Diana Donlon, director of Center for Food Safety’s (CFS) Soil Solutions program in the United States, spoke to the Soil Association at a lunchtime session about the necessity of improving soil health around the world.
“If we enlist Nature’s immense powers to rebuild soil health, we can regenerate landscapes at scale and ultimately bring the carbon cycle back into balance.”
Diana Donlon began by highlighting that, despite excess carbon in the atmosphere being a daunting problem, carbon in the soil is an invaluable, but often depleted, resource. The world’s cultivated soils, however, have lost between 50-70% of their original carbon stocks and when soils lose carbon, they lose their ability to function properly.
A key measure of soil health is levels of soil organic matter (SOM), which is crucial for long-term yields, food quality, extreme weather resilience, and as a vital store of soil carbon. Increasing the SOM level in degraded UK soils would provide better defense against flooding by reducing run-off, and would dramatically increase the yield and quality of food produced.
“Between the devastating fires in both Northern and Southern California, and now rivers of rushing mud, Californians have been reminded that Nature is far more powerful than we”
Ms. Donlon quickly went on to underscore more uplifting news. She explained that we now know how to rebuild soil carbon by encouraging biological processes like photosynthesis that takes CO2 out of the atmosphere and stores it in the ground as soil carbon. Healthy soils act as a carbon sink by drawing carbon down into the soil to store it. Improving soil health is therefore a critical way to tackle climate change.
In 2015, CFS made a short film to highlight the importance of soil carbon. “Soil Solutions to Climate Problems” was narrated by the well-known American author Michael Pollan and first screened at the launch of French Government’s “4 per 1000” initiative at the United Nations’ COP21. Both Center for Food Safety and the Soil Association are members of the “4 per 1000” initiative that aims to rebuild soil carbon stocks globally.
Soil Solutions works on policy internationally via “4 per 1000” and in the US. Headquartered in San Francisco, Diana Donlon is actively involved in Californian climate/soil policy and helped to establish a “Healthy Soil Program” to provide financial incentives to California growers and ranchers to implement conservation management practices.
California, with the sixth largest economy in the world, will be hosting a Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco in September 2018. A key focus will be advocating the potential of healthy soils to draw-down carbon from the atmosphere. The Soil Association will be working to ensure that sustainable UK farming is represented at that summit and we will be collaborating with other pioneering groups (such as CFS’ Soil Solutions) to communicate the necessity to advance sustainable agriculture (including organic) as an important climate tool.
December 5 marks the United Nations’ World Soil Day, which recognizes the crucial role soil plays in human health, food production, and climate change mitigation. To mark the occasion, Diana Donlon, director of the Center for Food Safety (CFS)’s Soil Solutions program, spoke with Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz, owners of The Perennial Restaurant in San Francisco. The team is launching a Healthy Soil Guide for chefs and home cooks about they can play in promoting healthy soils and climate solutions. CFS has also released a short film today called “Chefs for Soil,” which includes Myint and Leibowitz discussing their climate-friendly restaurant; that film is embedded below.
You’re a couple of city-dwelling restaurateurs with businesses in San Francisco and Manhattan—how did you find out about the connection between healthy soil and a stable climate?
Karen Leibowitz: We’d been working together in the restaurant business for a few years, starting with Mission Chinese Food and Commonwealth, both in San Francisco, when we had a daughter and started to think more concretely about the future with a capital F. That’s when we realized what a big impact the food system has on climate. We committed to the idea of making a sustainable restaurant, and when a friend of ours suggested we visit a rancher in Marin County—John Wick [of the Marin Carbon Project], who pretty much blew our minds.
Anthony Myint: John talked a mile a minute and offered us a reason to feel hopeful for the first time in our lives about reversing climate change. He explained the importance of perennial plants, particularly grasses, to “drawing down” carbon dioxide and return it to the soil, and we got so excited. We were still on our way home from Wick’s ranch when we decided to name our latest restaurant The Perennial.
