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How Can Agriculture Address the Growing Economic and Environmental Pressures of Climate Change?

Published on: November 18, 2016

The devastating consequences of climate change threaten our natural resources, food security, and the productivity and economic viability of farming operations. Agriculture has an important role to play in helping us mitigate and adapt to climate change, and as we approach a major administrative transition and early discussions around the 2018 Farm Bill, the connection between agriculture and climate change will need to be further explored. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and our members believe that by giving farmers the tools to invest in their soil and become an active part of climate change mitigation, we can develop effective strategies that work for farmers, the environment, and the economy.

The Economic Impact of Climate Change

A new report released by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) warns that the impacts of climate change will cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars. The report, “Climate Change: The Fiscal Risks Facing the Federal Government,” provides analysis showing that the fiscal impact of climate change is already very real. According to the report, those risks will only continue to grow over the next century unless we take ambitious action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and adapt to a changing climate.

The report lists several significant economic threats facing the nation as a result of climate change, including increases in: the need for disaster relief and flood insurance to address the heightened frequency of storms; investments to protect, repair, and relocate federal facilities impacted by rising sea levels and heavy rain events; health care costs as a results of degraded water quality, air quality, and unpredictable weather conditions; costs for fire suppression as a result of an increased frequency and intensity of wildfires across the country; and risk management for the nation’s farmers and ranchers who most directly feel the impacts of changing weather patterns and increased storm intensity. On this last point, OMB estimates there will be a 50 percent increase in the cost of the federal crop insurance subsidy program due to a changing climate in the coming decades.

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How to Rehab Our Soil for a Changing Climate

Author: Wanqing Zhou | Published on: December 13, 2016

“Climate is changing. Food and agriculture must too.”

This year’s message from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization for World Food Day is timely as the planet emerges from yet another summer of record heat. With changing climates and increasingly frequent extreme weather events, the world is facing real challenges with food production, exacerbated by the declining capacity of soils to hold water, buffer temperature shocks and supply nutrients to food crops.

In global climate negotiations and agreements, agriculture is listed primarily as a victim of adverse climate impacts.

While this is true, it is equally important to recognize that food production is also a major contributor to climate change. The silver lining? Recognizing that food production is a major emitter of greenhouse gases could open a new range of solutions to climate change.

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Where There’s Muck, There’s Money

Author: Dave Chambers | Published on: December 14, 2016

Spier, in Stellenbosch, has earned R204,000 in carbon credits for reducing its carbon dioxide output by practising “regenerative farming”.

Twenty-seven farmworkers have shared half the money, receiving an average of R4,000 each.

“The farm has acquired the credits for sequestering 6493 tons of carbon dioxide in its soil, which is cultivated in as natural way as possible by using regenerative farming practices like high-density grazing,” said Spier livestock manager Angus McIntosh.

“This is a technique that involves frequent stock rotations aimed at using livestock to mimic nature by restoring carbon and nitrogen contained in livestock and poultry urine to the soil profile.”

The credits were bought by a South African bank, brokered by Credible Carbon, a business that facilitates carbon-trading through credits earned for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

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Farm Workers Earn Through Carbon Credit Programme

Author: Megan Van Wyngaardt | Published on: December 13, 2016

Twenty-seven employees of the Spier wine estate, in Stellenbosch, have, through a climate change mitigation initiative, shared half the R204 000 paid out from carbon credits – derived from practicing regenerative farming on a section of the organically certified wine farm.

An average of R4 000 was given to each worker, with those managing the cattle component receiving a larger portion of the credits.

“The farm acquired the credits for sequestering 6 493 t of carbon dioxide in its soil, which is cultivated in as natural a way as possible by using regenerative farming practices like high-density grazing,” said Spier Wine Farm livestock farm manager Angus McIntosh.

“This is a technique that involves frequent stock rotations aimed at using livestock to mimic nature by restoring carbon and nitrogen contained in livestock and poultry urine into the soil profile.”

