The solution to climate change might be right under my feet
I’m talking about the soil. Healthy soil equals healthy food equals healthy people. The age of chemical food production is gone. Regenerative Organic agriculture is really the future. If you follow sustainability issues at all, you may have heard of regenerative agriculture.
It’s a farming practice that some experts claim can reverse climate change by sequestering atmospheric CO2 in the soil. We could sequester 100% of human-caused carbon emissions? That’s absolutely correct. Proponents say that it can increase biodiversity, make farms more resilient to floods, produce healthier foods, and even improve farm animal welfare.
It sounds almost too good to be true. So I want to know, can regenerative agriculture reverse climate change? To find out I’ve come to the heart of regenerative agriculture research The Rodale Institute, they’ve studied regenerative and organic farming methods for 70 years. I’m Lucy Biggers. And this is One Small Step.
The farm where we’re standing was purchased by entrepreneur J.I. Rodale in 1940. On the land he began experimenting with farming without the use of chemicals in a term he coined organic. In 1947, Rodale launched the Soil and Health Foundation, which today is known as the Rodale Institute.
The nonprofit has decades-long research on farming methods, including a nearly 40-year side-by-side analysis of conventional farming versus organic farming. Regenerative organic farming emphasizes the importance of soil health and includes practices like cover cropping, crop rotation, holistic raising by animals, the use of compost, and no chemical fertilizers herbicides, or pesticides.
In September 2020
The Rodale Institute released a paper that concluded that the global adoption of regenerative practices across both grasslands and arable acreage could sequester more than 100% of current anthropogenic emissions of CO2. Okay, that is definitely a mouthful.
But basically what Rodale’s research is saying is if we could transition our farmland and grasslands to regenerative practices we could actually sequester the carbon that humans release. Basically, they’re claiming that we could reverse climate change just by changing our farming practices. I spoke to Jeff Moyer, CEO of the Rodale Institute to find out more.
I think a lot of people think that soil is just dead, it’s dirt. Right? So what are you doing right now on this farm to protect that soil health and restore that soil health? The key to soil health is the microbial life that’s in the soil. We all get our energy from the sun, whether it’s electrical energy you’re using in your home, or it’s an oil that you’re using in your car.
Microbial life in the soil is the same way. Only it gets its energy from the plants that are growing on the soil. So if the soil is bare with no crop on it, there’s no energy being collected, the microbial life in the soil dies and the health degrades. And so what we need to do as farmers keep the ground covered with something green and growing 12 months out of the year.
So this field was tilled just the other day, but we immediately planted some fast-growing cover crops that I’m gonna dig a little bit up here and show you that it has a very complex root system already. there you can sort of see the rye seed that we planted right here. Right. Here’s the rye sprout coming up, but look at all of the root structure here already.
So it’s collecting energy and putting carbon in the soil
The plant roots are supporting the microbial life in the soil and the top of the plant is collecting solar energy, which is carbon, and putting it in the soil where the plant can use it. When plants use photosynthesis, they take CO2 out of the atmosphere and put some of it in the soil as carbon.
Plants are so good at this, that there’s three to four times more carbon in our soils than in our atmosphere and vegetation. Historically conventional farming with its heavy reliance on pesticides and synthetic fertilizers has degraded the soil and decreased the amount of carbon it holds. So much so that it’s estimated 75% of global soils are degraded.
And according to the United Nations, we only have 60 harvests left. So if this was just a conventional farm, they would just leave it field like this bare all winter? That’s right, yes, absolutely, it would just be bare. And why is that so bad? Well, again, you’re not collecting any solar energy and you’re not feeding the microbial life in the soil.
So even when this is gone next season some of this carbon that was in its roots will (indistinct) Oh, the carbon will, yeah. In a couple of weeks, this thing will be covered solid with solar collectors, collecting energy from the sun and sequestering that energy and that carbon in the soil.
To understand regenerative agriculture, we have to look at today’s conventional farming, which took hold in the 1960s and is now the dominant way to farm in the US. Conventional agriculture relies on the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, as well as genetically modified crops that produce high yields in vast acres of monoculture fields.
Over the past century
Conventional agriculture has doubled farm outputs but at a major cost. Conventional agriculture produces less nutrient-dense food, emits chemical runoff that pollutes waterways threatening human health and it contributes to climate change. Fossil fuel-based nitrogen fertilizers are a major source of nitrous oxide, which is a potent greenhouse gas.
When we first started farming organically and we bought this farm in 1971, everybody said you can’t grow corn, but clearly, you can see this field right next to us. Yeah Is a very lush green growing cornfield. Yeah. And this has been organic for the last 50 years. So this is the corn that’s being raised for livestock feed. Got it. This is not human consumption corn.
This isn’t sweet corn, but an ear of very nice ear corn. We have a whole field of it. So it doesn’t matter if this field is one acre or 10,000 acres. Right. We can do it organically. And what about pest control with organic? That’s where crop rotations come in. We’re growing corn in this field this year. We won’t grow corn on this field next year.
