By Karl THIDEMANN, Seth ITZKAN, and Bill MCKIBBEN
Across the nation, the first wave of a political movement rooted in agriculture’s role as a climate solution is gathering momentum. Unseen by most city dwellers and suburbanites, a carbon farming revolution is sweeping over the land. Driven by a mix of economic and ecological reasons, a growing number of farmers and ranchers are adopting practices to draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, where it overheats the planet, into soil, where it boosts fertility. Plants have performed this pollution-to-nutrition alchemy nearly forever, with the deep, dark loam found in the world’s breadbaskets attesting to soil’s ability to keep carbon out of the air for thousands of years. Research suggests photosynthesis could “lock up” enough carbon to help civilization avert a climate catastrophe - assuming, of course, emissions from coal, oil, and natural gas are swiftly reduced through the deployment of renewable energy technologies.
Converting agriculture, from a net source of greenhouse gases to a net sink, flips the climate imperative from “do less harm” to “do more good,” a proactive planetary healing that recognizes ecological restoration is climate mitigation. As one sign that so-called regenerative agriculture is going mainstream, Kiss The Ground, a California-based advocacy organization, will soon release a soil documentary featuring cameos by a celebrity couple not known for farm activism: Tom Brady and Gisele Bundchen.
The right policies, of course, will be key to hastening a transition to climate-friendly agriculture, and democracy is answering the call. Healthy soil has risen from an obscure topic to a key issue for a small but swelling cadre of candidates able to think beyond the next election cycle.
Regenerative agriculture candidates have found a home on social media in the Twitter feed of Citizens Regeneration Lobby (CRL), the political lobbying arm of the 850,000-member strong Organic Consumers Association. Alexis Baden-Mayer, director of CRL, notes that the roster of traditional farm issues, such as the regulation of pesticides and fertilizer runoff, has expanded this political season to include recognition of agriculture’s role as the only sector of the economy poised to reverse climate change. “One of the most exciting aspects of regenerative agriculture is how quickly this climate mitigation tool can be ‘switched on.’ Farmers and ranchers can, within a few years, transition to land management practices that make their farms not just carbon-neutral but carbon-negative, sequestering more CO2 than is emitted. The remarkable potential of agriculture to sequester literally billions of tons of carbon annually offers a much needed glimmer of hope on the climate front,” said Baden-Mayer.
Elizabeth Kucinich, Board Policy Chair for the Rodale Institute, the oldest organic research organization in America, observes that improving degraded land offers economic and health benefits. “Returning carbon to soil boosts the natural capital of farms by helping farmers become more profitable and, by decreasing nutrient runoff, prevents algal blooms linked to human illness and harm to wildlife,” said Kucinich.
Heralded by California’s pioneering Healthy Soils Program, paying farmers to return carbon to soil, and France’s aspirational “4 per 1000” international initiative, encouraging farmers worldwide to enrich soil organic matter by 0.4% each year to stabilize the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, the regenerative agriculture transformation is well underway. It must accelerate, lest the planet bake for millennia.
Seth Itzkan and Karl Thidemann are co-founders of Soil4Climate, a Vermont-based nonprofit advocating for soil restoration to reverse global warming. Bill McKibben is the Schumann distinguished scholar at Middlebury College and founder of the anti-climate change campaign group 350.org.