Organic Consumers Association

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Mother Earth Day 2015: Regenerating the Soil and Reversing Global Warming

“The elimination of fossil fuels for all but the most limited and essential purposes is necessary but not sufficient to allow our descendants a fair chance for a healthy and prosperous future. Enhancing carbon biosequestration in terrestrial ecosystems is also essential.”  Wayne A. White, Biosequestration and Ecological Diversity p.118 (CRC Press 2013)

The standard gloom and doom discourse surrounding global warming and climate change has infected the body politic with a severe case of depression and disempowerment. So starting today April 22, embracing what the United Nations has designated as the “Year of the Soil,” let’s look at our planetary crisis from an entirely different, and more hopeful perspective.

The good news is that the global grassroots, farmers and consumers united, can reverse our suicidal “business as usual” food, farming, energy, and land use practices. Harnessing the awesome power of Regenerative Organic Agriculture and reforestation, we can literally suck down enough excess (50-100 ppm of CO2) heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and naturally sequester it in our plants, trees and soils.  Regenerative Agriculture and Earth Repair practices can not only mitigate, but also, in combination with drastic reductions (80-90 percent) of fossil fuel emissions in our food and farming, transportation, housing, utilities, and industrial sectors, actually reverse global warming.

Regenerative Agriculture and Forestry

If you’ve never heard about the amazing potential of regenerative agriculture and land use practices to naturally sequester a critical mass of CO2 in the soil and forests, you’re not alone. One of the best-kept secrets in the world today is that the solution to global warming and the climate crisis (as well as poverty and deteriorating public health) lies right under our feet, and at the end of our knives and forks. Changing our food and farming systems, along with changing our “business as usual” political system and energy policies, is the key to our survival and well-being.

Transforming and regenerating our planet’s 28 billion acres of cropland, grassland and forests, as well as urban areas of the planet, is the challenge—not only for Mother Earth Day 2015, but for the rest of our lives, and the lives of our children and grandchildren.

Global Organic Regeneration and Earth Repair is the key to drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions from our current unsustainable food, farming and deforestation practices (which now produce the majority of greenhouse gas emissions).

Regenerative Earth Repair is the absolute prerequisite for ramping up plant and forest photosynthesis and sequestering in the soil several hundred billion tons of excess atmospheric CO2 over the next two decades.

A global campaign of Earth Repair and Regeneration can buy us the precious time we need to move away from fossil fuels to a global economy based upon renewable energy. Global Regeneration will dramatically improve soil fertility, crop yields, soil water retention, crop resilience, and food quality, thereby helping to mitigate and reverse global poverty, malnutrition and deteriorating public health.

Before we look how we can sequester up to 200 percent of current human greenhouse gas emissions through regenerating the planet’s croplands (four billion acres), pastures and rangelands (14 billion acres), and forests (10 billion acres), let’s look at what Michael Pollan, the U.S.’s most influential writer on food and farming, has to say about plant photosynthesis, regenerative grazing, and carbon sequestration:

Consider what happens when the sun shines on a grass plant rooted in the earth. Using that light as a catalyst, the plant takes atmospheric CO2, splits off and releases the oxygen, and synthesizes liquid carbon–sugars, basically. Some of these sugars go to feed and build the aerial portions of the plant we can see, but a large percentage of this liquid carbon—somewhere between 20 and 40 percent—travels underground, leaking out of the roots and into the soil. The roots are feeding these sugars to the soil microbes—the bacteria and fungi that inhabit the rhizosphere—in exchange for which those microbes provide various services to the plant: defense, trace minerals, access to nutrients the roots can’t reach on their own. That liquid carbon has now entered the microbial ecosystem, becoming the bodies of bacteria and fungi that will in turn be eaten by other microbes in the soil food web. Now, what had been atmospheric carbon (a problem) has become soil carbon, a solution—and not just to a single problem, but to a great many problems.

Besides taking large amounts of carbon out of the air—tons of it per acre when grasslands are properly managed… that process at the same time adds to the land’s fertility and its capacity to hold water. Which means more and better food for us...

This process of returning atmospheric carbon to the soil works even better when ruminants are added to the mix. Every time a calf or lamb shears a blade of grass, that plant, seeking to rebalance its “root-shoot ratio,” sheds some of its roots. These are then eaten by the worms, nematodes, and microbes—digested by the soil,in effect, and so added to its bank of carbon. This is how soil is created: from the bottom up.

What is Regenerative Agriculture?

