Podcast

chainarong06/Shutterstock

Connor Stedman: Carbon Farming

Sequestering atmospheric carbon through natural means
Monday, October 9, 2017, 4:10 PM

Climate change remains a hotly debated topic. But a scientific fact not up for dispute is the pronounced spike in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere over the past two centuries.

There's a building urgency to find solutions that can manage/reverse that spike -- a process known as carbon sequestration. But how to do that on a planetary scale? It's a massive predicament. And most of the 'solutions' being proposed are technologically unproven, prohibitively costly and/or completely impractical.

Enter carbon farming. It uses nature-based farming practices to park gigatons of carbon in the soil, rebuild soil health and complexity, and revitalize the nutrient density of the foods that we eat. It is quite likely the only practical -- and best -- way to sequester carbon at massive scale, as well as reap a multitude of by-product benefits.

In this week's podcast, field ecologist and agroforestry specialist Connor Stedman explains the science behind the carbon farming process:

For the last few million years of the Earth’s history, when there’s been this cycle of glaciers advancing and receding in the northern hemisphere, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has gone between about 180 parts per million and 280 parts per million. That is the band in which all of human history has happened, up until the last 200 or 300 years.

Now the concentration of carbon dioxide is about 407 parts per million, almost 50% higher than the upper end of that historical normal. Carbon dioxide is one of a number of greenhouse gases that hold heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, rather than it being fully reflected back out into space

To give you an image of the numbers involved here, to get down from 407 parts per million to 350 parts per million, we would have to remove at least 130 billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere and put it somewhere, plus zero net emissions beyond that. And because going to zero net emissions globally is not what’s going to happen, we’re going to have to take out quite a bit more than 130 billion tons. Most people are estimating between—even with rapid de-carbonization -- between 200 and 250 billion tons of carbon are going to have to be stored somehow.

Often when you read in the news about carbon sequestration, the main way it’s talked about is through geoengineering schemes and technologies. These include things like seeding clouds to increase the Earth’s albedo, the Earth’s reflective effect, so that more heat is reflected back into space. Or seeding the oceans with iron so that more carbon is stored in sea water. Or inventing nanomachines that would pull carbon out of the atmosphere and turn it into plastics directly. Or sucking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it in deep geologic structures. Or even more fanciful things like huge arrays of panels orbiting the Earth reflecting sunlight back out into space. It’s really wild, some of the things that are being talked about.

There are a few different problems with these geoengineering proposals. One of them is that they’re enormously expensive, in the many billions or even trillions of dollars. Another one is that most of them rely on totally unproven technology. I mean, this is like cold nuclear fusion category speculation in a lot of cases. And the third one is that they don’t address any other human problems. They’re a way for some of the people who have gotten very wealthy off of our current crisis to continue getting very wealthy off of the solution for it.

So, the big thought behind carbon farming is that we already have the technology needed to accomplish that level of sequestration. And it’s sequestration into ecosystems and land rather than into technological forms. And it’s sequestration using trees and wetlands and soil and living things that people have been working with for all of human history, rather than requiring a cutting-edge breakthrough.

And also, that carbon farming systems have the potential to address a lot of other human needs as well at the same time: needs around food security; needs around other forms of climate security, like resilience from flooding, resilience from drought and heat waves; and just a lot of other things that come with more biodiversity and more intensified and diverse food production. 

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Connor Stedman (57m:00s).

Transcript: 

Chris Martenson: Welcome, everyone, to this Peak Prosperity podcast. It is October 4, 2017. I am Chris Martenson. Today’s podcast, it’s about what we can do right now to begin setting things right. I know the news is full of horror and betrayal, and sometimes it seems like there’s not much to be hopeful about or for. But my work regularly exposes me to the people who are doing things that are clearly beneficial, clearly helpful.

As Adam and I wrote in the book Prosper!, one of the most destructive narratives out there is that humans are just destructive. More of us simply means more destruction. More plastic in the oceans, more ecological destruction, more species lost, more beauty lost, more hate in the world. That’s the story. But as with all narratives, that one draws its energy from the amount of belief people invest in it.

There’s another narrative, too, one that instead says that we humans can be incredible agents of positive change and regeneration, that we can put our amazing minds and hearts towards increasing abundance and being fair and loving and equitable. And that narrative, too, draws its power from how many people believe in it.

One of the favorite quotes I’ve got that I use in my seminars, from Ghandi; he said, “Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny.” So, in short, it is well past time that we shift our beliefs away from the broken narrative of destructive and extractive consumption and towards our rightful destiny as powerful agents of creativity and regeneration.

So today we’re going to be talking with Connor Stedman about how certain farming practices can be introduced that will in one fell swoop park gigatons of carbon in the soil, rebuild soil health and complexity, and revitalize, hopefully, the nutrient density of the foods that we eat.

Connor’s a field ecologist, agroforestry specialist, and educator based in western New England and in the Hudson Valley specifically. He holds an MS in ecological planning from the University of Vermont. He is a lead organizer of the internationally recognized Carbon Farming Course. Connor offers consulting and design for multi-productive forest management at AppleSeed Permaculture, including silvopasture, forest understory crops, productive buffers, and wildlife habitat. He’s also one of the smartest people I know. Connor, welcome to the program.

Connor Stedman: Thank you, Chris. You’re much too kind.

Chris Martenson: Well, you and I go back a bit. We’ve known each other for a ways. We’ve both gone and done what we’re doing in the world. I’m so thrilled to have you on the program to find out what you’ve been up to and help expose people to what I think is an actual solution or approach we can and should be taking at this time. So, thank you so much for being here with us today.

Connor Stedman: Real pleasure to be here. Happy to have the conversation.

Chris Martenson: Well, let me start here. We’re going to be talking about something called carbon farming. What exactly is that?

Connor Stedman: Okay. So, I think we have to talk a little bit about the basics of what climate change is and what’s driving climate change in order to talk about carbon farming. And I assume your listeners are pretty familiar with that. But just to review, for the last few million years of the Earth’s history when there’s been this cycle of glaciers advancing and receding in the northern hemisphere, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has gone between about 180 parts per million and 280 parts per million. And that is the band in which all of human history has happened, up until the last 200 or 300 years.

And now the concentration of carbon dioxide is about 407 parts per million, almost 50% higher than the upper end of that historical normal. And carbon dioxide is one of a number of greenhouse gases that hold heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, rather than it being fully reflected back out into space. So, the international climate science community has estimated, based on a lot of research and number crunching and thought about the weather and climate implications of global warming, that in order to keep—Well, let me say this.

We’re already seeing some really catastrophic outcomes from climate change all around the world, from more frequent and more intense hurricanes in the Atlantic, to sea-level rise with whole nations losing their land and homes, to the very rapid warming of the Arctic and the displacement of people from there, to the bleaching and die-off of coral reefs because of increased temperature and ocean acidity. And a lot of other things we could talk about.

And the hard news and big challenge of our lifetimes and beyond is that the worst is yet to come of those impacts on the current trajectory we’re on of greenhouse gas emissions. And so, the trajectory we’re on is towards a planet that is significantly less livable than the one we have now for the large majority of people on the planet. And the—if we were to have the fullest, fastest possible de-carbonization of the current world economy, far beyond what has so far been socially and politically viable—And that would be a good thing to do. That would be a huge value for people living now and the people to come after us—we would still be facing a future of increasingly severe climate disruption for people all over the world, because the—I’m just going to pause here for a sec.

