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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.
Center for Food Safety’s food and climate team went to the UN’s 21st Conference of Parties – COP21 with shovel-ready solutions and one big goal: to spread awareness of the vast, currently under-recognized, potential that restoring soil carbon holds for combatting the climate crisis.
We arrived in Paris and hit the ground running; the nascent soil carbon movement’s biggest ally – the French Ministry of Agriculture – had invited us to be part of the official launch of their game-changing “4 per 1000” initiative in the UN’s official “Blue” zone. The goal of this initiative is to combat climate change and ensure food security by increasing the organic carbon content level of agricultural soils by 0.4% each year.
The event featured the first public screening of our new four minute film “Soil Solutions to Climate Problems,” narrated by Michael Pollan. Created to coincide with the historic climate conference, “Soil Solutions” has a clear, positive message: too much carbon in the atmosphere is a problem, but we now know how to put carbon back in the soil where it is a solution to multiple problems.
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Prior to the screening, CFS International Director Debbie Barker was invited to speak to a standing-room only crowd of ministers. She praised the French Ministry for proposing the important “4 per 1000” concept to the global community, but encouraged them to remain vigilant so that methods respecting agro-ecological integrity are at the center of the implementation framework. Signed by over 25 countries that day including France, New Zealand, Japan, Mexico and Germany, the initiative was also signed by Andre Leu, president of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). Mr. Leu and the thousands of organic farmers he represents around the world will no doubt help safeguard the initiative’s integrity.
COP21 happened to coincide with World Soil Day, December 5th. An essay in that day’s Washington Post, co-authored by Debbie Barker and Michael Pollan, highlighted the global opportunity to draw carbon out of the atmosphere using regenerative farming. The well-timed piece, highlighting innovative practices that are successfully restoring carbon stocks at Cedar Circle Farm in Vermont, created great excitement in the soil carbon movement. Agriculture has historically been ignored as both a source of problematic greenhouse gas emissions and as potential repository for those emissions, so Paris was a chance to finally capture the attention of the mainstream climate movement.
We brought leading soil scientist Dr. Kris Nichols, chief scientist at the Rodale Institute, with us to events around the city to show that rebuilding soil carbon has universal application and multiple benefits. At her presentations at both the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF), the biggest single “nature” focused event at COP21, and the lively Climate Generations pavilion, Nichols gathered volunteers from the audience to demonstrate the superior water-holding capacity of carbon-rich soils.
Our panel of international expert speakers also included Dr. Hans Herren of the Millennium Institute and Precious Phiri, founder of Earth Wisdom and coordinator of the Africa Center for Holistic Management. Herren underscored the need to transition to agro-ecological methods that use nature and science together, and Phiri showed rapt audiences land in Zimbabwe where water and wildlife had returned and where people were able to make a living off of the land because the soil had enough carbon to carry out its many functions. Phiri ended her presentations with a montage of photos she called “the new face of climate heroes” – small-scale, regenerative farmers.
After decades of systematic abuse and institutional neglect, it is thrilling that one of our most essential natural resources finally got its due in Paris: We succeeded in realizing our goal, together with our colleagues in the budding soil carbon movement. But audiences in Paris weren’t the only ones inspired to learn about this zero-risk solution; media soon picked up the soil solutions story and spread the hopeful news worldwide. Perhaps this tweet at the end of the conference from Bill McKibben, the de facto head the climate movement, best captures soil’s breakthrough to the mainstream: “Soil is a rising star at climate talks.”
PARIS, FRANCE — Center for Food Safety (CFS) is honoring World Soil Day — Saturday, December 5th — by championing the potential of soil carbon sequestration to significantly address climate change.
Capping off unprecedented interest in this essential, but typically ignored, resource, this special day is spurred by International Year of Soils, and also marks the midway point of the Nov. 29-Dec. 12 Paris hosted United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). CFS experts are in Paris at the UNFCCC, drawing attention to the power of soil carbon sequestration through regenerative agricultural practices.
“Soil is so much more powerful than most of us realize,” says Diana Donlon, food and climate director at CFS. “Through regenerative farming practices, we have the ability to pull carbon out of the atmosphere, where it is wreaking havoc, and store it in the soil, where it is greatly lacking and where it has multiple benefits for food, water and climate security.”
“We have a huge potential carbon sink right beneath our feet and we’re not taking advantage of it, yet,” adds Debbie Barker, CFS international programs director. “We’re in Paris right now to ensure that the potential of soil and regenerative agriculture as a solution to our climate crisis is fully recognized by the world’s policy makers.”
