Doniga Markegard pauses while shoveling wood chips and hay, into a pen with piglets and their mother, at the ranch she runs with her husband Erik in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. The Markegard Family Grass-Fed ranch is focused on regenerative agriculture, a system of farming principles and practices, and involving women in farming. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)
If you live in the Great Plains, sooner or later you’ll get a question about those “crop circles” that can be observed from airplane windows during flights over the region. The answer is contained in the question: Put simply, they are circles of cropland.
The circular pattern, however, is different from the regular patchwork many people imagine traditional farm fields to be. The shape is the result of the center pivot irrigation, a development of the post-World War II era that profoundly changed the course of American food production. In fact, the rise of center pivot irrigation turned the Plains—an area that had been dry land for more than 100 years—into a place that could sustain thirsty crops such as corn, creating an agricultural and economic powerhouse that carries the seeds of its own destruction.
In the early 19th century, the first Euro-American explorers labeled the region between the Rocky Mountains and the 100th meridian as the Great American Desert, a depiction that had remarkable staying power. For many years, American political leaders and other observers decried the prairies as waste, unable to support civilization, even though Native Americans had made homes there for thousands of years. The geological record tells us that many of those explorers who saw a desert arrived in drought years. Those who arrived in wetter years saw the region in greener hues, presuming that the land was a potential garden simply waiting for a gardener.
This promise of a garden-in-waiting was partially true. Very quickly, settlers and boosters discussed lending nature a hand through irrigation projects. Diverting water from rivers through canals provided water for thirsty crops such as alfalfa and corn. Such surface irrigation had limits, though. Users needed to be close to rivers and were dependent upon the variable, seasonal flow of those waters.
By the late 19th century, farmers had started pumping groundwater from wells, first using power from windmills—which became ubiquitous—and later from gasoline engines. But these techniques were expensive, far beyond the reach of most settlers. Even for those who could afford them, it was almost impossible to pump enough water to make a difference on a large scale. The groundwater was deep, sequestered between and among rock, gravel, and clay in a vast underground reservoir now known as the Ogallala Aquifer.
Groundwater irrigation from the aquifer received a boost in the 1930s and 1940s, when pumps powered by automobile engines accessed water from greater depths. (Before long, government investment in rural electrification helped farmers power a growing share of the irrigation pumps with electricity; later, low-cost natural gas became the fuel of choice.) Irrigators laid pipes across fields of crops, with sprinklers spaced at intervals. The practice was labor-intensive, requiring a lot of workers to move the pipes for seedbed preparation, for cultivation of row crops, and for harvest.
The 1930s also witnessed a protracted drought across much of the country, which brought into question the suitability of the region for agriculture. It was during the “Dirty Thirties” that a portion of the region in Colorado, Kansas, Texas, and the Oklahoma panhandle, suffering from extreme conditions, became known as the “Dust Bowl.” Government soil experts asserted that the solution was a retreat from agriculture across much of the country. They proposed classifying each acre according to its productive capacity and buying out land deemed as “submarginal.” The end of the drought and the onset of World War II, however, allowed the resumption of maximum production and scrapped the dreams of land use planners.
In 1948, an innovative Nebraska farmer named Frank Zybach developed a new type of sprinkler system, the center pivot, which he patented in 1952. Placing the pump at the center of the field next to a well, irrigation pipes supported by trusses were mounted on wheeled towers that could make a circuit of the field under their own power, leaving that distinctive circle pattern. Gun-style sprinklers sprayed water out from the pipes at set intervals, with smaller nozzles closest to the pivot and the largest nozzles at the end of the line. The system could cover 133 acres of a 160-acre field, and didn’t have to be disassembled by workers when it was time to plant, till, or harvest.
Ever more powerful motors allowed irrigators to increase the systems’ scale, with the largest set-ups covering all but the corners of a 640-acre section of land. Over time, farmers positioned sprinkler nozzles closer to the ground, resulting in less evaporation. During the return of drought conditions in the 1950s, those who had chosen to irrigate had an advantage over those who did not, which convinced many latecomers to get on board. In 1993, historian John Opie observed that industrial irrigation that emerged in the Great Plains was a three-legged stool supported by fertile land, plentiful and low-cost groundwater, and inexpensive fuel.
