Many farms have areas where the ground either floods or does not retain enough water or fertilizer for crops to thrive. Such marginal lands could become useful and potentially profitable if they are planted with perennial bioenergy crops such as shrub willow and switchgrass, report researchers this week at the annual meeting of The Geological Society of America in Indianapolis.
In a project that's been underway since 2011, researchers at Argonne National Laboratory have been studying how shrub willow and switchgrass in sandier, easily dried-out patches of land can not only control erosion, but also suck up excess fertilizer chemicals that could otherwise contaminate surface water and groundwater. Excess fertilizer nutrients can lead to a host of downstream problems including toxic algal blooms, increased costs for water treatment facilities, and the growth of the hypoxic "dead" zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
"The focus is on improving water quality," said John Quinn, a researcher at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois. But along the way they have found that shrub willow and grasses have other potential benefits as well, including being a source of biomass for biofuel, a resource for pollinators and other wildlife, and by providing other ecosystem services.
To conduct their study, the team, led by Cristina Negri, located marginal areas on their 6.5-hectare research farmland in east-central Illinois, using corn yield maps, GIS, and publicly available data on soil and topography to identify low productivity, high nitrate-leaching, and erosion-prone areas, explained Jules Cacho, also of Argonne National Laboratory.
They planted shrub willow as a bioenergy crop in marginal areas and then monitored their effects on soil, soil water, groundwater, and vegetation to determine how nutrients applied to the corn and soybean fields were lost to the soil water or taken up by the plants. They also kept track of changes in greenhouse gases, the diversity of insects, and the total mass of vegetation.
Their results show that since the willows were planted in 2013, the trees have significantly reduced concentrations of fertilizer nitrate in the soil water compared to the soil water in the adjacent cornfields.
"What's important about perennial crops is their deep-rooting capability," said Quinn. "They can intercept excess nitrates from corn crops. The energy grasses in particular have deep and fibrous root systems."
"What is attractive by implementing this landscape approach is that it has the potential to address multiple societal needs at once, thus beneficially intensifying land use," said Negri.
If the benefits of nitrate removal and potential bioenergy generation (from harvesting and digesting willows and grasses) are factored in, the cost of implementing the grass and shrub willows could be at least partially offset.
"It's not competing with corn," Cacho said. "If there is a local market for biomass there is economic benefit. You are not displacing any agricultural lands. You are identifying land that is not good for corn and soybeans. You are not wasting fertilizer."
The team is working with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service with the aim of making their integrated land management with willows and grasses an official "best management practice," which could create additional financial incentives for farmers.
A report by member organizations of the Agroforestry Network provides evidence of how agroforestry can contribute to implementation of nine out of the 17 SDGs, with the strongest impact potential for poverty reduction (SDG 1) and hunger alleviation (SDG 2), as well as for climate action (SDG 13) and life on land (SDG 15).
Agroforestry is a sustainable and efficient land management system combining crops, trees, and sometimes livestock.
Agroforestry can contribute to food security, increase biodiversity, and combat climate change, according to a recent report by member organizations of the Agroforestry Network, and should attract more policy attention and investment to fulfill its potential.
Agroforestry is considered a sustainable and efficient land management system combining crops, trees, and sometimes livestock. Titled, ‘Achieving the Global Goals through Agroforestry,’ the report presents evidence of how agroforestry can contribute to implementation of nine out of the 17 SDGs. Agroforestry has the strongest impact potential on poverty reduction (SDG 1) and hunger alleviation (SDG 2), as well as on climate action (SDG 13), and biodiversity conservation and sustainable land management (SDG 15). In addition, the report shows that agroforestry can contribute to other goals by improving gender equality (SDG 5) and health (SDG 3), as well as by increasing access to clean water (SDG 6), sustainable energy solutions (SDG 7), and responsible agricultural production (SDG 12).
Gold Rush is a choice apple variety! It’s a descendent of Golden Delicious, bred with a crabapple and a Rome. It has a great balance of sweet and tart...a punch of flavor. It’s also resistant to scab and powdery mildew, which makes it perfect for organic production.
FIVE THOUSAND FEET up in the Sierra Nevada and a half-hour’s drive from the last paved road, a clearing opens at the edge of a forest. The clearing is ringed with pine, fir, and aspen, a dense palisade that shields its contents from a rutted track that runs past its hidden gate. Inside, a meadow harbors more than 100 gnarled trees. It is early September, but the trees’ leaves are still green, and other colors peek out among them: apples crimson and scarlet, pears golden and rusty, almonds and walnuts in globes of dull olive.
Amigo Bob Cantisano tips back his straw hat, surveying the hidden orchard. “It’s no different than the last time I was here,” he says. “And it’s not much different than the first time.”
That was 1970. Cantisano was whooping through the hills in a 1951 Dodge pickup with the cab cut off, taking a break from his first stab at farming; he stumbled on the orchard while looking for a swimming hole. In the 50 years since, as he grew from neophyte to an elder statesman of the organic revolution, he’s remained devoted to the grove he discovered that day. Piece by piece, talking to old-timers and reading newspaper archives, he reassembled its history. The trees were older than he imagined, the last vestige of a trading post that served the mining camps of the Gold Rush—which meant the orchard had survived, apparently untended, for more than 150 years.
Just 100 miles to the west lies the tip of California’s Central Valley, the richest agricultural land in the United States, which grows the same crops that persist at the forgotten trading post. But down on the valley floor, trees are pruned, sprayed, irrigated, fertilized. Without those measures, their productivity could not be sustained.
