Put down that veggie burger. These farmers say their cows can solve the climate crisis

Reitz, South Africa (CNN)Danie Slabbert points toward the cattle that brought his farm back to life. Down the slope ahead of him, 500 black Drakensberger and mottled Nguni cows graze cheek by jowl.

The Free State farmer gestures with his giant shepherd’s crook.
“If cattle are part of nature, like they are now, then my cows are keeping the system alive,” he says. “How could you think that meat is the problem?”
Calls for plant-based diets to save the planet from the climate crisis are growing louder. But there is another, quieter, revolution reshaping the agricultural world. Farmers like Slabbert and their supporters say that what people eat is not as important as how they farm. They believe cattle and cropland could help save the planet.
“I have become a steward of this land and the cows are the key,” Slabbert says.

Mimicking the migration

Before settlers arrived with their guns and wagons, this part of what is now South Africa’s Free State province was an immense grassland. More than 30 species of grass anchored the rolling plains; fodder for millions of migrating antelope.

Danie Slabbert walks along a low voltage wire that keeps 500 cattle grazing in a dense herd to replicate bison or antelope herds. The high-intensity grazing helps with natural fertilizing and grass health.

Danie Slabbert walks along a low voltage wire that keeps 500 cattle grazing in a dense herd to replicate bison or antelope herds. The high-intensity grazing helps with natural fertilizing and grass health.
Over time, the wild herds were shot out and much of the plains became corn and potato fields.
There is still plenty of grassland here, or veld, as South Africans call it. Farmers such as Slabbert are looking back to those immense herds to recreate the natural cycle.
“What we are doing is trying to mimic nature,” he says, explaining that 200 years ago, huge herds of animals would have moved over this veld, avoiding predators in their tightly packed groups.”
Slabbert says he has rejuvenated the land by drastically increasing his cattle herd. He hems the animals into a rectangular patch of grassland with a low-current wire. For several hours, they eat all of the grasses they can find before the wire lifts, and the cattle rapidly move into a new section.
They are always moving, never selectively eating, just like a migratory herd. The method is called ultra-high density grazing. “These cattle are replenishing the land,” Slabbert says.

Five hundred cows and a few oxen graze in tight formation in a penned off part of Danie Slabbert's veld. The cows must eat all the grass, allowing better grasses to survive. Counterintuitively, though well proven with multiple studies, the more cattle he has in this system (to a point), the better the soil and grassland health.

Five hundred cows and a few oxen graze in tight formation in a penned off part of Danie Slabbert’s veld. The cows must eat all the grass, allowing better grasses to survive. Counterintuitively, though well proven with multiple studies, the more cattle he has in this system (to a point), the better the soil and grassland health.
As they eat, the cows do what livestock do. Slabbert kneels down, pulls apart a pile of cow dung, and tenderly picks out a beetle. It lies dormant for a second, then uncurls its legs and strolls across his hand.
“These guys are one of the heroes of the story,” he says, as he gingerly places the dung beetle into its hole. The small insects break up the dung, the big ones haul the natural fertilizer deeper into the soil.
Conventional thinking says that cows are bad for climate change. After all, livestock contribute to around 14% of all global emissions. Researchers at UC Davis estimate that a single cow can belch around 220 pounds — roughly 100 kilograms — of methane each year. There are more than a billion cows on the planet, so that is a lot of (greenhouse) gas.
But cows didn’t evolve to sit in feedlots getting fat. Their wild relatives were out in the grassland in large numbers, just like on Slabbert’s farm.
Researchers at Texas A&M University led by Professor Richard Teague found that even moderately effective grazing systems put more carbon in the soil than the gasses cattle emit. Around 30% to 40% of the earth’s surface is natural grassland, and Teague says the potential for food security is immense.
“We studied farms and ranchers that had the highest soil carbon, and, with no exception, they managed their land following the principles where they were trying to do exactly what the bison did. They were trying to improve their land and their profits,” Teague said.

