agroforestry, Drawdown makes a compelling case for radically changing the way we eat, farm, and tend to the land. Civil Eats spoke to Hawken about the book, the surprising role food has come to play among climate optimists, and his advice on how to keep our eyes open while imagining the future of our planet.

Can you tell us about what you wanted to do with this book and how food plays a role in the picture it paints?

We mapped, measured, and modeled the most substantive solutions to reversing global warming. We didn’t have a horse in the race. We may have biases, I’m sure we do, but our process and methodology was to eliminate bias and just to look at [the solutions] from the point of peer-reviewed science in terms of the carbon impact.

There are only two things you can do really with respect to the atmosphere, which is to stop putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and then bring them back home. There’s nothing else. Some solutions—like land use solutions—do both.

We didn’t go into it knowing what would be the biggest sector. Or even what would be the top five or 10. We went in very open-ended and it turns out food is eight of the top 20 suggestions.

You ranked the solutions in terms of potential impact. Number three is reduced food waste and number four is the shift to “a plant-rich diet.” Why then, do you think food and ag are so rarely a part in the mainstream conversation about climate change?

My guess as to why food and land-use solutions have been marginalized and even ignored is because of the way solutions have been approached by climate scientists. Estimates vary, but at least 65 percent of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are due to combustion of fossil fuels, so it is easy to come to the conclusion that replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy is the biggest solution.

One of the reasons reducing food waste ranks high is because most of the food that is discarded ends up in landfills where it is buried in an anaerobic environment causing methane emissions, which are 34 times more potent in their greenhouse warming potential compared to CO2. A plant-rich diet reduces the consumption of animal protein, and the production of meat—whether grass fed or in CAFOs—is also a very significant source of methane.

And finally, there is agriculture itself, another source of significant emissions as practiced by conventional and industrial agriculture. Tillage removes carbon, mineral fertilizers create another potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, glyphosate sterilizes soil life creating emissions, monocultures expose the soil to sun and heat, an emission cause, etc.

When you change these three practices, and cultivate types of sustainable food production techniques, like system of rice intensification and agroforestry, it turns out that food has a greater potential to help reverse global warming than the energy sector. That’s also due to the fact that land use can sequester carbon, whereas renewable energy simply avoids carbon emissions.

However, your question stands. Why did we not look at this more closely sooner? That is a mystery at Project Drawdown. These data, math, and conclusions detailed in Drawdown could have been calculated and disseminated a long time ago. The science these calculations are based on has been known for a long time.

Food is seen as inherently personal. Do you think the urgency about the climate has the potential to get more people thinking about food on a systems level?

I tend to think of food as more cultural than personal. In the U.S., subsidies have allowed people the ability to eat large quantities of expensive foods, like milk and meat. In most countries, the true cost of these items limits the stroke and heart-disease outcomes we have in the U.S. I believe people move toward healthier food because of their own needs and understandings, not because of the climate impact.

What we see in our research is that regenerative practices (in many areas besides food) are increasing because they work better, are less expensive, create greater productivity, can be locally sourced, create meaningful jobs, enhance human health, engender community, and much more. In other words, making choices that are better for your body, the soil, workers, your children, and your community are almost invariably practices that reverse global warming.

Let’s talk about the term “regenerative.” I’ve heard from several folks in the organic community who worry that another label will confuse consumers. Why did you choose to highlight regenerative agriculture vs. organic? 


Adding Animals Adds Profit, Organic Matter for North Dakota Farm

Author: Laurie Bedord | Date Published: May 31, 2017 

The quality of food Paul Brown raises hinges on the quality of the soil on which it is grown.

“When my parents purchased the farm from my grandfather in 1991, the soil’s organic matter ranged from 1.7% to 1.9%,” he says. “Four years of crop failure and nearly going broke got my dad thinking outside the box. He began growing multispecies crops, expanding crop rotation, and eventually growing cover crops to diversify and build the soil’s resiliency.”

From a very young age, cattle were part of life on the farm for Brown. “We always had about 250 pairs grazing the land, and we marketed directly to consumers,” he says.

It wasn’t until he returned to the farm in 2010, after graduating from North Dakota State University, that the idea for diversifying this part of the business also took shape.

“These soils developed over thousands of years with grazing animals rotating throughout the landscape,” says the 29-year-old. “The longer we can keep land and livestock integrated, the healthier our soils will be. If we can mimic the template nature laid out for us, we will continue to build the resilience back into the ecosystem that was damaged.”


His first year back, Brown invested in 100 laying hens, which follow cattle on pasture. A mobile chicken coop serves as a place for the birds to lay eggs, roost, and take refuge at night.

“I started with hens because they are relatively low cost,” he says. “Since I had never raised hens before, I wouldn’t have gone broke if it was a complete debacle.”

Grazing is supplemented with grain by-products. “We do some grain cleaning and sell cover crop seed. Those screenings are fed to the hens. We are turning a waste product into eggs we can sell. Once you start to build enterprises that are feeding off each other, that is where a lot of profitability comes in,” Brown says.

Looking to find a market for his eggs, he connected with a local CSA (community supported agriculture) group.

“I was exposed to 125 potential customers,” he says. “Most of them ended up buying from me and still do. It was a great product to introduce to customers because they are willing to pay $5 for a dozen eggs.”

Today, his flock has grown to over 1,000 laying hens. Once customers realized how good the eggs were, demand grew for other offerings.

“In 2013, I added hair sheep. I started with 20 ewe lambs and a ram,” he says. “I am up to 150 ewes now. A year later, I added six sows and a boar and have 25 Berkshire and Tamworth sows farrowing out today. Pigs are raised on pasture and fed non-GMO grains grown on the ranch.”

Integrating a variety of animals has flourished into a successful business. It has also paid dividends in bolstering organic matter, which is close to 7% today.

“Knowing what I know now, I think I can reach 12% by the time I retire,” Brown says.