Organics and Soil Carbon: Increasing Soil Carbon, Crop Productivity and Farm Profitability

This paper explains how atmospheric carbon is introduced into the soil and how it is stored in stable forms. It identifies the farming techniques that are responsible for the decline in soil carbon and gives alternative practices that do not damage carbon. Increasing soil carbon will ensure good production outcomes and farm profitability. Soil carbon, particularly the stable forms such as humus and glomalin, increases farm profitability by increasing yields, soil fertility, soil moisture retention, aeration, nitrogen fixation, mineral availability, disease suppression, soil tilth and general structure. It is the basis of healthy soil.

Organic agriculture also helps to reduce greenhouse gases by converting atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) into soil organic matter. Some forms of conventional agriculture have caused a massive decline in soil organic matter, due to oxidizing organic carbon by incorrect tillage, the overuse of nitrogen fertilizers and from topsoil loss through wind and water erosion.

Why is carbon important to productive farming?

Soil carbon is one of the most neglected yet most important factors in soil fertility, disease control, water efficiency and farm productivity. Humus and its related acids are significantly important forms of carbon. Below is a summary of the benefits of humus.

Keep Reading in The Natural Farmer

Mother Earth Day 2015: Regenerating the Soil and Reversing Global Warming

The elimination of fossil fuels for all but the most limited and essential purposes is necessary but not sufficient to allow our descendants a fair chance for a healthy and prosperous future. Enhancing carbon biosequestration in terrestrial ecosystems is also essential.”  Wayne A. White, Biosequestration and Ecological Diversity p.118 (CRC Press 2013)

The standard gloom and doom discourse surrounding global warming and climate change has infected the body politic with a severe case of depression and disempowerment. So starting today April 22, embracing what the United Nations has designated as the “Year of the Soil,” let’s look at our planetary crisis from an entirely different, and more hopeful perspective.

The good news is that the global grassroots, farmers and consumers united, can reverse our suicidal “business as usual” food, farming, energy, and land use practices. Harnessing the awesome power of Regenerative Organic Agriculture and reforestation, we can literally suck down enough excess (50-100 ppm of CO2) heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and naturally sequester it in our plants, trees and soils.  Regenerative Agriculture and Earth Repair practices can not only mitigate, but also, in combination with drastic reductions (80-90 percent) of fossil fuel emissions in our food and farming, transportation, housing, utilities, and industrial sectors, actually reverse global warming.

Regenerative Agriculture and Forestry

If you’ve never heard about the amazing potential of regenerative agriculture and land use practices to naturally sequester a critical mass of CO2 in the soil and forests, you’re not alone. One of the best-kept secrets in the world today is that the solution to global warming and the climate crisis (as well as poverty and deteriorating public health) lies right under our feet, and at the end of our knives and forks. Changing our food and farming systems, along with changing our “business as usual” political system and energy policies, is the key to our survival and well-being.

Transforming and regenerating our planet’s 28 billion acres of cropland, grassland and forests, as well as urban areas of the planet, is the challenge—not only for Mother Earth Day 2015, but for the rest of our lives, and the lives of our children and grandchildren.

Global Organic Regeneration and Earth Repair is the key to drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions from our current unsustainable food, farming and deforestation practices (which now produce the majority of greenhouse gas emissions).

Regenerative Earth Repair is the absolute prerequisite for ramping up plant and forest photosynthesis and sequestering in the soil several hundred billion tons of excess atmospheric CO2 over the next two decades.

A global campaign of Earth Repair and Regeneration can buy us the precious time we need to move away from fossil fuels to a global economy based upon renewable energy. Global Regeneration will dramatically improve soil fertility, crop yields, soil water retention, crop resilience, and food quality, thereby helping to mitigate and reverse global poverty, malnutrition and deteriorating public health.

Before we look how we can sequester up to 200 percent of current human greenhouse gas emissions through regenerating the planet’s croplands (four billion acres), pastures and rangelands (14 billion acres), and forests (10 billion acres), let’s look at what Michael Pollan, the U.S.’s most influential writer on food and farming, has to say about plant photosynthesis, regenerative grazing, and carbon sequestration:

Consider what happens when the sun shines on a grass plant rooted in the earth. Using that light as a catalyst, the plant takes atmospheric CO2, splits off and releases the oxygen, and synthesizes liquid carbon–sugars, basically. Some of these sugars go to feed and build the aerial portions of the plant we can see, but a large percentage of this liquid carbon—somewhere between 20 and 40 percent—travels underground, leaking out of the roots and into the soil. The roots are feeding these sugars to the soil microbes—the bacteria and fungi that inhabit the rhizosphere—in exchange for which those microbes provide various services to the plant: defense, trace minerals, access to nutrients the roots can’t reach on their own. That liquid carbon has now entered the microbial ecosystem, becoming the bodies of bacteria and fungi that will in turn be eaten by other microbes in the soil food web. Now, what had been atmospheric carbon (a problem) has become soil carbon, a solution—and not just to a single problem, but to a great many problems.