It’s all about the soil

The key to climate sustainable agriculture is the soil, because soil has an extraordinary ability to store carbon. There is more than three times as much carbon in the world’s soils than in the atmosphere, and scientists say that with better management, agricultural soils could absorb much more carbon in the future.
Even a change of a few percentage points would make a huge difference to the battle against the climate crisis. There is an upper limit to how much carbon soils can carry, but it can take decades to get to that point.
Plants absorb carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, and then put it in the soil through their roots. More carbon is stored in the ground through organic matter and microorganisms. Taking CO2 out of the atmosphere is important, because humans put so much of the greenhouse gas in, for example through burning fossil fuels.
But to be able to store carbon, soil needs to be alive and left relatively undisturbed.
For decades, farmers across the world have ploughed their fields, pumped them with fertilizers and sprayed herbicides. Soil doesn’t need to be alive with modern agriculture; it became a medium for inputs. But it also lost its carbon along the way.
Many farmers and scientists say that the chemical revolution came at a cost and they want to bring the soil back to life. They believe that living soil harnesses sustainable yields and will help the planet.
And to do that, they must combine cattle with crops.
In North America and in South Africa commercial agriculture, crop farming and cattle ranching are generally done by different farmers on different land.
The key to regenerative farming is combining the two. Slabbert never ploughs his corn fields or leaves them fallow, so he is able to keep the carbon in the soil. The corn is tightly packed — he doesn’t need to get in there to spray.

In this farming system, the corn is tightly packed. The fields can look less uniform, but the yields are often strong.

In winter, his cattle herds will come here too and eat the residual corn, depositing natural fertilizer as they go. Slabbert has reduced his fertilizer and chemical input costs drastically, but his yields stay strong.
This begs the question, why isn’t everyone doing it?

Stacked against their favor

For one, shifting away from chemicals takes time. It can also lead to reduced yields in the short term.
The pressure to produce more crops has transformed the agricultural land. Large swathes of land are now used to grow just one crop at a time.
In production terms, that recipe has worked. In the US alone, agricultural production grew by 170% between 1948 and 2015 according to the US Department of Agriculture.
But while it leads to higher yields in the short-term, multiple studies show that ploughing, fertilizing and using chemical pesticides on the soil dramatically inhibits its long-term health.
The US Department of Agriculture estimates that in 2015, US farmers used 22 million short tons of fertilizer for plant production, or around 44 billion pounds (nearly 20 billion kilograms).

A tiny Dung Beetle crawls over Danie Slabbert's hand. "These are one of the heroes of the story, he says. By limiting pesticides, natural biological systems that include dung beetles, earth worms and micro-organisms help rejuvenate soil health.

For Art Cullen, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist reporting from the heart of Iowa’s corn country, the industry servicing agriculture is the problem itself. Cullen has spent a career living among, listening to and reporting on farmers. The editor of the Storm Lake Times, his writing has challenged powerful industrial agricultural interests in the state.
“What is really preventing the change, is all the money that is lined up. There is a lot of money invested in the agri-chemical supply chain,” says Cullen.
He says there has historically been little incentive for companies to embrace farming that limits chemicals and rejuvenates soil. And in the US, farmers are subsidized by the government to plant more corn and other crops than the market demands.
“We can actually solve the climate crisis by sequestering carbon in the soil and paying farmers to do it. And if you say to a farmer that you will pay him a dollar more to plant grass and sit on his butt, then he is going to take that deal every time,” he says.
Cullen says that strategy depends, in part, on who occupies the White House, but he says market forces will eventually drive widespread change in North America just as natural forces are driving change in Southern Africa.
“We cannot ignore this issue much longer. Nature is demanding that we change,” he says.

Surviving the crisis.

Farmer Danie Slabbert stands in one of his corn fields. The corn is tightly spaced, and he grows a cover crop under the corn that rises when the corn is harvested. In the winter, cows graze on the remaining plants. "Using the livestock is about closing cycles," he says.

Unlike in the US, South African farmers don’t get any subsidies to speak of. They need to make their farms work or they will be out of a job.
In the area where Slabbert farms, temperatures are rising at a rate double of the global average. Severe droughts in recent years have wiped out multi-generational farms and livelihoods.
“In Africa especially, we are feeling the heat. So climate change is an issue for us. I am not really a biologist or a scientist, but I can see the change in my short lifetime,” says Slabbert.
Research has shown that when droughts hit, regenerative farmers often survive while others go under. Their land retains water better and grazing systems make the grass more robust.
Slabbert’s farm is better at surviving climate change. And on a global scale, farming like this could help solve climate change.
“We need to go back to our roots as farmers and as people connected to the land and soil,” he says. “Change is very difficult and it will take time. But change will happen — it will have to happen.” SOURCE

The Key to the Environmental Crisis Is Beneath Our Feet

Image result for resilience: The Key to the Environmental Crisis Is Beneath Our Feet

The Green New Deal resolution that was introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives in February hit a wall in the Senate, where it was called unrealistic and unaffordable. In a Washington Post article titled “The Green New Deal Sets Us Up for Failure. We Need a Better Approach,” former Colorado governor and Democratic presidential candidate John Hickenlooper framed the problem like this:

The resolution sets unachievable goals. We do not yet have the technology needed to reach “net-zero greenhouse gas emissions” in 10 years. That’s why many wind and solar companies don’t support it. There is no clean substitute for jet fuel. Electric vehicles are growing quickly, yet are still in their infancy. Manufacturing industries such as steel and chemicals, which account for almost as much carbon emissions as transportation, are even harder to decarbonize.

