Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Soil…Our Hope for a Climate Solution

By Richard de Wilde & Andrea Yoder

In this week’s newsletter we’d like to return to our series of articles pointing to “the future of our food.”  The question on our minds this week is “Can we feed the world…without destroying it first?”  While we didn’t intend to write an article about climate change, here we are once again being faced with issues of climate change as it directly relates to this question.  Food First is an organization dedicated to ending the injustices that cause hunger and helping communities to take back control of their food systems.  Their work is centered around research, education and action.  This organization was founded by Frances Moore Lappé who, back in 1971, wrote Diet for a Small Planet.  Lappé laid out the evidence at that time representing several key points including the fact that there was 1 ½ times more than enough food to feed everyone on Earth, hunger is due to poverty and not scarcity, and the way the developed world produces and consumes food is damaging the planet.  Here we are over forty years later and the fact still remains the same that we still have enough food to feed the world and our corporate, industrial food system continues to damage the planet.  In Food First’s Summer 2017 “News & Views” publication, they stated “…the corporate food system contributes up to ⅓ of the world’s greenhouse gases, making industrial agriculture one of the main forces behind climate change.”2 In this week’s article we want to face this topic of climate change and look at how we can turn the tide, quickly, so we have a future.

Asparagus field with a well established
cover crop including a variety of clovers.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that “Without additional mitigation efforts beyond those in place today, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread and irreversible impacts globally.” The Global Development and Environment Institute (GDAE) at Tufts University released Climate Policy Brief No. 4 in April 2017 entitled, Hope Below Our Feet, Soil as a Climate Solution.1 In their report they quote climate scientist James Hansen who, in 1988, warned that:  “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm, but likely less than that.”  They follow his quote with the fact that atmospheric CO2 levels today exceed 400 ppm and are still on the rise.  Carbon is not the culprit here, it is essential to our existence.  Climate change is happening because there is too much carbon in the atmosphere and the reason it’s there is largely due to human activities.  Carbon cycles in nature between five pools where carbon is stored.  Those five places include the atmosphere, oceans, fossils, soil and our biosphere.  The carbon cycle was in balance for many, many years cycling between these pools in a way that was beneficial to all life forms.  The problems started when we figured out how to extract carbon from fossils and use it as fuel, etc.  We disrupted the cycle and threw off the balance by putting more carbon into the atmosphere than the oceans, plants and biosphere could cycle.  The opening paragraph in the GDAE Climate Policy Brief1 mentioned above reads as follows: 

“A major reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is clearly needed, but there is increasing scientific consensus that even if achieved, this will not be enough.  In addition to a drastic reduction in carbon emissions, carbon must be removed from the atmosphere.  An important solution is beneath our feet—the massive capacity of the earth’s soils to remove and store carbon from the atmosphere.” 

This field is ready for winter with a
young cover crop of rye in place.
The problem is the lack of balance.  Soil, which holds about three times more carbon than the atmosphere, offers us hope for restoring this balance of carbon in nature that humans have disrupted.    As farmers, this excites us and truly gives us hope.  Why?  Because we understand firsthand how resilient and beneficial soil can be when properly cared for and many of these strategies to store carbon in the soil are things we’ve been practicing on our farm for many years now!  Over 40 years ago I (Richard) was inspired by the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner who taught me about the value of capturing solar energy and putting it into the soil.  Through the process of photosynthesis, plants have the ability to take CO2 from the atmosphere along with water and sunlight to turn it into nutrients for the plant that develop root structures and carry these nutrients into the soil.  The nutrients feed the biological life in the soil and deposit carbon.  Carbon rich soil with high biodiversity is healthy, resilient soil.  I quickly learned the value of cover crops and we still make it a priority to plant a cover crop in a field as soon as we take our main crop off.  Cover crops fix nitrogen in the soil, hold soil in place and, in the end, break down and become part of the soil and build organic matter.  When I started planting cover crops, I did so for benefits including increasing soil fertility and tilth and increasing organic matter in the soil thereby increasing the resilience of the soil to hold water in a time of drought and drain water in times of excess moisture.  I never imagined we’d be in the position we are in now where planting cover crops and other basic, natural agricultural practices could be the key we need to regenerate and heal our broken cycle and reverse something as big as climate change!  In contrast, “Intensive forms of farming using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, are a leading cause of degradation of soils worldwide, as are destructive grazing practices in pasturelands.  But through appropriate practices that would enhance carbon pools in soils and biota, the potential terrestrial carbon sink capacity could be restored, essentially reversing its historic depletion, in what has been called the ‘recarbonization’ of the biosphere.”1  

