“You can’t be free when you depend on someone else for your food.” –Wendell Berry
News Flash: Man-made warming may have begun earlier than we thought
Gayathri Vaidyanathan, E&E reporter
ClimateWire: Thursday, August 25, 2016
Before gasoline-powered cars crowded roads, before even the first coal-fired power plant was built in the United States, humans had begun warming Earth’s climate.
By 1831, the signals of man-made global warming could be seen in the Arctic and the tropical oceans. By 1850, all of the Northern Hemisphere was warming. The Southern Hemisphere followed a half-century later. On the continents, people were clearing land, building railroads and mining coal at the start of the Industrial Revolution. That is when global warming began, scientists announced in Nature yesterday.
Part I: Agriculture and Global Warming
Potentially agriculture could repair global warming by catching and sequestering warmth, light and carbon dioxide. It would do this without subsidies because working in co-operation with nature is cheaper and easier if farmers only learned how. Vegetation is the answer. However, the common cultural belief is we must bare more and more soil, plough, erode, and wage war on nature with chemicals to feed the world’s increasing billions.
The story we are told by those at the top of agricultural industries and commodity traders is the world will run out of food if we don’t ratchet up the war on nature—even though the farmers doing this are drowning in debt, crippled by world surpluses and forced to take prices below their production costs. Meanwhile, first world populations mow their lawns every week, pull weeds and herbicide traffic ways. Bare soil is perfectly acceptable. The warmth and light this contributes to global warming goes unnoticed even though anyone in summer with bare feet walking on bare sand, soil or pavement should recognize bare surfaces are a leading cause of warming. Bare soil keeps increasing and agriculture is chief among its causes. Any alien visitor from outer space would look on this with disbelief. In some places herbiciding roadsides is mandated by law, as though making war on nature is politically correct, desirable, justifiable and somehow beautiful.
Just about everywhere environments are spiralling towards chaos. Weather is driven by warmth. Free warmth and light—given off from bare surfaces—slowly drives our weather systems to greater and greater extremes. If there is any reason for shame, it is turning the soil over and leaving it exposed to die. But shame and justification fall short of remedy.
It’s more empowering to ask how farmers can make a difference. Many examples show things could be other than the present. Agriculture is a two-edged blade. One might even say agriculture is central to global warming—both the unwitting cause and the potential solution. We need clarity about how nature works, how to feed nature’s armies of plants and animals, and the benefits that result. We can improve how we handle atmospheric cycles, and the nitrogen, oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and sulphur the atmosphere contains. Though this may sound complicated, it is really quite simple. An historical look at how this occurred may help.
Part II: An Historical Overview
“Maybe some readers find that I have expressed my convictions with too great of a frankness, that I have not always been polite enough. But the times are so serious in which we are living, that if we want to make any impression at all, we must speak in strong terms.” –Lilly Kolisko, Agriculture of Tomorrow
With farming came tillage, erosion and a host of problems as soil life was lost and restoration of soils failed. Re-vegetation is essential to store up warmth, light, water, CO2 and proteins as soil life, resulting in balance, vitality, health and, hopefully, self-realization. The alternative may be extinction if all we do is accept environmental degradation.
Middle Ages to 18th Century Europe
Back in the old days ploughs were made of wood, usually shod at their tips with metal. These ploughs wore out rather swiftly, and the modest damage they wreaked on the soil food web up through the 18th century was fairly sustainable.
Shallow ploughing and harrowing produced a good seedbed for hand sown crops, which benefitted from the nutrient release that followed. As long as the soil food web’s microbial life restored itself tillage was little more than a scratch on the arm. There wasn’t much concern about fertility or weeds. When weeds occurred, folks took an interest in using them. This retained diversity, keeping soils healthy and vital. For the most part farmers built fertility by grazing, storing up warmth, light and carbon as humus. Bare soil was occasional and brief.