Chris Martenson: Go for it.

Connor Stedman: In order to stave off some of the most extreme outcomes and impacts of climate change, the best thinking of the climate science community is that average global warming would need to be held to around two degrees Celsius.

Now, because of the lag time between when emissions are released and when they affect warming in the atmosphere, although we’re at 407 parts per million now, we’ve only experienced average warming of about 1.3 degrees Celsius so far. So, even if we were to go down to global net zero emissions tomorrow, which would be an amazing miracle, we would still be far over the 350 parts per million that climate scientists believe is needed to avoid the most catastrophic things that might—that may be ahead.

So, the emissions reduction work which is the focus of most of the work in the last 20 or 30 years on addressing climate change—That was the focus of the international Paris climate agreement. That’s the focus of regulating auto emissions and power plant emissions in the U.S. and other countries in the world. It’s the focus of shifting to renewable energy sources. Emissions reduction is going to have to be paired with significant carbon sequestration as well. And at the same time, carbon sequestration won’t be successful without emissions reduction, because if we sequester huge amounts of carbon, we’re still adding a net about five billion tons of carbon per year to the atmosphere.

And to give you an image of the numbers involved here, to get down from 407 parts per million to 350 parts per million, we would have to remove at least 130 billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere and put it somewhere, plus zero net emissions beyond that. And because going to zero net emissions globally is not what—sadly, unfortunately, is not what’s going to happen. So, there’s—we’re going to have to take out quite a bit more than 130 billion tons. Most people are estimating between—even with rapid de-carbonization, between 200 and 250 billion tons of carbon are going to have to be stored.

And often when you read in the news about carbon sequestration, the main way it’s talked about is through geoengineering schemes and technologies. And these include things like seeding clouds to increase the Earth’s albedo, the Earth’s reflective effect, so that more heat is reflected back into space. And seeding the oceans with iron so that more carbon is stored in sea water. And inventing nanomachines that would pull carbon out of the atmosphere and turn it into plastics directly. And sucking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it in deep geologic structures. These—and even to—even more fanciful things like huge arrays of panels orbiting the Earth reflecting sunlight back out into space. It’s really wild some of the things that are being talked about.

And there’s a few different problems with these geoengineering proposals. One of them is that they’re enormously expensive, in the many billions or even trillions of dollars. Another one is most of them rely on totally unproven technology. I mean, this is like cold nuclear fusion category speculation in a lot of cases. And the third one is that they don’t address any other human problems. They’re a way for some of the people who have gotten very wealthy off of our current crisis to continue getting very wealthy off of the solution for it.

So, the big thought behind carbon farming is that we already have the technology needed to accomplish that level of sequestration. And it’s sequestration into ecosystems and land rather than into technological forms. And it’s sequestration using trees and wetlands and soil and living things that people have been working with for all of human history, rather than requiring a cutting-edge breakthrough.

And also, that carbon farming systems have the potential to address a lot of other human needs as well at the same time: needs around food security; needs around other forms of climate security, like resilience from flooding, resilience from drought and heat waves; and just a lot of other things that come with more biodiversity and more intensified and diverse food production.

So, I’ll pause there, but on a big-picture level, that’s what the carbon farming project is about. It’s about doing large-scale biosequestration of carbon into agricultural landscapes.

Chris Martenson: Now, it’s worth noting that one of the prime functions of a photosynthetic plant is to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and turn it into a sugar and release oxygen. We love all parts of that as humans. Now, I think I’ve seen an example of this actually in action. And I think some of my more faithful listeners will remember this. Adam and I visited a place in Sebastopol, California, a few years back called Singing Frogs Farm. And while there visiting—It’s really just an amazing and productive farming operation. One of the things I noticed while they were talking was the number of bird species I could count. And it was up to 30, including night herons and really what I consider to be apex, very sensitive indicator species to say, “Wow, this place is healthy.”

And the place was grossing over a hundred thousand dollars per acre, like seven times what the other farms were doing. And the owners, Elizabeth and Paul Kaiser, told us—one of the facts that they had was that they’d increased their soil carbon percentage, or sequestration to use your term, from around two percent to a little over eight percent. And then the shocking part was they said that if every farm in the world was doing this, the entire output of carbon dioxide from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution would be sopped up and put in the ground.

The place was—it was beautiful, it was vibrant, had this diversity of animal life, insects to birds, everything. To me this kind of represented the future of farming, because it just felt right economically for starters. Socially, because the people there, the farm was so healthy, the soil was so healthy they could farm four crops a year instead of two or three. Meant that they could work 40-hour weeks instead of cramming everybody into a really short agricultural season. And also, ecologically, obviously. It just—it felt really good. So, to me that was sort of a real-life example of possibly what you’re talking about. Is that a fair example?

Connor Stedman: Yeah, it is. And I want to say a few things about that. So, you hit on two—the two key places that carbon can be drawn down into on farmland. And one of them is building up carbon in soil. And that happens through the decomposition process, such as when we’re composting, and also it happens through the exchange of sugars with soil microbe—soil microorganisms by plants. They’re using a form of commerce between plants and microorganisms trading sugars for water and nutrients.

And then also it can be stored in above-ground sources of carbon. It can be stored in the wood and lignins and branches and root systems of perennial plants. So, there’s below-ground carbon and above-ground carbon. And that adds up to a more whole ecological picture of the carbon cycle in a terrestrial ecosystem. There’s also a lot of carbon stored in wetlands. And there are some forms of wetland agriculture that can store carbon, but mostly we’re talking about in soil and in perennial plants, especially trees and forests.

And in terms of the question of like how much carbon can be stored on farms globally, it’s a hard one to calculate. And I don’t want to make the—I don’t think I feel quite comfortable making that big of a claim as those good folks made, simply because every farm is so different. And every region and climate in the world is so different. There are very different sequestration potentials in different climates, in different soils, and in different types of farm production.

So—however, I will say that that type of leap from a two percent soil organic matter to an eight percent soil organic matter is definitely doable on millions of acres of farmland all around the world. And it’s doable in—especially through diversified production and through carbon farming methods. So, I believe that in terms of an order-of-magnitude kind of thing that carbon farming can do the magnitude of sequestration that is needed to slow down and reverse climate change. And the—but the greater challenge than the technological one is the social and financial and political work to make it happen. That’s really where a lot of the obstacle is.

Chris Martenson: All right. Well, let’s get to that in a minute. So, you just mentioned—I was using a type of farming I think people can identify with, but it really is vegetable farming. It’s a very small niche of the overall agricultural type that’s out there. So carbon farming, let’s—can it be—paint the picture for us. Can it be used in pastures? You’ve mentioned wetlands, you mentioned trees or silviculture. Here we’re mentioning vegetables. Can it be used in grains as well? Adam and I visited a farm in Maryland, 11,000-acre corn farm. And they didn’t have dirt. They had—they didn’t have soil anymore. They had dirt. And they were down at about one and a half percent organic matter in there. I couldn’t detect it with my nose at all. It literally smelled sterile, this red clayish soil that they had there.

