Farming Our Way Out of the Climate Crisis

Could changing our land use and agricultural practices make a dent in addressing climate change? Yes, says Project Drawdown and a new report from the IPCC.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new report that highlights the importance of land use and agriculture in climate change.

Good! It’s a crucial area for us to focus on, and it’s often neglected.

I’ve been working on this topicon and offsince the 1990s, and have been bewildered why it doesn’t get more attention. For some reason, when we think of greenhouse gas emissions, we envision factories, cars, and smokestacks — not farm fields, plantations, and cattle ranches. But, it turns out, land use and agriculture are among the biggest contributors to climate change — and can be among the biggest climate solutions.


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We Can Stop the Climate Crisis

It’s time to farm (and eat!) like the world depends on it.

We can stop the climate crisis.

At least, we can start reducing the 23% of global greenhouse gas emissions that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently attributed to agricultural activities.

The answer is regenerative organic agriculture. And the time to implement it is now.

In a report published last week, the UN concluded that humans cannot stave off the effects of climate change without making drastic changes to the ways we grow food and use land.

Conventional, industrial agriculture depends on the use of chemical inputs and fossil-fuel intensive synthetic fertilizers, in addition to heavy machinery and tillage, to grow food. Industrial farming also relies on factory farms for animals. These methods release large amounts of carbon, methane, and other greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere.

In contrast, science proves that regenerative organic systems, which prioritize soil health and good farming practices like cover cropping, crop rotations, and pasturing animals, use 45% less energy and release 40% fewer carbon emissions than conventional agriculture, with no statistical difference in yields.


Regenerative Agriculture Is Key for a Sustainable Climate and Food System

From where I stand inside the South Dakota cornfield I was visiting with entomologist and former USDA scientist Jonathan Lundgren, all the human-inflicted traumas to Earth seem far away. It isn’t just that the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye—are people singing that song again?—but that the field burgeons and buzzes and chirps with all sorts of other life, too.

Instead of the sunbaked, bare lanes between cornstalks that are typical of conventional agriculture, these lanes sprout an assortment of cover crops. These are plants that save soil from wind and water erosion, reduce the evaporation of soil moisture, and attract beneficial insects and birds. Like all plants, these cover crops convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into a liquid carbon food, some for themselves and some to support the fungi, bacteria, and other microscopic partners underground. A portion of that carbon stays there, turning poor soil into fragrant, fertile stuff that resembles chocolate cake.

The field rustles with larger life forms, too. Lundgren was visiting this particular field to meet up with a group of his grad students splayed among the plants, sucking insects into plastic tubes to be later identified and counted. Lundgren launched a research institute called Ecdysis back in 2016 to conduct comparative studies between conventional agriculture and regenerative agriculture, which is generally defined as agriculture that builds soil health and overall biodiversity and yields a nutritious and profitable farm product. Regenerative farmers avoid tilling so that they protect the community of soil microorganisms, the water-storing pores they create underground, and the carbon they’ve stashed there. They encourage plant diversity and plant cover that mimics nature in their fields, avoid farm chemicals, and let farm animals polish off the crop residue.

All of us are familiar with conventional agriculture: the miles upon miles of farmland growing only one crop, the destructive tillage that wafts soil and its stored carbon into the air and into our waterways; the use of hundreds of chemicals including pesticides like chlorpyrifos that have been found to cause brain damage in children; the confined facilities that are both cruel to animals and make their impact on the Earth an assault rather than a gift.

This is the kind of agriculture targeted in the most recent report, released Aug. 8, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in which a panel of 100 scientists concur not only that the food system contributes 37 percent of greenhouse gases, but also that a more sustainable agriculture can help address global warming.

Reading through the report, I can’t help but wonder whether any of those 100 scientists have visited the kind of agriculture that can turn this mess around or whether they’ve just read about it in studies. Whether they’ve ever smelled the soil that comes from these farms or seen the incredible variety of birds and insects thriving alongside the crops. Whether they’ve ever talked to the farmers who are discovering how to grow healthy food and healthy landscapes at the same time.

I first started writing about those farmers back in 2011, when there were more amazing anecdotes than studies, but that has changed. Lundgren himself published a study with his former student Claire LaCanne in 2018. The study followed 10 cornfields per farm on 20 farms over two growing seasons, half of which were regenerative and half conventional. The study tracked soil carbon, insect pests, corn yield, and profits.

