“Soil Power!” in the New York Times

“Soil Power!” in the New York Times

I was delighted to see that the New York Times published an op-ed about the importance of regenerative agriculture, titled “Soil Power: The Dirty Way to a Green Planet” by Jacques Leslie. Overall, it provides a well reasoned, informative, and accessible piece directed at the general public.

There has been a substantial amount of concern about man-made climate change for some time. As an everything skeptic, I have always thought parts of the story did not make sense and it seemed like a giant plot for even more government control of the economy. Further, in my reckoning,  if it is true governments are the last people who should be trusted with something so important.

Much ado has been made over carbon in the air. However, carbon also increases plant growth and thus the plants have more green matter to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen so in and of itself this would promote better plant growth. When “sequestering” carbon is discussed, it is generally for the sheer purpose of removing carbon from the air, as if soil carbon depletion is not a problem. In reality, soil carbon content is massively important fora variety of reasons.

This is why I was so happy to see a positive article about regenerative agriculture and its importance for a healthy planet featured in the Times. Leslie gives a concise description of the importance of soil carbon and the causes of its loss, writing,

“…Carbon sequestration in soil and vegetation is an effective way to pull carbon from the atmosphere that in some ways is the opposite of geoengineering. Instead of overcoming nature, it reinforces it, promoting the propagation of plant life to return carbon to the soil that was there in the first place — until destructive agricultural practices prompted its release into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. That process started with the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago and accelerated over the last century as industrial farming and ranching rapidly expanded.”

[Speaking of sequestration, hugelkultur is a fun way to bury some carbon.]

For years I have said the true environmental catastrophe of our day is soil degradation and that the problem with carbon is not that it is in the air, it is that it is not in the soil. Climate has always changed over time, and the best way to survive a changing climate is healthy soil and sustainable farming practices. As I have learned more about the subject, I have found that not only it is important for the purpose of food stability, but that small changes in soil carbon can have massive effects on water storage and thus global weather systems. For example, Alan Newport at the website Beefproducer states that many meteorologists consider that as much as half of inland rainfall is caused by the evapotranspiration of plants (dew). He writes,

“Since science tells us a 1% increase in soil organic matter holds at least 20,000 gallons of water in each acre of soil, that suggests my home state of Oklahoma, containing 44.7 million acres, could hold at least 894,694,400,000 gallons more water in the soil after each rainfall event of one inch or more. We can multiply that by the number of one-seventh from the SMAP satellite data. That means seven days after that one-inch rainfall event, Oklahoma’s soil would still have an extra 127.8 billion gallons of water the plants could continue to use for evapotranspiration, thereby further moistening the air and increasing the potential for more rainfall.” – Alan Newport, “More Soil Organic Matter Makes More Rain”

The reduced water storage that comes from soil carbon depletion greatly increases flows into oceans, adds to chemical runoff, allows for increased flooding, and changes ocean water temperatures All of these things encourage extreme weather and other forms of environmental degradation.

The focus of regenerative agriculture is to improve the soil every season through natural methods such as cover crops, manure applications, and responsible grazing. While cows have been fingered as culprits in climate change due to methane gas, this problem is solely the result of bad farming practices. In “conventional” large scale agriculture cows are fed on mass produced corn and soybeans. This means meat production is relying on damaging “conventional” farming practices. Further, the cows are pumped so full of chemicals that their manure is considered toxic waste and thus cannot be properly reincorporated into soil. However, when cows are grazed responsibly they cycle nutrients, improve soil quality, and reduce the need for tillage and chemical fertilizers. All of these things have a great impact on increasing the organic matter content of soil.

The idea that meat is inherently bad for the environment is widespread, despite the fact that truly sustainable or regenerative agriculture is difficult if not impossible without incorporating livestock. For this reason, it is all the more important that “environmentalists” naive on this topic understand more about nutrient cycles and carbon storage in agriculture. Leslie writes,

The techniques that regenerative farmers use vary with soil, climate and crop. They start from the understanding that healthy soil teems with more than a billion microorganisms per teaspoon and the behavior of those organisms facilitates hardy plant life. To fertilize their fields, regenerative farmers use nutrient-rich manure or compost, avoiding as much as possible chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which can kill huge quantities of organic matter and reduce plants’ resilience. They don’t like to till the soil, since tillage increases carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Some farmers combine livestock, cover crops and row crops sequentially on the same field, or plant perennials, shrubs and even trees along with row crops. Leaving soil bare during off-seasons is taboo, since barren soil easily erodes, depleting more carbon from the soil; regenerative farmers instead plant cover crops to capture more carbon and nitrogen from the atmosphere.

This is a straightforward explanation of the important aspects of regenerative farming. As people in the sustainable farming community say, “real farmers grow soil.” Degradation of farmland has practically been taken as an inevitably in modern agriculture. However, with proper farming practices soil should improve every year. Further, healthy soil greatly reduces the environmental and economic impact of inputs, by lowering the use of irrigation and  chemicals.

While there has been an increased interest in regenerative farming, “conventional” agriculture still rules the day. While I don’t think it is desirable or advisable for the government to implement programs to increase soil carbon matter, there is plenty the government can do to stop encouraging terrible agricultural practices. The fact is, without the Farm Bill etc the current agriculture methods are unsustainable. Chemical requirements have go up, yields go down, the insects are ever worse, and the soil continues to wash away. Unfortunately, since Earl Butz was the Secretary of Agriculture under Nixon the attitude of the government has been “go big or go home”, and many family farmers have gone home. (Or killed themselves, at twice the rate of veterans.) This has created a situation where subsidies and other requirements basically force monoculture farming with huge equipment. Further, for some insane reason the use of cover crops often disqualifies farmers from receiving crop insurance, forcing farmers to take a huge risk if they want to reduce erosion and care for their soil.

As it stands, conventional agriculture is killing the planet, the farmers who practice it, and the general public who consume the products. Instead, regenerative agriculture could be healing all of those things.

It’s just a matter of the government getting out of the business of manipulating agriculture production, which the agricultural-industrial complex will surely prevent from happening until it is too late.

Read the whole article here.

For reading suggestions on regenerative agriculture check out my book reviews.

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