As industry awakened, steel ploughs started coming into use all over Europe and its colonies. By the end of the 18th century folks had learned to turn over the soil with their new, sharp mouldboards that left entire fields of bare earth in their wake. Farmers ploughed more and deeper. Teams of animals pulled these steel ploughs and harrows, and at first this seemed far better as long as the soil food web was ignored. Yet this began to liquidate the better part of soil life, draining momentum from the soil’s humus flywheel. The increased release of nutrients led to higher production in the short term, but in the long term this exploited the soil’s fertility—selling off key capital and treating it as income. These were the seeds of soil bankruptcy.
As the 19th century proceeded, fertility declined, even where livestock residues were returned to fields. Better equipped estates with more horses ploughed deeper, and tended to have faster fertility losses, particularly on light soils. Even so, with deep, rich, black soils this seemed sustainable. With mechanical sowing and reaping the nineteenth century saw improvements in crop yields while more and more territory was laid bare. Agriculture subscribed to a treadmill of borrowing from its future.
Obviously, at least to some, when you found an old, well-managed pasture, you could expect good yields the first year you ploughed it and released that sweet, clean Actinomycete smell while wrecking the soil food web. It smelled and felt great, but the penny didn’t drop about the damage and loss. Instead standard practice was to grow a cover crop and plough it down prior to planting a following crop for harvest. Ploughing vegetation under was problematic, as burying cover crops caused purification that encouraged weeds, insects and diseases. Nevertheless this also produced a temporary lush effect that seemed restorative. Cover cropping made up for some of the losses while slowing the apparent decline, but not much changed. Ripping up the soil food web and leaving the soil bare ran the soil down.
In those days most ploughing involved ploughs that turned the soil over. There were debates about the relative worth of ploughing shallow or deep. Deep ploughing buried plant residues where there was little oxygen. In response some folks stood their sods up rather than ploughing them over. This was messier and didn’t produce as smooth a seedbed, but some felt it was healthier and better for soil life. In some places farmers formed the soil up in ridges and planted in the ridges. The extra oxygen boosted crops, but ploughing still impaired nitrogen fixing capacity and wrecked the soil food web.
Chemical war on nature got in full swing with the birth of the ammonia industry in 1907, while mechanical tractor power enabled chisel ploughs to rip through the soil food web without turning. This left much of the vegetation and trash on the surface, limiting wind and water erosion while allowing the soil food web some chance for recovery—unless soil sterilants like anhydrous ammonia or potassium muriate were applied. But there also were rototillers which completely churned through the soil, destroying whatever structure there was—even where anhydrous and muriate were not used.
The last half of the 20th century really shut down the soil biology with bigger and bigger machinery and round after round of toxic chemistry. Soluble soil testing, which ignored soil reserves, became the fertiliser industry’s tool of choice to sell NPK salts. Yet, the more these salts were used the less fertile the soil became. Organic growers followed this model. They substituted organic inputs for chemical ones, but they too bared the soil and lost fertility.
Throughout this de-evolution, farmers were fascinated with cutting into the soil food web and smelling the rich, fertile smell of Actinomycetes while preparing their seedbeds. Chemical-free succession planting with minimal tillage and humified compost crossed almost no one’s mind. Everyone wanted to prepare a smooth seedbed. Almost no one sowed a mixture of seeds onto the soil and grazed, mowed or rolled down existing vegetation—even throwing down a bit of mulch in bare spots—knowing that something would grow as long as the soil was covered. Lost in the mists of antiquity, the idea of maintaining soil cover was so new it was ignored.
Now comes the question, can 21st century agriculture address the roots of the problem?
Part III: Meeting the Challenge
Change in agriculture is up against the likes of D.C. Edmeades, Hamilton, New Zealand, author of a lengthy paper entitled Pseudo-science: a threat to agriculture? (http://www.mannkal.org/downloads/environment/2011conferenceinvitedp.pdf)
Edmeades brandishes the buzzword “pseudo-science” 37 times in a ten page paper intended to slander Dr. Christine Jones’s admirable work on soil microbiology, cultivation, artificial nitrogen fertilization and carbon sequestration—topics much in need of investigation if we are to arrest the alarming weather trends threatening our economy, safety and well-being. He trots out the fallacious assumption that we must put more land under cultivation to feed world population. And his arguments for continuing the NPK/toxic approach show his 19th century understanding of chemistry hasn’t caught up with cutting edge soil biology, biochemistry and biophysics. He makes no mention of quantum mechanics and chaos theory. He would replace what he calls “pseudo-science” with something illogical and unsustainable that has long been refuted, outdated and surpassed. His paper is replete with references, graphs, sophistries and scientific double-talk designed to confuse the unwary and uninformed.