I remember reading about the restaurant before it opened and thinking, “Wow, these people get it. They’ve gone beyond farm-to-table and made the connection between healthy, carbon-rich soil and addressing the climate crisis.” Can you tell us what’s so important about perennials?
KL: To be honest, I’d never really thought too much about the difference between annual and perennial [plants] until we compared them in terms of soil. Whereas annual crops get tilled and replanted every year, releasing soil carbon into the atmosphere where it becomes a greenhouse gas, perennial plants send down deep roots that sustain an underground ecosystem that rebuilds soil carbon. And we’re not just talking about preserving large perennials—like trees—from deforestation, but also perennial grasses, which used to cover the prairie states that are now being depleted by annual crops, like wheat. We learned that The Land Institute in Kansas has domesticated a native perennial grass to make a new grain, called Kernza, which restores soil carbon, supports wildlife, and so much more. Grasslands are amazing.
AM: The thing that seems to resonate about perennials is that they’re “reforesting” underground.We can’t see the root systems and the corresponding biomass surrounding them, but it can amount to many tons of carbon per acre. The other thing Karen and I didn’t really understand until recently is that’s there is a real difference between soil and dirt. I didn’t realize that soil is alive and dirt is dead. Billions of tiny creatures live in healthy soil and this ecosystem makes our lives possible, but they also make food tastier and richer in nutrients. Healthy soil looks like a dark chocolate cake. It has a crumbly feel and smells delicious. It’s the carbon that gives it that rich color and its fertility.
How do we get more chefs to think all the way back to the soil, where ingredient quality is being determined?
AM: A lot of chefs understand that the best ingredients come from organic farms, and they go to the farmers’ markets to find the tastiest produce, but they don’t usually have time to get into the nitty-gritty conversations about cover cropping and crop rotations. That’s why we’ve been working on the Healthy Soil Guide, a simple resource to help chefs—and home cooks—find the farms with the healthiest soil, which in turn leads to the best-tasting food.
We’ve highlighted best practices on farms—such as cover-cropping, composting, crop rotation, and integrating perennials. And most importantly, we’re encouraging farmers to share their soil organic matter data, which is a simple number, to make it really explicit that their soil is actually healthy (compared to the big monoculture farm that’s spraying and plowing and probably would rather not have anyone see how much or how little organic matter is in their soil). We’ve also added sections for ranches and restaurants that champion healthy soil.
KL: Chefs don’t need to be experts in regenerative ag, but there’s a ton of overlap between the goals of chefs, diners, farmers, and even climate activists. So often there are trade-offs in life, but building soil organic matter really feels like the place where all these values line up. There’s so much potential if we can come together, but we need a way to communicate. That’s why we’re highlighting soil organic matter as a simple, concrete way to conceive of the issue.
AM: I’m always happy to talk about food as the antidote to climate change, but “Chefs for Soil” also gave me a chance to try out my new personal catchphrase: “Flavor up! Carbon down!”
The Center for Food Safety premieres its new “Chefs for Soil” film today; watch it below.
A handful of states around the country have begun to recognize the importance of carbon farming as an expedient tool to fight climate change. What’s carbon farming? Eric Toensmeier, author of The Carbon Farming Solution, describes it as “a suite of crops and agricultural practices that sequester carbon in the soil and in perennial vegetation like trees.” If carbon farming were widely implemented, it could return billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere—where there’s currently too much, to the soil where there’s too little. Carbon in the soil, i.e. soil carbon, becomes a resource that increases food, water and climate security.
Last month, Hawaii became the first state in the nation to pass legislation officially supporting the Paris climate agreement, just days after President Trump announced he was pulling the U.S. out of the global agreement. One of the two landmark laws signed in Hawai’i was an act creating the Carbon Farming Task Force. Written and championed by Hawai’i Center for Food Safety, along with the Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi and Surfrider Foundation O’ahu Chapter, the task force went into effect July 1 and will develop incentives for Hawai’i’s farmers and ranchers to improve the resilience of their lands by increasing the soil’s carbon content.
