The Solution under Our Feet

Posted on in Healthy Living by John W. Roulac

How Regenerative
Organic Agriculture
Can Save the Planet


Many of us are now choosing to eat holistically grown foods. We want more nutrition from our food, to avoid toxic pesticides and GMOs, to create safer conditions for farmers and rural communities, and to protect the water, air, and soil from contamination by toxic agrochemicals.

While these reasons are important, one critical issue is missing from today’s conversation about food. The concept is simple, yet virtually unknown. The solution to our global food and environmental crisis is literally under our feet.

If you take away only one thing from this article, I want it to be this quote from esteemed soil scientist Dr. Rattan Lal at Ohio State University: “A mere 2% increase in the carbon content of the planet’s soils could offset 100% of all greenhouse gas emissions going into the atmosphere.”

Through the past hundred years, we’ve steadily increased our rate of digging up and burning carbon-rich matter for fuel. This is disturbing the oceanic ecosystem in profound ways that include reducing the plankton that feed whales and provide oxygen for humans. We’ve severely disrupted the balance in the “carbon triad” by clearing rainforests, degrading farmland, denuding pasturelands, and burning coal and oil. The carbon triad? Think of the three main carbon sinks: the atmosphere, the oceans, and the humus-sphere. Humus is the organic component of soil. (Gardeners create it as compost.) The humussphere is made up of the stable, long-lasting remnants of decaying organic material, essential to the earth’s soil fertility and our ability to grow nutrient-rich crops.

Up until now, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Shell have been perceived as the main climate villains. Yet a new and growing movement of carbon cycle–literate people and organizations realize that Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, and Big Ag are much worse. We now know that 20%–30% of all manmade greenhouse gases comes from industrial agriculture. By dumping agricultural chemicals onto our soils, we disrupt nature’s delicate balance of water, soil, and air.

Two of those three carbon sinks are maxed out, while the soil, where the humus-sphere resides, has lost most of its humus due to the use of industrial farming techniques and bad land-management practices. This leaves the soil as the primary sink to sequester our excess carbon. Yet nature is abundant and forgiving. Recent research in the fields of etland, pasture, forest, and crop production has illustrated that, by changing our management strategies, we can create more nature-centric systems that improve our quality of life rather than degrading it.

Carbon Farming Defined

Carbon farming is an agricultural system that improves the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and converted to plant material and organic matter in the soil. Today, excess carbon is falling into our oceans and creating acidic conditions that threaten plant and animal species. If we remove carbon from the atmosphere and oceans through regenerative organic agriculture, we’ll sequester carbon into the soil and expand its water-holding capacity. Building organic matter into the humus layer is essential for growing the healthful foods humanity needs.

As a 2014 Rodale Institute report states, “Organically managed soils can convert carbon from a greenhouse gas into a food-producing asset.” Two major upsides to this approach are drought-proof soils and, thanks to more nutrient-rich foods, reduced healthcare costs.

If this is the first you’ve heard about this idea, it’s because the good news is just starting to trickle out. For example, the Marin Carbon Project’s work with compost and rangeland was recently featured on the cover of the San Francisco Chronicle.

The mission of the Carbon Cycle Institute (part of the Marin Carbon Project) is to “stop and reverse global warming by advancing natural, science-based solutions that remove atmospheric carbon while promoting environmental stewardship, social equity, and economic sustainability.” The institute is also focused on carbon-cycle literacy, a form of savvy still greatly lacking in the general population, by educating and empowering people to make more informed choices and to demand that elected officials do the same.

Recently, the American Carbon Registry, a nonprofit that creates protocols for carbon use, approved standards that would reward ranchers for land practices that sequester carbon. Rancher John Wick, a Carbon Cycle Institute founder, has said, “Our proposal is that there is a whole other paradigm—that agriculture practices can be . . . the art of transforming atmospheric carbon into biospheric carbon.” Gov. Jerry Brown’s office plans to visit Wick’s ranch.

From the regenerative agriculture movement has also come a fascinating new book by Kristin Ohlson that I strongly recommend: The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet.

Chemical Ag Is the World’s
Leading Problem, and Yes,
There’s an App for That

We know our oceans are polluted by chemical fertilizer runoff from industrial agriculture, which has caused more than 500 dead zones such as the Mississippi Delta. Even more disturbing is the rarely acknowledged fact that chemical fertilizers and confined animal feedlot operations (CAFOs) give off more greenhouse gases than all transportation methods combined. As this carbon falls into the sea, its pH balance is thrown off.

On November 14, 2014, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported on the alarming rise in ocean temperatures: “Scientists are actively investigating another potential effect of warmer temperatures that’s happening right now—a dramatic dip in the spring bloom of phytoplankton in the Gulf of Maine. In 2013, the spring bloom was so poorly developed it was below detection thresholds used by scientists.”

Did you know that two out of every three breaths you take come via ocean phytoplankton? And that phytoplankton is currently in steep decline due to ocean acidification? Many researchers think that within only a few decades, planet oxygen levels will have dropped dramatically. As National Geographic has reported, “relatively new research is finding that the introduction of massive amounts of CO2 into the seas is altering water chemistry and affecting the lifecycles of many marine organisms.” Remember, plankton is the main food source for many species of whales.

Unfortunately, the government, the media, and even climate-change groups are quiet on this vital issue. The silence is perplexing. All the regulatory agencies of the federal government, and even the alternative media, have so far failed to bring to the fore this concern. It’s time we focused on soil, not oil.

On a note of hope, the United Nations, on its December 5, 2014, inaugural World Soil Day, called for 2015 to be the International Year of Soils. Another positive venture is the Ocean Health XPRIZE, a $2 million global competition challenging teams of engineers, scientists, and innovators (even surfers and schoolkids) to create and use pH sensors to “affordably, accurately, and efficiently” measure ocean chemistry. They’re testing 18 technologies for use in a new cloud-based app to provide real-time monitoring of oceans.

