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Regenerative Agriculture Could save Soil, Water, and the Climate. Here’s How the U.S. Government Actively Discourages It.

Last year, a few days before Christmas, Gail Fuller drove me out to the middle of a wind-whipped field just north of Emporia, Kansas. “This is really where it started for me,” he said as he climbed out of the truck, spade in hand. With a thunk, he drove the spade into the ground and pulled out a hunk of earth, holding it up so I could see the texture, which he described as like “chocolate cake” and “black cottage cheese.”

Pointing to a wriggling earthworm, a sign of good soil health, Fuller explained that conventional, tilled fields would be too cold for earthworms to be that close to the surface. Tilling rips up and compacts soil, compressing the air pockets that would otherwise insulate earthworms from temperature extremes. But because Fuller never tills and maintains a continuous living root system, which provides additional insulation, his field has earthworms year-round.

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The Climate Solution Right Under Our Feet

here are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground; there are a thousand ways to go home again. —Rumi

The way to stop climate change might be buried in 300 square feet of earth in the Venice neighborhood of Los ­Angeles, amid kale and potatoes. A half-dozen city youth are digging through the raised bed on a quiet side street, planting tomato seedlings between peach and lime trees. Nineteen-year-old ­Calvin sweats as he works the rake. There’s a lot at stake here. The formerly homeless youngsters are tentatively exploring farming through a community outreach program started by a California nonprofit called Kiss the Ground. More importantly, they are tending to the future of our planet.

Photo credit: Unsplash

“Soil just might save us,” filmmaker Josh Tickell says, “but we are going to have to save it first.”

 

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A Climate Change Solution No One’s Talking About: Better Land Use

It was a nightmarish Iowa blizzard in 1998 that made Seth Watkins rethink the way he farmed.

Before then, he’d operated his family business—he raises livestock alongside hay and corn crops for feed—pretty much as his parents had, utilizing practices like monocropping and unseasonal calving cycles, methods designed to cheat nature. The blizzard, which imperiled the lives of many newly born calves that year, made him realize there must be a better way to steward the land and the animals on it — methods more attuned to the natural scheme of things.

Photo credit: Pixabay

In the 20 years since, Watkins has shepherded in a number of major changes—such as prairie strips, cover crops and rotational grazing—that prevent soil erosion, curb toxic nitrate and phosphorus runoff into nearby waterways, stimulate the biodiversity of the local ecosystems, and improve soil moisture and nutrient content, all the while increasing profits, he said.

These regenerative farming practices also achieve one other key outcome — they improve the soil’s ability to sequester carbon. This is something that brings practical impacts at the local economic level. But soil carbon sequestration also has the potential to tackle one of the single greatest threats to humanity: anthropogenic climate change.

“Carbon is life,” said Watkins. “Carbon really does belong in the soil where it sustains us.”

The science is in: From increased wildfire damage and the threats from rising sea levels, to ocean acidification and the impacts on human migration patterns, the effects of global warming are already being keenly felt. To prevent these developments from turning potentially catastrophic, we must stop the planet from warming 1.5°C above pre-industrial figures, say the world’s climate experts. To do this, global carbon emissions must decrease by about 49 percent from 2017 levels by 2030. Carbon output must be squashed to zero by around 2050. As an indication of how difficult this is going to be, greenhouse gas emissions rose last year in the United States.

Much of the conversation surrounding what to do has our heads turned skyward—reduced emissions from power plants, for example. Many companies are also vying to produce the first to-scale, commercially viable negative emissions technology—one that sucks and stores away more CO2 than it uses.

But a growing number of experts say we need to look downward, arguing that the carbon sequestering capacity of the soil under our feet has the potential to help tackle and reverse, perhaps significantly, human-caused global warming. That’s because soil holds about three times more carbon than the atmosphere. But the way humans have cultivated and managed the planet over millennia—think industrial farming practices and drainage of wetlands—has led to the loss of huge quantities of carbon from the soil. Different estimates pin this number at anywhere from 130 gigatons—one gigaton is a billion metric tons—to 320 gigatons of carbon lost.

So, with a fundamental shift in the way we cultivate the world’s soils to revitalize their carbon content, it is “possible that we could make a major dent” in atmospheric CO2 levels, said Marcia DeLonge, senior scientist in the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. DeLonge is far from alone in her thinking.

A recent National Academy of Sciences report discusses how “uptake and storage” of carbon by agricultural soils could be ready for “large-scale deployment.” But the report also warns of the limited rates of carbon uptake by “existing agricultural practices.” And while much research still needs to be done to understand the degree to which soil can sequester more carbon, the myriad “co-benefits” from better land use practices—like improved farm productivity and reduced environmental impacts—means it’s time to give “serious attention” to the issue, DeLonge said.

