Climate Dispatches: Fight climate change with food
One of the solutions to climate change is right under our feet … soil! When farmed using sustainable, regenerative agricultural practices, soil can sequester atmospheric carbon. Not only does that help mitigate climate change but it grows healthier food. Eat healthier and fight climate change? Yes, please!
These were things I learned when I read an article on Grist.org on May 10, 2008. It was an interview with Timothy LaSalle who at the time was the Executive Director of the Rodale Institute. The Rodale Institute is one of the leading organizations studying the impacts of regenerative agriculture. That article was my ground zero resulting years later in the formation of the Tahoe Food Hub in 2012. I wanted to create an organization which supported farms using these restorative, sustainable farming practices. It was my hope that a food hub could increase the market potential for local, sustainably-grown food and help local farms receive a fair price. With increased access to new markets, more farms would want to farm using these ecological techniques. More farms would mean more carbon sequestered. More carbon sequestered would mean we have a fighting chance against climate change.
What is regenerative agriculture? It is like Organic but beyond. Organic can assure you that the land where the food is grown was managed without the use of GMO’s and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. But the Organic label can’t tell you about the health of the land and if it is being regenerated through a series of core principles that put back what farming took away. To be regenerative agriculture, you need biodiversity above the ground in the plants, the compost, the minimal tillage, the crop rotations and off-season cover crops to feed the soil. Feeding the soil is what grows healthy plants. Healthy plants have strong root systems. Roots are where carbon is sequestered. And the indirect benefit: carbon rich soil can retain water to help farm fields be drought tolerant. Pretty cool, huh?
Carbon sequestration may sound complicated but it starts with something we all learned in third grade: photosynthesis. This simple process is how carbon sequestration starts. Plants pull carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere (CO2 is the stuff we want to sequester). The plants convert CO2 into sugar or carbohydrates pushing it down into their roots to feed the soil microbes living symbiotically among the roots (fungi, nematodes, bacteria protozoa, etc.) The microbes decompose the organic compounds releasing important nutrients the plant needs like nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, etc. The plant then off-gases oxygen back out its leaves so we humans can breathe. Nature is a boss!
Timothy LaSalle said it best, “With regenerative farming, we’re building in the soil mycorrhiza fungi, which creates a protein, an encasement among the plant’s roots. So it sits down there in the soil and holds carbon for a long, long time. When you pour synthetic fertilizer down there, you kill the fungi and it volatizes back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Agriculture, when practiced conventionally with all of its synthetic inputs, is one of the biggest contributors to global warming, but if converted to regenerative practices, agriculture as a whole could be one of the biggest mitigators.”
When combined with holistic grazing of our rangelands, regenerative agriculture has the potential to draw down a considerable amount of atmospheric carbon. According to the Rodale Institute, grazing lands account for more than 70% of the global agricultural land area. If managed properly, grazing lands provide the greatest potential to sequestering carbon. If animal feedlots with their bare dirt were replaced with pasture, livestock could rotational graze on open fields and grow their own food as they spread their own manure. Yes, to raise livestock this way, we would need to raise less animals for meat consumption so they could live in smaller herds. But the end result is pastured-land would have permanent grasses with deep root systems for sequestering carbon. Mind blown!
Ready for this … If regenerative systems were achieved globally, it could draw down 100% of the annual CO2 emissions (Rodale Institute). If we can manage the current amount of carbon being emitted then it buys us time to reduce the legacy of carbon already in the atmosphere.
A lot has to change for all this to happen from how we farm, to how we eat and how politicians act. But it is possible. We don’t have to construct a building or a machine. The solution already exists in nature with regenerative agriculture. Demand dictates supply. If consumers demand produce and proteins grown using regenerative agricultural practices, supply will meet demand. It is simple economics. We vote three times a day on how we eat. Exercise your right to healthy food and a planet for the next generation. Vote for food grown locally using sustainable and regenerative farming practices. Take a bite out of climate change!
Susie Sutphin is the founder/director of the Tahoe Food Hub. She moved to Truckee in 1999 in search of powder and stayed for the community she found in the mountains. Bringing local, regeneratively grown food to Tahoe has been how she helps give back to the community she loves
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