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Regenerative Agriculture Can Make Farmers Stewards of the Land Again

For years, “sustainable” has been the buzzword in conversations about agriculture. If farmers and ranchers could slow or stop further damage to land and water, the thinking went, that was good enough. I thought that way too, until I started writing my new book, “One Size Fits None: A Farm Girl’s Search for the Promise of Regenerative Agriculture.”

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I grew up on a cattle ranch in western South Dakota and once worked as an agricultural journalist. For me, agriculture is more than a topic – it is who I am. When I began working on my book, I thought I would be writing about sustainability as a response to the environmental damage caused by conventional agriculture – farming that is industrial and heavily reliant on oil and agrochemicals, such as pesticides and fertilizers.

 

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Regenerative Agriculture Creates a Sprawling Road Map

Blain Hjertaas of Redvers, Sask., and David Rourke of Minto, Man., were both well-known faces before their panel at the MFGA Regenerative Agriculture Conference in Brandon late last November.

Why it matters: Regenerative agriculture has got lots of time in the headlines, but the movement may look very different for an organic farmer with 3,000 acres of annual crops versus a rancher whose land is mostly pasture.

Both are believers in regenerative agriculture, a movement that, among other things, promises more efficient production, resiliency against drought and flood, and the promise that the farm will not only be sustainable with the environment, but actually help regenerate degraded soil.

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A conversation with either may fall towards topics like soil carbon, organic matter or soil structure and water infiltration.

At the same time, the two operations could not be more different.

For Hjertaas, it’s all about livestock.

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Revisiting a Geography of Hope

To be a farmer, at any point in history, means you grow food. You steward the land—soil, water, air, energy, plants, and animals—and make a living from its increase. It seems simple, at least in purpose, if not in practice: Grow good food. Now, in the twenty-first century, awareness is growing that we depend on farmers for more than food. We need farmers and their farmland to sequester carbon, to buffer against floods, and to provide wildlife habitat. Perhaps less evidently, we also need farms to inspire us with their beauty, to cultivate our respect and awe of the more-than-human, and to light the pathways to a more just and prosperous world.  

This is a lot to ask of farmers, but the scope of climate change and biodiversity loss demands more than isolated solutions such as limiting emissions and protecting forests can accomplish.

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Native Shrubs and Why They’re Essential for Carbon Sequestration

“Shrubbiness is such a remarkable adaptive design that one may wonder why more plants have not adopted it.” (H. C. Stutz, 1989)

In light of the newest IPCC and US climate change reports, coupled with reports of the ongoing declines of wild species—birds, insects—you name them, just so long as they aren’t human, I have turned to thinking about shrubs. It is precisely their adaptive characteristics that give shrubs their potential to be powerful players in soil carbon sequestration and ecosystem regeneration in certain parts of the world, such as the Midwest.

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Although alarming, the reports are not surprising to anyone who’s been keeping track. The IPCC report says human global society has 12 years to reduce carbon emissions to 45% below 2010 levels if there is to be any hope of holding overall average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F).

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How Regenerative Agriculture Could Be Key to the Green New Deal

With the 2018 mid-term election and the prospect of 2020, people are finally beginning electing more climate realists over fossil fuel apologists. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and her band of newly elected progressive congresswomen, and Bernie Sanders, the most popular politician and likely presidential candidate, have proposed a Green New Deal. This plan would put the government’s economic resources behind a definitive move to renewable energy and an end to fossil fuel dominance. With the recent IPCC report predicting that the earth will reach critical thresholds as early as 2030, there’s not a moment to waste.

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I began covering the grass roots movement against fracking in 2009— five years before the Paris Climate Agreement cited methane release from drilling activities as a major contributor to climate change. Just one year after the Agreement, in 2016, climate was a forgotten step-child, near absent from the debates, primaries, and election. And yet two years later, Americans are now forced to face up to the reality that we may only have twelve more years to mitigate.

What was once predicted as a century away, and next slated to occur fifty years from now  will now occur within the lifetimes of many Baby Boomers, while cutting short the lives of most succeeding generations. The time is past for accepting excuses, denials, and delays. Putting the Green New Deal into play is a top priority for human survival.

But fuel extraction activities are not the only major source of methane’s harm to the atmosphere and climate. And while it’s essential to cease destabilizing the atmosphere and living systems, the next step is repairing the damage and restoring earth to eco-functionality.

Fortunately, new land management practices, refined over the last thirty years, under the rubric, “regenerative agriculture,” are showing tremendous promise in restoring the earth’s disrupted ecologies and climate by:

  1. Reducing (or even eliminating) the second largest contributor to methane release into the atmosphere—industrial food agriculture. This is a major way to slow and prevent climate change
  2. Pulling released carbon from the atmosphere back into the soil and holding it there. This is a major way to reverse climate change
  3. Restoring damaged land so that going forward, it will no longer release carbon, evaporate water, flood, burn, or contaminate plants grown on it. This is a major way to prevent both climate change and other future disruptions.