Amid this technological innovation, we need to ensure that energy is not only clean but also affordable. Millions of Americans struggle with “energy poverty.” Too often, low-income Americans must choose between paying for medicine and having their heat shut off. …

If climate change policy becomes synonymous in the U.S. psyche with higher utility bills, rising taxes and lost jobs, we will have missed our shot.

The problem may be that a transition to 100% renewables is the wrong target. Reversing climate change need not mean emptying our pockets and tightening our belts. It is possible to sequester carbon and restore our collapsing ecosystem using the financial resources we already have, and it can be done while at the same time improving the quality of our food, water, air and general health.

The Larger Problem – and the Solution – Is in the Soil

Contrary to popular belief, the biggest environmental polluters are not big fossil fuel companies. They are big agribusiness and factory farming, with six powerful food industry giants – Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Dean Foods, Dow AgroSciences, Tyson and Monsanto (now merged with Bayer) – playing a major role. Oil-dependent farming, industrial livestock operations, the clearing of carbon-storing fields and forests, the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and the combustion of fuel to process and distribute food are estimated to be responsible for as much as one-half of human-caused pollution. Climate change, while partly a consequence of the excessive relocation of carbon and other elements from the earth into the atmosphere, is more fundamentally just one symptom of overall ecosystem distress from centuries of over-tilling, over-grazing, over-burning, over-hunting, over-fishing and deforestation.

Big Ag’s toxin-laden, nutrient-poor food is also a major contributor to the U.S. obesity epidemic and many other diseases. Yet these are the industries getting the largest subsidies from U.S. taxpayers, to the tune of more than $20 billion annually. We don’t hear about this for the same reason that they get the subsidies – they have massively funded lobbies capable of bribing their way into special treatment.

The story we do hear, as Judith Schwartz observes in The Guardian, is, “Climate change is global warming caused by too much CO2 in the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels. We stop climate change by making the transition to renewable energy.” Schwartz does not discount this part of the story but points to several problems with it:

One is the uncomfortable fact that even if, by some miracle, we could immediately cut emissions to zero, due to inertia in the system it would take more than a century for CO2 levels to drop to 350 parts per million, which is considered the safe threshold. Plus, here’s what we don’t talk about when we talk about climate: we can all go solar and drive electric cars and still have the problems – the unprecedented heat waves, the wacky weather – that we now associate with CO2-driven climate change.

But that hasn’t stopped investors, who see the climate crisis as simply another profit opportunity. According to a study by Morgan Stanley analysts reported in Forbes in October, halting global warming and reducing net carbon emissions to zero would take an investment of $50 trillion over the next three decades, including $14 trillion for renewables; $11 trillion to build the factories, batteries and infrastructure necessary for a widespread switch to electric vehicles; $2.5 trillion for carbon capture and storage; $20 trillion to provide clean hydrogen fuel for power, cars and other industries, and $2.7 trillion for biofuels. The article goes on to highlight the investment opportunities presented by these challenges by recommending various big companies expected to lead the transition, including  Exxon, Chevron, BP, General Electric, Shell and similar corporate giants – many of them the very companies blamed by Green New Deal advocates for the crisis.

A Truly Green New Deal

There is a much cheaper and faster way to sequester carbon from the atmosphere that doesn’t rely on these corporate giants to transition us to 100% renewables. Additionally, it can be done while at the same time reducing the chronic diseases that impose an even heavier cost on citizens and governments. Our most powerful partner is nature itself, which over hundreds of millions of years has evolved the most efficient carbon sequestration system on the planet. As David Perry writes on the World Economic Forum website:

This solution leverages a natural process that every plant undergoes, powered by a source that is always available, costs little to nothing to run and does not cause further pollution. This power source is the sun, and the process is photosynthesis.

A plant takes carbon dioxide out of the air and, with the help of sunlight and water, converts it to sugars. Every bit of that plant – stems, leaves, roots – is made from carbon that was once in our atmosphere. Some of this carbon goes into the soil as roots. The roots, then, release sugars to feed soil microbes. These microbes perform their own chemical processes to convert carbon into even more stable forms.

Perry observes that before farmland was cultivated, it had soil carbon levels of from 3% to 7%. Today, those levels are roughly 1% carbon. If every acre of farmland globally were returned to a soil carbon level of just 3%, 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide would be removed from the atmosphere and stored in the soil – equal to the amount of carbon that has been drawn into the atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago. The size of the potential solution matches the size of the problem.