The results give the imprimatur of science to the successes regenerative farmers have reported for years. Lundgren and LaCanne found that there were more pests in the conventional cornfields that were treated with insecticides and/or used GMO seeds than in the pesticide-free regenerative fields, presumably because the cover crops attracted battalions of predator insects that decimated crop pests—and because there were no insecticides to kill off those beneficials.

And while the regenerative farms used older, lower-yielding corn varieties without fertilizer and had lower yields, their overall profits were 78 percetnt higher than the conventional farmers’. Partly, this was because the regenerative farmers’ costs were so much lower, with no cash outlays for costly insecticides and GMO seeds. They also “stacked enterprises” and had two or more sources of income on the same acre—in this case, they grazed their cattle on corn residue after harvest and got a premium price for pastured beef. What was the primary factor correlating with farm profitability? The amount of carbon and organic matter in the farmers’ fields, not their yields.

The venerable soil scientist Rattan Lal was one of the first people to connect the loss of soil carbon caused by destructive farming to the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In a 2018 interview with Soil4Climate, Lal said that he and his colleagues estimated that regenerating landscapes—farms, forests, coastlands, and so on—could restore up to 150 gigatons (a gigaton equals 1 billion tons) of carbon to the world’s soil in 80 years. All the extra vegetation grown to put that carbon in the soil would store 150-160 gigatons more, resulting in a terrestrial biosphere holding an additional 330 gigatons of carbon, equal to a drawdown of 150-160 parts per million of CO2 from the atmosphere. “We should encourage the policy makers that this process of restoring degraded soils and ecosystems is a win, win, win option,” Lal says. “It’s a bridge to the future.”

Several of the Democratic presidential hopefuls have added agriculture to their climate platforms—most notably Rep. Tim Ryan, who proposes policies to support regenerative agriculture and soil carbon sequestration. Just this week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren added to her climate platform a sweeping plan to overhaul agricultural policy, while Sen. Cory Booker announced he would propose the Climate Stewardship Act to the Senate in September; both would pay farmers for conservation practices.

And farmers of the future are ready to take it on.

“Agriculture is perfectly poised to play a major role in the solution to the climate crisis,” says Bilal Sarwari, membership and communications manager of the National Young Farmers Coalition. “By helping young farmers gain access to land, everyone can help play a role.”

I can’t help but believe that the 100 scientists would become hopeful themselves knowing this, hopeful that humanity can turn away from the dire environmental path we’ve been treading.

Posted with permission from Common Dreams

¿Puede la carne salvar el planeta?

Nos han dicho que nuestro consumo de carne está destruyendo el medio ambiente, pero el verdadero problema es la producción de carne, no la carne en sí.

La carne ha tenido unos años difíciles. Desde que un informe impactante de 2006 descubrió que el ganado es un importante contribuyente al cambio climático, ha habido un movimiento nacional, si no global, para comer menos carne.

Pero muchos expertos dicen que la guerra contra la carne está perdiendo el punto. Existe un extenso cuerpo de investigación que sugiere que el ganado no debe culpar a la crisis climática. De hecho, estos expertos argumentarían que los animales de pastoreo son una parte crucial de la solución.

Los métodos actuales de producción de carne son absolutamente inaceptables desde un punto de vista ambiental y de bienestar animal, pero eso no nos lleva lógicamente a la conclusión de que debemos deshacernos de la carne. 


We Could Have Less than 60 Years of Farming Left — Unless We Support This Growing Movement

Sixty years. That’s how long U.N. officials said we have until all the world’s topsoil degrades to the point that it’s no longer useful for farming (and this was back in 2014, so it’s more like 55 years now).

Massive farms—the kinds that lean on chemical pesticides, large tilling machines, and other growing techniques that strip the ground of nutrients—are one of the biggest threats to our soil. As the global population rises, more hungry mouths to feed will likely mean more of these environmentally damaging growing practices. 

On the other end of the spectrum, you’ll find regenerative farming that actually mimics nature to restore soil health by pumping nutrients back into the ground. (You can learn more on how it works here.)


Growing Change: Can Agriculture Be Good for the Climate?

Last year California set a goal to become carbon-neutral by 2045. Some called it unrealistic, while we call it mission-critical. But how do we get there? As we search for ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to prevent global atmospheric temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees and result in irreversible climate change, one of the best answers is as old as the dirt under our feet, literally.

Let’s go back to basic science. Soil naturally has large amounts of carbon. Healthy soil — soil rich in nutrients and able to retain water — holds the carbon that plants absorb from the air and bring into their root system and sequester in the soil as root and plant matter decompose. Also, healthy soil is teeming with microbes which also bring carbon deep in the soil.