How Soil Sequesters Atmospheric Carbon
Emerging soil research and field tests indicate that restoring global soil health can significantly decrease CO2 levels while simultaneously pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it back into the ground where it belongs and where it can do us a world of good. Essentially, carbon-rich soil allows photosynthesis to do its job by drawing CO2 into the plant. The plant then sends as much as 40 percent of the carbon it captures in its leaves down to its roots, where it the plant trades the carbon with micro-organisms living in the soil in exchange for minerals. Carbon-based organic matter helps give soil its structure and nutrients, its ability to retain water, and its fertility. But years of overuse of chemicals, heavy tillage, and leaving soils bare robs the soil of the carbon that is necessary for the full benefits of photosynthesis to be realized.
What’s Gone wrong
Globally, soil has lost 50-70 percent of its original carbon content. When soil organic matter is disturbed, carbon molecules escape and combine with oxygen atoms to create CO2. By some estimates, at least 30 percent of global greenhouse gasses can be attributed to agricultural practices—this percentage includes direct and indirect impacts such as clearing carbon-rich peat forests to plant monocultures like palm oil plantations.
The Soil Opportunity
Rebuilding soil organic matter on a global scale is essential for food, water, and climate security. Institutions such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) project that, under current global warming scenarios, median crop yields will decline by approximately 2 percent per decade through 2100 when compared to a baseline without climate change. At the same time, the world’s population is projected to exceed 9 billion people by 2050. Quite simply, if we don’t start returning carbon to our soil, it will be impossible to ensure an adequate global food supply.
We have a global soil carbon deficit that can be addressed immediately by transferring atmospheric CO2 into stable soil carbon. We can accomplish this by adopting regenerative, organic agriculture practices including: polyculture, cover cropping, agroforestry, nutrient recycling, crop rotation, and organic soil amendments like compost.
It’s time for governments to set policies and incentives for restoring carbon and other nutrients to the soil using natural processes to better ensure a more secure food, water, and climate future.
Originally published on Food Tank on November 19, 2015.
In a few weeks, delegates from more than 190 countries will convene in Paris for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to hammer out a binding universal agreement. And while reports from the climate front are mostly grim, there is also some good news offering hope for the future:
We now know how to put carbon back in the soil where it belongs. Using regenerative agriculture techniques, we can harness the power of photosynthesis and turn atmospheric carbon – a problem, into soil carbon – a solution.
Rebuilding soil carbon is a practical tool for addressing global warming that belongs in our collective toolkit of climate solutions, but this fact hasn’t been well-known. Soil Solutions to Climate Problems, a timely four-minute-film produced by Center for Food Safety (CFS), outlines both the problem with this essential resource and the global opportunity to restore it to health. Narrated by author Michael Pollan, it is being released together with CFS’s new Soil Solutions program.
CFS is honored to be convening a panel of soil experts from around the world to discuss strategies for implementation at three official UNFCCC events in Paris. We’ll be highlighting five reasons why we need to start rebuilding soil carbon immediately:
- For Food Security and Sovereignty: 95 percent of our food is grown in soil. Carbon feeds soil, allowing it to produce greater yields of nutrient dense food. Healthy, rich soils facilitate food production that is appropriate to our individual climates and cultures. Farming systems that build soil health have also been shown to be more resilient to extreme weather events such as hurricanes, which will likely become more common as the planet warms.
- For Water Security: One of soil’s vital functions is to clean and store fresh water. Typically, as the percentage of carbon or organic matter in soil increases so does the soil’s water holding capacity. Thus, soils rich in organic matter act like giant water-holding sponges. When soils lack carbon they can’t hold water effectively, causing landscapes to oscillate between flood and drought.
- To Help Alleviate Poverty: When soils are degraded and lack sufficient levels of carbon, crops don’t thrive. This makes it difficult for small-scale farmers to make a viable living, which means they are often forced to migrate to urban areas where their skills are undervalued. Indeed, numerous high level reports call for the transition “towards more sustainable forms of agriculture that nourish the land and people and provide an opportunity for decent financially rewarding and gender equal jobs.”
- To Protect Biodiversity: Carbon rich soils are better able to support abundant plant growth than degraded soils. Plant biomass, in the form of grasses, bushes and trees, provides food as well as critical habitat for a wide array of the world’s fauna.
- For Climate Security: Too much gaseous carbon in the atmosphere is causing the planet to overheat. That excess carbon is dissolving into our oceans, killing marine life. Meanwhile, there’s actually not enough carbon in the ground where it has the potential to stay in a stable, solid form. Removing excess atmospheric carbon by increasing the rate of plant photosynthesis and leaving soil as undisturbed as possible will help take pressure off of our atmosphere and our oceans.
Agriculture, unlike other sectors of the global economy, has the power to both release greenhouse gases and to sequester them. It is time to act on what we know about both the extreme perils of unmitigated climate change and the multiple tangible benefits of rebuilding soil carbon. Moving agriculture to the regenerative side of the climate ledger is a win for humans and everything else that makes its home on this blue-green planet.