Regen Ag has another benefit. Since 70% of Americans support universal health care, adding a New Food Deal wing to the Green New Deal would make healthy foods more affordable— and directly promote health and reduce health care costs. For the last three decades, the best health care advice has never deviated: Eat more nutrient rich, less pesticide contaminated food. It’s great to exhort people to eat better, but why not make that economically feasible—a food and health justice issue. Middle and lower income people who can’t afford healthy vegetables, uncontaminated dairy, and non-CAFO meat are stuck eating unhealthy foods produced from government subsidized commodity food crops, like corn and soy.

Economically and environmentally unsustainable, the for-profit conventional food and ag industries are not a good bet for future food security. If over the last forty years, this model was so very successful at “feeding the world,” as the PR claims state, why should tax payer dollars still be required to subsidize this form of agriculture?

As part of a New Food Deal, we could erase these inequities by shifting land use, investment, and subsidy patterns away from corporate giants and towards regenerative agriculture’s local networks of farmers and food growers. Building food security across the country region-by-region will better address future climate disruption than expecting unresponsive monopolies with cheap food and expensive advertising to do it. Rural economic development has the added benefit of putting a safety net under rural populations maligned and rendered invisible by neoliberal policies and politicians.

Over the last few decades, organic food farmers and land managers have pioneered an agricultural and business plan for growing healthier, more nutrient-dense foods while restoring damaged lands to a natural carbon-storing ecology. Putting a price on carbon may provide a temporary economic incentive to reduce fuel use, but it’s far from a comprehensive long-term solution. It turns out that the earth itself is the best and most climate-saving carbon bank. Holding carbon is what soil naturally does— and the interest the greater public can draw from this bank is: healthy food for all. According to Regeneration International, “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.”

Regen Ag is currently being adopted on a local level, farmer to farmer, all over the world, but there are economic and educational barriers to the transition from soil-depleting, methane releasing, and pesticide-ridden agriculture.

Let’s complement the Green New Deal with a New Food Deal that builds out a new regenerative food economy, putting people to work recovering land, growing food, building food sourcing supply chains, operating local Mom and Pop grocery stories, and setting up early adopters to learn and teach growing, management, nutrition, food prep, recycling, and more in regions all over the country— and the world.

For too long the energy and agricultural industries have successfully evaded regulation while dumping their externalities on the public commons. We must reverse that. Both the Green New Deal and the New Food Deal can reorient the basics— and put Americans, our democracy, and the earth on the path to health.

 

Leaders in Regenerative Agriculture Movement: Its Time to Speed up the Cool Down

Women and Immigrant farmers, Environmentalists, Soil Scientists, Advocates and Food Security Experts Join Forces to Accelerate Action at UN Climate Change Conference (COP 24)

 

Katowice, Poland, December 10, 2018 – Today, Biovision, IFOAM-Organics International, Organic Consumers Association (OCA), Regeneration International and Shumei International announced their side event, Speed Up the Cool Down: Scaling Up Regenerative Solutions to Climate Change, at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 24) in Katowice, Poland on Wednesday, 12 December 2018 at 11:30-13:00 GMT. The delegation from Australia, India, Mexico, Switzerland, the United States, Zambia and Zimbabwe will travel to Katowice to join thousands of advocates, non-profits, soil scientists and environmentalists to push for action and solutions to drastically reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to reverse climate change.  They are part of a growing movement that aims to draw down carbon into the soil through regenerative agriculture and land management.

 

“According to a peer reviewed study in Nature, the last time the world had 400ppm of CO2 the temperatures were 16C (38F) and the sea levels were 20 to 60 meters higher,” said André Leu, International Director of Regeneration International, one of the co-organizers and a leading voice in the movement. “We have to draw down the excess CO2 with regenerative agriculture to avoid catastrophic climate change,” he added.

The “Speed Up the Cool Down” side event is focused on showcasing concrete “shovel-ready” solutions and frameworks to accelerate carbon sequestration, food sovereignty and biodiversity preservation. Speakers will present on global efforts being made to scale up agroecology, consumer campaigns, true cost accounting and policy change to create resilient communities and ecosystems.

“This year, it is necessary to build a solid framework that fosters adaptive capacity and resilience and contributes to the equitable achievement of the Paris Agreements 1.5C goal,” said Gabor Figezcky, Head of Global Policy at IFOAM – Organics International. “It is also important to safeguard key elements from the Paris Agreement preamble, namely food security, human rights, including the rights of indigenous communities, gender equality, and ecosystem integrity. Transforming our food systems is a key component to address climate change,” he added.

Speakers include: Barbara Hachipuka Banda, Founder/Director, Natural Agriculture Development Program Zambia; Hans Herren, President, Biovision, Switzerland; André Leu, International Director, Regeneration International, Australia; Mercedes López Martinez, Director, Vía Orgánica, Mexico; Shamika Mone, Treasurer and Managing Committee member of Organic Farming Association of India (OFAI); and Precious Phiri, Founding Director, EarthWisdom Consulting Co., Zimbabwe.

“Right now there are thousands of small-scale women farmers in rural Zambia working to scale up agroecology programs that support self-sufficiency, resilience, land preservation and biodiversity to avoid crop failures, hunger and forced migration caused by climate change,” said Barbara Hachipuka Banda, Founder of the Natural Agriculture Development Program Zambia. “However, we need everyone to play their part in transforming the agricultural system because we are all interconnected, and we are faster and stronger together.”

