The Solution Is the Soil: How Organic Farming Can Feed the World and Save the Planet
Originally published in
Common Dreams, September 2014 under a Creative Commons License
One man, backed by many, marches on Washington to tell lawmakers and the world that 'there is hope right beneath our feet.'
Just over a week ago, the executive director of the Rodale Institute, Mark 'Coach' Smallwood, set out from the group's research farm in eastern Pennsylvania on a 160-mile journey to Washington, DC with a walking stick, a brimmed hat, and a simple but profound message: We can not only stop climate change. We can reverse it.
"I think climate change is Mother Nature's gift to us... And I believe it's not too late and that she is providing opportunities for us to change." — Mark 'Coach' Smallwood, The Rodale Institute
When Smallwood makes his expected arrival in the nation's capital on October 16, he will deliver a Rodale white paper—titled Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming (pdf)—to lawmakers alongside a broader message from a global coalition of organic farmers, scientists, and food justice advocates who argue that a global transformation in how the world grows its crops, manages its soil, and feeds its livestock is the key solution available to us that can best stop, even reverse, the growing and dangerous volumes of carbon and other greenhouse gases now pushing world's atmosphere and oceans beyond capacity.
"We must bring awareness to this research and encourage the USDA and Congress to create legislation that supports organic farmers," said Smallwood on Wednesday night as he marked the halfway point of his trek. "Only organic farming can stop the chaos that we have created—chaos that is deeply impacting our environment on so many levels."
The crucial role that regenerative organic agriculture (or ROA) can play, as well as the notion of "soil as the solution," is explained in the white paper itself:
Solving the long-term climate equation means getting to a zero carbon economy devoid of fossil fuels. It is widely acknowledged that we are not going to arrive at a new low-carbon economy any time soon; the technologies, markets, political and social structures needed to shift the world’s economies are not materializing quickly enough. In the decades it will take to decarbonize the economy, an unacceptable level of warming will become locked in. With each passing year of inaction, hope for our planet’s future becomes harder and harder to rally. We are on a trajectory of too little too late.
If we wait, our only hope for the future lies in yet-to-be-discovered technological fixes coupled with the loss of whole cultures and species. The numbers are so sobering that untested technologies for carbon capture and storage have in short order gone from unsafe, outlandish whims to pressing societal needs: bioengineering the human body has even entered the climate conversation. And yet, there is hope right beneath our feet. There is a technology for massive planetary geoengineering that is tried and tested and available for widespread dissemination right now. It costs little and is adaptable to local contexts the world over. It can be rolled out tomorrow providing multiple benefits beyond climate stabilization. The solution is farming. Not just business-as-usual industrial farming, but farming like the Earth matters. Farming like water and soil and land matter. Farming like clean air matters. Farming like human health, animal health and ecosystem health matters. Farming in a way that restores and even improves on soil’s natural ability to hold carbon.
The concept that is most critical to understand about what Rodale's research, explained Smallwood recently, "Is that we're not talking about slowing things down. We're talking about the capability of regenerative organic agriculture being able to actually reverse and draw down the excesses" of carbon and other greenhouse gases that are now overwhelming the capacity of the planet's atmosphere.
"We don’t have to wait for technological wizardry," reads the report, "regenerative organic agriculture can substantially mitigate climate change, now."
The theories contained in the institute's white paper are backed by decades of study and "lots of deep science," Smallwood recently explained, but his goal is to keep the ideas simple and accessible for both policy-makers and regular people. "I have taken a completely different look at what climate change is," he said, pointing away from the tendency among some advocates of climate action to focus on droughts, extreme weather, and apocalyptic warnings.
"I think climate change is Mother Nature's gift to us," he said optimistically. "I believe that it's nature knocking us on the head with each of those kinds of events. And I believe it's not too late and that she is providing opportunities for us to change what is happening currently."