“Soil can hold a lot of carbon. It can hold a lot more [than it is]. Just how much more is a matter of more research,” she added. “But we can’t be dilly-dallying anymore. We need to be assessing the landscape for opportunities, and then start to take some action.”

Carbon belongs in the soil

Carbon is an essential ingredient of healthy soil, helping it maintain its structure, and water and nutrient content. So, how does it get there? Conventional wisdom has been that carbon is transferred to the soil through decomposing plant and animal debris. But cutting-edge research in soil science is revealing a much more complex set of circumstances at play. One example of this is an evolving understanding of the “liquid carbon” pathway, which describes the way in which liquid carbon—in the form of dissolved sugars formed during photosynthesis—is passed through roots into the soil to support the complex microbial life there.

“We know that organic matter in the soil is super important in terms of promoting crop growth via several mechanisms,” said Lisa Schulte Moore, a professor in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management at Iowa State University. Indeed, carbon levels are an important function of soil’s water-absorbing potential, for example. According to the NRDC, a 1 percent increase in soil organic matter enables each acre to hold onto an additional 20,000 gallons of rainfall (though that finding is dependent on a number of variables, like soil texture).

“You have the fostering of a whole food-web of life in the soil that can help make nutrients available to the crop,” Schulte Moore added. “[While] a third way by which soil organic matter helps promote crop growth is by promoting structure that facilitates root growth.”

Given the symbiotic relationship between soils and the vegetation they sustain, soil carbon loss happens all sorts of ways, deforestation being a prime example. We’re already losing about 18.7 million acres of forests per year. One international studyfinds that, under Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, the deforestation rate of the Amazon could triple. At least 33 percent of global wetlands had been lost as of 2009, a recent paper suggests. A certain portion of the world’s grasslands has also been lost to desertification, which is when lands are stripped of their productivity due to things like drought and inappropriate farming methods (though there remain divided opinions as to the exact amount of grassland lost through human practices).

In the U.S., industrial farming practices like monocropping and routine tillage have led to the massive erosion of topsoil, where most of the carbon is stored. “Those practices are things that can be easily avoided,” said Roger Aines, chief scientist of the energy program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “When we’re dealing with sensitive soils, like in these wetlands and peat soils, you shouldn’t plow them or dig them up. When you’re dealing with soils that could blow away, you should keep a cover crop.”

That said, there is movement away from industrial agriculture toward regenerative farming methods, as evinced by the “4 per 1000” initiative launched by the French in the wake of the Paris Climate Conference in 2015. The overarching thrust of this initiative? That an increase by 0.4 percent a year in soil carbon content would “halt the increase in the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere related to human activities.” Same here in the U.S., where a farm in Northern California, for example, eschews plowing and weeding and all chemical or organic sprays in favor of a compost-intensive model. It apparently produces 10 times the average per-acre income of comparable California farms.

Holistic grazing—a method of farming that ties livestock production to the cycles of nature, all the while minimizing bare ground and maximizing plant mass—is an “extremely valuable tool” in the fight against climate change, said Karl Thidemann, co-founder and co-director of Soil4Climate, a non-profit advocating for different land use practices. “I’ve been to many grazers who have begun using this practice,” said Thidemann. “All of them have told me how important it has been to their financial situation, and to the environment and to the ecology of these areas.”

Charles Eisenstein is a teacher and writer focusing on themes of civilization and the human cultural evolution. In his most recent book, “Climate: A New Story,” he discusses syntropic agriculture, which has revitalized devastated areas of land in Brazil, turning them into thriving agroforests, all within the space of 30 years. “Part of my work involves challenging the basic direction of human civilization,” he said. “And I think the change that the current ecological crisis is leading us into goes that deep.” The problem, added Eisenstein, will be in enacting these sorts of changes in time to make a difference.

Indeed, Seth Watkins discussed how, in Iowa, there’s a prominent vein of thinking, grounded in the Bible, which encourages farmers there to manage intensively every inch of their land. “Something I’ve asked myself is, ‘how do we start having these conversations in church basements?’” said Watkins. “I don’t know what happens when we die for sure, but what I’ve studied about it is that we’re supposed to try to do the best we can with what we have. We’ve got to be good stewards of the land.”