But they were a corn farm. So, they were a grain operation. So, amongst that sort of range of agricultural practices, what are we talking about here? Where does carbon farming fit and apply and where might it have the most bang for the buck so to say?

Connor Stedman: Yeah. So, on a really simple level, what we’re talking about is increasing organic topsoil on farms and increasing the amount of long-lived perennial plants on farms, especially trees. So, there’s ways to do both of those things in many different types of farming systems. So, with annual production, growing annual grains, growing annual vegetables, there are soil management practices that involve the use of cover cropping, that involved the use of compost and manures, that involved crop rotation, and a variety of other things that have been well developed by the organic and sustainable farming movements over many years.

Those things are carbon farming practices. They are—they’re storing a small amount of carbon per year, but they can be implemented across millions of acres, because there’s about 900 million acres of farmland in the United States. And almost 400 million of that is annual cropland; it’s tilled. So, there’s a lot of potential to improve the soil management practices on that acreage. And then there’s also a lot of potential to incorporate trees into annual farming through techniques such as using windbreaks and using shelterbelts that go through the landscape along waterways. And also things like alley cropping where you’re growing a tree crop alongside your annual crop. So, you have a strip of trees, a strip of wheat or soybeans or corn, and then a strip of trees, and so on. And that’s done on a pretty large scale in some parts of Missouri and in some other parts of the U.S.

And it’s done on a very big scale in China. There’s a system in China where they’re growing jujubes, the Chinese date that some people might have tried. And they alley crop jujube with annual grains. And they’re doing that on millions of acres in China now. There’s whole technical manuals for it. So, all that is to say that there’s a lot of different ways to increase carbon storage on annual cropland.

And the same is true on pasture and grazing land. So, the management of animals on pastures, switching from a fixed paddock system where the animals have a single paddock they’re in all year, to a rotational system where the animals graze intensely in one area and then are moved relatively quickly, and then graze intensely and then are moved, and then graze intensely and then are moved, that’s the type of grazing that grasses are adapted for, evolutionarily in their coevolution with cows and buffalo and other grazing animals. And they respond really well to it. And the manuring of the animals as well as the rest period that allows the grass to regrow work together to store carbon through that rotational grazing.

So, that’s at the level of how you manage the animal movements. And then there’s the integration of trees into pastures in a practice called silvopasture where you add a partial tree canopy to a pasture. So, you’re storing the above-ground carbon in the trees. You’re storing the below-ground carbon from the tree roots and the rotational grazing. And then the animals have better health outcomes and better meat and milk production because they have access to shade year-round.

Chris Martenson: Now, Connor, you just mentioned 800 million acres, half of that being in sort of annuals and vegetables, things like that. What’s the math here involved? If we were storing, say—if we’re going from, say, two percent to, say, three percent organic matter—We’ve got some practices. We’re building that organic matter up in the soil. What’s the math here? How much is that actually doing per acre, and then what would that mean if we applied that across all the acreage?

Connor Stedman: Yeah. Great question. So, one percent—I’m going to speak in acres here, but I will say that most of the international literature on this is in hectares and metric tons.

Chris Martenson: Which is 2.2 acres. Right?

Connor Stedman: Yeah. Which is two—about two point—Yeah, somewhere between 2.2 and 2.5 acres. I don’t remember on the top of my head. But you have to do a little bit of unit translation when you’re working on things from anywhere but the U.S. But, so, a one percent increase in topsoil organic matter stores approximately ten tons of carbon per acre. So, that six percent increase that your friends on the West Coast achieved was storing 60 tons per acre—have stored about 60 tons of carbon per acre.

It’s also worth noting that, as you said, pointing out the effects of all of that tillage, all of that fertilizer use, all of that—all that compaction and soil loss on that farm you saw in Maryland, the loss of soil carbon from farmland in North America is one of the global carbon bombs that has already gone off. Because those bottomlands, those tallgrass prairie landscapes in the Midwest, those rich river valleys in the East, those soils likely, from some research and estimates and fragments that remain in some places, many of those soils had organic matter levels between ten and 20 percent historically.

Chris Martenson: Wow.

Connor Stedman: And they’re generally between two and four percent now or even lower. So, and this is a point worth making, that of all the surplus carbon that has been released since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution 300 years ago, the majority of it is still not from fossil fuel burning. The majority of the total accumulated surplus carbon is from land degradation. It’s from deforestation; it’s from tillage; it’s from urbanization. And now it’s a small majority and it’s—and fossil fuels are rapidly catching up, I have to say. But land degradation is a reversible process and beyond. Right? Whereas, the processes that make fossil fuels are not reversible in our lifetimes without technologies that we don’t have yet.

Chris Martenson: Yeah. So, let’s—let me see. So, at ten tons per percent, for every 800 million acres, we would—that’s eight billion, unless my math is really wrong.

Connor Stedman: Right.

Chris Martenson: So, that would be—so, that’s just the United States. So, and you mentioned China’s doing this, which is good to hear, but if we sort of apply this globally, we say, listen, if we were doing practices, we’re building—just to take one example—building the organic matter in soil, not even the stuff above ground as you mentioned before, the trees and the lignins and all that stuff there.

But if we’re doing that, these are fairly significant numbers that we’re talking about. Again, we still have to find other means of reversing the flow of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but this at least gives us a path to say, “Look. We can—while we’re figuring that out, we can certainly be doing this to be storing this stuff in the ground. And, oh, by the way, if Polyface Farms—which my listeners have heard about as well, with Joel Salatin. He took a relatively farmed-out piece of land and without any material inputs, through rotational grazing practices, managed to bring it back to a very lush, deep-topsoil, high-organic-matter kind of an operation. That if we’re doing that we’re doing a number of things at once. First, we’re rejuvenating the landscape. We’re storing more water more effectively because they act like sponges. There’s increased microbial interactions that can happen. So maybe we’re increasing the nutrient density of our food. And we’re generally repairing and restoring the land at the same time that we’re also pulling carbon out of the atmosphere at this point in time. Is that a—sort of a fair way to look at it?

Connor Stedman: Yeah. And I really want to highlight that, that carbon farming practices are not used just because of their carbon sequestration benefit. They have very substantial co-benefits. And usually those co-benefits are actually the primary reason to do them. But from a policy and investment and social and public good point of view, we should be incentivizing the carbon side of it as well.

And just to speak to your point about a total carbon storage potential. It is very high. And there’s some important variables to that that I want to mention. So, one of them is that there are many sites where much more than a one percent increase in organic matter is possible. There are some sites where it’s also not possible because they’re in highly arid regions where tillage farming isn’t appropriate at all. There are also sites where trees are appropriate because of the climate, and there’s other sites, again, especially in arid climates, where trees are not appropriate because they reduce water availability for other crops.

So, it’s very place specific, what the appropriate thing is to do. And another variable that’s part of all this is that different carbon farming practices have different amounts of sequestration that are possible through them. So, the—we have our ten tons of carbon stored per one percent increase in organic matter. On the above-ground side, a lot of the tree-based carbon farming systems are what’s referred to as agroforestry. So, they’re trees integrated into farming in some way. And sometimes that’s trees with annuals, trees with pasture. And sometimes it’s just trees with trees; it’s fully perennial systems, like a lot of tropical agriculture uses.

