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.
Originally published on FoodTank.
In bone-dry California we are counting the days until October when the rainy season should begin.
When wells run dry in the Central Valley, fires rage in Big Sur and pine forests in the Sierra Nevada die off, you can’t help but wonder where all the water has gone. But what if we asked a slightly different question: where should the water be?
To answer this it helps to know that soil hydrologists classify fresh water as either blue or green. According to Henry Lin, Professor of Hydropedology / Soil Hydrology at Penn State University,
“Blue water refers to water collected in rivers, lakes, wetlands and groundwater. Blue water is available for withdrawal before it evaporates or meets the ocean. Green water refers to water absorbed by soil and plants and is then released back into the air. Green water is unavailable for withdrawal.”
Nevertheless, it may be surprising to learn that what ends up as blue water represents only approximately 38.8 percent of total precipitation, whereas what ends up as green water represents the remaining approximately 61.1 percent of precipitation.
Although green water clearly represents the lion’s share of precipitation, as Professor Lin states, “green water is an often overlooked resource.”
Why do we fail to see the green water—the water that is stored in soils and consumed by plants?
Film-maker Deborah Koons Garcia provides one hypothesis. Koons Garcia, who wrote and directed Symphony of the Soil, an homage to Earth’s living soil system, points out that most people are “soil blind.”
If we “saw soil,” she says we would recognize that when it is healthy, soil acts like a giant sponge that absorbs water during floods and provides it to plants in times of drought. We would also “see” the difference between soils that have structure and soils that don’t. In order for soil to store water effectively it must have organic matter, or carbon. This carbon gives soil the structure necessary to carry out its filtering and holding functions. When rain falls on soils that are carbon deficient, the water isn’t absorbed into the soil sponge.
Instead, the rain sloughs off the ground’s surface, dragging valuable topsoil along with it. This is what is referred to as ineffective rainfall and it is how green water starts to go missing from the soil sponge.
The good news is that soil blindness can be easily cured by learning something about soil’s remarkable potential, and rainfall can be made more effective. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has determined that a one percent increase in organic matter (carbon) in the top six inches of soil increases its holding capacity by approximately 27,000 gallons of water per acre.
Increasing soil carbon can be done in a number of ways including cover-cropping, composting and planting deep-rooted perennials. The average farm size in California is 312 acres. Increasing the soil carbon content by one percent on just one farm (27,000 gallons x 312 acres) has the potential to yield an additional 8,424,000 gallons of green water. Multiply that by California’s 81,500 farms and you begin to grasp the transformative potential that increasing soil carbon by a mere one percent would have on the state’s green water supply.
“Worldwide,” says Lin, “nearly 90 percent of water consumed by croplands is green water making green water key to global food security and land use.”
Once we start actually seeing soil, we can realize that much of the water that has gone missing is of the green variety. The next step is to increase the organic matter on our fields so that when the rains finally come we’ll have forged the conditions to recreate the soil sponge.
For more on this topic we recommend Water in Plain Sight, a new book by Judith D. Schwartz.
Film short highlights the critical importance of soil health in protecting the environment
SAN FRANCISCO—Soil Solutions to Climate Problems, a short film highlighting the potential power of improving soil health to grow healthy food, store fresh water, and return carbon to the soil is now available in French. The new version of the film, made by the public-interest non-profit, Center for Food Safety, is available online today and will be shown in presentations next week in Lyon, Grenoble and Strasbourg and as part of Festival Zero Waste (June 30-July 2 in Paris) coordinated by “Zero Waste France.”
“People all over the world need to understand that healthy soil is vital to climate stability. We are delighted that our film will be reaching Europe’s growing zero waste community. Organic matter from cities and towns everywhere is a critical resource and must be utilized to help improve the health of our soils,” says Diana Donlon, Soil Solutions producer and Center for Food Safety’s soil program director.
Robert Reed, a zero waste specialist based in San Francisco, will be making his third trip to France as a volunteer assisting Zero Waste France in their mission to help communities across the country explore the importance of increasing recycling and composting. “Soil Solutions to Climate Problems is one of the most intelligent educational pieces I have ever seen. I encourage everyone to watch this brief film because it shows something very important – that improving soil health represents our best opportunity to protect the environment and try to slow climate change.”
The English version of the film, narrated by author Michael Pollan, had its first screening during the launch of the French Ministry of Agriculture’s “4 per 1000” initiative for food and climate security during the United Nations Climate Conference in Paris last December. Center for Food Safety made the piece to communicate an under-recognized opportunity to address the climate crisis – rebuilding soil carbon stocks globally.
The film is now being shown in a wide variety of settings including elementary schools in Finland, green film festivals in Berlin and San Francisco, as well as by community groups in four Southern African countries. In addition to French and Finnish the film is also available with Chinese and Spanish subtitles.