A recent article in the Guardian summarizes Regenerative Agriculture:

Regenerative agriculture comprises an array of techniques that rebuild soil and, in the process, sequester carbon. Typically, it uses cover crops and perennials so that bare soil is never exposed, and grazes animals in ways that mimic animals in nature. It also offers ecological benefits far beyond carbon storage: it stops soil erosion, remineralises soil, protects the purity of groundwater and reduces damaging pesticide and fertiliser runoff.

With these basic concepts of photosynthesis and Regenerative Agriculture in mind, what do we need to do?

(1) Regenerate croplands, eliminate GMOs, pesticides, monocultures, chemical fertilizers, and tillage. If we can mobilize the global grassroots to promote and adopt regenerative organic agricultural practices (“organic and beyond”) on the Earth’s four billion acres of cultivated farmland, we can drastically reduce our use of fossil fuel inputs and slash greenhouse gas emissions; produce healthier, climate-resistant crops and nutrient-dense food; and meanwhile sequester large amounts of carbon in our degraded, de-carbonized soils. Our agricultural soils have lost 25-75 percent of the soil carbon they once had before the onslaught of unsustainable agricultural practices.

As the must-read 2014 Rodale Institute White Paper explains:

In practical terms, regenerative organic agriculture is foremost an organic system refraining from the use of synthetic pesticides and inputs, which disrupt soil life, and fossil-fuel dependent nitrogen fertilizer, which is responsible for the majority of anthropogenic N2O emissions. It is a system designed to build soil health.

Regenerative organic agriculture is comprised of organic practices including (at a minimum): cover crops, residue mulching, composting and crop rotation. Conservation tillage, while not yet widely used in organic systems, is a regenerative organic practice integral to soil-carbon sequestration.

As the Rodale research indicates, and is echoed by numerous other field trials across the globe, Regenerative Organic practices on cultivated farmlands across the world can, over the next few decades sequester 40 percent of current human greenhouse gas emissions.

(2) Regenerate grasslands and pasture lands, eliminate factory farms. Even more encouraging, as Rodale and others, including Quivira Coalition and the Savory Institute, point out, by adopting regenerative grazing practices on the earth’s seriously degraded 14 billion acres of pastureland and grassland (there is 3.5 times as much pasture land and rangeland on the Earth as there is cultivated farmland), we can eventually sequester an additional 71 percent of all current greenhouse gas emissions.

In other words by eliminating inhumane, unhealthy and heavily polluting factory farms or CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), which now produce 2/3 of all global meat and animal products, and by putting billions of the Earth’s 70 billion farm animals back on the land, we can regenerate, through planned rotational “mob” grazing, and the production of grass fed beef and dairy, and pasture-based pork and poultry, the 14 billion acres of rangeland and pastureland that are our most strategic “sink” or depository for excess CO2 in the atmosphere.

Last year Dr. Richard Teague of Texas A&M explained the principles of planned rotational (“mob”) grazing to a House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources (June 25, 2014):

The key to sustaining and regenerating ecosystem function in rangelands is actively managing for reduction of bare ground, promoting the most beneficial and productive plants by grazing moderately over the whole landscape, and providing adequate recovery to grazed plants…

Regenerative grazing and pasturing on a global scale will require the dismantling of the entire factory farm system, freeing billions of farm animals from their animal prisons or CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and putting them back out onto the land to graze and forage where they belong. Once CAFO and GMO crop subsidies are reduced and removed, and once the pent-up market demand for healthier, more humanely produced meat, dairy and eggs can be harnessed, the factory farm/GMO industrial food and farming system will begin to collapse.

With billions of animals released from intensive confinement (including freeing herbivores from unnatural, unhealthy GMO grain diets), marketplace pressure will encourage farmers and ranchers to adopt herd management strategies that replicate natural or wild herd habits. This involves herbivores rotationally grazing only the top grasses of small pastures, for short periods of time, defecating and urinating and forcing the stubble into the topsoil. After the grasses recover, then the herd or flocks are returned for a few days to harvest the most nutritious grasses again. With omnivores (pigs and chickens), free range or pasturing practices will similarly restore animal and soil health as well.

The current factory farm system takes the naturally grazing cattle off pasture to enormous feedlots to fatten them up with corn, soybeans, cotton seed cake, cotton gin trash, sludge-fertilized hay, and waste industrial products. Cows, sheep, and other herbivores are not grain, GMO, or garbage eaters by choice. Their preferred foods are mixed grasses.