We’re gonna grow it over there. So all the insects and the pests will be here not over there so we rotate crops and. It’s that simple? It’s that simple. Rodale has conducted a 40-year farm systems trial to compare the yields of conventional farming versus organic farming. Here are their fields where they’ve been testing for 40 years.
This is conventional corn, which has fed fertilizers and pesticides, and then there’s this five-foot barrier. And then here is the organic corn. This site has no chemicals added. This site has a ton of chemicals. So in the first four years, the conventional system out-yielded the organic system. Okay. And this is a field that was pretty degraded.
It had been 70 to 100 years of conventional tillage and heavy chemical use
The plants kind of like relied on those chemicals and then we took them away. From year four to today there’s been no statistical difference between the yields in the organic and the conventional system. And what we found a lot of that has to do with putting more carbon in the soil.
Drew Smith is the chief scientist at Rodale. Why can’t conventional agriculture also sequester carbon? What are you doing differently that changes that outcome? What we found over a long period of time here at Rodale Institute and the farming systems trial is that when you use synthetic fertilizers you actually lose carbon over time.
And when you use organic or natural-based fertilizers, like composts, manures, and other natural fertilizers, you actually gain carbon in the soil over time. [Lucy] Rodale shows that you don’t have to use chemicals to get great results. On the farm, they grow vegetables like squash, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes. This tomato plant is 15 feet tall.
Wow, so there’s one that starts right here, and then it goes over here. And up to here, wow. And up to here. That is amazing. And you can see that it’s still. It still wants to keep going. And they humanely raise pigs, chickens, and turkeys that have space to live and access to fields. This is like a chicken lawnmower. Oh yeah, we call it the chicken tractor.
I know right now there’s this huge conversation, you know, go vegan for the climate. But I see you’re raising chickens here, you obviously care about the climate. So what is the relationship with animals? The problem is in how we’ve chosen to produce animals by force-feeding them grains so that they can produce meat at a faster rate, but then the quality of the meat goes down.
Beef animals produce methane if you feed them corn and soybeans
They don’t produce nearly as much if they’re eating grass. Probably in this country, we all eat too much meat. [Lucy] Right. [Jeff] And we should cut down the amount of meat that we eat, but we don’t have to eliminate meat.
Instead of chemical fertilizer, Rodale uses compost, which Jeff told me to help sequester carbon. In degrees, hotter than bathwater, you know. You can see it looks like rich black soil. Keep in mind carbon is black, coal is black. We only put it on our fields once every five to 10 years. Really? Yeah.
That’s how strong it is? The idea of applying this material is not to use it as fertilizer but to use it as a soil amendment to feed the microbial life in the soil. To connect the dot to me, then that’s sequestering carbon because more microbes mean more carbon in the soil? That’s correct. The microbes are carbon-based just like we are.
All life is carbon-based. So the more carbon and they all-Oh, the more life. Exactly, there’s more life in the soil. More diversity and more life. You really connected a dot for me because I’m like, it’s been so abstract, like carbon in the soil. I’m like, okay, but it really it’s because of the microbes. The population of the microbes, yes.
And it seems like what we’ve got going on right now with conventional agriculture
With the chemicals, is we’re just masking a very dead soil. That’s correct. So back to this argument of sequestering 100% of our co two emissions. How is that even possible? Well, Rodale looked at several farmlands and grazing studies that showed a significant increase in soil carbon after the adoption of regenerative agriculture.
Based on those results, they extrapolated that if global degraded farmland and grassland were restored through regenerative agriculture, global soils could drawdown over 49 gigatons of CO2, which is more than the approximate 37 gigatons of CO2 released globally each year.
However, critics of the white paper claim that 100% carbon sequestration in our soils is overstated. And that 10 to 15% sequestration is more likely and still optimistic. Regardless, I still think there are serious benefits to regenerative agriculture, including preventing chemical runoff, creating more nutritious foods, improving animal welfare, and improving resilience against climate change.
Soil with higher levels of carbon has a higher water holding capacity, which helps farms survive times of flooding and drought. So here’s what you can do to support regenerative agriculture. First, vote with your dollar and look for this newly released regenerative organic certification, which is beginning to show up on products in stores.
But research has shown that
If you can’t find them in your local store, you can shop at regeneorganic.org. Also in February of 2020 U.S. legislatures introduced the Agriculture Resilience Act to Congress, which includes incentives for farmers to improve soil health and an increase in soil carbon research. Reach out to your house representative to express your support.
Finally, the more people that know about regenerative agriculture, the better. So share this video with your friends. That’s all for this episode. Thank you so much for watching and we’ll see you next time. Bye. Thank you so much. This has been an awesome, awesome tour. It’s been my pleasure. Really feel I got a few light bulb moments there.
Good. Carbon is life in the soil. That’s right. So cool. The news can be a lot. There’s a lot of good out there. And a lot of fearless kids and families putting kindness into action in their own communities. But the first step towards helping is understanding. And that’s where we come in.
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