And so, the conversion of farmland with no trees on it to agroforestry, which doesn’t mean necessarily changing the farming you’re doing. It just means adding trees as alleys or windbreaks or buffers or in some form. Those systems can store between 50 to 100 tons of above-ground carbon per acre. And some of the fully perennial systems, the multilayer forest garden systems up from the tropics that are—people are starting to learn how to do in cold climates, too, some of those top out at around 150 tons stored per acre above ground. So, there are some practices that are very high carbon storage per acre. And there’s other practices that are lower carbon storage per acre, but we can do them on a lot more land.

So, adding it all up, the best numbers I’ve seen on the total theoretical storage potential worldwide both in above-ground biomass and in below-ground soil is between 300 and 350 billion tons. Now, that’s good because at the present moment we only have to take about a—well, yeah, a little over a third of that out to get back down to 350 parts per million. But we’re also still adding so much that in reality we’re going to have to take a lot more.

And the other reality is that 100 percent adoption is not possible or realistic to set out as a goal. Because there’s whole parts of the Earth’s surface that are experiencing war currently, that don’t have functional governments, that there’s been levels of social collapse and breakdown in which people improving their farming practices is not the survival priority. The survival priority is safety from violence, water, food, safe movement between areas.

So, 100 percent adoption is not going to be possible. But is 25 percent adoption possible? Is 40 percent adoption possible? 50 percent? I don’t know. But I think that’s the likely scale on which we have to be thinking in order to see a really meaningful contribution globally. And there are people working on this all over the world, especially in China, especially in parts of the tropics, and especially in a few European countries. France is probably doing the most in terms of European countries on carbon farming right now.

And then there’s starting to be work in the U.S. on a bigger scale, primarily in California and a few northeastern states, as well as—there’s actually some—Excuse me. There’s quite some quite big work going on in the Midwest, in Illinois and Wisconsin and Minnesota especially. The work at the Savannah Institute is of great interest around all of this.

So, that’s kind of a global picture that I see. I’m happy to go wherever you want from here in terms of focusing on the interesting details that are going to be most relevant for your listeners.

Chris Martenson: Well, I still—I really want to circle back to China, because I’m intrigued by why they’re being so forward thinking and aggressive in this way, if that’s the right term. Because they’re really pushing in a lot of very fascinating ways. I’m always intrigued with what China’s up to.

But before we go there, I’m interested in how much of these practices are ready for prime time? Like how much is experimental? How much have been done on a few smallish plots, ten acres here and there? Like what’s really ready to come out and hit prime time? And I guess to get at that we kind of have to understand what are the risks to the farmers. You mentioned before there are policy implications and of course there’s political dimensions to all of this.

Connor Stedman: Yeah.

Chris Martenson: But if we’re talking about at the individual incentive level, it’s got to be—the reason that the farmer in Maryland told me—He told me exactly how he could get back up to six percent. He just has to go fallow for three years. Could he afford that? Not on your life. Right?

Connor Stedman: Right, right.

Chris Martenson: So, there were clears risks to that. So I’m thinking about the implementation plan and what’s ready for prime time and how much of this is good ideas but we still need more experimentation.

Connor Stedman: Yeah.

Chris Martenson: What’s ready to go? Where are we on this?

Connor Stedman: Yeah. Great questions. So, it varies quite a bit. And it varies in different parts of the world. So, in the tropics we could convert from annual farming to fully perennial farming tomorrow with no loss of nutrition or calorie production, because the tropics have things like breadfruit and jackfruit and avocados and date palms and oil palms and a thousand other staple tree crops that people have been growing for thousands and in some cases, people think tens of thousands of years in deliberate agricultural settings.

So, the tropics are in a really interesting position to store large amounts of carbon through farm transitions. But that’s one of the real risks here that needs to be talked about is that—What we’re talking about is land improvements. That’s what carbon farming represents. It’s an investment in land and in the quality of land and the productivity of land. And those investments, they can’t be made by people who are land insecure because if you don’t have a reliable way to know that you’re going to have access to your land five, seven, ten, 15 years down the road, it doesn’t make sense to invest in tree crops, and it doesn’t make sense to invest in long-term soil building. It’s just—it’s not economically workable.

And simultaneously, agriculture is in such economic crisis globally. The margins are so thin for most people that in many cases the farmer alone cannot shoulder the entire capital expenditure of these land improvements because they—although most carbon farming systems return to full profitability or even increase profitability on a three, five, seven, ten-year time frame, there often is a reduction in profitability for the first few years, just like changing any business practice or any farming practice.

So, there’s a real need for financing and technical assistance and support from a lot of different sectors towards these land transitions. And it just—and it’s just important to be clear that the—there are some farmers who are taking it on wholly themselves. But a lot of this work has to be done on a bigger scale than a single farm. It has to be done through opening up funding and financing sources. It has to be done through opening up new markets that consumers are willing to pay for, and also research and development money going into it so—because often all it takes is one or a few farms to be successful for something and then the rest of their farming region will follow.

In terms of your very good question about readiness, there are some practices that are ready to go tomorrow on huge acreages. And so, a lot of the improved annual production and improved grazing practices are like that. So, cover cropping, there’s a fully established science of cover cropping that’s very developed in extension services and land grant universities all around the U.S. And there’s been a big turn in interest towards cover cropping in conventional agriculture just in the last year and a half, two years.

So, a lot more acreage could be cover cropped. And that would make a big difference for a lot of reasons that we talked about earlier. Similarly, the grazing practices can be adjusted and improved from fixed paddock grazing to rotational grazing with some—with a little bit of infrastructure investment, with a little bit of technical support and training, and sometimes with changing markets to be fully grass fed, holistically managed, other marketing avenues that help the farmer tell the story of what they’re doing. So, that’s a little bit of a bigger jump. And then a yet bigger jump is going from confinement feed lot operations to grass-based grazing operations. That’s a big leap. And that’s one that some farmers have made really successfully, but a lot of operations don’t feel they can make because it requires a wholesale changing of how they’re farming.

On the above-ground side—Okay. I guess I’ll say one more thing there, which is, there is a whole other realm of carbon farming practices which has to do with the research and development of new crops. And in particular, new perennial crops that are very carbon storing over their lifespans. So, for instance, The Land Institute in Kansas, is working on re-perennializing annual grains. So, they’re working on breeding and selecting perennial wheat, perennial rye, perennial barley, perennial beans, perennial corn, all of these staple foods. Right? Because we can grow fruits and vegetables all day, but at the end of the day people need fats, proteins, and complex carbohydrates, starches, to really fill out people’s diets.

So, my big focus in carbon farming is on the production of those things more than the production of nutrient—of sugars and—simple sugars and nutrients, because those things can be easily produced on small scales in locally interesting and beautiful and diverse ways all over the world. It’s the staple crops that can be harder to figure out how to produce.

So, Land Institute is working on making new perennial staple crops. Badgersett Research Farm in Minnesota is working on breeding new perennial staple tree crops for cold climates, improved hybrids of chestnuts and hazelnuts as things that could potentially replace corn and soybeans. But those breeding-based projects, especially the perennial grains and some of the staple crops that are used in the tropics, those are more experimental. They don’t have a market established yet. The growing practices aren’t fully ready yet. So, we can’t just put all our eggs in that experimental R&D basket. We have to also be improving the things that people are already using and buying every day.