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams

Pastizales: Evitan el Calentamiento

Por primera vez en miles de años, la concentración de CO2 atmosférico pasó los 400 ppm durante todo un año. Hasta ahora las eras geológicas eran consecuencia de fenómenos naturales, lentos e inmanejables para las criaturas vivientes. Hoy los científicos dan por inaugurado el Antropoceno, la era donde los humanos somos la principal fuerza interviniente. Desde que descubrió el uso del fuego, el hombre fue alterando el paisaje y la vida del planeta, aumentando las emisiones de carbono y destruyendo sus sumideros, como costo asociado al progreso.

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El aumento de los gases en la atmósfera produce efecto invernadero y la temperatura media del planeta aumenta. Las consecuencias son: sequías largas seguidas de tormentas de gran intensidad, lo que aumenta las inundaciones.

Las emisiones son como canillas abiertas echando agua en una bañadera. Es necesario cerrarlas, pero también hay que revisar lo que pasa con el desagüe. El problema no son sólo las emisiones, sino el estado de los sumideros. Se cree que la canilla abierta es el consumo de combustibles para uso domiciliario, transporte e industria.

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Forget the Past, Carbon-rich Soil May Be the Ticket to Sustainable Agriculture

TOMALES — Loren Poncia scooped up a handful of dark, damp soil that could change the future of farming.

The nutrient-rich muck was filled with slithery earthworms and thin, white roots sprouting in every direction like lightning bolts.

“This is the carbon farmer’s dream,” he exclaims. “We want to see like 10 worms in a shovel-full.”

Photo credit: Pexels

Poncia’s Stemple Creek Ranch might be a model for future farmers with its sustainable agricultural practices to keep carbon in the soil and out of the atmosphere. Along with less greenhouse gas emissions, carbon-rich soil means healthier and more productive plants, according to rangeland ecologist Jeff Creque.

Now, farmers like Poncia have the wherewithal to become better stewards of the land with the support of a collaboration of researchers known as the Marin Carbon Project. Ultimately, these researchers want to help slow climate change by introducing new, sustainable standards to American agriculture.

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Press Release: Outstanding Practices in Agroecology 2019 Announced

The recognition highlights outstanding practices advancing the transition towards agroecology from the global South. Out of 77 nominations from 44 countries, 15 receive recognitions, including practices from across Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Berlin, 17 January 2019 – 15 outstanding projects, programmes, social enterprises and non-governmental organisations from the Global South promoting sustainable food systems are  receiving the first recognition Outstanding Practices in Agroecology 2019, beating 77 nominations from 44 countries. The recognition is organised by the World Future Council (WFC), in collaboration with the start-up Technology for Agroecology in the Global South (TAGS).

Photo credit: Pixabay

On the basis of a World Future Council evaluation report, an international panel of renowned experts decided upon the following 15 best practices to be recognised in Berlin on Friday 18 January, 2019 at the occasion of the International Green Week and the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture 2019:

Africa: Regeneration Through Connecting Seeds with Culture and Nature in Africa 

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Soil Becomes Fertile Ground for Climate Action

Soil quality is a growing focus in the sustainability space, and for good reason: Fertile soil naturally stabilizes the climate and ensures resilient supply chains. But a third of the planet’s land is severely degraded, and fertile soil is being lost at the rate of 24 billion tons a year, according to a 2017 United Nations-backed study. So, a small but growing group of companies — some directly in agriculture or ranching, others indirectly via sourcing — are investing in healthy soil initiatives.

Photo credit: Pixabay

Soil, no matter how healthy, may not be the spiciest climate solution. It’s not a giant machine that can suck carbon directly from the air — or is it?

In fact, Earth’s soils contain more than three times more carbon than is stored in the atmosphere, and four times more than the amount in all living plants and animals.

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Regenerative Agriculture: Taking Organic to the Next Level

“Natural” and “organic” have experienced decades of growing pains as industry-shaping nomenclature. While the intricacies of terminology and philosophy continue to be worked out, progress has made way for the next generation of ideology to emerge. Among these concepts is regenerative agriculture, which takes the principles of organic farming and adds more layers of accountability.

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“Regenerative organic agriculture is different in that it considers the long-term consequences of farming practices on the soil, environment, animal welfare, farm and community economics, and human health,” explained Zoe Schaeffer, communications specialist at Kutztown, Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute. “And it ensures that we’re on a path of continual improvement toward all those ends.”

Andrew Pittz is a sixth-generation family farmer and “farmer-in-chief” at Missouri Valley, Iowa-based Sawmill Hollow, the first aronia berry farm in the United States. He also serves as director of Heartland Superfoods, a vertically integrated supplier of organically farmed ingredients.