Inertia to Change
Top agricultural authorities whose livelihoods depend on current agricultural practices tell us the world will run out of food if we don’t keep intensifying the war on nature, disregarding how this devastates soils, pollutes ecosystems and fuels global warming. Yet, the further we go along this path the closer we come to tipping points where the earth’s self-correcting life support systems spiral out of control.
Evil exists to awaken our appreciation of good. The pity is we often wake up when what is good is gone. What is obvious is we need to reverse the degradation of the land already under cultivation and improve its productivity. To do that we need to reduce mechanical cultivation, nitrogen fertilisation, contamination, erosion, overgrazing, monocropping, deforestation and desertification while we improve ground cover, build soil biology, restore nitrogen fixation and practice controlled rotational grazing, biological no-till and diverse intercropping—all proven alternatives. If, along the way, permaculture and biodynamics give us tools with which to achieve these ends with ease and grace, what could be better?
What Nature Does
What nearly everyone missed, as agriculture borrowed from its future, was looking at how nature works. Nature builds fertile soils without ploughing as farmers do. Nature’s army of soil workers come up to feed and breathe, and then tunnel down again, aerating the soil in the finest ways wherever they go. In the daytime, most of these animals hang out in the near vicinity of plant roots where the soil biology is rich. When pooping and peeing they give the soil food web freshly digested remnants of what they consumed at the verges of their sub-surface habitat. This feeds new growth at the finest level while recycling surface litter in a steady way. Left to itself, nature’s intelligence cultivates the soil in ways we can’t duplicate. What we can do is support nature’s work.
Look at earthworms munching on decaying roots, leaves, microbes and other tasty morsels. They require oxygen to metabolize what they eat, so when need arises they eat out air passages and cast off the soil they excavate at the surface. Although soil animals give off carbon dioxide from the foods they consume, they oxygenate the soil as they travel. Many earthworms prefer a bacterial diet, though some of the larger types prefer fungi. Yet ants are the best fungal farmers, complementing earthworms while building and regulating the soil food web’s activities.
When the Masanobu Fukuoka* and Alan Savory† visions of building a living blanket to regenerate the earth came along with diversified no-till summer/winter cropping or grazing, most mainstream farmers dismissed this as nonsense and impractical. The gulf between their cultural beliefs and how nature actually works was too great. Yet, a few serious, large-scale farmers and stockers used these ideas to regenerate their farm and livestock operations, thus building a partnership with nature that improved yields and lowered costs.
There it was—plant with as little disturbance as possible while feeding, balancing and enriching the ecology. Harvest warmth, light, water, carbon dioxide and nitrogen out of the atmosphere for free. While academics ignored such stuff, these early pioneers proved storing warmth and light in the soil’s humus flywheel worked. Foreseeably this would continue to build life into the environment into the future.
Although often ignored, humus acts as a magnet for hydrogen, especially when this prince of protons is in the form of water. Carbon attracts hydrogen. That’s basic chemistry. When plants cover the earth’s surface, they soak up warmth, light, CO2 and H2O, fixing nitrogen and improving rainfall.
Obviously if planting trees restored forests this would help arrest global warming. It may seem a no-brainer to oppose coal mining and plant trees. The worry is forests build their carbon onto the soil, which makes them subject to harvest and fire. Holistic pasture management builds carbon into the soil as humus. Environmentalists on the one hand, and conventional farmers on the other, need to shed their misconceptions and join forces. Prejudice is our enemy. Grazing livestock is only a moral problem if we don’t do it constructively.