So how can we increase the carbon content of soil? Through “regenerative” farming practices, says Perry, including planting cover crops, no-till farming, rotating crops, reducing chemicals and fertilizers, and managed grazing (combining trees, forage plants and livestock together as an integrated system, a technique called “silvopasture”). These practices have been demonstrated to drive carbon into the soil and keep it there, resulting in carbon-enriched soils that are healthier and more resilient to extreme weather conditions and show improved water permeability, preventing the rainwater runoff that contributes to rising sea levels and rising temperatures. Evaporation from degraded, exposed soil has been shown to cause 1,600% more heat annually than all the world’s powerhouses combined. Regenerative farming methods also produce increased microbial diversity, higher yields, reduced input requirements, more nutritious harvests and increased farm profits.

These highly favorable results were confirmed by Paul Hawken and his team in the project that was the subject of his best-selling 2016 book, “Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming.” The project involved evaluating the 100 most promising solutions to the environmental crisis for cost and effectiveness. The results surprised the researchers themselves. The best-performing sector was not “Transport” or “Materials” or “Buildings and Cities” or even “Electricity Generation.” It was the sector called “Food,” including how we grow our food, market it and use it. Of the top 30 solutions, 12 were various forms of regenerative agriculture, including silvopasture, tropical staple trees, conservation agriculture, tree intercropping, managed grazing, farmland restoration and multistrata agroforestry.

How to Fund It All

If regenerative farming increases farmers’ bottom lines, why aren’t they already doing it? For one thing, the benefits of the approach are not well known. But even if they were, farmers would have a hard time making the switch. As noted in a Rolling Stone article titled “How Big Agriculture Is Preventing Farmers From Combating the Climate Crisis”:

[I]implementing these practices requires an economic flexibility most farmers don’t have, and which is almost impossible to achieve within a government-backed system designed to preserve a large-scale, corporate-farming monoculture based around commodity crops like corn and soybeans, which often cost smaller farmers more money to grow than they can make selling.

Farmers are locked into a system that is destroying their farmlands and the planet, because a handful of giant agribusinesses have captured Congress and the regulators. One proposed solution is to transfer the $20 billion in subsidies that now go mainly to Big Ag into a fund to compensate small farmers who transition to regenerative practices. We also need to enforce the antitrust laws and break up the biggest agribusinesses, something for which legislation is now pending in Congress.

At the grassroots level, we can vote with our pocketbooks by demanding truly nutritious foods. New technology is in development that can help with this grassroots approach by validating how nutrient-dense our foods really are. One such device, developed by Dan Kittredge and team, is a hand-held consumer spectrometer called a Bionutrient Meter, which tests nutrient density at point of purchase. The goal is to bring transparency to the marketplace, empowering consumers to choose their foods based on demonstrated nutrient quality, providing economic incentives to growers and grocers to drive regenerative practices across the system. Other new technology measures nutrient density in the soil, allowing farmers to be compensated in proportion to their verified success in carbon sequestration and soil regeneration.

Granted, $20 billion is unlikely to be enough to finance the critically needed transition from destructive to regenerative agriculture, but Congress can supplement this fund by tapping the deep pocket of the central bank. In the last decade, the Fed has demonstrated that its pool of financial liquidity is potentially limitless, but the chief beneficiaries of its largess have been big banks and their wealthy clients. We need a form of quantitative easing that actually serves the local productive economy. That might require modifying the Federal Reserve Act, but Congress has modified it before. The only real limit on new money creation is consumer price inflation, and there is room for a great deal more money to be pumped into the productive local economy before that ceiling is hit than is circulating in it now. For a detailed analysis of this issue, see my earlier articles here and here and latest book, “Banking on the People.”

The bottom line is that saving the planet from environmental destruction is not only achievable, but that by focusing on regenerative agriculture and tapping up the central bank for funding, the climate crisis can be addressed without raising taxes and while restoring our collective health.

Why You Need to Know About Regenerative Agriculture

Why companies as diverse as Patagonia and General Mills are suddenly focused on getting dirty

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Maybe it’s the year-end double punch of consumerism and self-reflection—what holiday meals are we making, what are we buying for people, what have I even done with my life—but December triggers a cavalcade of questions about how a person who wears things and eats things and likes to go outside (this is me, but, hey, it could be you, too) is tied into the whole dang system of consumption.

