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.
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.
Last week Britain’s Prince Charles convened “Climate Friendly Landscapes,” an international meeting to discuss a topic he believes is “at the heart of everything” – the prince was, of course, referring to healthy, fertile soil.
With the 22nd United Nations climate Conference of the Parties or “COP 22”starting next week in Marrakech, Morocco, it is exciting to see soil, an often overlooked, but essential natural resource, make global headlines.
Among those presenting at the London meeting were Professor Rattan Lal of Ohio State University, president elect of the International Union of Soil Sciences, and Eric Toensmeier, Yale University lecturer and author of “The Carbon Farming Solution.” Toensmeier, who shared insights strategies that drawdown atmospheric carbon including planting tropical tree staple crops, silvopasture (the practice of combining forestry and grazing) and multi-strata agroforestry systems, said “It was great to see finance (World Bank and more), government ministers, NGO leaders, farmers, and scientists all in one room focusing on climate mitigation and scaling up carbon-friendly practices.”
An agro-ecological, organic farmer for the past thirty years, Prince Charles praised Germany’s Bonn Challenge which advances the cause of forest landscape restoration. He also praised France’s 4 per 1000” initiative which seeks to increase the organic content and health of soils worldwide and vowed to advance similar soil-building targets in the United Kingdom. Formally introduced at COP 21 last December, “4 per 1000” has now been signed by 180 governments and institutions and more are expected to sign up at COP 22. CFS is proud to have been among the initial signatories and will be at the first meeting of civil society to plan the initiative’s governing structure.
Blessed with a Mediterrean climate, Morocco is one of the world’s most productive and agriculturally diverse countries; and agriculture, unlike other sectors of the global economy, has the potential to emit or sequester greenhouse gases. Those of us convening in Marrakech are tasked with building upon the historic COP 21 when 191 nations reached the Paris Agreement. We hope more governments, civil society organizations, scientists, and farmers’ organizations join France and the UK in setting targets to increase the carbon content of soil, an achievable task with global benefits. Here’s how Prince Charles summed up the opportunity:
“What a wonderfully positive difference it would make to the lives of farmers and rural communities right around the world – from the U.K. to Senegal, the U.S. to Argentina, from France to India, and from Brazil to the Middle East – if farmers and rural communities, who are the first to suffer from the rigors of a changing climate, as well as from the damage to the health, ecology and biodiversity of the natural environment upon which they (and we) wholly depend, could be properly rewarded for being good stewards of their land, including their soil carbon…”
Earlier this month, Center for Food Safety brought together its Soil Solutions program and its Hawai‘i office to host “Healthy Soils, Healthy Ranching” – a conference for ranchers from across the state of Hawaii at Puʻu O Hoku Ranch on the island of Molokai.
This conference brought together forward-looking ranchers with a variety of experts to share best practices, review emergent science on the role of soil health in climate change mitigation, and create a rancher-to-rancher network for future data monitoring and collaboration. Participants were welcomed to the beautiful ranch by Ashley Lukens, director of Hawai’i CFS. Soil Solutions program director, Diana Donlon brought attendees up to speed on the climate angle by outlining the direct connection between soil degradation and excess atmospheric carbon.
Johann Zietsman, a pioneer in holistic planned grazing from Zimbabwe who now consults with land managers around the world, made the long journey to meet with the ranchers. Although Zietsman doesn’t ranch on a tropical island, the group found his advice on animal health relevant to any ecosystem. David Johnson, a molecular biologist specializing in soil microbiology at New Mexico State University, spoke about the importance of maintaining thriving soil microbial communities. Johnson has developed a system he calls “biologically enhanced agriculture management” or “BEAM.” Johnson’s experiments using BEAM show a new direct correlation between improving fungal–bacterial ratios in soils and increasing the ability to capture, store and retain atmospheric C02 as new soil carbon.
Mark Thorne, a State Range Extension Specialist and Rebecca Ryals, a professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management at University of Hawai‘i at Manoa contributed a wealth of knowledge about management practices both in Hawai‘i and on the mainland. Hawai’i’s ranchers face different challenges from their mainland peers. Ranching on an island comes with a special set of constraints that impact such things as stocking and destocking, storing forage (hay gets moldy!) and transportation (no interstate highway system). Additionally, the state controls considerable amounts of land that is leased for livestock production, most in the form of month-to-month revocable permits. Several of the ranchers mentioned this issue as one that needs to be addressed to incentivize the adoption of better grazing management practices.
By the end of the productive weekend, the ranchers had agreed on the importance of baseline carbon monitoring and plan to work with Ryals to set that in motion. They also agreed that the ecological and social benefits of well-managed ranching are an under-recognized story that bears telling:
Well-managed ranching landscapes help filter and store fresh-water resources; mitigate erosion that threatens sensitive reef habitat; are a tool for keeping invasive plant species in check while providing habitat for song birds; and contribute to food security and sovereignty, all the while preserving Hawai’i’s rich traditions and identity.