Besides taking large amounts of carbon out of the air—tons of it per acre when grasslands are properly managed… that process at the same time adds to the land’s fertility and its capacity to hold water. Which means more and better food for us…

This process of returning atmospheric carbon to the soil works even better when ruminants are added to the mix. Every time a calf or lamb shears a blade of grass, that plant, seeking to rebalance its “root-shoot ratio,” sheds some of its roots. These are then eaten by the worms, nematodes, and microbes—digested by the soil,in effect, and so added to its bank of carbon. This is how soil is created: from the bottom up.

What is Regenerative Agriculture?

A recent article in the Guardian summarizes Regenerative Agriculture:

Regenerative agriculture comprises an array of techniques that rebuild soil and, in the process, sequester carbon. Typically, it uses cover crops and perennials so that bare soil is never exposed, and grazes animals in ways that mimic animals in nature. It also offers ecological benefits far beyond carbon storage: it stops soil erosion, remineralises soil, protects the purity of groundwater and reduces damaging pesticide and fertiliser runoff.

With these basic concepts of photosynthesis and Regenerative Agriculture in mind, what do we need to do?

(1) Regenerate croplands, eliminate GMOs, pesticides, monocultures, chemical fertilizers, and tillage. If we can mobilize the global grassroots to promote and adopt regenerative organic agricultural practices (“organic and beyond”) on the Earth’s four billion acres of cultivated farmland, we can drastically reduce our use of fossil fuel inputs and slash greenhouse gas emissions; produce healthier, climate-resistant crops and nutrient-dense food; and meanwhile sequester large amounts of carbon in our degraded, de-carbonized soils. Our agricultural soils have lost 25-75 percent of the soil carbon they once had before the onslaught of unsustainable agricultural practices.

As the must-read 2014 Rodale Institute White Paper explains:

In practical terms, regenerative organic agriculture is foremost an organic system refraining from the use of synthetic pesticides and inputs, which disrupt soil life, and fossil-fuel dependent nitrogen fertilizer, which is responsible for the majority of anthropogenic N2O emissions. It is a system designed to build soil health.

Regenerative organic agriculture is comprised of organic practices including (at a minimum): cover crops, residue mulching, composting and crop rotation. Conservation tillage, while not yet widely used in organic systems, is a regenerative organic practice integral to soil-carbon sequestration.

As the Rodale research indicates, and is echoed by numerous other field trials across the globe, Regenerative Organic practices on cultivated farmlands across the world can, over the next few decades sequester 40 percent of current human greenhouse gas emissions.

(2) Regenerate grasslands and pasture lands, eliminate factory farms. Even more encouraging, as Rodale and others, including Quivira Coalition and the Savory Institute, point out, by adopting regenerative grazing practices on the earth’s seriously degraded 14 billion acres of pastureland and grassland (there is 3.5 times as much pasture land and rangeland on the Earth as there is cultivated farmland), we can eventually sequester an additional 71 percent of all current greenhouse gas emissions.

In other words by eliminating inhumane, unhealthy and heavily polluting factory farms or CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), which now produce 2/3 of all global meat and animal products, and by putting billions of the Earth’s 70 billion farm animals back on the land, we can regenerate, through planned rotational “mob” grazing, and the production of grass fed beef and dairy, and pasture-based pork and poultry, the 14 billion acres of rangeland and pastureland that are our most strategic “sink” or depository for excess CO2 in the atmosphere.

Last year Dr. Richard Teague of Texas A&M explained the principles of planned rotational (“mob”) grazing to a House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources (June 25, 2014):

The key to sustaining and regenerating ecosystem function in rangelands is actively managing for reduction of bare ground, promoting the most beneficial and productive plants by grazing moderately over the whole landscape, and providing adequate recovery to grazed plants…

Regenerative grazing and pasturing on a global scale will require the dismantling of the entire factory farm system, freeing billions of farm animals from their animal prisons or CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and putting them back out onto the land to graze and forage where they belong. Once CAFO and GMO crop subsidies are reduced and removed, and once the pent-up market demand for healthier, more humanely produced meat, dairy and eggs can be harnessed, the factory farm/GMO industrial food and farming system will begin to collapse.

With billions of animals released from intensive confinement (including freeing herbivores from unnatural, unhealthy GMO grain diets), marketplace pressure will encourage farmers and ranchers to adopt herd management strategies that replicate natural or wild herd habits. This involves herbivores rotationally grazing only the top grasses of small pastures, for short periods of time, defecating and urinating and forcing the stubble into the topsoil. After the grasses recover, then the herd or flocks are returned for a few days to harvest the most nutritious grasses again. With omnivores (pigs and chickens), free range or pasturing practices will similarly restore animal and soil health as well.