And in that blitz, an unlikely subject has come up. Not reproductive choices, not carbon offsets, not even Greta Thunberg. No, it’s regenerative agriculture, a soil-focused farming practice. Whole Foods says it’s the number-one food trend of next year. Patagonia has made it a centerpiece of its activism and will be rolling out products made using the practice early next year. General Mills announced this spring that it will employ regenerative agriculture on one million acres—about a quarter of the land it uses in North America. And this spring will see the creation of a new Renewable Organic Agriculture certification pilot program.

That’s a huge deal, environmentally, because the agriculture sector is responsible for about a quarter of global greenhouse emissions. Ag creates food and fiber and jobs. And when it’s done right, it can act as a carbon sink. Healthy soil, with intact root systems, can hold huge amounts of carbon. According to the International Panel on Climate Change, agriculture is unique in its ability to both reduce emissions, through sustainable farming practices, and capture them, through carbon sequestration.

That’s where regenerative agriculture comes in. There are 7.5 billion living organisms in a teaspoon of soil—more than there are people living on earth—and regenerative ag supports those organisms, helping them hold nutrients, fighting erosion, and negating the need for chemicals. Estimates from Ohio State’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Center say carbon sequestration through regenerative practices could offset fossil fuel emission by up to 15 percent. Loftier assumptions from the United Nations say it could offset total global emissions by 10 percent.

The term was coined in the 1980s at the Rodale Institute, the Pennsylvania-based organic farming think tank founded by J.J. Rodale. In practice, it means that farmers rotate and diversify crops and animals, don’t poison lands and water, and minimize tilling and soil disruption. Over time, those practices have been shown to make land more resilient and more productive—and able to hold more carbon and water.

The Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA), a nonprofit coalition of organic companies like Dr. Bronner’s, Patagonia, and Horizon Organic, has built a certification for regenerative producers around three connected pillars: soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness. This ROA certification emcompasses not just organic practices, but also long-term soil health and economic benefits for farmers.

As an apparel company, Patagonia may seem an odd bedfellow in this mission. But since 2012, when it first offered wild salmon jerky, the company has moved into the sustainable food space, launching Patagonia Provisions in 2014 and working to secure responsible farming, ranching, and aquaculture partners. The more they learned, says Patagonia Provisions managing director Birgit Cameron, the more they realized that food was one of the biggest levers the company could push to help the planet.

Starting in February, Patagonia will offer clothes grown with cotton farmed to the new Renewable Organic Agriculture standard, and soon afterwards, ROA-certified food. The company already sells a beer called Long Root Ale, which is brewed with a perennial grain called Kernza grown using ROA practices. “You do start to see higher yield, and the soil draws down a significant amount of carbon, which is a planetary game changer,” Cameron says. “We couldn’t stay away from that.”

It’s worth remembering, however, that agriculture is just part of the climate pie. Elizabeth Whitlow, executive director of the Regenerative Organic Alliance, warns against assuming that sequestering carbon in soil will cancel out growing emissions. But she and Cameron are realistically hopeful, and talking with them helped turn my grinchy heart and brain. We need to start making decisions through the lens of urgency, Cameron reminded me, and good consumer choices can indeed move the needle on agriculture practices—and climate change.

So this spring, as the first green shoots push through the soil, look for the ROA certification. Talk to your local farmers about where your food is coming from and how it’s produced. The idea of voting with your dollars may be trite, but food is a place where personal action can impact the system. As Whitlow says, “What we do to the soil, we do to ourselves.” SOURCE

The fight against climate change down home on the Alberta farm

Not only will farmers be impacted by a changing climate, the way they tend the land can help mitigate changes

A National Farmers Union report this month says old-fashioned mixed farming combined with new technology can reduce greenhouse gases. It’s work already underway in Alberta. 4:03

If you talk to a farmer, many will tell you that they’ve noticed the weather is changing.

Alberta has always had erratic weather, but those working the soil or raising a herd — whether for years, or decades — are getting more curveballs thrown at them each year. From increased wind, rain at harvest, intense snowstorms during calving and hot summer days that bring drought, farmers are being forced to adapt.

The Prairie Climate Centre’s own models agree that things are getting hotter, and project a spike in plus 30 C days for the prairies in the coming decades.

That sort of spike would be bad news for Alberta farmers and mean many will have to adapt to new realities and do their part to stem the tide of climate change – a potentially charged subject in conservative farming circles. But it’s a conversation that’s starting to happen in fields and towns across the province

The kind of change needed to tackle future challenges is exactly what the National Farmers Union is calling for in its report released this December. It says old-fashioned mixed farming combined with new technology can reduce greenhouse gases. The group is also urging farmers to move away from big-money, big-acreage and big-machine farming that can bring big debt.