Last month, at an event in New York City that took place on the immediate heals of the People's Climate March that brought more than 400,000 people into the streets demanding climate action, some of the world's leading voices gathered to endorse Rodale's most recent research and Smallwood's symbolic journey. In a conference room just blocks from the United Nation's headquarters where leaders were gathering to discuss what should be done to address the climate crisis, the panel of experts shared their informed perspectives on why transforming how we manage the soil beneath our feet is the key solution towards tackling the most worrisome—and interconnected—challenges now facing humanity: resource scarcity and environmental degradation, economic inequality, rampant poverty and food insecurity, and the overarching threat posed by human-caused climate change.
"Mother Nature set up the entire system so that photosynthesis would—using the largest solar-powered engine ever created on the planet—remove carbon from the atmosphere and put it back to work for the benefit of all life." — Tom Newmark, Carbon Underground
Andre Leu, director of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), acknowledged that there is not a single solution that can by itself halt or reverse climate change, but that the work put forth by Rodale is "one of the most significant solutions" that needs to be given to the world and fought for by anyone serious about the crisis.
And for Leu, what Rodale's work—which he called "some of the most important research being done on this planet"—has shown with over thirty years of side-by-side trials, is that organic farming out-performs conventional farming and can, indeed, feed the world. "We know it can," said Leu.
What is also so hopeful about the idea of regenerative organic agriculture, say its supporters, is that it takes one of the primary systems driving climate change—modern industrial agriculture—and supplants it with a solution that also addresses numerous other crises now facing modern society.
"Soil, not oil," said Tom Newmark, co-founder of the Carbon Underground, an advocacy group that has endorsed Rodale's research and is collaborating with the institute on bringing the message of ROA to the broader public. "The soil is available and it wants its carbon back," Newmark explained. "Mother Nature set up the entire system so that photosynthesis would—using the largest solar-powered engine ever created on the planet—remove carbon from the atmosphere and put it back to work for the benefit of all life."
The Indian scientist and food sovereignty activist Vandana Shiva, who actually wrote the book titled 'Soil Not Oil,' was also in attendance.
Shiva championed Rodale's latest research data, but said it was important to note that what the institute's scientists are presenting "in principle" has been well-known by organic farmers, including indigenous people and ecologists, going back generations. The fact, she said, is that the world's industrial agriculture system—exemplified by large monocultures and factory farms—is maintained by powerful interests who "refuse to recognize" the benefits that RAO (sometimes referred to as agroecology) can deliver. "I think that is a specific and large challenge we face," Shiva said, "because it is a deliberate denial."
"We should be subsidizing small-holder farmers, as they are not only the lungs, but they are the food-providers of the world." —Alnoor Ladha, The Rules
Anti-poverty activist Alnoor Ladha, co-founder of the The Rules project, articulated the tensions between corporate-controlled, large-scale agriculture and small-scale, regenerative farming practitioners by saying: "We have industrial agriculture that uses 75 percent of the world's resources and only yields 25 percent of the world's food, versus organic farming which provides 75 percent of the world's food while using only 25 percent of the world's resources. Why is there even a debate going on here? I think we have to understand the power that's at stake here and why we're not having these conversations about soil."
Instead of subsidizing industrial agriculture with hundreds of billions of dollars in annual subsidies, argued Ladha, "We should be subsidizing small-holder farmers, as they are not only the lungs, but they are the food-providers of the world."
The additional challenge, in terms of promoting the solution, said Shiva, is showing how ecological farming practices addresses that series intertwined crises that now pivot on the climate crisis and are created by our reliance on fossil fuels, industrial-scale farming, and neoliberal globalization.
"Monocultures of the mind have given us this either/or framework," she explained, "'You either have more food or you can have the environment.' 'You can either have anti-poverty or you can have the environment.' And those kind of arguments are a big part of the mindset that's created this problem."