The trees of the hidden orchard have remained productive for more than a century without any such assistance. Far from being a lost piece of history marooned on a mountain, the orchard is a treasure chest.
Cantisano’s trees—he doesn’t own the plot but has become its custodian—are heirlooms: historic, open-pollinated varieties that were not swept up in the green revolution, the hybridization that transformed commercial agriculture after World War II.
Back then heirlooms were rejected for what seemed like solid reasoning at the time: They ripened at intervals, making supply unpredictable, grew to odd sizes that did not fit processing equipment, and were too tender to transport across the greater distances that food began to travel as production consolidated. The hybrids that supplanted the heirlooms were more suited to large-scale production and shipping, but often at the expense of flavor and nutrition.
Now heirlooms are beginning to be in demand again—not just at farmers markets, which is where most of us encounter heirloom crops, but in the industries that once disdained them. Plant breeders—and livestock breeders, since livestock underwent a similar hybridization from diverse breeds—are reconsidering their value.
Rare plants and animals are being studied by academic scientists, grown for display in living museums such as Colonial Williamsburg, and brought back from oblivion by small-scale farmers and corps of dedicated amateurs. In heirlooms, their fans see treasuries of biodiversity and resilience, protection against heat, drought, diseases, and pests that will be needed as a changing climate makes current crops and animals—which have been reduced to a narrow genetic range—harder to grow.
“We know these trees are growing in an environment that may be more like the environment we’ll have in the future: hotter, drier,” says Charles Brummer, director of the Plant Breeding Center at University of California, Davis, where scientists are beginning to study Cantisano’s orchard. “These trees have withstood a lot.”
‘Bigger than a baby’s head’
Cantisano—who wears shorts and sandals in every season and has been known as “Amigo Bob” since high school—now farms north of Nevada City, a Gold Rush town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Through patient sleuthing, he traced the trees in the orchard to Felix Gillet, a French horticulturalist.
Gillet arrived in Nevada City in 1859, when gold-panning was giving way to an organized industry of company-owned mines and settlements of camps surrounding them. He put aside cash by working as a barber, and then opened a nursery, shipping in European fruit and nut varieties by boat and train. Merchants and homesteaders bought the trees, and so did farmers, who began growing the produce now synonymous with California. Gillet seeded the state with some of its earliest hazelnut, almond, and walnut varieties, stone fruits such as cherries, and grapes.
To protect the orchard and ensure it continues into another generation—and to preserve other trees discovered at old homesteads and camps—Cantisano formed the Felix Gillet Institute, a nonprofit whose staff consists of him, his wife Jenifer Bliss, and Adam Nuber, who propagates the trees and manages their small commercial nursery. Their near-constant task is hunting down trees across Northern California, taking measurements, recording their growth pattern and condition, mapping their location, and then returning to harvest some of the fruit for research.
Fruit is the best indicator of a tree’s identity, and Bliss serves as the institute’s fruit detective. Each time Cantisano and Nuber visit the orchard and other trees they’ve found, they document when fruit is ripening. At Cantisano’s home, they test harvested fruit for sugar content, and then Bliss pores over a collection of 19th- and early 20th-century fruit catalogs, matching size, color, and sweetness to written descriptions or early photographs. She has matched some of their finds to rare varieties of apples, pears, almonds, and walnuts. Lacking records, they’ve given provisional names to cherries they’ve found in nearby areas, dubbing one Foxy Lady after the family on whose property it was found, and another Camptonville Candy, after the town where it is located.
In September, Cantisano and Nuber agreed to take me to the lost orchard, on the condition that its exact location wouldn’t be revealed. The trees were heavy with fruit, and we had to stay alert and step carefully, because there were piles of bear scat among them, loaded with plum stones and berry seeds. Nuber carried a harvesting basket, a cage on a pole used to pluck fruit off high branches.
“That’s a Spitzenberg,” he says, tossing a candy-red apple into a box. “That’s a Yellow Bellflower. That’s a Reinette—it might be one of the forerunners of the Golden Delicious.” He offered me a bright red apple with green shoulders. I bit into it and was shocked by the fresh, sharp taste. He scooped off another apple, so large it teetered unsteadily on the basket’s edge.
“We called this Bigger Than A Baby’s Head at first,” Cantisano says. “But Jenifer thinks it might be a 20-Ounce Pippin. Felix had it in his catalogs in the 1880s, but it probably came originally from New York.” He looked into the box, his waist-length dreadlocks falling over his shoulders. He pointed out a deep red specimen. “That’s a Calville Rouge. It’s the best storing apple we have. Keeps four, five months without refrigeration, just in a back bedroom.”
Nuber pointed out two trees in the row we were standing in. One was riddled with tiny holes, so evenly spaced it looked like the tree had passed under an industrial drill. The holes were woodpecker damage, a sign the underlayers of the bark had been infested with tasty grubs that the birds had pried out. The tree next to it had no holes at all. “That’s a sign of natural insect resistance,” he says. “We can’t answer why one variety possesses it and the other doesn’t, but we can ask the question, and maybe someone will be able to answer it.”
I realized I was still holding the apple Nuber had handed me to sample, and though I had bitten into it an hour earlier, the flesh was still not brown.
Cantisano noticed my reaction. “That’s one of the things we evaluate,” he says. “We cut them and lay them out, and count how long it takes. We’ve got one that is still white three days later; it’s very high in vitamin C, a natural antioxidant.”
“People are making GMO non-browning apples now,” he says. “And we want to say, There’s no need to go to GMOs. We’ve got the genetics right here.”