Center pivot irrigation was a technological triumph—and it also transformed the agricultural geography of the country. With feed crops becoming available in the Great Plains and easily portable via the new interstate highway system, feedlots and meatpacking plants moved to the region. An abundance of low cost, non-unionized labor and low-cost water for raising livestock and processing meat led the area, where 160 acres of land could previously support just one steer, to become a center for some of the world’s largest high-density livestock feedlots with hundreds of animals per acre. Large-scale swine production facilities have thousands of animals under one roof. Any one of these farms requires more water for drinking and waste removal than a typical city: A farm of 20,000 hogs uses far more water than a community of 20,000 people.
Water for irrigation and large-scale animal feeding didn’t only grow crops and livestock, it gave life to the Great Plains communities that depended on agriculture. Families and laborers shopped at local retailers and deposited wages in local banks, keeping small towns alive, and irrigators paid the property taxes that sustained local governments. Center pivot irrigation supported local high schools, clubs, churches, and a whole way of life that would have literally dried up if the fields were less productive.
The drought of the “Dirty Thirties” had exposed the limits of the Great Plains, raising the question of whether large parts of the region were suitable for agriculture, but the adoption of center pivot technology changed everything. For irrigators and their allies, the development of the center pivot “crop circle” was entirely beneficent. History, they could claim, was on their side. By the 1980s, irrigators from Texas to Nebraska sunk tens of thousands of wells, drawing on the massive Ogallala Aquifer. Irrigation, combined with new hybrid seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides continued to bring high productivity to an arid region.
It is little wonder, then, that for many people on the Great Plains, water regulation is a dirty word. Attempts to manage groundwater through local authorities during the 1970s relied on voluntary compliance—and there was so much money to be made with cheap water that regulation, many irrigators reasoned, constituted a violation of the natural order of the Great Plains and wasn’t worth the effort. It is easy to see why: The center pivot irrigation regime had come to seem inevitable, like a phenomenon of nature. When I was young, growing up in the area, I thought it was as natural as the seasonal migration of geese, ducks, and Sandhill cranes, and as inevitable as tornado season.
Center pivot technology epitomizes much of what it is to be an American. It was a technological triumph that enabled a production revolution. The people who built it took pride in their achievement: They were American inventors who created something out of almost nothing. But the system also drew on less-productive American impulses—not just ingenuity and drive, but also unchecked resource use and ever-increasing scale.
In recent years, it has become apparent just how finite the Ogallala Aquifer is. While water levels have increased in some areas, in most parts of the aquifer they have declined at a rate faster than natural recharge—sometimes by a foot per year—because of production agriculture. As of a decade ago, geologists estimated that there were less than 100 feet of saturated thickness remaining, with a minimum of 30 feet of thickness needed for successful irrigation.
By the time irrigators sensed the limits of groundwater irrigation, the region was stuck in what historians call an infrastructure trap: The success of center pivot irrigation has thwarted alternative visions for developing these dry areas. Capital investment in wells, pumps, center pivots, other equipment, and buildings have made it difficult to transition to less water-intensive farming practices. Consequently, change has been modest.
Twenty-five years ago John Opie noted that some irrigators adopted water-saving technology, but those measures did little to slow the overall draw on the aquifer and did not involve rethinking irrigation. Opie reported that some irrigators even admitted that when the aquifer is gone, the region’s economic lifeblood will be gone, but continued to irrigate anyway.
In 2013, a group of farmers in Kansas created a 99-square mile conservation zone in which all participants reduced their water use. As one farmer stated, “We had to change the culture. We took water for granted.” As of 2018, many of those who reduced their water use claimed that agriculture can be profitable even with reduced pumping. But efforts like these are the exception to the rule. The unwillingness to compromise short-term gain for long-term sustainability, of course, is just as American as the ingenuity that created center-pivot irrigation the first place. What a strange bind that for residents of the Great Plains, unchecked depletion of a major groundwater source has foreclosed options for future growth in the region.