“If regenerative agriculture exists, it is likely found in mixed-farming systems that utilize natural nutrient cycles, diverse animal and plant mixes and best-possible grazing methods to restore soils, raise carbon levels, protect water, enhance biodiversity and support sustainable livelihoods,” the report reads.

While it might seem like a daunting task for farmers, the good news is work has already started on what farmers can do to prepare and help stem the tide of climate change.

Farms can ‘heal the land’

Jerremie Clyde, splits his time between his mixed farm near Sundre and his city job in Calgary.

He and his family rotate crops each year, planting a wide variety, like potatoes, rye and oats. They raise yaks over cows because the animals have less environmental impact, including how much water and food the shaggy Himalayan beasts consume. Yaks have also been said to create less methane emissions, something of a beef for many environmentalists.


Jerremie Clyde helps run a mixed-use farm with his family near Sundre, Alta., while still working as a librarian at the University of Calgary. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

“It tastes just like beef. I would say slightly better than beef,” said Clyde about the lean meat.

His company, Little Loaves Farm, sells its bounty to nearby markets, connecting with neighbours over the love of good food. They also hope to sell their meat directly to consumers online.

“Farms have a huge potential to heal the land,” said Clyde. “Like, depending how you farm, you can radically increase biodiversity of both plants and animals, wild and domestic, and that doesn’t have to get in the way of what you’re raising commercially for sale.”

Clyde encourages other farmers seeking low capital solutions to think of farming as a research activity. For example, taking care of the soil can act as a carbon sink and can help keep the land’s water table healthy, creating biodiversity and could even reintroduce wildlife back into that area.

He says there are also agencies out there offering grants for alternative land uses to help farmers pay for fencing or water to repair riparian areas, for example.


Yaks are becoming more commonplace in Alberta fields, better known for cattle grazing. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

“Farmers are in a real trap. If you have a ton of debt doing something new is pretty scary because it might not work. A lot of the organic stuff, it doesn’t work right away. You have to learn it. You have to learn how it’s going to work on your site,” he said.

“So you can expect a few years of it not going well. Eventually you might get higher yields than you would have elsewise. But it won’t be immediate.”

The conversation

Climate change is an important conversation, says Amber Bennett with Climate Outreach.

Bennet is compiling data from the Alberta Narrative Projects, which is trying to find language that brings people together to talk about what’s happening.

Last year it had dozens of conversations with focus groups of all different sectors, like farmers, oil and gas workers and even religious groups.

“People don’t feel invited to the conversation,” said Bennett, adding many times the debate is night and day when it comes to urban and rural perspectives.

“In some cases it’s quite dramatic.”

She said how we engage in the climate conversation is usually tied to our identity.

“People feel blamed and threatened,” she said, adding climate change can be a tough word because it’s so polarized.

She recommends asking farmers directly about the weather, then listening. There are serious issues, such as a consistent water supply, forest fire impacts on crops, securing our food supply and economic diversification so people can stay on the farm.

“All of our well-being is tied to what they are doing,” said Bennett.

Healthy grasslands

Brenda Barritt with Rural Routes to Climate Solutions has a cattle, pig and chicken operation called Earth Works Farm near Alix, Alta.

“Seems like everything is more intense,” said Barritt who, along with her husband, tracks the weather day to day.

“We are getting wetter, warmer winters.”

She says rain is often coming at the wrong time. Her husband, Vance,  notices the wind patterns have changed a lot since he was a child living on that piece of land east of Red Deer.

But Barritt says there’s also more information and more inspiration. She says before they had to look south of the border for environmental success, but that’s changed over the past decade. She hopes her group’s podcast can help spread those stories.


Brenda Barritt has been researching how she can make her land more sustainable, which she shares in a podcast presented by Rural Roads to Climate Solutions. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

“I think that’s also part of the narrative that can be amplified and needs to be amplified, is that there are agricultural practices out there that both benefit the farm and help us deal with potential uncertainty, but also are part of mitigating, to some extent, the impacts that we know are coming our way through climate change,” she said.

She says keeping healthy grasslands is imperative. A study published this November in Science Advances echoes that view.

Barritt says Canadians can support farmers by voting with their dollars and buying direct, while remembering the cost is often more because those local producers are footing the cost of storage, distribution and better land management.

She also pointed to conservation easements and alternative land use grants as great support for farmers trying to do things differently.

“If I was to think of what can government do, I think it’s just really continuing to support that kind of research and maybe not getting in the way. But also amplifying and learning from it and know we don’t need to recreate the wheel,” said Barritt.

The solution

Jane Rabinowicz is with SeedChange, a charitable group that works with farmers to grow food sustainably with locally adapted seeds. She says how farmers adapt to a changing climate is important.

Her group works hand-in-hand with farmers in their fields and on policy to spread sustainable and climate resilient farming.