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Why the Food and Regeneration Movement Should Support a Green New Deal

“The Green New Deal we are proposing will be similar in scale to the mobilization efforts seen in World War II or the Marshall Plan… Half measures will not work… The time for slow and incremental efforts has long past [sic].” – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, then-candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, Huffington Post, June 26, 2018

“Just transitioning 10 percent of agricultural production to best-practice regenerative systems will sequester enough CO2 to reverse climate change and restore the global climate. Regenerative Agriculture can change agriculture from being a major contributor to climate change to becoming a major solution.” – Andre Leu, international director, Regeneration International, “Reversing Climate Change with Regenerative Agriculture,” October 9, 2018

Photo credit: Pixabay

The ‘Great Climate Awakening’ of 2018

The final months of 2018 will likely be remembered as the decisive moment when the global grassroots awakened to the life-or-death threat posed by global warming. With violent weather and climate disasters becoming the norm, and international scientists finally shedding their customary caution to report that we must drastically slash (by at least 45 percent) global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, hundreds of millions of ordinary people across the world seemed to simultaneously wake up.

Young climate activists under the banner of the Sunrise Movement in the U.S. and the Extinction Rebellion in the UK and other countries, sat in at politicians’ offices. They blocked streets and roadways. They demanded immediate and bold action.

The Green New Deal is born

In the U.S., an insurgent slate of newly elected members of Congress, inspired by the Sunrise Movement and led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have generated headlines and popular support by calling for a Green New Deal (GND), a 21st Century upgrade of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal carried out during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Given the severity of the climate crisis, and the deterioration of the U.S. and global status quo (economic, political, health and environment), it’s no exaggeration to state that the GND is perhaps the most significant blueprint for system change in 100 years.

The GND’s call for a mass conversion to renewable energy and zero emissions of greenhouse gases in the U.S. by 2030, is in line with what most scientists say is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change.

But what’s new, and long overdue in this  evolving manifesto is that the GND also calls for the greening, “just transition” and elimination of greenhouse gas emissions from our multi-trillion-dollar food and farming system as well. That call is long overdue, especially given that our degenerative food system generates 44-57 percent  of all global greenhouse gases.

The GND draft statement calls for “eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from the manufacturing, agricultural and other industries, including by investing in local-scale agriculture in communities across the country.” It also calls for funding “massive investment in the drawdown of greenhouse gases.”

Beyond offering comprehensive energy and agricultural solutions for our climate emergency, what is truly game-changing and revolutionary about the GND is that it calls for system-wide economic regeneration as well: full employment, $15/hr. minimum wage, universal health care, free public education, and economic justice for all—policies extremely popular with the overwhelming majority of the body politic, including students, working class communities and low-income groups.

By bringing together the concerns of youth, food, farmer, environmental and climate activists, with the bread-and-butter concerns of workers and frontline communities, the GND offers nothing less than a contemporary roadmap for survival and regeneration.

As Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association, pointed out in a recent email urging groups to sign on to the GND, it is economic injustice, the lack of money in the pockets of workers and consumers, the 80 percent of ordinary people who live from paycheck to paycheck, that has, in large part, held back the greening of America:

Who wouldn’t drive a Tesla, put up solar panels, or buy an energy efficient home in a walkable neighborhood with great public transportation? Everyone wants these things. We all want to enjoy good health, breathe clean air and drink pure water. There aren’t many families who would have to be convinced to eat locally grown organic health food if it were available and they could afford it. The problem is we’ve got student debt. Our mortgages are under water. We’ve got medical bills and childcare to pay for. And many of us have been too poor to go to college, buy a house or start a family. Our country’s struggling family farmers have the same problem. Sure, they’d love to go organic and pay their workers fairly. They want to do what’s best for their families, their communities and their environment. They just have to figure out how to avoid foreclosure and bankruptcy first.

Support grows quickly for the GND, but so do attacks

With unprecedented speed, Ocasio-Cortez, insurgent Democrats and the Sunrise Movement have stimulated massive media coverage and generated significant public support for the GND, putting radical change on the national agenda. 84 members of Congress, and 11 U.S. Senators, leading 2020 presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, hundreds of local officials, and over 600 activist organizations have already endorsed the GND.

In late-2018, polls indicated that 81 percent of Americans support full employment, economic justice and renewable energy, as outlined in the GND.

Yet despite initial strong support for the GND among activists and the general public, establishment politicians (both Democrats and Republicans) and the corporate media have launched a massive counter-attack, denouncing the GND (and Ocasio-Cortez and her allies) as “utopian,” “radical,” “impractical” and even “dangerous.”