In June, the clean energy firm Carbon Engineering announced that it had developed a technique to remove carbon dioxide from the air by turning it into fuel. The company uses massive fans to blow air onto a chemical solution that captures carbon dioxide, which then undergoes a series of chemical reactions to transform into liquid fuel. To execute this process, Carbon Engineering estimates that it will cost roughly $100 per metric ton of carbon dioxide removed, which is relatively cheap when compared to other methods.
While this is no doubt an exciting discovery, Carbon Engineering’s invention exemplifies one of the constant challenges plaguing high-tech climate change solutions: they might be cost-saving in the long run but require huge amounts of upfront investment. As environmental writer John Vidal has noted, “The Achilles’ heel of all negative emission technologies is cost.” All existing carbon removal technologies and research are expensive. The Southern Company’s carbon capturing power plant in Mississippi was forecast to cost $2.2 billion to build but is still unfinished and will now cost roughly $7.3 billion to complete.
While Carbon Engineering has not publicized how much it would cost to refine and scale its technology globally, it will likely require hundreds of billions of dollars — not to mention the massive amount of resources needed to build the enormous fans. Where will that funding come from and even more importantly, will the funding come in time?
In the quest to curb climate change, we must remember that there are low-tech methods at our disposal that can achieve similar results with much less initial investment. In fact, there is already an economical large-scale technology for removing carbon from the atmosphere: agroforestry.
Agroforestry is essentially a forest-mimicking agriculture that involves growing trees, shrubs and vegetables in tight assemblages. It is an ancient technology created by indigenous peoples and popularized in recent decades by newer landowners. Although it’s difficult to pin down how much of the world’s agricultural land contains tree cover, figures range from 100 million hectares to as much as 1 billion hectares, which lock up an estimated .75 gigatons of carbon per year. By comparison, there were 32.5 gigatons of global carbon emissions in 2017.
In terms of cost, agroforestry is likely much cheaper than Carbon Engineering’s invention, not to mention that it will likely take much more carbon-emitting energy to operate their machines on the global scale that they envision. Project Drawdown, a carbon solution tracking initiative, estimates a cost of $26.8 billion to implement agroforestry on an additional 19 million hectares globally — sequestering 9.3 billion gigatons of carbon and providing an estimated profit of $710 billion for farmers and investors by 2050. Institutions with “climate-smart” agriculture support programs like the World Bank and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization could supply some of the needed funding and channel it through the training and extension programs of nonprofits like the World Agroforestry Centre. Private investors seeking carbon credits can likely provide significant capital as well.
Agroforests not only eliminate carbon but also provide food, fiber, medicines and profit for people, as well as habitats for birds, bugs, monkeys, frogs and other species. One type of agroforest commonly found in the tropics is the “food forest,” an overgrown vegetable garden full of fruit-bearing trees and plants like cacao. They protect annual crops such as melons, grains and squash from direct sunlight, which can dry out soils and hurt yields, and they supply nitrogen for enriching the soil. Trees are also more visually attractive than the churning blades of Carbon Engineering’s massive fans.
While agroforests are most easily cultivated in the tropics, they are feasible anywhere trees grow, including across temperate regions in the United States where experiments with large-scale, hazelnut-based woody agriculture are underway. These agroforests supply edible nuts and protect nearby crops from the wind.
Another benefit of agroforestry is that it roots local agrarian communities in place, making it less likely that farmers and rural workers will migrate to cities to search for work. Local communities, and especially indigenous ones, are proven to be great stewards of their lands and generally reap good profits when they implement agroforestry techniques. In Honduras, one farmer who helped found a cooperative for growing agroforest-based organic coffee beans made enough income to send all her kids and later, her six grandkids, to school.
Unlike “end of the pipe” climate fixes such as Carbon Engineering’s, no new technology is needed to develop and scale agroforestry, with the main costs being seeds and training. On a finite planet, these are assets that can be rapidly acquired, multiplied and deployed globally, with results that are useful, empowering and beautiful.