Chris Martenson: All right. Let me ask you about this then because this is a big concern of mine. And it starts—the story starts here. There’s nitrogen floating around in the atmosphere. It is pulled down; it’s purified. Natural gas is used. They run a process called Haber–Bosch, and they create ammonia out of it. The ammonia goes into an Iowa farm. It’s spread out. And it helps the corn grow. But some of it washes off into the Iowa River, which makes it to the Mississippi. It flows into the Gulf. And then we get something called a dead zone. And there are these dead zones in ocean areas all around large farming basins all around the world. And they’re just really—they’re hypoxic, meaning low in oxygen, low enough that it kills everything but the anaerobic bacteria that love to live there on all this fat-teeth nutrition flowing down into their mouths as it were.

How does carbon farming begin to help us with that sort of a process? And I’ll tell you why I’m really concerned about that.

Connor Stedman: Yeah.

Chris Martenson: It’s because the U.N. projects we’re going to have to double food output by 2050 they think. And I’m not sure if I totally square around those numbers, but there will be a billion to a billion and a half more people. They will require more food I assume. My research says that fossil fuels such as the natural gas used to create the nitrogen are going to be in decline by then. So, to me it’s really, from a self-interest or an organism-eating-through-a-fossil-fuel-supply sort of a standpoint, that’s a collision course.

So, I’m really interested in how this idea of carbon farming can begin to help us think about how we might be able to grow more efficiently, more effectively, maybe not squander nutrients by having them flow out to sea. Does it in any way begin to approach that dimension of the predicament we’re in?

Connor Stedman: Yeah, absolutely. So, those are all really good points and really good questions for the future of life for a lot of people in the world. And I want to make a distinction between export farming versus farming for regional use. Because the so-called Green Revolution did succeed in certain ways at increasing crop yield, increasing production. And yet it came with a really complicated cost and complicated legacy. Because not only was the genetically modified crops and new selected hybrids that the Green Revolution was selling, they were packaged with a suite of technologies that were very intensive on pesticide and herbicide use and very intensive on synthetic fertilizer use. And they were also packaged with a set of economic relationships that involve people in the Global South growing for export markets rather than for the food that they themselves ate.

So, the type of farming that you were describing from—that you saw on the West Coast and—I forgot what state that was. And the more intensified and diversified type of farming that carbon farming often looks like is—it’s a type of farming that is more productive per unit area, more productive per acre in terms of total food production than large-scale commodity crop production is. But it may be lower production at the level of those commodity crops themselves.

So, I think the long-term future of agriculture is a lot more bioregional that what we’re seeing right now. And partly it is because of that decline in the fossil fuel subsidy that we’ve been extracting that is coming in our future. And partly it’s because of the nutrification and toxification of waterways and the oceans and other accumulating impacts of the amount of pesticide and herbicide and nitrogen fertilizer use that we’re using.

So, yeah, these diversified farming systems, they do require fewer chemical fossil inputs, taken as a whole, than water and industrial farming does. And they also in some ways depend on that, because nitrogen fertilizers in particular—So not only do they have these big downstream effects on ecosystems, they also have a significant effect on the soil microbial community. So, nitrogen fertilizer is one of the things that most quickly kills soil. It kills the bacterial communities and fungal communities that are who is the one who’s doing the carbon sequestration in the soil, when you don’t have perennial plants doing it.

So, part of the improvement in annual growing practices is about shifting away from nitrogen fertilizer use as the primary source of fertility and towards cover cropping and manures and composts as the source of that fertility. And then when you add in polycultural systems where you’re integrating trees and annuals, where you have multiple different types of trees growing with each other—Like in the tropics, a lot of these agroforestry systems have—they give a substantial amount of their growing area to nitrogen-fixing plants because these plants that have that symbiosis with those soil microbes that can indeed take N2 molecules out of the air and turn them into ammonia directly, which is an ability that almost no other organisms in the world have. Nitrogen-fixing plants are one of the big keys to ecological sources of fertilizer. And the other one if the use of animals. Right? Because animal manures, both directly applied through grazing and indirectly applied through applying collected manure and composting, those are another really big source of nitrogen.

So, it’s going to require making farms that work more like ecosystems. They have an animal component. They have an annual component. They have a perennial component. And there’s nutrients cycling within the farm and with the larger ecosystem and region. And I think that’s part of how we’re going to be able to intensify food production and keep feeding people. Because the amount of food waste produced in the world right now—there’s plenty of food being produced in the world right now. But it’s not getting to the people who need it most because of economics and politics.

Chris Martenson: Absolutely. Very well said. And for my final question, Connor, perhaps it’s too early to say, but in Puerto Rico where Hurricane Maria came, devastated 80 percent of the agricultural output for this year, besides maybe hopefully limiting the amount of heat content in the oceans in the future, how would carbon farming practices possibly have helped limit the damage or possibly speed recovery in Puerto Rico?

Connor Stedman: Yeah. That’s a great question. Well, so, there’s been some research on that exact question actually, not with of course the hurricanes that have just happened, but with previous large storm events on tropical islands. And one of the things they found is that—So there was one particular storm event. I don’t remember which one it was. You’ll have to forgive me. But there’s one large storm event that took place. And the study was looking at the difference in crop losses between diversified farms and monocultures.

And in that particular storm event, monocultures lost 80 to 90 percent of their crops from that one storm event. But diversified farms lost only 50 percent of their crops. And that’s a big difference. And that’s been visible in some of the large storm events in the mainland U.S. as well. Places where there are wetland and riparian buffers, places where there’s trees integrated into farms, places where people are not growing just a single crop for export, are places where people are faring better with extreme weather.

And part of that is because of buffering of floods and winds, but part of it is also because they’ve got more baskets to put their eggs in. Some things are going to be really flattened by those storm events, and other things have more wind resilience. Some things have more flood resilience; some things have less. It’s like the old Andean traditional farmers who have—who grow not just one variety of potato, but hundreds, because the different pests that come in each year never take out all of them. They just take out a few here and there.

So, this biodiversity is a really big part of it. And this structural diversity also, this having above-ground complexity and hedgerows and windbreaks and trees and forest belts that go through the farming landscape, and silvopasture that animals are grazing under—that adds up to I think a much more resilient landscape. So in Puerto Rico specifically, I don’t know all the details down there. I haven’t been there myself. But I do know that it’s a humid tropical climate. And those have some of the most potential in the world to do these multilayer farming systems where you have an overstory that’s productive; you have a mid-canopy that’s productive; you have an understory growing cacao or coffee; and then you have enough animals and nitrogen fixers to make it all work.

So, I think that that’s some of what is going to really help. And the other thing I’ll say is that the role of mangrove forests and other coastal—natural coastal ecosystems is really significant for storm resilience. Because a lot of those coastal landscapes, dune grass systems, mangroves, a lot of different things around the world, but they buffer some of the impacts of those storms. And when those are cut down, for either agriculture or tourism or fossil fuel refining, or in some cases aquaculture—right? So, a lot of the shrimp that’s eaten in the wealthy Global North comes from aquaculture in—saltwater culture in southeast Asia where they have been clearing mangrove forests in order to produce that shrimp. And that is a big reduction in their resilience to cyclones and other large storms in their part of the world.