“The good news is that models of farming that are better for the planet are also better for the farmer’s bottom line,” said Rabinowicz.

The cost of farming can be high, and she says farmers are experiencing high debt. The average age of Canadian farmers is also over 55 and a new generation of farmers will need to have access to a decent livelihood.

Her group’s goal is to continue spreading information as more research becomes available, because she says folks are getting a bit of a mishmash of information and that’s creating fear. SeedChange is also helping to develop new varieties of climate resilient crops that are locally adapted.

Rabinowicz says there are also farm-based solutions, like growing more than one crop on the same field, better water management, wildlife corridors, soil conservation and watching what inputs – like nitrogen — are added to the soil.

“A big chunk of our greenhouse gases from agriculture come from the production and use of nitrogen inputs and so high-input farming is high-emissions farming. So any kind of practices that help decrease reliance on inputs are also going to be really helpful,” she said.

Rabinowicz agrees farmers can feel isolated and even blamed for their role in climate change. They might even worry what their neighbour will say if they change production practices. She agrees talking about the weather and its impact is a great way to get the conversation started.

“Farmers are and always have been on the front lines of the weather, right? And so, you know, farmers have always had to adapt their practices and farmers are the ones who are the stewards of the land and they’re out there observing changes very closely,” she said.

“So there have always been changes in climate as well that farmers have observed and they have been able to adapt their practices and adapt their crop over time as climates have changed. So I think it actually can be a useful way to talk about climate change with farmers.”  SOURCE

Agriculture needs changes to help save climate and farmers, says national agriculture group

‘The climate crisis and the farm crisis really share many of the same causes’

A worker carries an air filter during wheat harvest on a farm in Alberta. Agriculture generates about eight per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

Farming needs to change to help save the climate and farmers themselves, says a national agriculture group.

A report released Wednesday by the National Farmers Union concludes that some elements of old-fashioned mixed farming combined with the latest technology can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep more farm families on the land.

“The climate crisis and the farm crisis really share many of the same causes,” said farmers union president Katie Ward, who raises about 100 head of sheep near Ottawa.

The report attempts to link growing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture with changes to the industry that have seen it get bigger, more expensive and open to fewer and fewer farmers. Farm debt has doubled since 2000, the report says, and most farm family income now comes from work elsewhere.

She points to the high price of farm inputs such as fuel and fertilizer. Inputs soak up 95 per cent of farm revenues, says the report.

‘The equilibrium’

Agriculture generates about eight per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. The report suggests ways those emissions can be cut in half by 2050.

It says biofuels and electrification would cut emissions and costs — electric tractors are already being developed. On-farm renewable power generation would help. So would more efficient use of farm inputs, aided by technology.

But what really needs to happen is a move away from big-money, big-acreage, big-machine farming, the report concludes.

“If regenerative agriculture exists, it is likely found in mixed-farming systems that utilize natural nutrient cycles, diverse animal and plant mixes and best-possible grazing methods to restore soils, raise carbon levels, protect water, enhance biodiversity and support sustainable livelihoods.”

We’re not talking about going back to Little House on the Prairie.– Katie Ward

Keeping inputs to a minimum and tilling the soil as little as possible would reduce emissions and leave more revenues for farmers, said Ward. That would let them make a living on smaller holdings.

“We’re not talking about going back to Little House on the Prairie. But there’s absolutely a reason why natural systems have evolved the way they have and the equilibrium that’s found there. There’s a lesson there for farmers to take.”

Keith Currie, vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, agreed consumers are looking for low-impact agriculture.

But, he added, the economic drivers of agriculture right now aren’t going away.

“There’s room for all types of farms,” said Currie, who grows grains and oilseeds near Collingwood, Ont. “Being more diverse lowers the risk.

“But the reality is we’re being squeezed as producers by the consumer, who wants the cheapest food possible. Running a small farm, they’re just not profitable enough to earn a living off.”

Something’s got to change, said Colin Laroque from the College of Agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan.

“We’ve worked ourselves into a real interesting pickle, making our farms so big and cutting that economic line so close.”

 

For a Sustainable Climate and Food System, Regenerative Agriculture Is the Key

The recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that agriculture is responsible for 37% of greenhouse gas emissions. There’s hope—and a solution.

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Agriculture is perfectly poised to play a major role in the solution to the climate crisis. By helping young farmers gain access to land, everyone can help play a role. Illustration by Jon Adams, courtesy of The Perennial Farming Initiative

All of us are familiar with conventional agriculture: the miles upon miles of farmland growing only one crop, the destructive tillage that wafts soil and its stored carbon into the air and into our waterways; the use of hundreds of chemicals including pesticides like chlorpyrifos that have been found to cause brain damage in children; the confined facilities that are both cruel to animals and make their impact on the Earth an assault rather than a gift.