Our young piglets enjoy romping
around in the lush pasture grasses.
Our grass-fed Red Angus beef cattle are
rotationally grazed on our nutrient rich pastures.
There are several approaches we can take to regenerate our soils and enhance the natural functioning of ecosystems to rebuild what we’ve lost.  The GDAE report outlines some important regenerative strategies to increase the ability of soils to store carbon.  In cultivated soils, strategies include things such as the use of cover crops, planting trees and legumes to fix atmospheric nitrogen, feeding the soil with manure and compost, decreasing erosion and soil loss from sloping soils through terracing, and increasing soil microbiology with fungi and other microorganisms.  Pasture management in animal production systems is another important factor.  Sustainable pasture management includes planned rotational grazing which can have a remarkable impact on regenerating pasture grasses, increasing soil fertility, and reversing and preventing desertification of soils.   We also need to consider forested soils.  There have been astounding acres of valuable forest lands cleared for industrial farming and agricultural purposes.  We need to stop deforestation and be promoting reforestation to regenerate degraded forest ecosystems.  All of these efforts have the net benefit of supporting the movement of excess carbon out of the atmosphere through the use of plants and putting it back into the soil.  While it’s pretty remarkable to be able to use plants to combat climate change in this way, there is a twofold benefit from regenerating soils.  More plants on the land and more carbon returning to the soil results in not only decreasing atmospheric carbon, but also leads to increased soil fertility which also can have a significant impact on production and yield as well as the quality of food.  This will also help us continue to produce food more reliably in the face of weather extremes which is our current reality.  However, remember that hunger is not caused by scarcity but rather poverty.  “What causes hunger is not lack of food, but lack of access to decent land and work.  Most of the chronically hungry in the world are marginalized farmers and rural workers.  It is not how much we produce that is important, but who produces it, how, and who profits.  With 70% employment in agriculture in many parts of the world, simply producing more food in countries like Kenya, Uganda, or India will not solve hunger if there are no decent and stable livelihoods in the countryside.  Industrial farming displaces workers—so many we would need unrealistically fast economic growth, evenly spread around the globe to create enough jobs to employ all the world’s peasant farmers.  To end hunger, we don’t need to produce more crops per se—we need to produce more decent livelihoods.”5  We need to turn food production back over to small farmers, thereby giving them food security by giving them their jobs back and allowing them to preserve their cultural heritage and feed their own local markets and be part of their local economy.  In this manner human needs are met in a way that restores ecosystems and communities instead of degrading them.  It’s an obvious win-win situation!  We’d encourage you to read the GDAE’s policy brief for yourself as there are more details and benefits from employing these strategies than we can fully report on here and truly does offer us hope.  We need to face the realities that industrial agriculture has no place in the future of our food system.  Eliminating this form of agriculture would gain us great strides in combating climate change, but furthermore if it were traded for regenerative farming practices we would actually be able to make some headway.  The answer to our original question is “Yes, we can feed the world without destroying it.”  The question now is “Will we?” 

If you’d like to learn more about how the soil can lead us in regenerative efforts to combat climate change as well as see some examples of how other countries are implementing action and incentives for this purpose, we’d like to suggest the following resources:
  • "The Soil Story", a video by Kiss the Ground that clearly summarizes the carbon cycle and the role of regenerative agriculture in less than 4 minutes!  If you do nothing else, watch this short video.
  •  Soil 4 Climate is a nonprofit organization that is an advocate for soil restoration as a climate solution.  They have a lot of informative resources available on their website for both education as well as action. 
  •  Global Development & Environment Institute (GDAE) at Tufts University offers expertise in the areas of economics, policy, science and technology as they relate to global development and issues related to the environment.  They have numerous publications available on their website including the Climate Policy Brief we cited above, Hope Below Our Feet. 

  1.  Codur, A.M., S. Itzkan, W. Moomaw, K. Thidemann, and J. Harris.  2017.  Hope Below Our Feet, Soil As a Climate Solution.  
  2. Holt-Gimenez, Eric.  2017.  The Politics of Food:  The More Things Stay the Same, the More They Change.  Food First News & Views. Volume 39. 
  3. IPCC 2013.  Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report, Summary For Policy Makers.  
  4. Kruzic, Ahna and Holt-Gimenez, Eric.  2017.  The Politics of Food:  Feeding the World Without Destroying It.  Food First News & Views. Volume 39. 
  5. Shattuck, Annie.  2017.   Food, Climate, and the Myths that Keep our Planet Hot.  Food First Backgrounder, Volume 23.

1 comment:

crloeb said...

Wonderful column - thank you! Really appreciate your exploring the connections between farming and climate change.

One more source on the subject: THE SOIL WILL SAVE US by Kristin Ohlson.