Steve Gabriel curls back a bit of flimsy net fencing and shakes a plastic bucket of alfalfa pellets. Immediately, a sweet-faced, short-fleeced mob of some 50 Katahdin sheep pull away from a line of young black locust trees on whose leaves they’ve been snacking and swarm around him. The sheep race after Gabriel as he strides across nibbled grass and out from the fencing, around a dirt path’s shallow curve, and into a shadier, overgrown pasture dotted with longstanding black walnut and hawthorn trees.
Gabriel is an agroforestry specialist at Cornell University’s Small Farms Program. He’s also the author of the book on silvopasture, a farming technique that’s touted as a way to sequester carbon by growing trees in livestock pastures.
Trees absorb and sequester large amounts of carbon over time; they’re rendered even more powerful when they’re used in concert with grazing and planted on “marginal” land that isn’t great for growing crops—what Gabriel calls the “funky edges” around, say, healthy woodlands. On the heels of the latest, dire, National Climate Assessment, ag-based climate solutions such as silvopasture could provide much-needed climate benefits—if they can be scaled up.
Project Drawdown, a group of international scientists and policymakers that modeled the 80 most effective ways to battle climate change, ranks silvopasture number nine on its list, reporting that it could reduce CO2 emissions by over 31 gigatons by 2050 if it were ramped up from its current 351 million acres to 554 million acres worldwide.
There are no good estimates of how much land in the U.S. is currently devoted to silvopasture. The amount, though, is small, which means there’s potential for the practice to play much a larger role here; worldwide, it accounts for about 15 percent of all grazing land.
This prompts the question: Can more American farmers get the message about silvopasture’s positive qualities, and can the resources necessary to get them started with it, or transition to it, be made more readily available?
How Silvopasture Works
Gabriel addressed at least the first part of that question in his book. It’s a primer on ways to mingle silva (Latin for forest) with the pasturing of livestock—as well as a look at ancient silvopasture methods in Spain’s dehesa and Japan’s Kyushu province, plus more recent efforts in places like Mexico, where it receives government subsidies. The method has also been adopted in Panama, Costa Rica, and Colombia.
Much of the knowledge Gabriel is passing on he’s accumulated through first-hand experience farming with his wife Elizabeth on their 35-acre operation outside Ithaca, New York. There, they’ve been fiddling with a system that works like this: The sheep, which the Gabriels raise for meat, rotate daily on one-acre grazing plots. On a couple of those plots, which contain seeded-in and naturally occurring grasses, they’ve planted those fast-growing black locust trees to provide shade (more and more necessary in a rapidly warming world) and some forage for the animals, as well as fix nitrogen and hold a whole lot of carbon in the soil—anywhere from 3 to 10 tons per hectare (roughly 2.5 acres) per year. Eventually, Steve Gabriel says he might chop the trees down for rot-resistant fence posts, which will fetch a high market price, even as they retain the carbon stored within their wood.
It’s been five years since they began working what was depleted, degraded, and unproductive hay land. In that time, he says, “We’ve seen a transformation of the soil and the vegetation, with increases in organic matter and a big shift in soil biology—from the bacteria-dominated soils you get in open pasture to the fungi-dominated soils you get when you bring in trees. And the animals do all the work.”
In some of their woodsier plots, the sheep have nibbled down the underbrush. This creates areas suitable for their shelter and for seeding in new, more nutritious grass and forb forages; it’s also freed up wild apple trees the Gabriels harvest for local cider-makers.
On the remaining, densely forested plots—which are massive carbon sinks in their own right—the Gabriels practice what agroforestry specialist Eric Toensmeier, who contributed research to Drawdown, calls multi-strata agroforestry (#28 on the Drawdown list): thinning out maple stands he taps for syrup and clearing ground for stacking logs on which he grows shiitakes for area restaurants.
This idyll—animals, trees, and forages working in tandem to fill a dual purpose of regenerating soil and climate and creating a sustainable, financially viable farm—belies certain challenges. According to Steve Gabriel, silvopasture’s fundamentals are well understood, but a lot remains unknown about how it functions in multifarious climates and soils with different combinations of trees and animals.