Agricultural scientists across the globe, including at Stanford University and the University of California, Davis, have in recent years been making new discoveries showing that healthy soil holds more carbon than previously thought and that good soil management can serve as an important carbon sink.


“I’m Not a Climate Change Guy, But…”: Farmers Reckon with New Reality in the Heartland

Walking over soggy lifeless crops, Brett Adams, a fifth generation Nebraska farmer, paused to catch his breath. Under the dark grey clouds of the Midwestern spring, he was forced to come to terms with an alarming reality: 80% of his farmland was under freezing floodwater. 

In March 2019, record-breaking floods inundated America’s breadbasket, a region that’s also a key exporter of corn and soybeans to the world. Much of the Midwest was overwhelmed with floods as a result of torrential rains, frozen ground unable to absorb more water, heavy snowmelt, and a series of extreme weather events that culminated in a major winter storm—described by meteorologists as a “bomb cyclone.”

“Winter was colder than normal, overall. We also had a wetter-than-normal winter as well as fall, so the soils were at or near saturation,” Nebraska State Climatologist Martha Shulski said. 

The floods damaged public infrastructure and led to the loss of crops, livestock and the evacuation of thousands of people from their homes.


El Ministerio de Agricultura de Japón reconoce el papel de la agricultura regenerativa en la solución climática

Una conferencia innovadora sobre agricultura y cambio climático tuvo lugar del 13 al 15 de mayo en Japón, y Regeneration International estuvo allí.

Si bien el contenido y la interacción de la conferencia “La agricultura es la solución al cambio climático” en Otsu, Japón, fue dinámico e importante, quizás la conclusión más importante de la conferencia fue quién organizó el evento en primer lugar.

La conferencia fue copatrocinada por el Ministerio de Agricultura, Silvicultura y Pesca de Japón en lo que podría interpretarse como un reconocimiento tácito por parte de la tercera economía más grande del mundo que la agricultura debe desempeñar un papel clave en la mitigación del cambio climático.

La conferencia también fue patrocinada por la Iniciativa 4 por 1000, y fue apoyada por el Panel Intergubernamental sobre Cambio Climático (IPCC), la Organización de las Naciones Unidas para la Alimentación y la Agricultura (UNFAO), el Banco Mundial, el Consejo Empresarial Mundial para el Desarrollo Sostenible (WBCSD), Rothamsted Research y los gobiernos de Francia y Alemania, entre otros, y tuvo lugar solo un día después de que el IPCC concluyera su 49a sesión en Kioto, a solo 13 kilómetros de Otsu.

Los oradores clave de 4 por 1000 y las principales organizaciones y gobiernos que apoyan esta iniciativa confirmaron la importancia de construir la salud del suelo para combatir el cambio climático. Fue la primera conferencia internacional en Asia sobre el cambio de la agricultura al adoptar sistemas de gestión que aumentan la materia orgánica del suelo como una solución de reducción y adaptación a la crisis climática.

El arroz es el cultivo básico más importante en Asia, y el director internacional de RI, Andre Leu, hizo una presentación magistral sobre Sistemas de Intensificación del Arroz (SRI).

El SRI puede duplicar los rendimientos de arroz y reducir enormemente las emisiones de metano, gracias a su menor uso de agua, y cuando se combina con cultivos de cobertura, el SRI puede dar como resultado un secuestro significativo de carbono en el suelo. El SRI es una solución poderosa para los productores de arroz de todo el mundo que enfrentan crecientes amenazas de sequía, tifones y marejadas ciclónicas costeras.

Varios socios de RI, como la Asociación Biodinámica de India y la Liga de Municipios y Ciudades Orgánicas de Filipinas, también participaron en la conferencia y dieron presentaciones sobre las mejores prácticas para mitigar el aumento de carbono natural en los suelos de las tierras agrícolas.

Durante una entrevista con Regeneration International, Paul Luu, Secretario Ejecutivo de 4 por 1000, dijo que los responsables políticos y los agricultores están poniendo cada vez más énfasis en la agroecología. Luu habló sobre la fuerte necesidad de que se realicen más investigaciones sobre agroecología, agricultura biodinámica y agricultura regenerativa, para que sea útil para asesorar a los agricultores convencionales en transición de acuerdo con sus requisitos.