The current factory farm system takes the naturally grazing cattle off pasture to enormous feedlots to fatten them up with corn, soybeans, cotton seed cake, cotton gin trash, sludge-fertilized hay, and waste industrial products. Cows, sheep, and other herbivores are not grain, GMO, or garbage eaters by choice. Their preferred foods are mixed grasses.

Regenerative grazing is not something new, but rather a rediscovery of the beneficial animal welfare and environmental practices that were “normal” (buffalo and elk on the grasslands of the US, wildebeest herds in Africa, communal grazing practices worldwide) before the advent of industrial farming and CAFOs.

One very important benefit of grass-fed beef, sheep, goats and dairy, and pastured poultry and pigs—a benefit which is already starting to drive consumers away from factory farmed foods—is that grass-fed or pastured animal products are qualitatively healthier than CAFO products, higher in Omega 3 and “good” fats, and lower in animal drug residues and harmful fats that clog arteries, destroy gut health and cause cancer.

(3) Regenerate forests and wetlands, end deforestation. By halting unsustainable land use and deforestation of the planet’s remaining 10 billion acres of forest (deforestation is now responsible for a full 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions), by re-planting species-appropriate trees on five billion deforested rural and urban acres, by incorporating sustainable forest management practices on existing forests, and by integrating agro-forestry practices on existing farms and ranches (and restoring wetlands), we can drastically reduce carbon emissions while sequestering billions of tons of excess carbon in our forest lands and in reforested rural and urban environments.

As permaculture author Michal Pilarski explains in his “Carbon Sequestration Proposal for the World,” we can reverse global warming by:

I.    Reforestation/Afforestation of 5 billion acres worldwide = 150 billion tons of carbon sequestration.

II.    Earth repair and improved ecosystem management of existing forests and all other terrestrial ecosystems = 100 billion tons of carbon sequestration.

Earth repair and reforestation of our cities, forests, marshes, savannas, grasslands, steppes, and deserts could eventually add up to a total of 250 billion tons of carbon sequestered. This translates into removing over 100 ppm of excess CO2 from the atmosphere and putting it into the soil and forests. This level of carbon sequestration would bring atmospheric carbon dioxide levels down to where they were in the early 1800s, if carried out in combination with slashing human-caused carbon emissions.

According to biosequestration expert, Wayne White, if we could just stop all tropical deforestation, and maintain the health of our forests, the increased photosynthesis of this massive forest growth would sequester a full 69 percent of all human greenhouse gas emissions. (Biosequestration and Ecological Diversity p. 93)

Too many forests have been degraded, or clear-cut, or over-grazed and even over-fertilized with nitrogen. Too much land has been developed, exploited, and then abandoned. The solutions to our forest crisis are similar to organic farming solutions. We need to practice sustainable forestry management strategies that restore the mycorrhizal and other forest fungi, and replant clear-cut areas with high-density, species-appropriate plantings. We need to manage this reforestation, including thinning and pest control. We need to avoid the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers because they damage fungi and other microorganisms, which are the foundations of a successful reforestation program. With reforestation and restoration of the forest floor microorganisms, our forests will be able to sequester billions of tons of carbon.

Critics of the Earth Repair strategy

A number of critics of our Earth Repair strategy have told me and other regeneration activists that we should not talk about natural sequestration of CO2 in the soil, nor the enormous Regenerative potential of organic food, farming,and forestry, because this “positive talk” will distract people from the main task at hand, drastically reducing fossil fuel emissions and taking down King Coal and Big Oil.

Of course we need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels, extractivism and overconsumption into conservation, sustainable living and renewable energy. We must all become climate hawks and radical conservationists. But we must also become advocates of Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Forest/Land Use.

Unite the Food, Forest, and Climate Movements

The large and growing anti-GMO, organic food, and natural health movement in the U.S., for example, of which I am a part, must begin to think of ourselves as climate and food activists, not just advocates for natural health, small farmers/ranchers, animals and food justice. Given that the GMO, factory farm and industrial food and farming system seen as a whole (production, chemical crop inputs, processing, transportation, waste, emissions, deforestation, biofuel/ethanol production) is the number one cause of greenhouse gas emissions, surpassing even the transportation, utilities, housing and industry sectors, climate activists need to start thinking of ourselves as food activists as well.

There will be no organic food, nor food whatsoever, on a burnt planet. Nor will there ever be a 90-percent reduction in greenhouse gas pollution without a transformation of our food and farming and land use practices, both in North America and globally.

We must begin to connect the dots between fossil fuels, global warming and related issues, including world hunger, poverty, unemployment, toxic food and farming, extractivism, land grabbing, biodiversity, ocean destruction, deforestation, resource wars, and deteriorating public health. As we regenerate the soil and forests, and make organic and grass-fed food and fiber the norm, rather than just the alternative, we will simultaneously develop our collective capacity to address all of the globe’s interrelated problems.