Cantisano’s institute, which is funded by donations and by sales of young trees propagated from the originals, isn’t the only organization seeking to bring heirloom varieties back into history. At the other side of the country, the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation has retrieved an array of nearly lost crops linked to Native Americans and early settlers. “Sea Island White Flint corn, Jimmy Red corn, Cocke’s Prolific corn, Guinea Flint corn, purple straw wheat, white may wheat,” says David Shields, the foundation’s chairman and a professor at the University of South Carolina. “We’ve rediscovered the entire grain system of the Carolinas.”
The foundation’s work began with its first resurrection, Carolina Gold rice, a strain that may have arrived in Charleston in the 1600s and vanished from wide-scale production in the 1940s. A few seeds for it had been stored in a USDA seed bank, and in 1998, some were replanted through the efforts of Merle Shepard, a plant geneticist at Clemson University, and Glenn Roberts, the founder of the boutique grain business Anson Mills. Once enough grain had been banked to bring the rice into commercial production, Anson Mills began selling it—and that, Shields says, is one justification for heirloom varieties: There’s a market for them.
“The heirloom corns that we have grown are in intense demand by distillers for artisanal bourbon,” he says. “High Wire Distilling in Charleston uses Jimmy Red, one of the corns we revived; it’s won all kinds of awards. Jeptha Creed Distillery in Kentucky uses Bloody Butcher corn. The flavor of these corns has added a new richness to bourbon; it’s no longer dependent just on the barrel and the char.”
The foundation subsequently committed to preserving any “landrace” crop—heirloom, historic, and open-pollinated—that had survived from before the 1880s. Its chief driver, Shields says, has been flavor, because in traditional plant breeding, flavor was a marker for nutrition, and as industrialization advanced, flavor fell in importance behind a plant’s productivity. But as they bring more old crops back into production, the foundation is identifying other traits that justify growing the plants again.
“These landrace grains actually have more nutrition to them, because they have enormously elaborate root systems, which maximize the uptake of minerals and interaction with the microbiomes of the soil,” Shields told me. “They are less productive than modern cultivars, but they can operate in marginal soils, and they are extraordinarily resilient in the face of drought.”
It was a wet, windy day in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia. The advance gusts of Hurricane Florence were pulling wisps of clouds across the hillside where we were looking over a herd of goats. The goats noticed our approach, then went back to grazing, maneuvering to keep an eye on us as they munched. They were blocky animals, seemingly more muscular than a goat ought to be.
As I turned to ask Sponenberg a question, I saw he’d left my side. He was a few yards away, creeping up on the herd’s blind side. Suddenly, he stood upright. The spooked herd ran, but as they sped up, their back legs seemed to straighten strangely. One of the goats went stiff in all four legs; with its head still up, looking startled, it fell 90 degrees on its side. After a few seconds, it stumbled to its feet, shook itself, and took off again.
As we walked back to the mountaintop house where he has lived for more than three decades, Sponenberg, a veterinarian and professor of pathology and genetics at Virginia Tech, explained the trait. The goats are a heritage breed, the animal equivalent of an heirloom, first identified in Tennessee in the 1880s. The sturdiness I saw was real; the breed had an unusually high meat to bone ratio. With their reaction to shock, they also had no desire to climb or jump, which made them easy to confine. All of that was conferred by a change in a single gene, which also happened to make them naturally resistant to parasites.
Those qualities—disease resistance, docility, productivity, adaptation to a landscape—attracted Sponenberg to the breed. They’re qualities he looks for in other breeds, as a researcher and an advisor to the Livestock Conservancy, a nonprofit that seeks to preserve heritage breeds of livestock.
The Conservancy, headquartered in North Carolina, monitors more than a hundred breeds of livestock and nearly as many breeds of poultry. It works with organizations of growers that raise breeds that have become rare, and recruits new farmers when ranks are growing thin.
“These breeds were bred over centuries to endure drought and extreme weather, to produce through thick and thin, to protect their offspring from predators,” said Jeannette Beranger, the Conservancy’s senior program manager. They harbor traits that commercial breeds discarded: Large Black hogs can have litters of 10 piglets at seven years of age, when a commercial pig would be done at two years old. Gulf Coast sheep will eat grasses grown in brackish water. The original line of Texas longhorn cattle, maintained by a small number of breeders, will bear calves not to four or five years old, but into their teens.
“These breeds are highly suited to certain regions of the world,” she said. “And as different environmental conditions surface, they can meet the needs of the new climate. They’re a bridge between our current animals and what we may need in the future.”
There hasn’t yet been much genetic research into heritage animals: Livestock genetics are mostly conducted in agricultural colleges, which are likely to be funded by the agribusinesses that produce commercial livestock and seeds.
Sponenberg, who also researches heritage lines in South America, thinks failing to study them is a missed opportunity. “Think of them as a genetic insurance policy, preserving diversity so it doesn’t disappear,” he said. “For some species, like cattle and horses, the wild ancestor is extinct; we should save every descendant we can.”
Rare for a reason
The counter-argument against resurrecting heirloom crops and heritage livestock is that they became rare for a reason. Heirloom vegetables and fruits were hardier than commercial varieties, but they did not produce as abundantly. Irregular ripening ensured deliciousness but undermined transportability. Landrace livestock exercised and fed themselves, but at the cost of growing muscle more slowly. And they were so tuned to specific conditions—the Pineywoods cattle of Florida could never endure winters the Ancient White Park cattle of Montana take in stride—that no single breed could be grown at the scale of modern industrial chicken, pork, and beef.