Researchers are concerned that organisms that form shells—everything from Maine’s iconic lobster to shrimp and the tiny plankton that are key links in the food chain—will find it more difficult to produce calcium carbonate for shells in the more acidic seawater. They worry that the acidification could intensify as carbon levels rise and the climate warms.

China, India, and Indonesia are creating dozens of new coal-burning power plants. In fact, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that India plans to double the number of coal plants by 2020. While these issues are complex, simply changing your diet is one of the most powerful counteractive measures you can take.

Foodies, Unite!

Luckily, bloggers, activists, and the booming pure food movement hold the promise of positive change. We need a coalition of educated and empowered people to make good dietary choices that also support living soils. Organic, nutrient-dense foods might cost more (buying in bulk helps), yet we can see how costly poor food choices are for our national health. And, as in the civil rights movement or any other progressive movement, it’s time for us to stand up and make our voices heard. Keep blogging, tweeting, Pinteresting, Instagramming, and posting on Facebook, as sharing is caring.

The San Francisco–based Biosafety Alliance will hold a major conference on carbon farming and climate change in Richmond in September, featuring such speakers as Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association and Vandana Shiva. Meantime, the ministers of propaganda at Monsanto and other chemical companies are amping up their own social media campaigns to tell us how they’re going to feed the world and increase food security through genetically engineered foods and chemical agriculture. Sales are down or flat for virtually every major American food company, so they’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars to fortify their misleading advertising and public relations campaigns.

As delicate ecosystems are disrupted, and plant and animal species face extinction at an ever-increasing rate, the word is getting out that the current practices of chemical companies and industrial agriculture are harming billions of people. Recently, large investment funds have responded to disinvestment advocates by selling off their holdings in ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, and other carbon polluters, yet they still invest in Monsanto—a group that transgresses far beyond any oil company in its injury to the environment and society.

It’s time for everyone who cares about the future of food to unite in changing the failing industrial agriculture system. We have the opportunity to vote three times a day by eating organic whole foods instead of packaged, processed, and convenient “food-like substances.” Vegans, it’s vital that you choose organic foods vs. Roundup-sprayed, hexane-processed soy cutlets. The fake, nonorganic foods funded by Silicon Valley are not life-enhancing. For those who eat meat, eggs, and dairy products, it’s healthy living » healing important to support pasture-based ranchers and suppliers, as these systems sequester carbon into the humus-sphere through intensive grazing. Meat eaters, consider consuming 50% less meat, and at all costs avoid suppliers that rely on toxic, high-GHG chemical fertilizers to grow carbon-intensive GMO corn and soy.

Industrial agriculture regards soil as merely a root-holding medium on which to apply petroleum products while manipulating genetics. Regenerative organic agriculture views soil as a holistic system, and understands the interconnected soil biology—teeming with the billions of bacteria and fungi that, along with earthworms and organic matter, indicate good health. Los Angeles–based Kiss the Ground Foundation is working on a powerful five-minute Story of Soil video to educate the public on this vital issue.

A new generation of ranchers is growing grass while building carbon and organic matter into the soil. The 12-minute video Soil Carbon Cowboys featured one such “grass rancher,” Gabe Brown, who increased the organic matter in his North Dakota pastureland from less than 2% to 8% in 20 years.

USDA and EPA statistics vastly underreport agriculture emissions at 10%–12% total. Many researchers think agriculture is the source of more of these emissions than even transportation fuels. Organic is better than conventional, but organic plus regenerative is best, for it enhances soil fertility vs. merely maintaining it. (A big reason why the return of hemp farming is so vital is hemp’s deep taproot and nitrogenrich leaves that build soil tilth.)

The Way Forward

Many in the organic movement wonder about our NGO allies in the climate, ocean, and forestry sectors. According to Ronnie Cummins, “With the mounting evidence of how regenerative organic agriculture is the number-one solution for climate change, ocean health, and soil ecology via sequestering carbon, it’s time for the environmental movement to join forces. In fact, our survival depends on it.”

Trying to solve the entire problem by reducing global carbon via solar, wind, and renewables has been a failure. One climate meeting after another ends with attendees throwing up their hands and declaring that we’re doomed because nations won’t agree to meaningful cuts. The message of drawing down carbon via regenerative agriculture warrants no mention in the glossy documents or even a tweet!

Which is better for the environment—to buy a Tesla and consume a standard American diet or to drive a used SUV and eat an organic diet with some pastured meat and dairy? The latter, and even better is to eat an organic diet, walk or bike more, and drive a more energyefficient car.

Soil, not oil, is the wise path forward. At the height of this information age of Google and social media, the history of our planet is being written. Will it ultimately be said that the simple solution under our feet was shared around the digital campfire, and thus globally chosen by informed citizens of the earth? Or will the annals read that seven billion people succumbed to false messages from Monsanto, ExxonMobil, and self-serving apologists that GMO “better living through chemistry” food systems were best?

Remember, as you start to reach for that box of nonorganic cereal for your shopping cart, that what we eat will impact the planet more than just about anything else we do. It’s late in the fourth quarter, and there are no timeouts left, but we have the ball.

It’s time for us to revive the ancient wisdom of honoring the land, and in the process heal our atmosphere, our oceans, our humussphere, and ourselves. Regenerative organic agriculture is the answer we need to create a food system that works for everyone. Are you ready to be part of this solution?

John W. Roulac, founder and CEO of the superfoods company Nutiva, has also founded five nonprofit ecological groups, including GMO Inside and the Nutiva Foundation. John has written four books, including Backyard Composting and Hemp Horizons.

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