The unfortunate truth is that Congress and the mass media are infected and dominated by powerful climate emergency deniers and establishment politicians taking money from fossil fuel companies, climate-destructive industrial agribusiness and Wall Street. Yet with global scientists sounding the alarm that the onset of runaway global warming (with atmospheric CO2 levels of 450 ppm or higher) is not 80 years away or even 50 years away, but more like a dozen years away unless we drastically change course, it can hardly be called “utopian” to organize around a bold emissions-reduction, drawdown and economic development plan that can avert catastrophe, and improve the lives of everyday people at the same time.

Painting Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement as “radical” is not likely to derail the growing insurgency. Because a radical emergency more serious than anything humans have ever faced in our 200,000-year evolution demands a radical solution. As Cortez said in an interview on “60 Minutes” on January 6 (watched by 11 million people), she admits to being a “radical”—not unlike previous “radicals” in American history, including Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who likewise confronted severe crises demanding radical solutions.

Is it possible to achieve zero emissions in the U.S. by 2030?

On the same “60 Minutes” show, Ocasio-Cortez was pressed on the practicality of zero fossil fuel emissions by 2030. The host tried to trip her up by asking if zero emissions meant that all of us would be driving electric cars within a decade. She responded by saying that there are technological breakthroughs on the horizon that we can’t even imagine yet.

Although it’s undoubtedly true that there are technical breakthroughs in renewable energy and electric cars on the horizon, I wasn’t fully satisfied with Ocasio-Cortez’s answer (even though I admit she’s my favorite political leader of all time). Here’s how I would have answered that question:

“Millions of Americans are going to be driving electric cars in 2030. But you’re right, a lot of us will still be driving our old gasoline-powered vehicles. If you read the details of our proposed Green New Deal carefully, you’ll see that we’re not just talking about rapid reductions in fossil fuel emissions, the CO2 and other greenhouse gases we put up into the sky by burning fossil fuels. We’re also talking about drawing down these same greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, utilizing climate-friendly farming practices that qualitatively increase plant photosynthesis, soil fertility and natural carbon sequestration. These regenerative practices include farming organically, holistic grazing, improving soil health, and restoring our forests, grasslands and wetlands. In other words, we can and must reach zero net emissions in 2030 by drawing down as much atmospheric carbon as we’re still putting up.

“The Green New Deal aims to change not only our climate-destructive energy, manufacturing and transportation systems, but also our degenerative food and farming systems. The Green New Deal is designed to raise the living standards for all Americans, including low-income workers in both rural and urban communities, so that all of us can choose and afford healthier and more climate-friendly lifestyles. In the next decade we must facilitate a just transition away from climate-destabilizing factory farms and fossil fuel-intensive agriculture, at the same time as we switch, as rapidly possible, to 100-percent renewable energy. With renewable energy and regenerative food, farming and land use working in synergy, there is no doubt that we can reach zero net emissions by 2030, significant negative net emissions by 2050, and literally, along with the rest of the world, reverse global warming and avert climate catastrophe.”

We know what to do. The best practices and practitioners in alternative energy, infrastructure rebuilding and regenerative food and farming are already visible in or near our local communities. We simply need to mobilize politically to scale up these practices utilizing the power of a GND. But we’re running out of time unless we can quickly build a massive united front, elect new GND supporters to Congress and the White House in 2020, and pass federal legislation for a GND starting in 2021, as Ocasio-Cortez puts it, “similar in scale to the mobilization efforts seen in World War II or the Marshall Plan.”

The time to join the GND revolution is now. For more information on the Sunrise Movement’s upcoming activities, click here.

Ronnie Cummins is international director of the Organic Consumers Association and a member of theRegeneration International steering committee.

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams

Work with the Land to Restore Health to All

THERE IS going to be a revolution in farming, and it’s going to happen soon. It has to.

The revolution is called regenerative agriculture, and the winners will be farmers, soil, bees, and everyone who eats.

Photo credit: Pexels

The only losers will be the pharmaceutical and petrochemical companies that have taken over our food supply. Their wares (expensive GMO seeds, billions of pounds of pesticides, chemical fertilizers) will not be in demand.

What we are finding out is that 70 years of chemical farming has killed our topsoil and washed it into our waterways, along with a toxic load of chemicals, causing massive red tide in Florida and dead zones at the mouths of our rivers.

The promised increases in yield from Roundup Ready GMO seed have turned out to be short-lived, expensive, and unsustainable.

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