Breaking through the silos of single-issue campaigning and limited constituency organizing (“my issue is more important than your issue”), we will be able to expand our global grassroots Movement to include everyone who cares about climate, health, justice, jobs, sustainability, peace and democracy.

Some pessimists argue that the Global South (China, India, Africa, Asia, Latin America), where most of the world’s population lives, is too preoccupied with moving beyond poverty and creating jobs, to put a priority on reversing global warming, reducing emissions, and natural sequestration.

But the extraordinary thing about de-industrializing food and farming, restoring grasslands and reversing deforestation—moving several hundred billion tons of carbon back from the atmosphere into our soils, plants and forests—is that this Organic Regeneration will not only reverse global warming and re-stabilize the climate, but will also stimulate hundreds of millions of rural (and urban) jobs, while qualitatively increasing soil fertility, water retention, farm yields and food quality.

Earth Repair holds the potential not only to restore forests and grasslands, recharge aquifers, restore and normalize rainfall, but also to address and eliminate rural malnutrition, poverty, unemployment and hunger. Regenerative agriculture and land use—which will require both enormous political struggle and unprecedented marketplace pressure—will lead to healthy soils, healthy forests, healthy climate, healthy food, healthy animals, healthy people, healthy societies.

As and other climate campaigners point out, we’ve got to force the fossil fuel corporados and Wall Street banksters to leave 2/3 or more of the remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground. We can basically burn 825 billion tons more of fossil fuels out of the 2.785 trillion remaining, but no more, according to scientific consensus, before we reach the point of no return, whereby climate change morphs into climate catastrophe.

To stay within our carbon budget, we’ve got to stop the fracking, the tar sands, the pipelines, the bomb trains, King Coal, and nuclear madness.

But we’ve got to do more than just protest, resist and divest. We must shut down King Coal and Big Oil’s greenhouse gas pollution, yes; but we must also suck down and naturally sequester over the next 20 years, several hundred billion tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases through the qualitatively enhanced photosynthesis of regenerative farming, ranching and land use.

We must make peace with the living Earth and restore our biotic community.

According to scientific consensus, soon to be formally ratified by the nations of the world at the Paris Climate Summit in December 2015, fossil fuel emissions—now spewing out 8.5 billion tons of carbon annually (i.e. 32.3 billion tons of CO2 in 2013 and again in 2014) into the atmosphere and the oceans—must peak and go to zero by 2050. Unfortunately, even if every country moves to zero emissions by 2050, we will still find ourselves way past the danger zone at 480 ppm or higher of CO2.  Only a mass global campaign of Regenerative Agriculture and land use, combined with dismantling the Fossil Fuel Empire, will suffice.

So who will actually carry out this global campaign of Earth Repair and Organic Regeneration? Of course we must continue, and, in fact vastly increase, our pressure on governments and corporations to change public policies and marketplace practices. But in order to overturn “business as usual” we’re going to have to inspire and mobilize a vastly larger climate change coalition than the one we have now. Food climate and economic justice advocates must unite our forces so we can educate and mobilize a massive grassroots army of Earth Regenerators: three billion small farmers and rural villagers, ranchers, pastoralists, forest dwellers, urban agriculturalists, and indigenous communities—aided and abetted by several billion conscious consumers and urban activists.

We don’t have the time or space here for a full Earth Repair strategy, but here are five things we can start to do immediately on this Mother Earth Day 2015:

(1)    Educate yourself, your friends, and your family on the basic principles of Earth Repair      and Regenerative Organic Agriculture. Here’s an annotated bibliography to help you get started.

(2)    Join an activist organization dealing with food and farming, forest preservation or climate. If you’re already an activist, get your group to connect the dots between fossil fuel emissions reduction and natural carbon sequestration.

(3)    Boycott all GMO, chemical-intensive and CAFO foods. Purchase organic and 100-percent grass-fed or pastured products. Push the organic community top go beyond the minimum standards of “USDA Organic” to food and farming practices that are climate-friendly, re-localized and regenerative, as well as organic.

(4)    Support the organizations that are educating and agitating for regenerative agriculture and land use. These groups include:

Organic Consumers Organization, The Carbon Underground, IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements), NavdanyaInstitutefor Agriculture and Trade Policy, The Rodale Institute, Quivira Coalition, The Savory Institute, and others.

(5)    Change the climate conversation from gloom and doom to one of positive solutions. We’ve got 20 years left to turn things around, but we need to start our Regeneration International campaign now, Mother Earth Day 2015.

Ronnie Cummins is international director of the Organic Consumers Association and its Mexico sister organization, Via Organica.