"We say 'No' to more false solutions to hunger, the climate, and other environmental crises that we're facing and 'Yes' to the real solutions of agrarian reform, agroecology, and food sovereignty." — Dena Hoff, La Via Campesina
Instead of 'either/or,' Shiva concludes, agroecology provides benefits that come one after another. "It is 'and' and 'and' and 'and' and 'and' and 'and," she explained, referring to the multitude of socio-economic, nutritional, ecological, and climate benefits that flow into and out of organic farming systems.
Larry Kopald, Newmark's colleague at the Carbon Underground, expanded on Shiva's argument by saying that agroecology could be seen as one of those 'And, you also get....' infomercial sales pitches.
With ROA, Kopald explained, "We can reverse climate change. We can have more secure food. We can reduce our water use. We can eat better. And, quite frankly, rather than spend the projected $5 trillion in adaptation that [some experts] are talking about, we can save $5 trillion in healthcare, because we're gonna be healthier people. We're going to create more jobs, and because the input costs are less, we're going to be able to pay for them."
Organic farming and regenerative practices is profound, says Shiva, not only because soil sequestration could create "a 100 percent solution" in terms of carbon, but because it simultaneously addresses "the health problem, the unemployment problem, the poverty problem, and the water problem" all at once.
According to Newmark, "The solution is available now and there are no technological impediments."
"This is the great promise of the regenerative organic agricultural movement," he concluded: "It is the only known technology whereby we can take the excess hundreds of billions of tons of CO2 in the atmosphere now and—using Mother Nature's genius—gently restore that carbon back to where it is the greatest tonic for all life on the planet, permitting all of us to look at our children and our grandchildren."
Dena Hoff, the North America coordinator for La Via Campesina said the message from her group, which represents small-holder and peasant farmers from across the world, is simple: "We say 'No' to more false solutions to hunger, the climate, and other environmental crises that we're facing and 'Yes' to the real solutions of agrarian reform, agroecology, and food sovereignty."
"Join us," she said, "As we globalize the struggle and globalize the hope."
And as the Rodale Institute's white paper that Smallwood carries with him concludes:
We are at a critical moment in the history of our species. Climate change is a monumental opportunity to change course and move into a future that embraces life, a future bent on encouraging health, a future where clean air and clean water is available to all. In so many ways, a fundamental restructuring of how we cultivate our food is at the heart of this shift. Widespread regenerative organic agriculture will be built on supports that necessarily also support rural livelihoods, strengthen communities and restore health the world over. Regenerative organic agriculture is our best hope for creating a future we all want to live in, and a future our children will be happy to inherit.
Originally published in
Other Worls, 14 October 2014 REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION
Families in a Landless Workers Movement squatter encampment, hoping to win legal title to the land. Photo: Andy Lin.
October 16 is World Food Day. To ensure that there is food for the world, and that it is not controlled by corporations, small farmers and allies across the globe have also named October 16 the Day of Action for Food Sovereignty and against Transnational Organizations. A posting by La Via Campesina, the coalition of more than 160 peasants and small-farmer movements across continents, says that it “organizes this day of solidarity, resistance, and mobilisation in order to make citizens aware of the current threats to peoples’ food sovereignty.” (To find out about U.S. actions for this day, click here.)
Food sovereignty is the concept that every people has the right to make decisions about, produce, and consume its own local, healthy, culturally appropriate food. Food sovereignty is based in an expansive set of ecological and agricultural practices, international trade laws, and domestic governmental policies.
A prerequisite of food sovereignty is comprehensive land reform, through which small farmers can control their own land and production, and have access to credit, marketing assistance, and other government support on which their livelihood often depends. For the 2014 international mobilization, La Via Campesina says, “We will raise our voices in order to express our resistance to landgrabbing… and to call for comprehensive agrarian reform and food sovereignty, which together imply a radical transformation towards a fair and decent food system for the world’s peoples.”