Regenerative grazing is not something new, but rather a rediscovery of the beneficial animal welfare and environmental practices that were “normal” (buffalo and elk on the grasslands of the US, wildebeest herds in Africa, communal grazing practices worldwide) before the advent of industrial farming and CAFOs.

One very important benefit of grass-fed beef, sheep, goats and dairy, and pastured poultry and pigs—a benefit which is already starting to drive consumers away from factory farmed foods—is that grass-fed or pastured animal products are qualitatively healthier than CAFO products, higher in Omega 3 and “good” fats, and lower in animal drug residues and harmful fats that clog arteries, destroy gut health and cause cancer.

(3) Regenerate forests and wetlands, end deforestation. By halting unsustainable land use and deforestation of the planet’s remaining 10 billion acres of forest (deforestation is now responsible for a full 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions), by re-planting species-appropriate trees on five billion deforested rural and urban acres, by incorporating sustainable forest management practices on existing forests, and by integrating agro-forestry practices on existing farms and ranches (and restoring wetlands), we can drastically reduce carbon emissions while sequestering billions of tons of excess carbon in our forest lands and in reforested rural and urban environments.

As permaculture author Michal Pilarski explains in his “Carbon Sequestration Proposal for the World,” we can reverse global warming by:

I.    Reforestation/Afforestation of 5 billion acres worldwide = 150 billion tons of carbon sequestration.

II.    Earth repair and improved ecosystem management of existing forests and all other terrestrial ecosystems = 100 billion tons of carbon sequestration.

Earth repair and reforestation of our cities, forests, marshes, savannas, grasslands, steppes, and deserts could eventually add up to a total of 250 billion tons of carbon sequestered. This translates into removing over 100 ppm of excess CO2 from the atmosphere and putting it into the soil and forests. This level of carbon sequestration would bring atmospheric carbon dioxide levels down to where they were in the early 1800s, if carried out in combination with slashing human-caused carbon emissions.

According to biosequestration expert, Wayne White, if we could just stop all tropical deforestation, and maintain the health of our forests, the increased photosynthesis of this massive forest growth would sequester a full 69 percent of all human greenhouse gas emissions. (Biosequestration and Ecological Diversity p. 93)

Too many forests have been degraded, or clear-cut, or over-grazed and even over-fertilized with nitrogen. Too much land has been developed, exploited, and then abandoned. The solutions to our forest crisis are similar to organic farming solutions. We need to practice sustainable forestry management strategies that restore the mycorrhizal and other forest fungi, and replant clear-cut areas with high-density, species-appropriate plantings. We need to manage this reforestation, including thinning and pest control. We need to avoid the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers because they damage fungi and other microorganisms, which are the foundations of a successful reforestation program. With reforestation and restoration of the forest floor microorganisms, our forests will be able to sequester billions of tons of carbon.

Critics of the Earth Repair strategy

A number of critics of our Earth Repair strategy have told me and other regeneration activists that we should not talk about natural sequestration of CO2 in the soil, nor the enormous Regenerative potential of organic food, farming,and forestry, because this “positive talk” will distract people from the main task at hand, drastically reducing fossil fuel emissions and taking down King Coal and Big Oil.

Of course we need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels, extractivism and overconsumption into conservation, sustainable living and renewable energy. We must all become climate hawks and radical conservationists. But we must also become advocates of Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Forest/Land Use.

Unite the Food, Forest, and Climate Movements

The large and growing anti-GMO, organic food, and natural health movement in the U.S., for example, of which I am a part, must begin to think of ourselves as climate and food activists, not just advocates for natural health, small farmers/ranchers, animals and food justice. Given that the GMO, factory farm and industrial food and farming system seen as a whole (production, chemical crop inputs, processing, transportation, waste, emissions, deforestation, biofuel/ethanol production) is the number one cause of greenhouse gas emissions, surpassing even the transportation, utilities, housing and industry sectors, climate activists need to start thinking of ourselves as food activists as well.

There will be no organic food, nor food whatsoever, on a burnt planet. Nor will there ever be a 90-percent reduction in greenhouse gas pollution without a transformation of our food and farming and land use practices, both in North America and globally.

We must begin to connect the dots between fossil fuels, global warming and related issues, including world hunger, poverty, unemployment, toxic food and farming, extractivism, land grabbing, biodiversity, ocean destruction, deforestation, resource wars, and deteriorating public health. As we regenerate the soil and forests, and make organic and grass-fed food and fiber the norm, rather than just the alternative, we will simultaneously develop our collective capacity to address all of the globe’s interrelated problems.