While heirloom crops and heritage livestock might face challenges getting to market, researchers ponder whether the qualities that make them special could be extracted—through traditional cross-breeding or new genetic technologies, leaving the plants and animals that harbor them behind.
Using older varieties to prop up existing industrial ones isn’t unheard of: A wild relative of rice bred into commercial strains protected them against disease; European wine grapes were saved from insect destruction when wild American vines that were resistant to the pest were used as rootstocks, for remnants of European vines to be grafted to.
At UC Davis—where Cantisano has already loaned some lost varieties to its walnut breeding program—Brummer says the first step is to understand what the hidden orchard contains.
“The ideal thing would be to bring them into a nursery where we could compare them to commercial varieties, under commercial conditions, and see how they perform,” he told me. “See what their yield is or their quality or disease resistance.”
It’s possible, he points out, that varieties that do beautifully in the forests of the Sierra Nevada might not flourish away from that complex ecosystem—and also possible that those trees may already be thriving somewhere in California agriculture but simply attributed to a different provenance or under different names.
The value of diversity
For livestock, there are a few options, none of them perfect. They can be grown as they are now, in small populations by a few breeders; that keeps them adapted to changing conditions, but risks narrowing their biodiversity. They can be crossbred, which creates a new animal but does nothing to maintain an existing breed. Or they can have their genetic material frozen, which preserves genetic diversity but sacrifices adaptation. The USDA maintains a bank of livestock germplasm—sperm, eggs, and other cells—and scientists have used it on rare occasions to resurrect old varieties to mix into new crossbreeds.
Tim Safranski, an advisor to the germplasm program for swine preservation and a professor of animal sciences at the University of Missouri, says that—as with heirloom crops—we may not have enough information to make those decisions. “We don’t have the heritage breeds well characterized,” he told me. “We know diversity is valuable, but we don’t know which parts of it are most valuable.”
At least until more knowledge is gained through genetic study, Safranski is in favor of making sure no heritage breeds are lost. To explain why, he told me about one company’s experiment that examined whether hogs will stay productive in a warming climate. In locations around the world, an agribusiness (which Safranski didn’t name) measured the number of piglets produced by two breeds of pigs—a hybrid designed to have large litters and one closer to a landrace sow—as the temperature changed around the year.
The commercial pigs produced more piglets, until the ambient temperature rose above 72 degrees, and then litter sizes dropped. The landrace pigs initially seemed less productive than their modern cousins, birthing fewer piglets in each litter. But as the temperature rose and the hybrids dropped fewer piglets, the landrace ones kept popping out the same number—and their productivity surged ahead of their modern cousins. Their slow sturdiness won out in the end.
“The less perfect the world gets,” Safranski says, “the more competitive they become.”
Earlier this month the world’s leading climate scientists released the most urgent warning on climate change to date. It describes the implications of our current warming trajectory, including dire food shortages, large-scale human migration and crises ranging from a mass die-off of coral reefs to increasingly extreme weather events. To reverse course, the report calls for a global transformation of historically unprecedented speed and scale. As one of the IPCC study’s co-chairs emphasized, “The next few years are probably the most important in our history.”
Among the ambitious ideas to meet this challenge is to enable a regenerative revolution, one that supplants our extractive economic model and goes beyond “sustainability” to draw down carbon and reverse course on climate change. Marc Barasch is among the leaders striving to galvanize such a transformation. He is the founder and executive director of the Green World Campaign, and an environmental activist who co-convened a first-of-its-kind conference for a regenerative society earlier this year. In our interview he shares what a regenerative revolution might achieve, how technology can help, and how we could advance this economic transition.
Lorin Fries: There is a surge in discussion around “regeneration.” What does it mean?
Marc Barasch: Regeneration is a design principle that works to ensure that all inputs and outputs, upstream and downstream, people and planet, conduce to the health of the whole system.
As someone who has been a cancer patient, I tend to think in healing metaphors—it’s not just attacking the disease, but activating the body-wide immune system. It’s going beyond remediating the symptoms to healing the root causes of pathology. If sustainability is about avoiding negative footprints, regeneration is about leaving positive handprints—lots of them.
Regeneration means not just lowering CO2 emissions to prevent further damage, but looking at how to potentially reverse climate change—designing endeavors that are not just carbon-neutral, but "carbon-negative.” It’s not being content with a model of sustainability where a company’s operations are fundamentally extractive but it sprinkles in corporate social responsibility to mitigate some of the harm. Rather, it’s building regeneration into the operations themselves, resulting in positive environmental impacts and improving human wellbeing.
Fries: Why should we focus on regeneration now?
Barasch: If we stopped emitting carbon from every tailpipe and smokestack on the planet today, it would not solve global climate change. We’re in a crisis, and it’s only the beginning. We need to reverse course, not just hold the line. We have legacy carbon in the atmosphere that has to be drawn back down. Soil, trees and vegetation naturally capture carbon, if they’re healthy. The Rodale Institute has found that if current farmland practices shifted to regenerative, organic approaches, 100% of annual global CO2 emissions would be sequestered. That’s how powerful soil carbon sequestration is—but we’re not practicing it at anywhere near the scale that’s needed.
Fries: What technologies might enable a regenerative revolution?