Soil Carbon Sequestration to Mitigate Climate Change

Author: Rattan Lal


The increase in atmospheric concentration of CO2 by 31% since 1750 from fossil fuel combustion and land use change necessitates identification of strategies for mitigating the threat of the attendant global warming. Since the industrial revolution, global emissions of carbon (C) are estimated at 270F 30 Pg (Pg = petagram = 10 15g = 1 billion ton) due to fossil fuel combustion and 136F 55 Pg due to land use change and soil cultivation. Emissions due to land use change include those by deforestation, biomass burning, conversion of natural to agricultural ecosystems, drainage of wetlands and soil cultivation. Depletion of soil organic C (SOC) pool have contributed 78F 12 Pg of C to the atmosphere. Some cultivated soils have lost one-half to two-thirds of the original SOC pool with a cumulative loss of 30–40 Mg C/ha (Mg = megagram = 10 6g = 1 ton). The depletion of soil C is accentuated by soil degradation and exacerbated by land misuse and soil mismanagement. Thus, adoption of a restorative land use and recommended management practices (RMPs) on agricultural soils can reduce the rate of enrichment of atmospheric CO2 while having positive impacts on food security, agro-industries, water quality and the environment. A considerable part of the depleted SOC pool can be restored through conversion of marginal lands into restorative land uses, adoption of conservation tillage with cover crops and crop residue mulch, nutrient cycling including the use of compost and manure, and other systems of sustainable management of soil and water resources. Measured rates of soil C sequestration through adoption of RMPs range from 50 to 1000 kg/ha/year. The global potential of SOC sequestration through these practices is 0.9F 0.3 Pg C/year, which may offset one-fourth to one-third of the annual increase in atmospheric CO2 estimated at 3.3 Pg C/year. The cumulative potential of soil C sequestration over 25–50 years is 30–60 Pg. The soil C sequestration is a truly win–win strategy. It restores degraded soils, enhances biomass production, purifies surface and ground waters, and reduces the rate of enrichment of atmospheric CO2 by offsetting emissions due to fossil fuel.

Download the Full Article From Sustainability

Soils Help to Combat and Adapt to Climate Change

Healthy soils provide the largest store of terrestrial carbon. When managed sustainably, soils can play an important role in climate change mitigation by storing carbon (carbon sequestration) and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.

Backyard Carbon Sequestration: What Does Synthetic Fertilizer Have to Do with It?

Author: Adrian Ayres Fisher

Part two of a series exploring how regenerative gardening techniques can enhance carbon storage while improving soil health. In part one I discussed some of the principles behind the factors involved in soil health and how plants and the soil biological community work together to store carbon and build appropriate fertility. “Why Not Start Today: Backyard Carbon Sequestration Is Something Nearly Everyone Can Do” can be found here.

A brief digression about the term “regenerative gardening”

So what is regenerative gardening, anyway? Regenerative gardening is an umbrella term that embraces many styles and traditions of organic cultivation and adds explicit intentionality regarding carbon sequestration. The recent Rodale white paper, “Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change,” says that, “regenerative organic agriculture refers to working with nature to utilize photosynthesis and healthy soil microbiology to draw down greenhouse gases.” The same goes for gardening. Like regenerative farming and ranching, regenerative gardening aims for land cultivation and management that builds soil health and helps improve the health of the ecosystem within which that garden is located, while growing plants and harvesting crops useful to humans, whether food, medicine, fiber or wood—and along the way, creating beauty. And, doing all this while, importantly, helping mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon in the soil and reducing nitrous oxide emissions. So what’s so special about that? Isn’t that what all farming and gardening aims for, or should? I can imagine many readers asking this, especially those already practicing some form of ecosystem-based gardening.

The short answer is, not always or historically. The more than ten thousand year history of agriculture is full of one form of land despoliation or another, which in some cases has brought great civilizations to ruin. Societies in all epochs, on all parts of the earth, from the ancient Romans to the Mississippian-culture city of Cahokia in Illinois, have farmed in ways that have depleted the soil, particularly as population pressures led to more marginal lands being put to use—with logical, disastrous results. Since the European invasion and colonization of the US, modern Americans have continued the ancient tradition of using up a piece of land and then moving somewhere else to begin the process over again. It’s been, in some ways, worse than what ancient cultures did, because, as also in 19th century Australia, the immigrant farmers were trying to replicate what they had known in the vastly different ecosystems of their home countries. Most had little real ecosystem knowledge of the land in which they found themselves and thus no real concept of how to farm it sustainably.

However, even in the 19th century, strong voices were crying out against the despoliation of our grand, beautiful North American continent. While much has been saved, big farmers in the US—and around the world—have continued, and with the use of fossil fuels and agri-chemicals, doubled down, on this civilization-wrecking path: farm fencerow-to-fencerow, expand into marginal lands, deplete the soil and use the available chemicals to attempt to raise fertility…to the logical, disastrous results now in play.