Breaking through the silos of single-issue campaigning and limited constituency organizing (“my issue is more important than your issue”), we will be able to expand our global grassroots Movement to include everyone who cares about climate, health, justice, jobs, sustainability, peace and democracy.

Some pessimists argue that the Global South (China, India, Africa, Asia, Latin America), where most of the world’s population lives, is too preoccupied with moving beyond poverty and creating jobs, to put a priority on reversing global warming, reducing emissions, and natural sequestration.

But the extraordinary thing about de-industrializing food and farming, restoring grasslands and reversing deforestation—moving several hundred billion tons of carbon back from the atmosphere into our soils, plants and forests—is that this Organic Regeneration will not only reverse global warming and re-stabilize the climate, but will also stimulate hundreds of millions of rural (and urban) jobs, while qualitatively increasing soil fertility, water retention, farm yields and food quality.

Earth Repair holds the potential not only to restore forests and grasslands, recharge aquifers, restore and normalize rainfall, but also to address and eliminate rural malnutrition, poverty, unemployment and hunger. Regenerative agriculture and land use—which will require both enormous political struggle and unprecedented marketplace pressure—will lead to healthy soils, healthy forests, healthy climate, healthy food, healthy animals, healthy people, healthy societies.

As and other climate campaigners point out, we’ve got to force the fossil fuel corporados and Wall Street banksters to leave 2/3 or more of the remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground. We can basically burn 825 billion tons more of fossil fuels out of the 2.785 trillion remaining, but no more, according to scientific consensus, before we reach the point of no return, whereby climate change morphs into climate catastrophe.

To stay within our carbon budget, we’ve got to stop the fracking, the tar sands, the pipelines, the bomb trains, King Coal, and nuclear madness.

But we’ve got to do more than just protest, resist and divest. We must shut down King Coal and Big Oil’s greenhouse gas pollution, yes; but we must also suck down and naturally sequester over the next 20 years, several hundred billion tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases through the qualitatively enhanced photosynthesis of regenerative farming, ranching and land use.  

We must make peace with the living Earth and restore our biotic community.

According to scientific consensus, soon to be formally ratified by the nations of the world at the Paris Climate Summit in December 2015, fossil fuel emissions—now spewing out 8.5 billion tons of carbon annually (i.e. 32.3 billion tons of CO2 in 2013 and again in 2014) into the atmosphere and the oceans—must peak and go to zero by 2050. Unfortunately, even if every country moves to zero emissions by 2050, we will still find ourselves way past the danger zone at 480 ppm or higher of CO2.  Only a mass global campaign of Regenerative Agriculture and land use, combined with dismantling the Fossil Fuel Empire, will suffice.

So who will actually carry out this global campaign of Earth Repair and Organic Regeneration? Of course we must continue, and, in fact vastly increase, our pressure on governments and corporations to change public policies and marketplace practices. But in order to overturn “business as usual” we’re going to have to inspire and mobilize a vastly larger climate change coalition than the one we have now. Food climate and economic justice advocates must unite our forces so we can educate and mobilize a massive grassroots army of Earth Regenerators: three billion small farmers and rural villagers, ranchers, pastoralists, forest dwellers, urban agriculturalists, and indigenous communities—aided and abetted by several billion conscious consumers and urban activists.

We don’t have the time or space here for a full Earth Repair strategy, but here are five things we can start to do immediately on this Mother Earth Day 2015:

(1)    Educate yourself, your friends, and your family on the basic principles of Earth Repair      and Regenerative Organic Agriculture. Here’s an annotated bibliography to help you get started.

(2)    Join an activist organization dealing with food and farming, forest preservation or climate. If you’re already an activist, get your group to connect the dots between fossil fuel emissions reduction and natural carbon sequestration.

(3)    Boycott all GMO, chemical-intensive and CAFO foods. Purchase organic and 100-percent grass-fed or pastured products. Push the organic community top go beyond the minimum standards of “USDA Organic” to food and farming practices that are climate-friendly, re-localized and regenerative, as well as organic.

(4)    Support the organizations that are educating and agitating for regenerative agriculture and land use. These groups include:

Organic Consumers Organization, The Carbon Underground, IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements), NavdanyaInstitute  for Agriculture and Trade Policy, The Rodale Institute, Quivira Coalition, The Savory Institute, and others.

(5)    Change the climate conversation from gloom and doom to one of positive solutions. We’ve got 20 years left to turn things around, but we need to start our Regeneration International campaign now, Mother Earth Day 2015.

Ronnie Cummins is international director of the Organic Consumers Association and its Mexico sister organization, Via Organica.



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