So, we really have to think about how all these parts of a whole region fit together and where some of our sources of resilience are. And it might mean growing different things, buying different things, and planting different things in some cases. But I think people are trying it and working on it and learning things that are unique to each place.

So, if I was leaving people with one bigger thought, it’s that you have to get to know your place in order to know what’s most appropriate and workable, what’s most regenerative, and what the carbon farming pathway is going to look like in your place. It’s not going to be the same in Kansas as it is in Florida, as it is in Uzbekistan. Each place has its own particularity and appropriateness. And so, that’s one of the really exciting things about this field and this project is that there is a global knowledge base being assembled that is highly diverse, that reflects the diversity of our world.

Chris Martenson: Indeed. And I would suggest if you have the opportunity, just get out of your car. Go visit the farm or the place that’s doing the agriculture. And it will be obvious. It will just seem healthier and more diverse and clearly functioning. Which was—it’s been my impression of every place I visited that seems to be running these integrative practices where there’s a variety of things going on. You won’t just see a field of canola. You’ll see...

Connor Stedman: Right.

Chris Martenson: ...something different than that. So, I lied.

Connor Stedman: Yeah.

Chris Martenson: I guess I have to circle back for one last question.

Connor Stedman: Please, yeah.

Chris Martenson: You mentioned China is really on board seemingly. They’re running practices like this on millions of acres. Why is that, do you think?

Connor Stedman: Gosh, that’s a good question. Well, I am—China is one of those countries that I think a lot of people who’ve never been there have a lot of thoughts and theories and ideas about. And I have never been there, so I really can’t presume to say much about it. But it does look from the outside like China is taking climate change seriously in a way that the U.S. for instance has not to date.

And that’s showing up in renewable energy. That’s showing up in transportation. And it’s showing up in agriculture. I think also there’s something—like, for instance, both South Korea and North Korea are also doing a lot of carbon farming and have some really impressive knowledge bases and beautiful technical manuals for how to do agroforestry on steeply sloping land and how to do polycultures with tree fruits and nuts and animals. It’s really amazing. And I don’t know. It might have something to do with the long history of peoples in that region and the fact that a lot of different farming has been done there over many thousands of years.

And I think in North America, our history of more recent colonization by European people, there was this image of like, “This land is ours for the taking,” which of course was done through genocide and slavery and a lot of other really harmful things. But there was something about, “We don’t have to conserve these resources because there’s so much of them.” And then it’s really tragic, the outcomes of that in a lot of places, because that resource base was exhausted really fast. And I think you can see that in Australia, too, but—with the colonization by English people.

So, I think there’s something to learn from these places where people have lived in one place for a very long time. And a lot of the places in the world that are doing the most carbon farming also are in the global tropics, in the Global South in tropical climates where traditional agroforestry is continuing largely uninterrupted in a lot of places. There’s a lot to learn from those traditional societies and traditional food production systems. And that’s true even in places where that knowledge might appear lost or missing or gone from the landscape. It’s often not as gone, lost, and missing as it might look like. Might have to talk to some old-timers, might have to do some research, might have to look at places down the road that are similar, or places in other parts of the world where the—with migrations of people. But I think there’s a lot more knowledge that has survived than it can appear at first glance. But we have to learn a lot to do this well.

Chris Martenson: I’ll add one last thing on China. I’ve only been there once. But, so, no expert here. And the U.N. panel that I’m serving on has a couple of very highly placed people from China. And one of them, when we were talking over lunch, we were—I was asking him about—very highly qualified scientist and a doctor—and was talking about the political climate in China and who rises to power. And he just winked and said, “Well, we don’t have any community organizers at the top.” Because Obama was President at the time. And what he was saying was that where the United States is really parked with—at the top with a lot of lawyers, which is a specialty—breeds a way of thinking, a lot of—But we don’t have a lot of scientists and engineers at the top as it were.

And China has a different—and Taiwan, very differently organized. They revere the heart sciences and science practices and things like that. So, I think that China’s actually got some highly qualified people who are capable of understanding systems thinking and really looking at the data, understanding where we’re at. Not saying it’s a perfect system by any means. Which one is? But I am saying that I think they’ve got people there who get it. And certainly their acquisitive practices around resources tell me that they understand the world is not infinite.

Connor Stedman: Uh-huh, uh-huh.

Chris Martenson: So, it just seems they’re playing a different game. So, I’m always intrigued, and my eyebrows always go up another millimeter when I’m trying to find out what China’s up to. You just saw recently they’re mandating electric cars in a lot of city areas...

Connor Stedman: Right, right.

Chris Martenson: ...for pollution, but for other reasons. They’ve got the largest annual budget for alternative energy. They decided to become number one in wind and solar power. They’re working on thorium reactors. They’re just doing everything that would align with this view of the idea that fossil fuels are limited and we need to get off of them for a variety of reasons, including it’s going to happen anyway.

Connor Stedman: Right.

Chris Martenson: So, why not do it on our terms instead of some other terms? And so, that’s how—that’s why. Again, I’m always intrigued by what they seem to be doing. So, it’s great to hear that they’re already experimenting with—and putting in practice some of these things that you’ve been talking about.

Connor Stedman: Yeah. Just another example of that, this work on perennial grains, which has made big progress in the U.S. There’s Kernza wheat that’s now starting to be available on the market for baking and brewing and other things. But, so, in China they have perennial rice. And rice is a huge staple crop for people all over the world. And there are tens of thousands of acres that have been planted in perennial rice just in the last two years in China.

Chris Martenson: Wow.

Connor Stedman: And they’re doing it in the warmer subtropical parts in the south of the country. It’s not as readily applicable to a lot of parts of the U.S. There’s not a lot of rice production in the U.S., but just as an example of, there’s a lot going on in the world beyond what’s going on in the U.S. And it’s been really useful and rich to—those of us who are in the U.S. working on carbon farming, to engage with that larger global story and larger global picture because...

Chris Martenson: Yeah.

Connor Stedman: And we can get a little myopic in the U.S. about our own sphere. But there’s so much to learn from other parts of the world.

Chris Martenson: Of course.

Connor Stedman: Speaking of things to learn, I just want to point out a few resources to your folks...

Chris Martenson: Please.

Connor Stedman: ...around where to learn more about this whole topic. So, probably the best single resource that’s been assembled so far on the carbon farming topic specifically is a book written by my good friend and colleague Eric Toensmeier, also a resident of western Massachusetts, who published the book The Carbon Farming Solution about a year ago, in 2016. It looks like a textbook. It’s a little bit easier to read than a textbook. It is a big resource, but it has the most in one place that I’ve seen anywhere about this topic and has a really big global view like we’ve been talking about.

It has a lot of information, especially about the very high carbon sequestering systems. Also really cool stuff in there about perennial industrial crops which we didn’t talk about here. But perennial bioplastics, perennial oil production that can be used to phase out fossil fuel-based plastics and other products that our world runs on. There’s one estimate that 70 percent of the non-fuel petroleum products used in the world could be replaced with products from perennial plants with enough breeding and enough plant-out of those systems. That’s pretty cool. And some of those perennial industrial crops have some of the highest carbon sequestration potential also.