“We’ve planted a lot of stuff, and a lot of it has died,” Gabriel says. On the other hand, failures have helped “provide a template for how we’re going to do the rest” of the land, and serve as teaching material for a growing number of mostly young farmers—the Silvopasture Facebook group reaches over 2,400 members—keen to farm this way. Having more demo sites like his own, as well as encouraging governmental and private investment in silvopasture, might create the necessary support to give more farmers a leg up, Gabriel thinks.
Case Studies in Silvopasture
Lesson number one: There’s no one-size-fits-all silvopasture model. Even the Gabriels’ modest acreage is replete with microclimates, each with its own quirks. The complexity increases as you radiate into ever-wider regions, further compounded by the needs and desires of individual farmers.
For example, 14 miles south of their farm, the 69-acre Good Life Farm has had success with a peach and apple orchard grazed by beef cattle and poultry, supported by salad crops.
About 180 miles east, in Valley Falls, New York, first generation farmers Dustin and Kassie Gibson have converted 20 acres of what Kassie calls “useless woodland” to silvopasture that supports beef cattle and hogs, thereby expanding the number of animals they’re able to support on their 70 total acres.
And 115 miles south of the Gibsons, in Holmes, Meghan Riehl and Curtis Breuer are collaborating to get four acres of silvopasture plots at Grape Hollow Farm, a 47-acre vacation rental property, up and running. The thickly wooded, steeply sloped, and rocky property was historically used for sheep grazing, says Riehl, who finished a livestock apprenticeship at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture last year.
Arriving at Grape Hollow, Riehl tended a small flock of meat-and-wool-producing Romneys. She ran them through one silvopasture plot; the others are currently too overgrown with low-bush blueberries and goldenrod that are unsuitable for forage. But “these plots could be made into something more than they are if we could thin them and clear them by bringing in hogs to lightly turn up the ground,” says Riehl.
Not to mention, an expansion of the farm’s footprint, converting otherwise unusable land into pasture, as well as opening it up to firewood harvesting, and, as at the Gabriels’ farm, producing maple syrup and mushrooms. Riehl hopes this will help transition Grape Hollow’s one-tenth of an acre of scarce flatland devoted to vegetable crops, plus heritage chickens, “into a working farm that can fully pay for itself,” she says.
Silvopasture requires rapt attention from farmers to ensure that the animals don’t cause destruction to the land by overgrazing it, and to young trees especially, by tearing at their bark and digging up their roots. But because it does not require costly “farmland” in order to produce food, tracts suited to the practice have often been neglected by generational farmers and can be had on the cheap.
Studying and Promoting the Practice
Connecting the dots between farmers and land is the aim of a new project at the NC Choices initiative at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) in Raleigh, North Carolina. The project is funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) beginning farmer and rancher grant; it will assist 15 farmers interested in raising pastured beef cattle, sheep, goats—and possibly hogs and poultry—in procuring long-term lease agreements on some of North Carolina’s 11 million acres of small, privately owned woodlots.
“This is land that owners are already considering timbering. If they can get animals in to move through and do understory management, that’s a win-win—a service to the landowners, and farmers can get land-share opportunities,” says NC Choices Director Sarah Blacklin. She hopes to announce the first farmer/landowner pairings in early 2019.
The project has benefited from ongoing research by ecologist Alan Franzluebbers, who manages a USDA silvopasture study in Goldsboro, N.C., where he’s been measuring the impact of animals on soil, forage quality, and timber production. “A lot of research needs to be done to quantify that,” he says.
Local rancher Buron Lanier, who grazes cattle through his pine stands between timber harvests, has provided some useful data. Franzluebbers says Lanier’s silvopasture system potentially has greater soil organic matter than trees grown for lumber without livestock. And Lanier says silvopasture gives him “more fertile soils from manure deposits, in turn making the trees taller and the lumber more plentiful.
Silvopasture science is ongoing, on Franzluebber’s study plots and elsewhere. At the University of California, Berkeley, conservation biologists Claire Kremens and Adina Merenlender are researching its benefits to species biodiversity (so far, positive).