Barasch: Blockchain is one opportunity. An excellent example is China’s Ant Forest initiative, where 200 million Alipay customers signed up to perform green good deeds in exchange for tree planting tokens, demonstrating a pent-up demand from the public to respond directly to the current crisis. Each person can accumulate enough positive credits to get a virtual “tree”—and for each of these, Alipay plants a real one. They reached a couple million trees already and have a new goal of half a trillion. This shows the hidden funding potential in small contributions, which can be blockchain enabled, to fund a regenerative revolution.
In 2010 the Green World Campaign in Kenya helped to innovate a community-based currency called the Eco-Pesa. Years later, this seed has ripened into a Bancor Foundation project that will allow any community to establish a local currency interoperable with other similar currencies. I’m now working to create a Green World Token that is conceived as a form of reserve currency based on natural capital as the underlying asset—what I refer to as a “treeconomy”—based not only on forest and soil carbon, but increased soil organic matter, an improved hydrological cycle, biodiversity, community health and income, nutrition security and other holistic regenerative factors.
Fries: It seems that using the blockchain to tokenize markets, such as for carbon, might be a breakthrough strategy?
Barasch: Yes, this is a live wire conversation. It’s about asking, “How can we crowdsource the future?” Novel fintech, including blockchain, could help redirect the billions of dollars in capital needed to achieve regenerative impacts at scale. The latest IPCC report has said there needs to be a rapid transformation of our economic system, and I believe such new instruments will be key—though it’s obviously still early days, with many misfires. There’s an opportunity to go beyond the carbon market to finance a greater variety of conservation, sustainability and regeneration goals, monitoring them through ground-truthing, satellite, drone, Internet of Things (IoT), recording them in distributed ledger, and assigning a market value. I’m aware, for example, of non-speculative, blockchain-based “coins” for everything from planting mangrove trees to saving Asian tigers to poverty alleviation.
Fries: How do we secure larger-ticket financing for regeneration?
Barasch: We need to create a regenerative asset class. Investors don’t currently see viable deals in the regenerative space. The projects are all too small, too nascent, and the speed of return is too slow. We need to integrate slow money assets—I call it “capital at the speed of nature”—in innovative ways. Many useful mechanisms already exist within our financial systems, but they haven’t been repurposed for regeneration. We need to devise a spectrum of enabling mechanisms for a multi-trillion transition from the degenerative to the regenerative economy that is synchronous with the intergenerational wealth transfer that’s underway.
Fries: What current opportunities could propel this economic transition?
Barasch: One powerful opportunity is carbon divestment. At first fossil fuel companies dismissed it as a pinprick in their balance sheet; it's now a $6 trillion movement, which Shell recently reported was a material threat to their business. There could be $20 trillion or more in stranded assets from the decline of the fossil fuel industry as renewable energy becomes ever more cost-competitive. If the right investment mechanisms and instruments emerge to reallocate some of that capital—such as public and philanthropic monies that de-risk private sector investments in regenerative moonshots—this could be equivalent to the rise of the renewables sector.
Fries: How do you see large farms and companies engaging in the regenerative movement?
Barasch: Revising our chemical-dependent, soil-destroying form of agriculture requires a way for farmers to transition. They know that these practices are harming the land that they want to pass on to their children, but they feel stuck in this system. This is a transition that Rodale Institute, Patagonia and a consortium of companies are trying to facilitate through a new regenerative organic standard. Giants like Unilever, Danone, General Mills and others are also developing regenerative agriculture initiatives and announcing new sourcing commitments.
Fries: In May you co-hosted ReGen18. What were your goals, and what did it achieve?
Barasch: My goal with ReGen18 was to convene a leadership summit to accelerate the emergence of what I call the “Regenerative Society.” Our team hoped to facilitate attendees to concretely collaborate for scalable systems change, to develop sense-making tools, incubators and accelerators – all aimed at catalyzing an economy and culture committed to equitably shared prosperity within ecological boundaries.
By most calculations, we have only 60 harvests left on earth if we continue our current practices. There is a broad, growing global movement “beyond sustainability” that is informing fields from agriculture to architecture, ecology to economics. I like to think, optimistically, that it points to a path through our current civilizational crisis, and offers some hope for the permanent flourishing of people and planet. We can do this. We have to.
While he was interviewing Inuit elders in Alaska to find out more about their knowledge of beluga whales and how the mammals might respond to the changing Arctic, researcher Henry Huntington lost track of the conversation as the hunters suddenly switched from the subject of belugas to beavers.
It turned out though, that the hunters were still really talking about whales. There had been an increase in beaver populations, they explained, which had reduced spawning habitat for salmon and other fish, which meant less prey for the belugas and so fewer whales.
“It was a more holistic view of the ecosystem,” said Huntington. And an important tip for whale researchers. “It would be pretty rare for someone studying belugas to be thinking about freshwater ecology.”
Around the globe, researchers are turning to what is known as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) to fill out an understanding of the natural world. TEK is deep knowledge of a place that has been painstakingly discovered by those who have adapted to it over thousands of years. “People have relied on this detailed knowledge for their survival,” Huntington and a colleague wrote in an article on the subject. “They have literally staked their lives on its accuracy and repeatability.”
Tapping into this traditional wisdom is playing an outsized role in the Arctic, where change is happening rapidly.
This realm has long been studied by disciplines under headings such as ethno-biology, ethno-ornithology, and biocultural diversity. But it has gotten more attention from mainstream scientists lately because of efforts to better understand the world in the face of climate change and the accelerating loss of biodiversity.