No group has done more promote this “radical transformation” than Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement, or MST by its Portuguese acronym. The MST is addressing an urgent need in a country with one of the highest levels of unequal land distribution anywhere. Fifty-six percent of agricultural land is owned by just 3.5% of landowners.* In 2000, multinational companies controlled roughly 50% to 90% of most premier export crops.** Unable to compete, an estimated 90,000 small and family farms disappear each year.***
The MST’s solution to ending the loss of land and livelihood for rural people, and for ending the country’s poverty and hunger, is to put agriculturally rich land back into the hands of small farmers. In Brazil, people can challenge ownership of large properties in two ways: by going after the title’s authenticity or by claiming that the land is not fulfilling its “social function.” Codified in the country’s l988 constitution, social function means that 80% of the land is used effectively, environmental and labor standards are respected, and both owners and workers benefit.
Rita Zanotto, a 25-year member of the MST, tells about the strong social organization that is required to successfully challenge the unlawful landholdings of the elite, and how the redistribution process works. Zanotto is a member of the MST's education and training sector and its international relations sector.
“We’ve had to establish strategies for our struggle as if this were a war. Of course, not in the most literal sense, but this is a clear struggle for land in which we have to establish strategies for resistance. While feeling a lot of solidarity towards each other, we also think about how to not be overtaken by the enemy.
“We organize collectively. There is no director or head of the MST. If you hear someone say there is, they probably don’t understand the movement. We all work in teams, coordinating together. And we’ve been sharing our experiences and building this movement together, constructing the roads that we can walk forward on.
“I got involved in the MST in 1989 in the same way as most other people: as a person who went to live in an encampment to struggle for land. I started with the MST on March 3. By March 7, we were already occupying a plantation to pressure the government and show them that there is plenty of land that is lying fallow, that is not being used and that needs to be given over to other people. This was a moment of great struggle, with of a lot of repression. In that particular encampment, 22 people were arrested as a result.
“Right now, we have 100,000 families living in these encampments [where usually about 100 families live under tarps or huts on the land they are struggling politically to gain, backed up by MST lawyers who try to win it legally], and 350,000 families involved with the MST. It’s a very complex political moment for Brazil. In the past few years, we haven’t obtained much land. The government hasn’t made much progress in the agrarian reform that we need.
“When your encampment occupies the land and works it and plants crops, is when the most suffering takes place. People don’t have land and are living with food supplies by the government - barely enough to survive. People are just coming into the movement wanting to get involved, they’re excited, but then they realize how hard it is to obtain land. So this is when organizing as a collective becomes very important. Getting involved in these collectives is when the community organizes itself into what we call ‘constructed fellowship.’ People organize what is called a ‘base nucleus,’ with each nucleus made up of 10 to 15 families. Each nucleus has its own coordination team, and we all get organized to delegate tasks. We have a health nucleus, an education nucleus, a hygiene nucleus. This is a temporary moment in the life of the community, but it’s also one of the most special moments in the training and mobilization of the people involved. A lot of solidarity is developed here.
“The ultimate goal is concrete: to obtain land. But struggling for land is just the first step. Once you win it, then it’s about working the land, living in the land reform settlement, being productive, having broader political objectives, and staying organized. Organizing the means of production means organizing production on the land, and also organizing people into groups and collectives. That second part involves a wholly different kind of organization: reorganizing the grassroots base, establishing permanent political spaces, and establishing schools on the land we’ve won. Our schools belong to the Landless People movement, they’re ours. We’re very passionate about education, which is what makes the difference for our movement.
“I’d like to say that I am so proud to be part of an organization that sees its members as holistic, entire human beings. That doesn’t just think about production; rather, we think about every element of the person and the collective.
“We are also an internationalist movement. We don’t just see the MST as a movement for Brazil, but rather as part of global movement.”
Translation by David Schmidt.
* Fabíola Ortiz, “Brazil at Risk of Agrarian Counter-Reform,” Inter Press Service website, April 27, 2011, http://ipsnews.net/ news.asp?idnews=55414.
** Sue Branford and Jan Rocha, Cutting the Wire: The Story of the Landless Movement in Brazil (London: Latin American Bureau, 2002), 175. Four and a half million Brazilians have no land or tenure rights.