University of Hawai’i assistant professor of agricultural ecosystem ecology, Rebecca Ryals, believes “Hawai’i’s Carbon Farming Task Force is a critically important first step toward finding local solutions to global climate change, and soil carbon farming strategies should be emphasized in its incentive programs.”
Hawai’i is just one of a growing number of states preparing to protect rural livelihoods from the threats posed by climate change by tapping into the multiple benefits of carbon farming. Here are five others:
1. In May, Maryland established the Maryland Healthy Soils Program introduced by Delegate Dana Stein. Stein’s legislation (HB 1063) passed unanimously in the Senate and had the support of both the Maryland Farm Bureau and the soil and climate communities (including thousands of Center for Food Safety members who responded to our action alert in support of the bill). The act, as approved by Gov. Larry Hogan, requires the Maryland Department of Agriculture to provide incentives including research, education and technical assistance contributing to healthy soils.
2. Massachusetts is right behind Maryland. “An Act to Promote Healthy Soils” (No.3713) presented by Paul A. Schmid III, would establish a fund for education and training for those engaged in agriculture that regenerates soil health. Indicators of healthy soil include levels of carbon, rates of water infiltration and biological activity.
3. Meanwhile, in New York, Assemblywoman Didi Barrett introduced A3281, a first-of-its-kind bill to use a tax credit model for farmers who maximize carbon sequestration potential on their land. Although the bill did not pass this past year, Barrett was able to incorporate the Carbon Farming Act into the state budget which is providing $50,000 to study incentives for carbon farming tax credits, grants and other programs.
4. In California the Department of Food and Agriculture has appropriated $7.5 million from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund to develop and administer incentive and demonstration programs as part of the state’s Healthy Soils Program, actively supported by the California Climate and Agriculture Network, a coalition that includes Center for Food Safety. The objective of the demonstration projects is to monitor and demonstrate to California farmers and ranchers that “specific management practices sequester carbon, improve soil health and reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases.” The program includes a variety of practices such as mulching, cover crops, compost application, hedgerow planting and buffer strips.
5. Finally, in Vermont, after making a successful transition from conventional to regenerative agriculture on their farm, Jesse and Cally McDougall initiated legislation in 2016 to help other farmers transition. Reintroduced in 2017 as S.43 by Vermont State Sen. Brian Campion, the bill:
Proposes to require the Secretary of Natural Resources to establish a regenerative soils program whose purposes include increasing the carbon sequestration capability of Vermont soils, reducing the amount of sediment and waste entering the waters of the state, and promoting cost-effective and healthy soil management practices.
While the Vermont bill did not pass this year, Jesse McDougall reports that “it wasn’t killed either” and will be taken up again next session. According to this self-described carbon farmer, “There is much interest and energy for it here in Vermont. I think this bill (or a new regenerative bill) has a strong chance next year.”
We expect that McDougall is right. While each state will incentivize soil health differently depending on geography, needs and capacity, there’s a strong chance that many more states will get proactive about regenerating the health of their soil and harnessing the potential of carbon farming. With this kind of interest, and momentum generated by public gatherings like the upcoming Soil not Oil conference in September, it won’t be long before policies to incentivize carbon farming spread across the nation.
By Debbie Barker
This weekend, hundreds of thousands of citizens will march in Washington, D.C., and around the world, raising their voices to demand action on climate change, one of the most critical issues of our day.
Energy and fossil fuel will be at the center of the dialogue, of course, but it’s also critical to address the reality that our industrial agriculture system—drenched in fossil fuels and sucking up energy, water, and other critical resources—is a leading climate change culprit. In fact, agriculture systems contribute at least 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Even more stunning, use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers on agriculture crops accounts for approximately 60 percent of global nitrous oxide emissions, a compound around 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2).
It doesn’t have to be this way: A global shift to sustainable farming will not only help create a stable climate, it will also improve food and water security and safety, sustainable rural livelihoods, and environmental health. But industrial agriculture requires the production and use of toxic chemicals; converts forests, marshes, and other lands to agricultural uses; and encourages excessive tillage, unhealthy livestock-rearing conditions, and long-distance food transport—all climate-changing practices responsible for inefficiencies, inequities, and conflict the world over.