For more information on the UN Side Event, please visit: https://bit.ly/2B8z7DX

 

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About Biovision

Since 1998, Biovision Foundation has been promoting the development, dissemination and application of sustainable ecological agricultural practices, allowing people in the developing world to help themselves. Key is our holistic approach: The health of people, animals, plants and the environment are central aims in all our projects. Focusing on our key priority of Food security and sustainable agriculture, Biovision is contributing to the implementation of Agenda 2030 both globally and nationally; it takes as its point of reference SDG 2 “Zero Hunger”. Biovision Foundation is a charitable organisation in Switzerland. In 2013, Biovision and its founder Hans Rudolf Herren won the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize. For more information, visit www.biovision.ch.

 

About IFOAM-Organics International

Since 1972, IFOAM- Organics International has occupied the unchallenged position as the only international umbrella organization in the organic world, uniting an enormous diversity of stakeholders contributing to the organic vision. As agents of change, their vision is the board adaption of truly sustainable agriculture, value chains and consumption in line with the principles of organic agriculture. At the heart of IFOAM- Organics International are about 800 affiliates in more than 100 countries. For more information, visit www.ifoam.bio.

 

About Regeneration International

Regeneration International, is an international non-governmental organization that promotes, facilitates and accelerates the global transition to regenerative food, farming and land management for the purpose of restoring climate stability, ending world hunger and rebuilding deteriorated social, ecological and economic systems. For more information, visit www.regenerationinternational.org.

 

About Shumei International

Shumei International, headquartered in Japan, is an international non-governmental organization dedicated to working toward the betterment of the human community. Shumei has programs around the world that foster a way of life that is in harmony with nature through Natural Agriculture, the appreciation of art and beauty, and a balance between inner and outer development. For more information, visit www.shumei-international.org.

 

Put More Carbon in Soils to Meet Paris Climate Pledges

Soils are crucial to managing climate change. They contain two to three times more carbon than the atmosphere. Plants circulate carbon dioxide from the air to soils, and consume about one-third of the CO2 that humans produce. Of that, about 10–15% ends up in the earth.

Carbon is also essential for soil fertility and agriculture. Decomposing plants, bacteria, fungi and soil fauna, such as earthworms, release organic matter and nutrients for plant growth, including nitrogen and phosphorus. This gives structure to soil, making it resilient to erosion and able to hold water. Typically, organic matter accounts for a few per cent of the mass of soil near the surface.

Increasing the carbon content of the world’s soils by just a few parts per thousand (0.4%) each year would remove an amount of CO2 from the atmosphere equivalent to the fossil-fuel emissions of the European Union1 (around 3–4 gigatonnes (Gt)).

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Heal the Soil, Cool the Climate

Back when I first started at Green America, in 2000, I remember our president/CEO Alisa Gravitz often cautioning those of us on the editorial team against using the term “end” when it came to climate change. There simply wasn’t a solution available that would “end” or “stop” the climate crisis, she would say. The best the world could hope for was collective action that would curb the worst of its effects. We’d get excited about a set of climate solutions and write that they could help “end global warming,” and Alisa would shake her head sadly and ask us to strike the word “end” for accuracy.

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That’s not to say that she wasn’t optimistic about the potential of renewable energy—particularly solar—to make a dent in climate change. Or that she wasn’t hopeful that businesses could come up with some powerful innovations.

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Soil and Seaweed: Farming Our Way to a Climate Solution

Scientists have issued a dire warning: to maintain a habitable planet we must dramatically reduce atmospheric carbon in the next decade. Nature has been warning us too, lately in the forms of climate change–intensified Hurricanes Florence and Michael. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is freezing fuel-efficiency standards, propping up the coal industry, trying to roll back the Clean Power Plan and disbanding the Environmental Protection Agency’s scientific advisory boards.

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In the absence of U.S. federal leadership on climate, what state, local, community or corporate solutions can be rapidly scaled? As a farmer and a marine biologist, and as mother and daughter, we have had two decades of dinner table conversations about the connections between agriculture and the ocean and about the alarming trends in soil health, ocean health and climate change. These discussions have converged on an underappreciated solution: regenerative farming of both land and sea.

 

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Look after the Soil, save the Earth: Farming in Australia’s Unrelenting Climate

From the red soil of his hometown in the Western Australian outback town of Wiluna, Michael Jeffery very nearly became a farmer.

He opted for being a soldier instead, serving in Malaya, Borneo and Vietnam, where he was awarded the Military Cross and the South Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. After a distinguished military career, he served as governor of his home state of Western Australia and governor general of Australia – who represents the Queen, Australia’s head of state.

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So he doesn’t enter public debate lightly. But he is highly exercised by his latest topic: restoring Australia’s ancient soils.

It was a world first when he was appointed by Julia Gillard’s Labor government as the first national soil advocate in 2012 and his term was extended under the former National party leader and agriculture minister, Barnaby Joyce.

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