And back in Ithaca, the Gabriels are applying for a grant to test the nutritional quality of black locust trees as sheep forage. If the research continues to evolve, pathways—financial and otherwise—might open up for American farmers to try silvopasture on their own, or others’, unused acreages.
That sounds like good news to Kassie Gibson. “It gives you such a feeling of accomplishment when you see that land used,” she says.
Originally published by Civil Eats on Jan. 7, 2019
If you’re seeking some good news during these troubled times, look at the ecologically sound ways of producing food that have percolated up from the grassroots in recent years. Small farmers, environmentalists, academic researchers, and food and farming activists have given us agroecology, holistic resource management, permaculture, regenerative agriculture and other methods that can alleviate or perhaps even eliminate the global food system’s worst impacts: biodiversity loss, energy depletion, toxic pollution, food insecurity and massive carbon emissions.
These inspiring testaments to human ingenuity and goodwill have two things in common: They involve smaller-scale farms adapted to local conditions, and they depend more on human attention and care than on energy and technology. In other words, they are the opposite of industrial monocultures — huge farms that grow just one crop.
But to significantly reduce the many negative impacts of the food system, these small-scale initiatives need to spread all over the world. Unfortunately, this has not happened, because the transformation of farming requires shifting not just how food is produced, but also how it is marketed and distributed. The food system is inextricably linked to an economic system that, for decades, has been fundamentally biased against the kinds of changes we need.
Put simply, economic policies almost everywhere have systematically promoted ever-larger scale and monocultural production. Those policies include:
Massive subsidies for globally traded commodities. Most farm subsidies in the US, for example, go to just five commodities — corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice — that are the centerpieces of global food trade. At the same time, government programs — like the US Market Access Program — provide hundreds of millions of dollars to expand international markets for agriculture products.
Direct and hidden subsidies for global transport infrastructures and fossil fuels. The IMF estimates these subsidies and ignored environmental costs at $5.3 trillion per year — the equivalent of $10 million every minute.
Health and safety regulations. Most of these have been made necessary by large-scale production and distribution — but they make it impossible for smaller-scale producers and marketers to compete and survive. In France, for example, the number of small producers of cheese has shrunk by 90 percent, thanks in large measure to EU food safety laws.
These policies provide a huge competitive advantage to large monocultural producers and corporate processors and marketers, which is why industrially produced food that has been shipped from the other side of the world is often less expensive than food from the farm next door.
The environmental costs of this bias are huge. Monocultures rely heavily on chemical inputs — fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides — which pollute the immediate environment, put wildlife at risk and — through nutrient runoff — create “dead zones” in waters hundreds or thousands of miles away. Monocultures are also heavily dependent on fossil fuels to run large-scale equipment and to transport raw and processed foods across the world, making them a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, scientists estimate the greenhouse gas toll of the global food system at one-third of total emissions.
There are also risks to food security. With global economic policies homogenizing the world’s food supply, the 7,000 species of plants used as food crops in the past have been reduced to 150 commercially important crops, with rice, wheat and maize accounting for 60 percent of the global food supply. Varieties within those few crops have been chosen for their responsiveness to chemical fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation water — and for their ability to withstand long-distance transport. A similar calculus is applied to livestock and poultry breeds, which are skewed toward those that can grow rapidly with inputs of grain and antibiotics in confined animal feeding operations. The loss of diversity even extends to the size and shape of food products: harvesting machinery, transport systems and supermarket chains all require standardization. The end result is that more than half of the world’s food varieties have been lost over the past century; in countries like the US, the loss is more than 90 percent. The global food system rests on a dangerously narrow base. Without the genetic variety that can supply resilience, the food system is vulnerable to catastrophic losses from disease and the disruptions of a changing climate.
The Benefits of Local Food
The solution to these problems involves more than a commitment to ecological models of food production, it also requires a commitment to local food economies. Localization systematically alleviates a number of environmental problems inherent in the global food system, by:
reducing the distance that food travels, thereby lessening the energy needed for transport, as well as the attendant greenhouse gas emissions;
reducing the need for packaging, processing and refrigeration (which all but disappears when producers sell direct to consumers, thus reducing waste and energy use);
reducing monoculture, as farms producing for local or regional markets have an incentive to diversify their production, which makes organic production more feasible, in turn reducing the toxic load on surrounding ecosystems;
providing more niches for wildlife to occupy through diversified organic farms;
and supporting the principle of diversity on which ecological farming — and life itself — is based, by favoring production methods that are best suited to particular climates, soils and resources.