Massive use of agricultural chemicals has degraded the health of our soils so significantly that crop yields have plateaued or collapsed in some regions. Scientists estimate that 50 to 70 percent of carbon has been lost in industrially farmed soils. That carbon escapes into the atmosphere, causing increased levels of CO2. It also dissolves into our oceans, causing raised acidity levels that threaten marine life and critical food systems. Additionally, after decades of intensive over-use, pest and plant diseases are becoming resistant to fossil fuel-based chemicals.
On the inequity front, despite the supposed merits of our global industrial agriculture system, at least 2 billion people around the globe are chronically undernourished. And climate change further exacerbates food insecurity. Global agencies agree that crop productivity will markedly decline over the next few decades in Central America, South and Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa—regions already hard-hit by unstable food supply.
Catastrophic weather related to global warming not only spikes food insecurity, but leads to national and international conflicts over resources, migration and refugees. Take for example the current crisis in Syria. Very few would utter the words “climate change” in the same sentence as “the war in Syria,” but the truth is global warming in the region played a significant role in the present tragedy.
Between 2006 and 2011, more than 60 percent of Syrian territory experienced the worst long-term drought in recorded history. Water resources were cut in half. The primary wheat-growing region lost 75 percent of its crops and 85 percent of its livestock. This climate and food crisis triggered extreme poverty for millions of Syrians and massive migration from rural communities to overcrowded cities, exposing the government’s inability or refusal to help and stressing ethnic and religious tensions.
Hope for Farming, Hope for the Planet
However, on the climate and agriculture front, there is reason to hope. While agriculture is currently a big part of the climate change problem, it has the potential to be a big part of the solution. We can reduce or eliminate our food system’s chemical dependency—which will lower GHG emissions, rebuild healthy soils and fertility, and restore watersheds, among other benefits.
We must ditch our massive monoculture approach and build resilience to extreme, unpredictable weather by bringing back crop diversity. We need to smartly reintegrate livestock into farming systems, rather than into animal factories. We need to provide economic assistance to farmers and rural communities to generate viable incomes from ecological agricultural practices.
One of the most promising aspects of truly climate-friendly agriculture is found in emerging soil science that shows ecological farming can draw down carbon from the atmosphere and put it back into the soil where it can contribute to healthy, functioning ecosystems. This science is especially consequential given that scientists agree that we are beyond simply cutting back on GHGs; we must pursue “net negative emission” strategies to avoid utter catastrophe.
Yes, there are challenges to transitioning away from a global warming intensive, industrial food and farm system, but it is clear that it will be at our peril if we continue on our present path. For most of this century, governments have invested billions of dollars in our fossil-fuel driven, chemically dependent agricultural model. Governments must instead invest in practices and people that promote a resilient and healthy climate, food, and water future.
So let’s march. But if we’re going to get serious about curbing climate change, then we need to get serious about addressing agriculture as both a profound problem and a hopeful solution.
Debbie Barker is the international programs director at the Center for Food Safety.
In the United States today, hunger impacts more than 42 million Americans. This is a national disgrace caused by poverty and income inequality. In the not-too-distant future, hunger could also be the result of climate change. The warming climate is causing a host of alarming changes—unseasonable temperatures, disruptions in pollination, biblical floods and epic droughts —all of which threaten the long-term viability of our food supply. Yet despite these well-established risks to agriculture, the president has signed an Executive Order rolling back progress in the fight against the climate crisis.
Here’s the hard truth: Nothing will undermine food security for all Americans more than an unstable climate. We are already seeing the following effects:
Extreme weather events harm crops and reduce yields, and they are becoming more frequent and intense all the time. We’ve seen this across the country and with many different crops, from cherries in spring (Michigan’s unduly warm winter in 2012 resulted in $220 million of losses) to pumpkins in the fall (in 2011 Hurricane Irene caused a pumpkin shortage in the Northeast) to staple crops year-round. Without serious reductions in greenhouse gases, by 2100 half the country’s corn harvest could be wiped out, wheat production could fall by 20 percent, soybean production by 40 percent.