The problem these days, though, is there’s nowhere else to go, for Americans or anyone else. The world is full—overfull—of people and wrecked ecosystems alike. Conquering other countries for their (used up) land or moving to Mars are both equally untenable. (Though you’d never know it from the wars currently in progress and recent propaganda from the pro-space colonization department.) And, meanwhile, the nightmarish specter of climate disruption casts its pall over the earth like the shadow emanating from Mordor.

Alongside this rather dismal history of agriculture, some societies, through trial and error and expert ecosystem knowledge, were able to farm sustainably for centuries, if not always actively improving soil and ecosystem health, at least maintaining it. In large part, these were societies that stayed put—some for thousands of years—and maintained ecologically sustainable populations, either voluntarily, as with birth control and out-migration or involuntarily, as with disease, war, and occasional famine—or some combination. Although some sources show that GHG’s did indeed start slowly increasing at about the time humans invented and began practicing agriculture, they were not a concern, neither known about nor their reduction and sequestration necessary. Unfortunately, as modernization and “conventional” agriculture expanded and became the norm, the traditional ways of land management—crop rotations, milpas and forest gardens, relying on hedgerows and native plant areas to harbor the beneficial insects that helped with pests, and so on, came increasingly under pressure.

Keep Reading in Resilience

From ‘Sustainable’ to ‘Regenerative’—The Future of Food

This week (October 26, 2015), the paywalled site PoliticoPro reported that the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture wants “farmers and agricultural interests to come up with a single definition of sustainability in order to avoid confusing the public with various meanings of the term in food and production methods.”

We agree with Secretary Tom Vilsack that the word “sustainability” is meaningless to consumers and the public. It’s overused, misused and it has been shamelessly co-opted by corporations for the purpose of greenwashing.

But rather than come up with one definition for the word “sustainable” as it refers to food and food production methods, we suggest doing away with the word entirely. In its place, as a way of helping food consumers make conscious, informed decisions, we suggest dividing global food and farming into two categories: regenerative and degenerative.

In this new paradigm, consumers could choose food produced by degenerative, toxic chemical-intensive, monoculture-based industrial agriculture systems that destabilize the climate, and degrade soil, water, biodiversity, health and local economies. Or they could choose food produced using organic regenerative practices based on sound ecological principles that rejuvenate the soil, grasslands and forests; replenish water; promote food sovereignty; and restore public health and prosperity—all while cooling the planet by drawing down billions of tons of excess carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil where it belongs.

‘Sustainable’—Is that All We Want?

The dictionary defines “sustainable” as: able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed; involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources; able to last or continue for a long time.

In other words, sustainability is about maintaining systems without degrading them. And it is about keeping things much the same without progressing.

Industrial agriculture today, with its factory farms, waste lagoons, antibiotics and growth hormones, GMOs, toxic pesticides and prolific use of synthetic fertilizers, doesn’t come close to “not using up or destroying natural resources.”  And even if it did, is that all we want, or need, to achieve?

Or do we want to grow our food in ways that restore climate stability and regenerate—soil, health, economies—rather than merely maintain the status quo?

Greenwashing and the Labeling Game

Corporations love to brand themselves, and label their products, as “sustainable.” The hope is that consumers will view “sustainable” products as superior to mere “conventional” products, or better yet, equate the word “sustainable” with “organic.”

But when a widely discredited and despised company like Monsanto co-opts the word “sustainable,” the word loses all meaning for consumers. On its website, Monsanto says:

Our vision for sustainable agriculture strives to meet the needs of a growing population, to protect and preserve this planet we all call home, and to help improve lives everywhere. In 2008 Monsanto made a commitment to sustainable agriculture – pledging to produce more, conserve more, and improve farmers’ lives by 2030.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready, chemical-intensive GMO crops now dominate agriculture, on a global scale, poisoning soil, water, air, farm workers and consumers. The words on their website fool no one—the agriculture they promote is anything but “sustainable.”

It is the same with the certified “sustainability” labels promoted by corporations such as Cargill, Heinz Benelux, Mars, Nestlé, Unilever and Cadbury. These labeling schemes, such as Rainforest Alliance, Sustainable Agriculture Network, and UTZ can be congratulated for promoting the planting of trees on farms, for improving the farm environment and for requiring compliance with minimum labor standards. But they do nothing to curtail the use of soil-destroying, climate-destabilizing chemical fertilizers and the thousands of toxic pesticides that are known to cause both environmental and health damage.

A “sustainability” label may mean the production methods behind a product inflicted somewhat less damage on the environment. But it doesn’t mean the product will cause less damage to human health. Numerous published scientific studies link exposure to the smallest amounts of these “approved” pesticides to cancers, birth defects, endocrine disruption, reproductive problems, developmental neurotoxicity, ADHD, autism, obesity, type 2 diabetes, reproductive problems, immune system damage, epigenetic mutations, kidney, liver and heart disease and numerous other non-communicable diseases that are currently in epidemic proportions.