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Soil Is the Magic Word

Author: Marianne Landzettel | Published on: December 7, 2016

2016 is the hottest year the world has ever experienced. In the discussion about climate change, greenhouse gases are mentioned a lot, as is rain – too much or too little of it. Reading Judith Schwartz’ excellent new book ‘Water in Plain Sight’ has helped change my focus. Instead of simply measuring rainfall we should think about water and the cyclical movement of water, she suggests. ‘Hope for a Thirsty World’ is the book’s subtitle and Schwartz does show that there are solutions even in drought stricken areas seemingly devoid of all moisture like the Chihuahua desert that stretches from Mexico into Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. To solve the problem we need to understand ‘the influence of water on climate’. Water on the ground can ‘do’ four things: it can go up through evaporation or transpiration through plants – the latter being a very good thing as it provides a cooling effect. It can go sideways which is a bad thing as this is surface runoff and usually takes topsoil and the nutrients it contains (like nitrogen fertiliser) with it – the algae bloom and dead zones in lakes and oceans attest to that. It can go down into aquifers and it can be held in the soil before moving into any other direction.

So here’s the magic word: soil. Good soil that is, soil with a crumbly structure and tilth. Such soil contains lots of organic matter, myriads of living organisms, insects, worms and fungi, in particular the mycorrhizal fungi. And it’s this structure that absorbs and holds the water. Compare it to bare, compacted, ‘degraded’ soil: rain turns it into mud, more rain washes the top soil off, leaving fissures and cracks that will speed up further soil erosion. Schwartz quotes the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification which has declared a quarter of the world’s land to be either moderately or highly degraded. The cause often is poor land-management practices as opposed to holistic land management which can transform desert like land into fertile, bio-diverse (grass)land. Judith Schwartz revisits the ecologist Allan Savory. Grassland and grazing animals co-evolved, says Savory, and if cattle is left to graze a paddock for the right amount of time it will stimulate ‘biological processes that promote soil fertility and plant growth and diversity’.

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World Soil Day Hails Symbiotic Role of Pulses to Boost Sustainable Agriculture

Author: UN Food and Agriculture Organization | Published on: December 5, 2016

New report explores how nitrogen-fixing plants enhance nutritious diets, carbon sequestration and soil fertility.

5 December 2016, ROME- Soil and pulses can make major contributions to the challenge of feeding the world’s growing population and combating climate change, especially when deployed together, according to Soils and Pulses: Symbiosis for Life, a new report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization released on World Soil Day.

“Soils and pulses embody a unique symbiosis that protects the environment, enhances productivity, contributes to adapting to climate change and provides fundamental nutrients to the soil and subsequent crops,” said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva.

Pulses are environmentally resilient crops that deliver high-nutrition foods to people and critical nutrients to biological ecosystems. Soil, a non-renewable resource, is essential for plant life and 95 percent of the global food supply.

Pulses such as lentils, dry beans and chickpeas are nitrogen-fixing plants that can benefit soil health, leading to better growing conditions for themselves and for other plants. On average, cereals grown after pulses yield 1.5 tonnes more per hectare than those not preceded by pulses, which is equal to the effect of 100 kilograms of nitrogen fertilizer.

The new book illustrates a variety of ways that pulses and soils can be “strategic allies” in forging more sustainable food and agriculture systems.

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Dicaprio’s Before the Flood: Powerful, yet Misses on Soils and the Carbon Cycle

The new Leonardo DiCaprio documentary Before the Flood can now be seen on National Geographic.

The actor is a longtime advocate of environmental causes, and his film is surely helping to increase awareness of global warming and the challenges we face with climate chaos. In it, DiCaprio journeys from the remote melting regions of Greenland to the burning forests of Sumatra to the halls of the Vatican, exploring the devastating impact of climate change on the planet.

Before the Flood discusses how climate change is moving us rapidly into an era in which life on Earth might be much, much different. It does a great job describing the pressing problems we face. Yet, sadly, the film has a serious omission. It makes only passing mention of the food issue and almost no mention of soils or ocean acidification.