Local food provides many other benefits. The smaller-scale farms that produce for local and regional markets require more human intelligence, care and work than monocultures, thus providing more employment opportunities. In the Global South, in particular, a commitment to local food would stem the pressures that are driving millions of farmers off the land.
Local food is also good for rural and small-town economies, providing not only more on-farm employment, but supporting the many local businesses on which farmers depend.
Food security is also strengthened because varieties are chosen based on their suitability to diverse locales, not the demands of supermarket chains or the requirements of long-distance transport. This strengthens agricultural biodiversity.
Local food is also healthier. Since it doesn’t need to travel so far, local food is far fresher than global food; and since it doesn’t rely on monocultural production, it can be produced without toxic chemicals that can contaminate food.
Countering the Myths
Although local food is an incredibly effective solution-multiplier, agribusiness has gone to great lengths to convince the public that large-scale industrial food production is the only way to feed the world. But the fact is that the global food economy is massively inefficient.
The global system’s need for standardized products means that tons of edible food are destroyed or left to rot. This is one reason why more than one-third of the global food supply is wasted or lost; for the US, the figure is closer to one-half.
The logic of global trade results in massive quantities of identical products being simultaneously imported and exported — a needless waste of fossil fuels and a huge addition to greenhouse gas emissions. In a typical year, for example, the US imports more than 400,000 tons of potatoes and 1 million tons of beef, while exporting almost the same tonnage of each. The same is true of many other food commodities, and many other countries.
The supposed efficiency of monocultural production is based on output per unit of labor, which is maximized by replacing jobs with chemical- and energy-intensive technology. Measured by output per acre, however — a far more relevant metric — smaller-scale farms are typically 8 to 20 times more productive. This is partly because monocultures, by definition, produce just one crop on a given plot of land, while smaller, diversified farms allow intercropping — using the spaces between rows of one crop to grow another. What’s more, the labor “efficiencies” of monocultural production are linked to the use of large-scale equipment, which limit the farmer’s ability to tend to or harvest small portions of a crop and thereby increase yields.
Making the Shift
For more than a generation, now, the message to farmers has been to “get big or get out” of farming, and a great number of the farmers who remain have tailored their methods to what makes short-term economic sense within a deeply flawed system. To avoid bankrupting those farmers, the shift from global to local would need to take place with care, providing incentives for farmers to diversify their production, reduce their reliance on chemical inputs and fossil fuel energy, and to seek markets closer to home. Those incentives would go hand-in-hand with reductions in subsidies for the industrial food system.
After decades of policy bias toward global food, some steps in this direction are being taken by local and regional governments. In the US, for example, most states have enacted “cottage food laws” that relax the restrictions on the small-scale production of jams, pickles and other preserved foods, allowing them to be processed and sold locally without the need for expensive commercial kitchens.
In 2013, the government of Ontario, Canada, passed a Local Food Act aimed at increasing access to local food, improving local food literacy and providing tax credits for farmers who donate a portion of their produce to nearby food banks.
Even bolder action is needed if there is to be any hope of eliminating the damage done by the global food system. A crucial first step is to raise awareness of the costs of the current system, and the multiple benefits of local food. No matter how many studies demonstrate the virtues of alternative ways of producing and distributing food, the destructive global food system is unlikely to change unless there is heavy pressure from the grassroots to change the entire system. That needs to start now.
Eight years ago, Liz Whitehurst, then 25, was working in digital communications at a policy organization in Washington DC and dreaming of life outside a cubicle. She started exploring a different kind of existence by volunteering on local farms. When the farmer who provided the locally sourced vegetable box she signed up for invited her to work the fields one day, she was starstruck. “You’re my hero,” she recalls telling the farmer. “I want your life.”