Most of the farmers enrolled in these “sustainability programs” used to grow crops or graze animals traditionally, with little or no chemicals. The same is true for the many thousands of certified organic coffee and cacao farmers who have been hijacked by these schemes—schemes which allow them to charge a premium without meeting the more rigorous organic standards. How can the promoters of these “sustainability” labels claim that they are reducing chemical use when they have converted thousands of low-input traditional farmers to the use of chemicals that they never used before?

A global ‘Regeneration Revolution’ is under way.

In the 1970s, Robert Rodale, son of American organic pioneer J.I. Rodale coined the term ‘regenerative organic agriculture’ to distinguish a kind of farming that goes beyond simply “sustainable.”

According to the Rodale Institute:

Regenerative organic agriculture improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them. It is a holistic systems approach to agriculture that encourages continual on-farm innovation for environmental, social, economic and spiritual well-being.

Regenerative organic agriculture “takes advantage of the natural tendencies of ecosystems to regenerate when disturbed. In that primary sense it is distinguished from other types of agriculture that either oppose or ignore the value of those natural tendencies.” Regenerative organic agriculture is marked by tendencies towards closed nutrient loops, greater diversity in the biological community, fewer annuals and more perennials, and greater reliance on internal rather than external resources. Regenerative organic agriculture is aligned with forms of agroecology practiced by farmers concerned with food sovereignty the world over.”

We opened this piece by stating that we agree with Vilsack—the word “sustainability,” in the context of food and food production, has led to consumer confusion.

But we don’t like where Vilsack is headed. He told PoliticoPro:

“In recent years, Consumers have raised concerns about conventional agricultural practices, which has led to the growth of organic, GMO-free foods and ‘natural’ products, often at the expense of the reputation of conventional products. I think it’s going to be incumbent on us to have a common understanding of what [sustainability] means to better serve the interests of agriculture as a whole and consumers.”

At the “expense of the reputation of conventional products”? Is Vilsack referring to the well-earned bad reputation of products (those containing GMOs and toxic pesticides, perhaps?) produced using degenerative, rather than regenerative, practices?

A “common understanding” of what sustainability is might better serve the interests of Monsanto and the agribusiness corporations—but it will do little to serve the interests of small farmers and consumers.

The number one driver behind rising sales of organic foods is consumer concern about health, especially pesticides, growth hormones and GMOs. But as scientists issue increasingly dire warnings about the climate, and people throughout the world connect the dots between industrial agriculture and global warming, there is a growing contingent of farmers and consumers who want to do more.

An increasing number of farmers want to grow food and raise animals using organic and regenerative farming and grazing practices that are not only better for human health, but that also cool the planet, feed the world, heal the soil, foster food sovereignty and strengthen communities.

And consumers want to purchase those products, knowing that their production generated healing, not harm.

It’s a Regeneration Revolution. And it goes well beyond “sustainability.”

André Leu is president of IFOAM Organics International, and on the steering committee of Regeneration International.

Ronnie Cummins is international director of the Organic Consumers Association, and on the steering committee of Regeneration International.

France’s Plan to Increase its Soil Carbon is an Example to the World

Author: John Quinton

It sounds like a modest ambition: France wants to raise the amount of carbon in its soils by 0.4% a year, writes John Quinton. But that represents a vast amount of carbon, and its capture into soils will bring a host of other benefits. We should all get with the program!

French wine lovers have always taken their soil very seriously. But now the country’s government has introduced fresh reasons for the rest of the world to pay attention to their terroir.

As industrial emissions of greenhouse gases continue to increase and concerns about climate change grow, scientists and policy wonks are searching for potential solutions.

As well as mitigating climate change, carbon-rich soil is more fertile and raises food production. It improves soil’s physical properties – protecting against soil erosion and increasing water-holding capacity – and it enhances biodiversity.

Could part of the answer lie in the soil beneath our feet? French agriculture minister Stéphane Le Foll thinks so.

Soil stores vast amounts of carbon, far more than all the carbon in the world’s forests and atmosphere combined. Plants take carbon out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis and when they die the carbon they stored is returned to the soil.

This forms part of the soil’s organic matter: a mix of undecayed plant and animal tissues, transient organic molecules and more stable material often referred to as humus. It is food for organisms in the soil that play a vital role in cycling nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus.

These organisms decompose the organic material and return much of the carbon to the atmosphere leaving only a small proportion in the soil.

Keep Reading in The Ecologist

On World Food Day, Celebrating the Power of Regenerative Organic Farming

Author: Deidre Fulton

As environmentalists, humanitarians, and farmers from around the globe celebrate the 35th annual World Food Day on Friday, sustainability advocates are heralding the capacity of organic regenerative agriculture and agroecology to address wide-ranging challenges from climate change to public health to hunger.