To view the French version click here
To view the English version click here
Center for Food Safety’s mission is to empower people, support farmers, and protect the earth from the harmful impacts of industrial agriculture. Through groundbreaking legal, scientific, and grassroots action, we protect and promote your right to safe food and the environment. Please join our more than 750,000 consumer and farmer advocates across the country at www.centerforfoodsafety.org. Twitter: @CFSTrueFood, @CFS_Press
Watch the Video Below
U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping will mark Earth Day 2016 by signing the Paris Climate Agreement at an official ceremony at the United Nations headquarters in New York City.
Meanwhile, Center for Food Safety, a national nonprofit organization, celebrates the occasion by releasing a new version of its short film Soil Solutions to Climate Problems with Simplified Chinese subtitles. The four-minute film, which had its first screening at COP21 in December 2015, outlines the vast global opportunity to rebuild soil health as a win-win strategy to sequester excess atmospheric carbon. The video is narrated by well-known American food author Michael Pollan and highlights the French Ministry of Agriculture’s ambitious “4 per 1000” initiative for food and climate security.
By increasing the carbon content of their soils, the United States and China could improve their food, water and climate security, while making significant strides toward the greenhouse gas reduction targets set forth in the historic Paris agreement.
The climate crisis is unfolding far more rapidly than scientists predicted. February 2016 was the warmest in more than 135 years of global record keeping, and March will likely break more records. Meanwhile, April in San Francisco is feeling like August in Albuquerque. Dr. Jeff Masters, co-founder of the Weather Underground, reported that records weren’t just broken; they were smashed by a “jaw-dropping margin.”
It’s a problem of spectacular and unprecedented magnitude, and humans have to implement large-scale solutions to help de-escalate this crisis. Of course, thoughtful consideration must be given to what these solutions should look like. In The Gift of Good Land, noted poet, essayist, novelist, farmer and conservationist Wendell Berry provides wise counsel. In the chapter “Solving for Pattern,” he describes three very different kinds of solutions.
Berry’s first two types of solutions are actually “false paths,” examples of what not to do. These so-called solutions lead to a host of new problems — otherwise known as unintended consequences — “causing a hellish symbiosis in which problem and solution reciprocally enlarge one another.” He gives the example of air conditioners that are powered by burning coal. False solutions, according to Berry, “serve one good at the expense of another or of several others.” Berry’s third option is the one we need — the solution that “solves more than one problem and does not make new problems,” but rather “improves the balances, symmetries, or harmonies within a pattern.” In other words, a true solution.
Using Berry’s criteria, the rapidly growing soil carbon movement sees an enormously promising climate solution right under our feet. This movement, which coalesced at COP21 in Paris, is calling on farmers and land managers around the world to “draw down” CO2 from the atmosphere and store it in the ground as soil carbon (the organic matter in soil). This is critical because unlike in the atmosphere and the oceans, where there is a dangerous overabundance of CO2, most soils suffer from a serious lack of carbon. In fact, it is estimated that the earth’s cultivated soils have lost 50 to 70 percent of their original carbon stocks. Rebuilding the carbon would transfer CO2 from the sky, where it has become a menace, to the ground, where it would provide climate relief and more.
The additional benefits? Increasing carbon in soil increases the soil’s water-holding capacity. Carbon-rich soils act like giant fresh water sponges; according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, every 1 percent increase in soil’s organic matter results in as much as 25,000 gallons of available soil water per acre. Meanwhile, carbon-rich soils are better able to support plant growth than degraded soils, and plant biomass (in the form of grasses, bushes, and trees) provides critical habitat and food for the world’s fauna. Carbon feeds soil life, allowing for greater yields of nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables and grains. Healthy, rich soils facilitate locally appropriate food production worldwide.
Sounds good, but does increasing the carbon content of soil create new problems elsewhere? No. Building soil carbon does not create new problems, but instead improves the “balances, symmetries, and harmonies” within the pattern. Rebuilding soil carbon fits Berry’s strict specifications; it is “ecologically, agriculturally and culturally healthful,” and it improves the whole. Re-building the carbon content of the earth’s much-abused soils offers a true solution to our global climate crisis.
While by no means the only action we should be taking to address this crisis (we must also sharply curtail emissions), it is urgent that we start rebuilding depleted soil carbon stocks and attempt to bring the carbon cycle back into balance. There is cause for hope. Soil science, a long neglected field, is enjoying a renaissance. Farmers and ranchers around the world are dedicating themselves to understanding biological processes and learning how to rebuild soil carbon from the ground up.
Policy incentives can help. California’s Governor, Jerry Brown has proposed $20 million to kick off the “Healthy Soil Initiative” — a program to increase carbon levels in California’s agricultural soils to help it meet ambitious climate goals. Done right, this investment will also address the state’s 500-year drought, keep farmers in business and citizens fed. Solving for pattern, indeed.