A decline in the nutritional value of crops is another consequence of a warming climate. Soaring levels of CO2 lead to a reduction in both the mineral and protein content of crops, including trace minerals such as selenium, zinc, and iron that are essential to human health.
Loss of Diversity
Plants are stationary. When the going gets rough they can’t move to a more hospitable location. Climates are changing faster than plants can adapt; as a result, one out of every five plant species is at risk of extinction. And food isn’t the only thing we rely on plants for—about half the drugs prescribed in the U.S. are plant-based.
The solution? Rebuilding our nation’s soil health. We can begin by transitioning immediately to farming and ranching practices that respect soil as the living carbon-rich ecosystem that it is, rather than as merely a growing medium. These practices are regenerative, agro-ecological and organic, and include minimal tillage, cover cropping and increasing crop diversity to support soil microorganisms and beneficial insects. They create more resilient systems for farmers and free agricultural production from dependency on fossil fuels. Most important, regenerative agriculture has vast untapped potential to rebalance Earth’s woozy climate system by drawing down excess carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and storing it in the ground as life-giving soil carbon.
As individuals, we can play an important role in building food security and resilience in our communities. So while Trump is busy ripping up the Clean Power Plan for the short-term benefit of a few corporations, engage however you can. Rip up the lawn. Plant some fruit trees. Start composting. Volunteer at a community garden. Create a garden school. Grow your own food-secure community.
Start locally, and affect change nationally by putting pressure on elected officials. Now more than ever, we have to work urgently at the state, local, and community levels to implement policies that protect and support our food supply. A number of states (including California, Hawaii, Vermont, Maryland and New York) are planning ahead by focusing on regenerating degraded landscapes and incentivizing carbon-farming methods that increase soil health, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improve resilience to a changing climate.
On the ground action is the way to achieve food security for everyone.
Center for Food Safety’s Soil Solutions team attended the second week of the recent U.N. climate conference, COP22, in Marrakech, Morocco. In light of the rhetoric about pulling out of international climate agreements and rolling back domestic climate change programs, the growing global support for soil carbon restoration through regenerative, ecological agriculture was indeed a bright spot.
The first day was spent with the Women’s Earth & Climate Action Network (WECAN) who brought together women on the front lines of climate change from vulnerable communities around the world. Most came from countries like the Maldives that have done almost nothing to contribute to climate change but whose very survival is increasingly threatened. Their stories were humbling, and I was honored to address the group in order to make the connection between soil carbon and climate resilience. Rebuilding soil carbon offers an immediate avenue for action for rural people facing the mounting challenge of collecting food and water for their families.
The next day, we visited a women’s cooperative in the beautiful Ourika Valley of the Atlas Mountains where we saw olive orchards, almond saplings and calendula beds planted by indigenous Amazit or Berber women. A program of the High Atlas Foundation, the cooperative is improving livelihoods for women and increasing resilience to an unpredictable climate. Empowered by their successes, the women also have an ambitious tree planting campaign in the region’s schools.
The morning of the first consortium meeting for France’s “4 per 1000” initiative, we were extremely fortunate to interview the French Minister of Agriculture, Stéphane Le Foll. The initiative aims to demonstrate that agriculture, and agricultural soils in particular, can play a crucial role in improving food security and mitigating climate change. Launched last December at COP21, CFS was the first civil society organization to join the program. In addition to interviewing Minister Le Foll about his vision for the initiative, we were able to interview several of our “4 per 1000” partners. Be sure to look for these new interviews as part of our ongoing Dig Deeper series during the coming months.
Finally, in addition to participating in several other events sponsored by soil colleagues we had the honor of hearing Secretary John Kerry reaffirm the United States’ commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement he signed earlier this year. Kerry’s address was reassuring to our many allies around the world. While COP21 was about coming together in agreement, COP22 was about action. Now is not the time to disengage from the world on climate change, and CFS’ Soil Solutions team is proud to be helping to shape global policies that will determine humanity’s future.