I first started writing about [regenerative agriculture] farmers back in 2011, when there were more amazing anecdotes than studies, but that has changed. Entomologist and former USDA scientist Jonathan Lundgren published a study with his former student Claire LaCanne in 2018. The study followed 10 cornfields per farm on 20 farms over two growing seasons, half of which were regenerative and half conventional. The study tracked soil carbon, insect pests, corn yield, and profits.

The results give the imprimatur of science to the successes regenerative farmers have reported for years. Lundgren and LaCanne found that there were more pests in the conventional cornfields that were treated with insecticides and/or used GMO seeds than in the pesticide-free regenerative fields, presumably because the cover crops attracted battalions of predator insects that decimated crop pests—and because there were no insecticides to kill off those beneficials.

And while the regenerative farms used older, lower-yielding corn varieties without fertilizer and had lower yields, their overall profits were 78% higher than the conventional farmers’. Partly, this was because the regenerative farmers’ costs were so much lower, with no cash outlays for costly insecticides and GMO seeds. They also “stacked enterprises” and had two or more sources of income on the same acre—in this case, they grazed their cattle on corn residue after harvest and got a premium price for pastured beef. What was the primary factor correlating with farm profitability? The amount of carbon and organic matter in the farmers’ fields, not their yields.

The venerable soil scientist Rattan Lal was one of the first people to connect the loss of soil carbon caused by destructive farming to the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In a 2018 interview with Soil4Climate, Lal said that he and his colleagues estimated that regenerating landscapes—farms, forests, coastlands, and so on—could restore up to 150 gigatons (a gigaton equals 1 billion tons) of carbon to the world’s soil in 80 years. All the extra vegetation grown to put that carbon in the soil would store 150–160 gigatons more, resulting in a terrestrial biosphere holding an additional 330 gigatons of carbon, equal to a drawdown of 150 to 160 parts per million of CO2 from the atmosphere. “We should encourage the policy makers that this process of restoring degraded soils and ecosystems is a win, win, win option,” Lal says. “It’s a bridge to the future.”

Several of the Democratic presidential hopefuls have added agriculture to their climate platforms—most notably Rep. Tim Ryan, who proposes policies to support regenerative agriculture and soil carbon sequestration. Just this week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren added to her climate platform a sweeping plan to overhaul agricultural policy, while Sen. Cory Booker announced he would propose the Climate Stewardship Act to the Senate in September; both would pay farmers for conservation practices.

And farmers of the future are ready to take it on.

“Agriculture is perfectly poised to play a major role in the solution to the climate crisis,” says Bilal Sarwari, membership and communications manager of the National Young Farmers Coalition. “By helping young farmers gain access to land, everyone can help play a role.” MORE

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Restoring soil can help address climate change

How an Oregon Rancher is Building Soil Health—and a Robust Regional Food System

Fourth-generation rancher Cory Carman holistically manages 5,000-acres which serve as a model for sustainable meat operations in the Pacific Northwest.

Cory Carman holistically manages 5,000-acres which serve as a model for sustainable meat operations in the Pacific Northwest.

Distinct from most cattle operations in the U.S., Carman’s cattle are 100 percent grass-fed well as grass-finished. (The term “grass-fed” is not regulated, so it can mean that animals have only been briefly pastured before they’re sent to a factory feedlot to be finished.) The ranch primarily produces cattle and pigs, which it mostly markets to wholesale accounts, though it sells a lesser amount of meat as “cow shares”—or quarters of beef ranging from 120 to 180 pounds purchased directly by consumers.

“You don’t have a ranch so that you can sell it and retire; you have a ranch so you can pass it on—that’s sort of in the DNA”

Equally if not more important to Carman, however, is the focus on what she calls the “holistic management” of her land. This involves constantly moving the cattle and paying careful attention to the rate of growth of the animals and grasses. By this system, the steers select the forages they need to grow and gain weight, and the grasses get clipped, trampled down, and fertilized with manure, resulting in fields that are vibrant—they retain water, resist drought, contain abundant organic matter, which contributes nutrients and carbon, and are highly productive without the addition of fertilizer.

Carman began to research and implement a practice called holistic management, which is based on the idea that grass is your crop, and a portion of it needs to go back into feeding the land and the soil microbes. A tool of regenerative agriculture, holistic management integrates social, economic, and environmental factors to help the farm or ranch succeed economically, improve the health of the land, and provide local communities more nutritious food. MORE