So, there’s a lot in the book The Carbon Farming Solution. The other one I want to mention is the work of Project Drawdown which was—Paul Hawken is the editor of that book. But it was done by a team of hundreds of researchers from all over the world. And it’s assembling what are the climate change, climate mitigation solutions that are already being used all around the world and calculating their emissions reduction effects, their carbon sequestration effects, and their economic costs and economic output potentials.

So, it’s a really, really interesting snapshot. And it’s so useful because the climate change conversation can seem so abstract sometimes when we’re talking about solutions. But Drawdown has the top 50 of them laid out with photographs and numbers and research references to where the numbers came from and how they were calculated. And it just lays it all out like, “Here’s the best stuff that’s been figured out all over the world so far. And here’s what people are actually doing with it already.” And it really drives home that message that we don’t need massive new technological breakthroughs to resolve this challenge. Some of those might be great, but really the technologies we need are already in use. And they just have to be amplified and invested in and adopted.

Chris Martenson: I love that message. Yes, we already—like, there are things not only that we can be doing but we should be doing, because they’re already here and they work and they make sense of all these dimensions. And to cycle back, we’re only doing them because we’re holding the wrong beliefs like, “Oh, I don’t know. We don’t have to worry about this. We just conquered this land. It’s infinite.” You know.

Connor Stedman: Right.

Chris Martenson: So, if we can shift those beliefs, lots of things—and they make sense. They make economic sense; they make ecologic sense, social sense, you name it.

Connor Stedman: Yeah. So, check out that book Drawdown as well.

Chris Martenson: Drawdown.

Connor Stedman: That just came out in the last few months. It’s a really big contribution to this conversation on our world.

Chris Martenson: Fantastic. Well, Connor, thank you so much for your time today. If anyone’s interested in finding out more about your work or about the services you offer or that are offered by AppleSeed Permaculture, where should they go to find out more or to contact you?

Connor Stedman: Sure. So, AppleSeed Permaculture is a design and consulting firm. And we work with farmers and institutions and communities on implementing carbon farming practices and implementing climate adaptation projects, especially at the level of land use, especially involved with farming and forestry and land management. So, we—you can find us online at appleseedpermaculture.com. And you can send us a message at [email protected] if you want to learn more and talk more about it.

Chris Martenson: Fantastic. Well, Connor, thanks again. Really appreciate your message and the work you’re doing.

Connor Stedman: Thanks so much, Chris. Real pleasure to chat with you. Look forward to more.

About the guest

Connor Stedman

Agroforestry, Ecology Specialist

Connor is a field ecologist, agroforestry specialist, and educator based in western New England and the Hudson Valley.  He holds an M.S. in Ecological Planning from the University of Vermont and is a lead organizer of the internationally recognized Carbon Farming Course.  Connor offers consulting and design for multi-productive forest management at AppleSeed Permaculture, including silvopasture, forest understory crops, productive buffers, and wildlife habitat.

Endorsed Financial Adviser Endorsed Financial Adviser

Looking for a financial adviser who sees the world through a similar lens as we do? Free consultation available.

Learn More »
Read Our New Book "Prosper!"Read Our New Book

Prosper! is a "how to" guide for living well no matter what the future brings.

Learn More »

 

Related content

12 Comments

PaulJam's picture
PaulJam
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Dec 4 2016
Posts: 54
Question for Connor

Thanks for a great interview/discussion.  

While I wholeheartedly endorse the type of agricultural approaches that Connor describes to sequester carbon in soils (more of a permaculture/regenerative agriculture approach), I've noticed that there are similar initiatives that appear to have identical aims that seem more geared to working within the prevailing industrial agricultural practices here in North America.  So whenever you hear about sequestering soil in the carbon, not all initiatives are equal, and some are downright suspect.

With that in mind, I'd wonder if Connor or anyone else can comment on something that I have noticed with regards to initiatives to increase soil health to alleviate climate change and water quality:

One such initiative is backed by Monsanto and other industrial ag interests, and distressingly, a few large environmental organizations. [http://soilhealthpartnership.org/index.html].

Among all of the practices that are fall under this particular initiative, one in particular catches my attention, and explains (I think) why Monsanto and others are backing this.  You will often read about "conservation tillage" and "no till techniques" in promotional literature alongside of techniques like cover cropping, buffer strips, etc.  What you never hear described is that conservation tillage and no-till techniques can be code for genetically engineered crops and herbicide- (often glysophate) based weed control methods.  No-till agriculture with round-up ready soy and corn can theoretically increase soil carbon and decrease runoff, thereby providing carbon sequestration and water-quality benefit.  But at what cost?  

My fear is that these slick PR machines will cause most people who are interested in this kind of work to conflate the kind of practices advocated by the Soil Health Partnership vs. the Carbon Farming described by Connor.  If I'm right, I wish there was a good way to better publicize this issue and raise a "greenwashing" alert..

richcabot's picture
richcabot
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 5 2011
Posts: 127
Encouraging

Very uplifting podcast.

I began this interview skeptical that we could make a significant dent in the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.  After all, fossil fuels represent layer upon layer of plant matter which had been grown and stored away over millenia without being burned.  Anything we could do by storing one one layers worth of plant material seemed like a drop in a bucket by comparison.  The idea that so much carbon could be stored in bacteria deep in the earth is new to me and very encouraging.

Unfortunately we will face very strong resistance from the entrenched farming and chemical interests.  I fear that serious progress in this area won't occur until those interests are themselves in serious financial trouble and no longer able to buy our political system.

aggrivated's picture
aggrivated
Status: Platinum Member (Offline)
Joined: Sep 22 2010
Posts: 523
Another question and a comment

This one may go outside Conner's expertise but is related. How much effect does the chemical runoff from our soils into our oceans have on the ocean algae and other CO2 absorbing lifeforms?

And---

The externalized costs of industrial ag are hard to calculate. But in many ways I think it is a mistake to try to dollarize nature. Nature is not a machine. To break apart the intricate complex parts of nature's interactions and try and put $ value on them assumes we understand those interactions which are so complex that they can learn and adapt to changes on their own. It is for that reason the approach of cooperation with nature rather than control and conquest will be the long term winner.

Uncletommy's picture
Uncletommy
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: May 3 2014
Posts: 433
The root of the problem/

As long as we continue to rip up the soil, cut down the trees, drain swamps and burn carbon, these concerns will be no more than a fart in a wind storm. Sure,  the fires in BC this summer and the fires in California are catasrophic, but unless we are actively leaving established forests, wetlands and grasslands in an untrammeled existence, we shouldn't expect to see anything less than what we are seeing. The indigenous populations of North America had this figured out centuries ago. It's just that all of us recent immigrants (post 1500) are slow learners and overly greedy. Leave the roots alone - they'll bounce back.

http://www.prairiefirenewspaper.com/2010/06/north-americas-great-carbon-...

dcm's picture
dcm
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 14 2009
Posts: 191
no spill - The Anti-Monsanto Solution

A great podcast. Down to the core of our deepest problems and deepest solutions. Isnt it funny that the "primitive" people had it right. Observe nature and be a part of her. Go with the flow. Isn't It such a profound irony that when we took the carbon stuff out of the ground that baked for a million years and spewed it into our atmosphere in 150 we also, through the power of the machine, started tearing apart the living carbon with exponential force and spewed that as well. Mother will be mad.    