“On this World Food Day we face two interlinked planetary challenges: to produce enough food for all people and to sequester enough carbon in the soil to reverse climate change,” said Tom Newmark, co-founder of The Carbon Underground, on Friday.

“Agroecology is political; it requires us to challenge and transform structures of power in society. We need to put the control of seeds, biodiversity, land and territories, waters, knowledge, culture and the commons in the hands of the peoples who feed the world.”
—Report of the International Forum of Agroecology at the Nyeleni Center, Mali.

Newmark made his statements at a Washington, D.C. press conference hosted by the nonprofit organization Regeneration International and featuring a panel of 10 international experts on organic agriculture, carbon sequestration, and world hunger.

“There is one solution for those challenges: regenerative organic agriculture,” he continued. “We can no longer afford to rely on chemical farming, as the use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides has destroyed soils worldwide and rendered them unable to rebuild soil organic matter.”

What’s more, as author, activist, and panel participant Vandana Shiva wrote in an op-ed on Friday, “For all the destruction it causes, the industrial food system produces only 30% of the food eaten by people. If we continue, we will soon have a dead planet and no food.”

However, she pointed to “another road to food security. The road that was abandoned by research institutes and governments under the influence of giant chemical corporations (now seed and Biotechnology Corporations). This is the road of agroecology and small scale farming, which still produce 70% of the food.”

Keep Reading on Common Dreams

Why Not Start Today? Backyard Carbon Sequestration Is Something Nearly Everyone Can Do

Author: Adrian Ayres Fisher

Part one of a series about using regenerative gardening techniques to enhance carbon storage while improving soil health.

To make it simple as a crayon sketch, there are two ways to mitigate climate change that, in tandem, could work. One is to lower emissions. To decarbonize, if you will—and de-nitrous oxide-ize, de-methane-ize, and de-soot-ize as well. It is true that to keep the earth’s average temperature from warming more than 2° C (3.6° F), emissions will have to fall. Drastically. Which means lifestyles, in fact whole cultures and economies, will have to change, and everyone, especially the well off, will have to share in the sacrifices and changes to be made. This necessity is the real inconvenient truth implied by the inconvenient truth of climate change and one mostly being ignored or rationalized away by pretty much everyone, except a small percentage of realists. Part of the problem, I think, might not be so much willful ignorance as a failure of imagination. Quite a few people I speak with about climate change—well educated, thoughtful, caring individuals for the most part—simply cannot imagine what it would be like to live even a slightly less oil dependent version of the life they currently live, though they grasp the facts and urgently agree that something must be done.

As for the second, carbon sequestration, or pulling carbon out of the air and storing it deep in the ground, as noted environmental journalist Elizabeth Kolbert points out in a recent article, no one knows how to do this.

However, this is not precisely true, though in a modern technological sense of course it is. Anyone who owns or rents a little land on which plants grow can, him or herself, sequester carbon, and may even be doing so at this very moment without even realizing it. It’s not hard. Healthy soil does this naturally. All we have to do is help nature along. And as we do so, we can help improve ecosystems, improve soil fertility, and even help endangered species survive. Regenerative farmers and ranchers are doing this in a big way all over the world, though the ones I’m most familiar with are working in the US, in places like North Dakota, Illinois and Minnesota. Even though farming and gardening practice has usually, seemingly inevitably, depleted the soil, scientists such as R. Lal, Christine Jones, Michelle Wander, Michel Cavigelli and others, as well as entities such as the Rodale Institute, have shown that regenerative techniques actually rejuvenate the soil and sequester carbon. And, not only is their, and others’, long-term research showing how and why this works, but scientists are also teaming up with farmers to demonstrate and study practical techniques—and even conducting classes to teach farmers soil conservation methods. This is vitally important work, since agriculture and other domestic land management is responsible for something like 30% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

But what about the rest of us?

My yard is much smaller than the typical ¼ acre suburban plot; my garden encompasses about 2,000 square feet, smaller than many houses. Most people in the US and elsewhere live in similar urbanized areas. Large-scale carbon sequestration on vast acreage, as potentially could be practiced by farmers (some two percent of the US population) is beyond reach. We regular folks are left with yet another situation where direct-action participation in solutions to the climate disruption problem might seem impossible. Most of us aren’t off-grid homesteaders; we rely on the local utilities and pubic services; non-existent public transit might force us to drive even if we’d rather not; and other realities of our everyday lives might prevent us from doing as much as we’d like. Even if we can imagine what is necessary to be done, and are prepared to help decarbonize our society, we might feel powerless, possibly unable to take positive, rewarding action to help remedy the situation.

Keep Reading in the Ecological Gardener