Anthropologist Wade Davis, now at the University of British Columbia, refers to the constellation of the world’s cultures as the “ethnosphere,” or “the sum total of all thoughts and dreams, myths, ideas, inspirations, intuitions, brought into being by human imagination since the dawn of consciousness. It’s a symbol of all that we are, and all that we can be, as an astonishingly inquisitive species.”
One estimate says that while native peoples only comprise some 4 or 5 percent of the world’s population, they use almost a quarter of the world’s land surface and manage 11 percent of its forests. “In doing so, they maintain 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity in, or adjacent to, 85 percent of the world’s protected areas,” writes Gleb Raygorodetsky, a researcher with the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance at the University of Victoria and the author of The Archipelago of Hope: Wisdom and Resilience from the Edge of Climate Change.
Tapping into this wisdom is playing an outsized role in sparsely settled places such as the Arctic, where change is happening rapidly – warming is occurring twice as fast as other parts of the world. Tero Mustonen, a Finnish researcher and chief of his village of Selkie, is pioneering the blending of TEK and mainstream science as the director of a project called the Snowchange Cooperative. “Remote sensing can detect changes,” he says. “But what happens as a result, what does it mean?” That’s where traditional knowledge can come into play as native people who make a living on the landscape as hunters and fishers note the dramatic changes taking place in remote locales – everything from thawing permafrost to change in reindeer migration and other types of biodiversity redistribution.
The Skolt Sami people of Finland, for example, participated in a study that was published in the journal Science last year, which adopted indicators of environmental changes based on TEK. The Sami have seen and documented a decline in salmon in the Näätämö River, for instance. Now, based on their knowledge, they are adapting – reducing the number of seine nets they use to catch fish, restoring spawning sites, and also taking more pike, which prey on young salmon, as part of their catch. The project is part of a co-management process between the Sami and the government of Finland.
The project has also gathered information from the Sami about insects, which are temperature dependent and provide an important indicator of a changing Arctic. The Sami have witnessed dramatic changes in the range of insects that are making their way north. The scarbaeid beetle, for example, was documented by Sami people as the invader arrived in the forests of Finland and Norway, far north of its customary range. It has also become part of the Sami oral history.
It’s not only in the Arctic. Around the world there are efforts to make use of traditional wisdom to gain a better and deeper understanding of the planet – and there is sometimes a lot at stake.
Record brush fires burned across Australia in 2009, killing 173 people and injuring more than 400. The day the number of fires peaked – February 7 – is known as Black Saturday. It led to a great deal of soul searching in Australia, especially as climate warming has exacerbated fire seasons there.
Land managers in Australia have adopted many of the fire-control practices of the aborigines and have partnered with native people.
Bill Gammage is an academic historian and fellow at the Humanities Research Center of the Australian National University, and his book, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How the Aborigines Made Australia, looks at the complex and adept way that aborigines, prior to colonization in 1789, managed the landscape with “fire and no fire” – something called “fire stick farming.”
They used “cool” fires to control everything from biodiversity to water supply to the abundance of wildlife and edible plants. Gammage noted five stages of the indigenous use of fire – first was to control wildfire fuel; second, to maintain diversity; third, to balance species; fourth, to ensure abundance; and five, to locate resources conveniently and predictably. The current regime, he says, is still struggling with number one.
“Controlled fire averted uncontrolled fire,” Gammage says, “and fire or no-fire distributed plants with the precision of a flame edge. In turn, this attracted or deterred grazing animals and located them in habitats each preferred, making them abundant, convenient, and predictable. All was where fire or no-fire put it. Australia was not natural in 1788, but made.”
While the skill of aborigines with fire had been noted before the giant brushfires – early settlers remarked on the “park-like” nature of the landscape – and studied before, it’s taken on new urgency. That’s why Australian land managers have adopted many of the ideas and partnered with native people as co-managers. The fire practices of the aborigines are also being taught and used in other countries.
Scientists have looked to Australian natives for other insights into the natural world. A team of researchers collaborated with natives based on their observations of kites and falcons that fly with flaming branches from a forest fire to start other fires. It’s well known that birds will hunt mice and lizards as they flee the flames of a wildfire. But stories among indigenous people in northern Australia held that some birds actually started fires by dropping a burning branch in unburned places. Based on this TEK, researchers watched and documented this behavior.
“It’s a feeding frenzy, because out of these grasslands comes small birds, lizards, insects, everything fleeing in front of the fire,” said Bob Gosford, an indigenous rights lawyer and ornithologist, who worked on the research, in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 2016.
Another recent study down under found that an ancient practice of using fire to clear land to improve hunting also creates a more diverse mosaic of re-growth that increases the number of the primate prey species: monitor lizards and kangaroos.
“Westerners have done little but isolate ourselves from nature,” said Mark Bonta, an assistant professor at Penn State Altoona who was on a co-author on the paper on fire and raptors. “Yet those who make a point of connecting with our earth in some form have enormous knowledge because they interact with a species. When you get into conservation, [that knowledge] is even more important.” Aboriginal people “don’t see themselves as superior to or separated from animals. They are walking storehouses of knowledge,” he said.
The Maya people of Mesoamerica have much to teach us about farming, experts say. Researchers have found that they preserve an astonishing amount of biodiversity in their forest gardens, in harmony with the surrounding forest. “The active gardens found around Maya forest villagers’ houses shows that it’s the most diverse domestic system in the world,” integrated into the forest ecosystem, writes Anabel Ford, who is head of the MesoAmerican Research Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “These forest gardeners are heroes, yet their skill and sophistication have too long been set aside and devalued.”
Some native people have the ability to adopt the “perspective of many creatures and objects – rocks, water, clouds,” a researcher says.