It is true that Monsanto is trying to steal the conversation. A shocker, I know. It's war for them and war was (and is) their first product. But don't confuse no till with Monsanto spies and lies. No till is exactly how nature works. Ripping apart the soil is like tearing off your skin. Like most living things, the soil is meant to have some skin in game - in the form of permanent perennial life, dead and decaying matter, tree leaves, animal droppings and a billion other things. Till also tears up all the living things under the skin - which is the only thing worse than tearing off your outer skin. So all by all measure, "modern" AG turns out to be one of the deadliest and dumbest things we've ever done.

The good news is like all mothers, the earth is pretty forgiving and great at repairs. Permaculture can indeed be use on all scales, and as the guests from Singing Frogs pointed out, for a 100 reasons, it makes more sense to have 100 small farms near the populace than one corporate one a 100 times the size. In fact, small scale has indeed shown that it is, in the end, more productive per square foot. Gardening vs "farming."

I couldn't agree more with Connor on his plug for Eric Toensmeier. Great books, great work.  While Connor pointed out that different ecosystems raise different challenges, I would point people to one of the demi-gods of permaculture, Geoff Lawton who has shown us that we can re-green the desert with the right design, the right plants and the right natural water capture.

And water is going to end up being the most significant crisis element of all I fear. But once again, keeping the earth healthy brings the water back and holds it. Intelligent design, like Lawton's work in Jordan, can also increase its capture in healthy regenerative ways.       

richcabot's picture
richcabot
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 5 2011
Posts: 127
Climate change debate

Connor's comment that most of the carbon dumped into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution is from landscape alteration rather than the burning of fossil fuels has a large impact on the climate change debate.  I frequently hear from climate change disbelievers that the increased temperatures predate the industrial revolution and are therefore attributable to something else like increased solar activity  However, large scale farming and conversion of forest to farmland lead the use of fossil fuels and from his comment this would explain the earlier rise in measured temperatures. 

An interview with someone knowledgeable about this would be much appreciated.

dcm's picture
dcm
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 14 2009
Posts: 191
Even the EPA notes deforestation and modern AG

https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/greenhouse-gases 

Ps / Psst:    Don't tell Pruitt it says that

kmaher's picture
kmaher
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 5 2009
Posts: 82
Most promising option , and opportunity.

I believe this is the most promising solution out there.  I also believe it presents a tremendous opportunity.  Harnessing the power of biology to hold more carbon, more water, increase biodiversity, increase nutrient density, reduce fuel use, and reduce or eliminate chemical use (and thus pollution).  What more could we ask for?

Well it can also be more profitable over time.  Less inputs with equal or greater productivity equals more profits.  I can't think of anything better to be doing to try to improve our world right now than this.  That's why I'm working on establishing a large scale agroforestry system here in upstate NY.  My thought is that by demonstrating these systems can be designed and run profitably at scale is the surest means to have them widely adopted.  We don't need more research and studies, we need trees in the ground! 

Yes the upfront costs are a hurdle for most farmers, and that's why partnerships with investment capital need to be formed. Once established the costs are greatly reduced and these perennial systems can last for generations.  The long term cash flow potential actually represents a tremendous opportunity for investors in this yield and income starved environment.  There is also the opportunity to diversify from financial assets and a built in inflation hedge as in timber. Nice side benefit of healing some of the damage we've done to natural systems.

Great interview!  This hopeful message needs to be shared more widely.

Kevin

grandefille's picture
grandefille
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 11 2010
Posts: 34
Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good

As the owner of a small farm who raises grass-fed and pastured animals, soil health is core to my success.  The fact is, reducing tillage and using cover crops increases soil organic matter (sequesters carbon) and improves the microbial diversity and population in the soil.  That is independent of the type of seed used for annual crops.  Cover crops can also reduce weed populations, which allows farmers to reduce the use of herbicides.  I'm no fan of GM crops, primarily because of the use of glyphosate. That is toxic to human gut microbes, chelates critical soil minerals and makes crops less nutritious, etc.  But a farmer who risks (at least part of) his livelihood by using new practices like no-till and cover crops is doing good for his soil, the ecosystem, and society, compared to NOT using these practices.  Certified Organic farming with intense tillage has its own issues, as does monocropping, as does use of GMO seeds. 

I recently read a great book by David Montgomery, titled "Growing a Revolution".  He investigates restorative agriculture techniques and concludes that Organic and agribusiness might be converging on a set of best practices: 1) minimize tilling 2) keep the soil covered  (cover crops, litter, mulch, crop residue) 3) avoid mono-cropping . These practices improve soil health and reduce the weed population, which makes farming more profitable and less environmentally destructive.

PaulJam's picture
PaulJam
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Dec 4 2016
Posts: 54
choices?

Seems to me that if the functional choice (considering the degree of embeddedness of industrial agriculture in our society) ends up being long-term chronic reliance on GMO-reliant no-till or limited till agriculture vs conventional tillage with non-GMO crops, there are going to be devastating consequences either way.  So while I recongize that GMO use can have the advertised environmental outcome (and related societal) benefits in terms of soil carbon and water quality, I'd stop well short of describing the use of these techniques - particularly if done in perpetuity, as "good".  I know the issue is much more complex that this simple either/or choice that I've articulated,  but my oversimplification is more illustrative than not, I think.

Permaculture with increasing reliance on perennial crops is more hopeful and fundamentally sustainable, but we are far, far away from where we should be on its adoption.  And I do firmly believe that there are efforts afoot to normalize and perpetuate glysohphate GMO no-till techniques in the name of environmental benefit that need to be called out. 

We can have an interesting and reasonably well-informed back and forth discussion of these issues on this site, but when it comes to the general public, they will be apt to take some big green NGO's stamp of approval on GMO reliant food production practices at face value (considering that the GMO use will be hidden from view beneath the terms "no-till" and "conservation tillage").  That to me is concerning.

Daniel Hromyko's picture
Daniel Hromyko
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 6 2010
Posts: 9
Regimentation and you.

We live in a regimented, networked system of hives. The 300+ million Americans survive and exist within it. Regimintation rules the world. The system depends on energy, and lots of it. The 130 billion tons of carbon that "needs" to be sequestered isn't going to be. Not by humans or machines. Moving 130 billion tons anywhere any distance is impossible. The energy to support the industry of moving 130 billion tons doesn't exist for humanity to exploit.  

Daniel Hromyko's picture
Daniel Hromyko
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 6 2010
Posts: 9
Regimentation and you.

We live in a regimented, networked system of hives. The 300+ million Americans survive and exist within it. Regimintation rules the world. The system depends on energy, and lots of it. The 130 billion tons of carbon that "needs" to be sequestered isn't going to be. Not by humans or machines. Moving 130 billion tons anywhere any distance is impossible. The energy to support the industry of moving 130 billion tons doesn't exist for humanity to exploit.  

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Login or Register to post comments