Part IV, There Can Be an Answer, Let It Be
“A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” –Rosalynn Carter
What built the world’s most fertile prairies, steppes, savannahs and plains were herds of animals and their predators. Unassisted, nature isn’t going to re-forest the Sahara without first growing pastures, because forests only occur where rainfall is abundant. Observation, the basis of intelligence, shows periodic intensive grazing is the opposite of confinement animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The true costs of CAFOs and their stream of environmental pollution, waste and suffering are not all paid at the supermarket, but rather in physical and social dysfunction.
Though the Sahara was forested 15,000 years ago, today can we re-plant such forests without first improving rainfall and water retention? We will have to re-vegetate step-wise, as forests require lots of rain. We need grazers and chicken herders to store carbon in pastures with well-run pastoral operations. We can grow grass quicker with less water in less time than we can grow forests, and grass stores carbon in the soil. Pastoral animals maximize biomass gains when they eat old growth and recycle it as fertilizer while making way for new growth.
The regenerative practices of farmers who pay attention and cooperate with nature are cheap and productive. Though it takes intelligence and hard work, the quality of what these farmers send to markets is superior. At the same time they cure rather than contribute to global warming. As farmers and environmentalists learn to read from the book of nature they will discover the best practices of restorative farming, grow quality products and prosper from their partnership with nature. Meanwhile regenerative farmers can take advantage of collapsed ventures that extracted value and left an empty husk behind for somebody who knows how to use it. Look ahead to the glass half full and see revegetating as an opportunity we need to embrace.
Our job is to open public eyes and show that the true cost of the war on nature is hidden in plain sight, and it will dawn on everyone in time. The simple efficiency of working with nature to build a thriving, long-term, regenerative agricultural base will change agriculture. It is expensive to wage war with nature, and the will to continue along these lines is dying. Already first world agricultural universities are running out of new blood for this agenda. Why? Current practices lock participants into spiralling debt, toxic technology and soil degradation—more subtle but comparable to living in a battle zone. Fresh out of high schools, today’s students don’t want careers in a hazardous, toxic, depressing, morass of debt.
More and more examples show how vegetation on the earth’s surface soaks up warmth, light and CO2—which otherwise fuel global warming. New farmers need only realize their opportunities to educate themselves. The information age ensures the necessary information is accessible as long as farmers are discerning of truth. The farmers of today and tomorrow have an opportunity to take up nature’s bounty of nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and sulphur and turn these gifts of the heavens into the means for social health, wealth and happiness.
In A Nutshell
It’s urgent we understand how nature works. Nature is a system. Everything is interwoven and interactive at the finest levels everywhere. Farming starts with the soil food web and interacts with everything all the way to the farthest stars. Life processes start with hydrogen, which is everywhere and in all things. Hydrogen joins with carbon, cinder of the first stars, and its siblings, nitrogen and oxygen. With a little help from a few soil minerals, sulphur, the catalyst, along with hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen—free from the atmosphere—incorporate warmth and light as living protoplasm.
Nitrogen is an amazing player. As the basis of awareness, memory, sensation and desire, it forms the genetic blueprints for life and its reproduction. Carbon provides the framework, as we are all carbon based life forms. Like money in the market, oxygen is life’s medium of exchange, the basis for activity. Since organization arises at boundaries and organization is the basis of life, hydrogen with its infinitesimal content and infinite context is the universal source of organization, the basis of life. Plants take in CO2 and give off O2. Animals take in O2 and give off CO2. With sulphur for ignition, we have nature’s chemistry in a nutshell.
We can also talk about the five percent of biomass that comes from the soil—the cations, sand, clay and humus that interact with the atmosphere’s free gifts which make up the other ninety-five per cent of our biomass. There’s never been greater opportunity to cover the earth’s surface with living organisms, soak up warmth, light and CO2, maximizing vegetative growth and digestive activity. This will end global warming.
When market forces drive change, the rest will follow. Re-vegetate the earth at every opportunity. Seize the initiative. Build life back into the land. Pioneer a new agriculture in partnership with nature. Invent a new way of farming that knits together well-meaning but misguided sectors of society. There’s a long road ahead with health, wealth and satisfaction along the way. My book Quantum Agriculture, Biodynamics and Beyond is an early step in this direction.