Valuing these life ways is an important part of the process. For the Skolt Sami, writes Mustonen, “seeing their language and culture valued led to an increase in self-esteem and power over their resources.”
It may not just be facts about the natural world that are important in these exchanges, but different ways of being and perceiving. In fact, there are researchers looking into the relationship between some indigenous people and the very different ways they see the world.
Felice Wyndham is an ecological anthropologist and ethnobiologist who has noted that people she has worked with can intimately sense the world beyond their body. “It’s a form of enhanced mindfulness,” she says. “It’s quite common, you see it in most hunter-gatherer groups. It’s an extremely developed skill base of cognitive agility, of being able to put yourself into a viewpoint and perspective of many creatures or objects – rocks, water, clouds.
“We, as humans, have a remarkable sensitivity, imagination, and ability to be cognitively agile,” Wyndham says. “If we are open to it and train ourselves to learn how to drop all of the distractions to our sensory capacity, we’re able to do so much more biologically than we use in contemporary industrial society.”
Among the most important messages from traditional people is their equanimity and optimism. There “is no sense of doom and gloom,” says Raygorodetsky. “Despite dire circumstances, they maintain hope for the future.”
At the Union of Concerned Scientists, we have long advocated agricultural systems that are productive and better for the environment, the economy, farmers, farmworkers and eaters than the dominant industrial system. We refer to such a system as our Healthy Farm vision. Based on comprehensive science, we have specified that healthy farm systems must be multifunctional, biodiverse, interconnected and regenerative.
The scientific case for agricultural systems that renew rather than diminish resources is comprehensive, and research demonstrates the productivity and agronomic feasibility of such systems. Yet, economically viable real-world examples are necessary to spur acceptance and adoption of such schemes. Further, we need to overcome the limitations of economic thinking and measures that were developed in the 19th century—when it seemed that the Earth’s resources and its capacity to absorb waste were inexhaustible—and improve them to create more modern assessments, appropriate for the 21st century and beyond. A new report from our colleagues at Farmland LP, Delta Institute and Earth Economics will make a major contribution toward this end.
Healthy Farmland Vision
Economists view agriculture as a primary sector of the economy, meaning that without the activity of that sector, the remainder of the economy (such as manufacturing and service) could not be developed. Together with other primary economic enterprises such as mining and forestry, agriculture has generally been practiced and acknowledged as an extractive industry. Whereas mining is visibly extractive, agriculture is less so, because degradative processes such as soil erosion, fertility loss, and water and air pollution are not as obvious as mountaintop removal and strip mining. Yet, as practiced industrially, agriculture is both extractive and more extensive than mining.
Source: Our World in Data
Extractive agricultural practices are abetted by strategies such as importing nutrients to compensate for loss of native soil fertility and by the fact that we value the gains from the extraction but don’t discount the losses. For example, we measure crop and animal yield and translate that to sales and profit, but don’t subtract from the ledger the soil, nutrients, air and water quality lost to produce crops and livestock. One superficial reason for this is that we don’t know the “cost” of those resources, but that is simply a polite way to say that historically we don’t value them. This is a perfect example of the nostrum that we measure what we care about and care about what we measure.
Yet, agriculture need not be inherently extractive. Through practices that build soil, recycle nutrients and store water it can become a regenerative system while still providing abundant food and other agricultural products. A key to shift from extractive to regenerative mode is to build a more complete picture of the total benefits and costs associated with agricultural management. For nearly a decade, the investment firm Farmland LP has been managing thousands of acres with regenerative techniques, thereby providing an opportunity for scientists and economists to assess the value of these practices to soil, water, climate, energy and social sectors. The Delta Institute and Earth Economics, with grant support from the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, worked with Farmland LP on just such a project.
Based on a comprehensive review of scientific literature examining the value of various ecosystem services, the researchers applied the rigorous methodologies of Ecosystem Services Valuation and Greenhouse Gas Accounting to assess the effects of farm management on items such as soil formation and quality, water capture and quality, pollination and seed dispersal, climate stability, disaster risk reduction, air quality and biological control. Using Colorado State University’s COMET-Farm model, and the USDA’s Revised Universal Soil Los Equation, the researchers evaluated the effect of regenerative techniques on farmed and non-farmed land under Farmland LP’s management. They compared these model outputs with those from land managed conventionally to construct a comprehensive impact balance sheet.
The sums cited in this report are astounding, ascending into the millions of dollars of added ecological value from regenerative process—against millions of dollars of ecological losses due to standard industrial practices. The practices Farmland LP implements are well-known, backed by science and practice, and accessible to all farmers and farm managers with an interest in managing whole systems to increase returns to management. Examples include integrated crop and livestock production, crop rotation, biodiverse annual and perennial mixes, stream buffers, grassed waterways, organic fertilizers, biological pest control and uncultivated land to provide ecological services (erosion control, water capture, habitat and refugia for beneficial organisms.) The combination of these regenerative methods generated net value while industrial methods destroyed value—all while performing comparably on the dominant indicator of agricultural yield.
Ecological Service Value of farmed and non-farmed areas by impact metric – Delta Institute (see report for methods, context and further data.)
This assessment affirms the concrete value and effectiveness of multifunctional regenerative approaches. Since many of these ecosystem services are not currently quantified—much less traded—on markets that would remunerate farmers, the benefits are primarily experienced by way of cleaner environment, lower costs of production and added value of agricultural land. This is because land managed with regenerative practices will produce bountifully, at lower cost and for an indeterminate period of time, whereas the value of industrially managed land depends on false and brittle economies, such as access to government subsidies and the availability of cheap industrial fertilizer.