A pesar de que no se menciona el cambio climático en la reunión de ministros de agricultura del G7 celebrada unos días antes en la cercana Tokio (debido a la abstención del gobierno de los Estados Unidos), el gobierno japonés está trabajando con la Iniciativa 4 por 1000 para incluir el marco de 4 por 1000 en el trabajo conjunto de Koronivia sobre agricultura (KJWAc). KJWA es una decisión tomada en la Conferencia de las Naciones Unidas sobre el Clima (COP23) en noviembre de 2017, para reconocer oficialmente la importancia de los sectores agrícolas en la adaptación y mitigación del cambio climático.

La implementación de KJWA cuenta con el apoyo de la UNFAO en asociación con otros actores a nivel nacional e internacional. En virtud de esta decisión, la Organización de las Naciones Unidas para la Alimentación y la Agricultura (UNFAO) apoya a los países que brindan apoyo técnico para adaptarse y mitigar el cambio climático, trabajando en estrecha colaboración con la Convención Marco de las Naciones Unidas sobre el Cambio Climático (CMNUCC) y otros socios.

Regeneration International mostrará el progreso realizado por la Iniciativa 4 por 1000 para alentar a los países a unirse a una Revolución de la Salud del Suelo en la agricultura (denominada la Revolución Marrón) en su próxima Asamblea General en Chile en diciembre de 2019, que se realizará junto con la Convención Marco de las Naciones Unidas sobre el Cambio Climático COP25 en Santiago de Chile del 2 al 13 de diciembre.

Oliver Gardiner es el reportero itinerante de la Asociación de Consumidores Orgánicos y Regeneration International.

(Spanish ) Japan’s Ministry of Ag Acknowledges Role of Regenerative Farming in Climate Solution

A breakthrough conference on agriculture and climate change took place May 13-15 in Japan, and Regeneration International was there.

While the content and interaction of the “Agriculture Is the Solution to Climate Change” conference in Otsu, Japan, was dynamic and important, perhaps the most important takeaway from the conference was who organized the event in the first place.

The conference was co-sponsored by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in what could be interpreted as a tacit recognition by the world’s third largest economy that agriculture must play a key role in climate-change mitigation.  

The conference was also sponsored by the 4 per 1000 Initiative, and was supported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO), the World Bank, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), Rothamsted Research, and the governments of France and Germany, among others – and it took place just one day after IPCC wrapped up its 49th session in Kyoto, just 13 kilometers from Otsu.

Key speakers from 4 per 1000 and the major supporting organizations and governments all upheld the importance of building soil heath to fight climate change. It was the first-ever international conference in Asia about changing agriculture by adopting management systems that increase soil organic matter as a drawdown and adaptation solution to the climate crisis.

Rice is the most important staple crop in Asia, and RI’s international director Andre Leu gave a keynote presentation on Systems of Rice Intensification (SRI).

SRI can double rice yields, and massively reduce methane emissions, thanks to its lower water usage – and when combined with cover crops, SRI can result in significant soil sequestration of carbon. SRI is a powerful solution for rice farmers all around the world faced with increasing threats of drought, typhoon and coastal storm surge.

A number of RI partners, such as the Biodynamic Association of India and the League of Organic Municipalities and Cities of the Philippines, also took part in the conference, and gave presentations on best practices for mitigating the natural carbon increase in farmland soils.

During an interview with Regeneration International, Paul Luu, Executive Secretary of 4 per 1000, said policymakers and farmers are putting more and more emphasis on agroecology.  Luu spoke about the strong need for more research to be carried out on agroecology, biodynamic farming and regenerative agriculture – for it to be useful in advising transitioning conventional farmers in accordance to their requirements.

Despite there being no mention of climate change in the G7 meeting of agriculture ministers held a few days earlier in nearby Tokyo (because of abstention by the United States government), the Japanese government is working with 4 per 1000 Initiative to include 4 per 1000’s framework in the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA). KJWA is a decision reached at the UN Climate Conference (COP23) in November 2017, to officially acknowledge the significance of the agriculture sectors in adapting to and mitigating climate change.

The implementation of KJWA is supported by the UNFAO in partnership with other actors at national and international levels. Under this decision the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) supports countries providing technical support to adapt to and mitigate climate change, working in close collaboration with United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and other partners.

Regeneration International will showcase the progress made by the 4 per 1000 Initiative to encourage countries to come on board with a Soil Health Revolution in agriculture (dubbed the Brown Revolution) at its next General Assembly in Chile in December 2019, to be held in conjunction with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change COP 25 summit in Santiago de Chile December 2-13.

Oliver Gardiner is the Organic Consumers Association and Regeneration International’s roving reporter.To keep up with news and events, sign up here for the Regeneration International newsletter.