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Changes in Soil Microbial Community Structure in a Tallgrass Prairie Chronosequence

Authors: Victoria J. Allison, R. Michael Miller, Julie D. Jastrow, Roser Matamala, and Donald R. Zak 

Increasing the abundance of fungi relative to bacteria should favor C accrual, because fungi use C more efficiently, and are composed of more recalcitrant C compounds. We examined changes in soil microbial community structure following cessation of tillage-based agriculture and through subsequent succession in a C-accruing tall-grass prairie restoration chronosequence. We predicted that the relative abundance of fungi would increase following conversion from tillage-based agriculture. Soil microbial community structure was assessed as relative abundances of phospholipid fatty acids (PLFAs). Cessation of tillage-based agriculture did initially lead to an increase in the abundance of fungi, particularly arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF), relative to bacteria. We suggest this is primarily due to reduced disturbance when tilling ceases. Vegetation characteristics also appear to be important, with high cyclopropyllprecursor PLFA ratios indicating bacterial communities under stress in agricultural soils, probably due to low C, and possibly to low C relative to N inputs. A secondary gradient in soil microbial community structure was related to successional time, and tied to soil characteristics, particularly bulk density (D-b), pH, and soil organic C and N. However, while the fungifbacteria (F/B) ratio was high in early succession plots, it declined later in succession. In addition, although the F/B ratio increased with SOC in the agricultural soils, it decreased with SOC in prairie soils. We conclude that increased community metabolic efficiency due to higher relative abundances of fungi is not the primary mechanism leading to enhanced C storage in these soils.

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Resistance Is Fertile: It’s Time to Prioritize Agroecology

Author: Colin Todhunter | Published on: August 29, 2016

Food is becoming unhealthy and poisoned with chemicals, while diets are becoming less diverse. There is a loss of plant and insect diversity, which threatens food security, soils are being degraded, water tables polluted and depleted and smallholder farmers, so vital to global food production, are being squeezed off their land and out of farming.

Over the last 60 years or so, Washington’s plan has been to restructure indigenous agriculture across the world. And this plan has involved subjugating nations by getting them to rely more on U.S. imports and grow less of their own food. Agriculture and food production and distribution have become globalized and tied to an international system of trade based on export-oriented mono-cropping, commodity production for the international market, indebtedness to international financial institutions (IMF/World Bank) and the need for nations to boost foreign exchange (U.S. dollar) reserves to repay debt.

This has resulted in food surplus and food deficit areas, of which the latter have become dependent on agricultural imports and strings-attached aid. Food deficits in the global South mirror food surpluses in the West.

Whether through IMF-World Bank structural adjustment programs, as occurred in Africa, trade agreements like NAFTA and its impact on Mexico or, more generally, deregulated global trade rules, the outcome has been similar: the devastation of traditional, indigenous agriculture.

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Valuing What Really Matters: A Look at Soil Currency

Author: Randall Coleman | Published: July 2016

We have all heard the expression “cheaper than dirt.” But many experts disagree. Soil is a vital resource that the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates contributes about USD $16.5 trillion in ecosystem services annually. In fact, FAO named 2015 the International Year of the Soils in order to highlight the importance of soils in our food system.

Unfortunately, arable soil is depleting very rapidly due to erosion, by around 24 billion tons each year. This rate of erosion is 10 to 100 times greater than the rate at which soil is being replenished. The major contributing factors are urban development, desertification, and industrial agriculture. The use of chemicals, intensive machinery, and monoculture are increasing productivity in the short term but leading to fallow soil and desertification over the long term. The most widely discussed solutions around these issues include polyculture, reforestation, and climate-smart agricultural practices. But, what if the reason we do not see soil being replenished is because we are not properly valuing it? I believe soil can provide a way to increase food access in urban food deserts, increase healthy diets among low-income communities, and shield communities from increasingly volatile global markets. To do this, we can look to the world of economics for a solution.

Some practitioners, artists, and scholars are exploring the idea of soil as a currency. Economists, agronomists, and ecologists have already agreed and estimated the economic benefits we receive from soil ecosystem services. Because we can create certain types of topsoil and because we know how valuable it is, we can create an economic system that is based on the value of soil.

KEEP READING ON THE SOLUTIONS JOURNAL