In fact, the main business of Farmland LP, a real estate investment trust, is to add long-term value to agricultural land for landowners and investors. A remarkable aspect of this strategy and business model, in addition to more faithfully reflecting actual ecological economics, is how quickly Farmland LP management has been able to produce results. In addition to demonstrating the effectiveness of regenerative methods, these findings indicate the kinds of practices that should be more broadly adopted across all of agriculture to assure our livelihood at present and far into the future.
The skilled agronomists and farm managers at Farmland LP, together with the rigorous scientists and economists who have developed and used the ecosystem evaluation technique, are demonstrating that regenerative agriculture is not an aspirational figment. It is real, it is possible, it is productive, it is profitable and it is environmentally beneficial. These things can all exist with one another. A successful business model is predicated on this. As long as reliable scientific information influences decisions and behavior, this report provides a beacon toward more viable, ethical and realistic agricultural practice for the long term.
Never has it been so pressing to address climate change. So let’s hurry to embrace a proven part of the solution. The radical (but not new) concept of agroforestry – be it integrating trees to create shade over coffee bushes, adding trees to Colombian cattle ranches, or managing and encouraging shea trees to flourish amid millet crops in the Sahel – must move to centre stage.
The Global Carbon Project estimates that 2017 will see a two percent rise in worldwide carbon dioxide emissions, reversing the downward trend of the previous few years.
Almost a quarter of these emissions come from agriculture and the conversion of forests and wetlands into farmland.
This year is also set to be one of the hottest three ever recorded, according to the World Meteorological Organization. And, unlike 2016, 2017 has managed this even without a temperature-boosting El Niño weather system.
Flash floods in Southeast Asia, drought in East Africa, and melting glaciers in Latin America are just three examples of the extreme weather events linked to climate change that affect all corners of the world.
This is, truly, a global disaster, and one largely of our own making.
Solution at hand
But we also have the power to mitigate global warming, through reducing emissions of CO2 and increasing its absorption by expanding or protecting “carbon sinks” such as forests.
One especially effective but still yet to be fully recognised mitigation strategy is agroforestry – the purposeful regeneration, planting, and maintenance of trees and woody bushes on farms and rangeland.
Already, almost a billion hectares of agricultural land across the world contains trees that farming families deliberately manage side by side with their crops and livestock. Around 1.2 billion people depend on these agroforestry systems.
The soil, vegetation, and biomass on every hectare of such land can capture 3.3 tonnes of carbon per year – much more than that captured by land without trees.
Recent research indicates that tree cover on agricultural land across the planet absorbs some 0.75 gigatonnes of carbon a year. That’s a sizable chunk of the 9.75 gigatonnes of CO2 the world emits annually.
Notable fringe benefits
As well as absorbing carbon, the trees and shrubs grown among crops and on pastureland deliver a range of lucrative benefits to farmers, such as timber, fuel, fruit, oil, nuts, and animal fodder.
Nitrogen-fixing trees also enrich soils by withdrawing the element, which is essential for plant growth, from the atmosphere. This can lessen the need for chemical nitrogen fertilisers, which have a powerful global warming effect, both as they are made and as they eke back into the atmosphere.
Finally, the presence of trees on agricultural land improves groundwater recharge and regulation of water, thereby increasing yields of crops, milk, and meat.
Agroforestry therefore not only mitigates global warming, but also helps farmers adapt to the often devastating effects of climate change, such as floods, droughts, and unpredictable rainfall patterns.
Without the additional sources of income trees can deliver, farmers whose crops are damaged or destroyed by such weather shocks are often forced to take steps that drive them further into poverty, such as selling tools and consuming seeds reserved for planting.
Research conducted in 2011 in western Kenya by the organisation I work for found that “agroforestry improves farm productivity, off-farm incomes, wealth, and the environmental conditions of… farms”, and that it releases farmers from “detrimental coping strategies”.
In the last year, as the Armageddon facing the Earth concentrated the minds of policymakers and activists, agroforestry has received some much welcome recognition and accolades.
Drawdown, a major international project based on field research by 200 scientists, features two forms of agroforestry in its list of 100 solutions to global warming that are already in use. The solutions are ranked by the extent to which they would reduce CO2 emissions by 2050 if they were adopted at realistic rates.
Silvopastoralism, where trees are combined with pasture, increasing carbon sequestration up to tenfold, comes in at number nine, ahead of nuclear power, wind turbines, and electric vehicles.
Creating a canopy of tall trees over one or more layers of lower-lying crops (coffee and cacao are common examples) – a practice known as multistrata agroforestry – is listed in 28th place.
Governments of developing states are also turning to agroforestry with a lot of hope. More than 20, including agricultural giant India, cite agroforestry in their climate change action plans under the Paris Agreement.
Scientists have been aware of the benefits of agroforestry for decades and farmers for millennia, and the practice is gradually expanding every year. But with 22.2 million square kilometres of agricultural land on the planet, there’s a long way to go.
Donors and development banks need to wake up to the importance of trees in farming systems. Too many promote an agricultural vision of large treeless fields. While this may look modern, it is profoundly high-risk. Without trees, how will groundwater recharge? How will soil carbon be maintained? What will stop soil blowing away? Where will pollinators forage?
Agroforestry might not be a silver bullet, but it has a vital role in cushioning farmers from the harshness of weather patterns gone awry, and the world from the downward spiral of climate change.