Today, she has it. Whitehurst grows a wide array of produce on Owl’s Nest Farm, set on a few acres in Upper Marlboro, Maryland (she bought it from that same farmer). Whitehurst grows sweet potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and squash – everything is handpicked. She also provides greens to a local pizza kitchen which was recently named one of the best new restaurants in the country.
She runs the farm with two other millennials: Foster Gettys, 29, who lives on the property with half a dozen chickens as pets, and Sara Policastro, 23, who manages the farm’s small rotation of volunteers.
Whitehurst likes the autonomy. She likes being outside. She likes having visible proof of her efforts at the end of the day. “You can see the thing you accomplished – you weeded the bed,” she says. “And in an office it’s like, ‘Oh I sent all those emails.’”
At 33, her life amid the dinosaur kale and pink beauty radishes would strike many as admirable, even romantic. And she’s grateful for the farm’s convenient location 30 minutes outside Washington DC, where people will pay a premium for the fresh, locally sourced greens she sells. But there’s a catch: she works longer hours than she ever did at her office jobs in Washington – for thousands a year less. When she goes into the city to sell on weekends, she’s often too tired to do much socializing.
Still, she’s one of the fortunate: she was able to lease the land in the first place and buy out her co-founders because her family was in a position to lend her the money. For others wanting to follow her footsteps, access to a life unplugged is even more difficult.
‘It is a pipe dream around here’
While Americans spending most waking hours on screens, Whitehurst is part of a small but growing movement of young people seeking out a more agrarian life. While the number of farmers aged 35-54 dropped from 2007 to 2012, there was an increase in millennial farmers by 2.2%, according tocensus data.
The young people coming into the profession are fueled by idealism but, like the hippie generation before them, and the many traditional farmers who have been driven out of the industry by its brutal economics, the reality of life on the land isn’t as simple as they had hoped.
Farming requires a lot of immediate capital without offering any immediate way to repay it, and the statistics for new farmers are grim. More than half of US farm households report losses from their farm businesses each year. Net profits have been falling for years, with cash income cut almost in half since 2013. Median farm incomes, which have remained effectively flat since 2015, are projected to fall again this year.
Young farmers also face high student debt burdens and land prices unheard of a generation or two ago. The average cost of farm real estate rose 47% from 2009 to 2017, according to government data.
That hasn’t dissuaded 26-year-old Bronte Edwards. “I do think there’s a resurgence in the millennial generation to turn back to the land,” says Edwards, who is pursuing an associate’s degree in agriculture at Santa Rosa junior college in northern California.
She hopes to start a farm of her own one day and capitalize on the prevalence of farm-to-table restaurants and a culture among affluent urbanites where fresh, local ingredients are chic. “People want to buy food that’s organic, that’s grass-fed, people want to know the face that feeds them,” she says. “In cities, where you eat is like what brand of clothing you wear.”
The only trouble is, she can’t afford to get started.
“It is a pipe dream around here,” says Edwards of buying land in Santa Rosa, 25 miles outside tony Napa Valley wine country, where land is prohibitively expensive. But she says she’s inspired by artists who rely on outside funding to fund their dreams, and wants to use a similar model to build not just a farm, but an educational center for sustainable agriculture. She knows it won’t be easy, but Edwards isn’t easily discouraged. “I’m a masochist,” she jokes.
The day we speak Edwards is just back from a day helping a nearby farmer – an older woman she refers to as “the OG of artisanal cheese” – tend to hundreds of ewes she’s had artificially inseminated.
“She’s climbing over fences and handing me these sheeps that were just born,” Edwards recalled, still a little awed. “People who work in agriculture, they’re tough, some of the hardest-working people around. She was like, ‘Goddamn, I’m too old for this!’ I’m 26, and I have a hard time!’”
It’s only going to get harder. Changing weather patterns make long-term plans and investment increasingly difficult. Edwards’s hometown of Santa Rosa was devastated by wildfire last year, part of a historically unprecedented spate of California wildfires linked to climate change.
Edwards isn’t the only one concerned about irregular weather. “We’ve been here 10 years and every season has been completely different. It’s just really erratic,” Attila Agoston, tells me over pumpkin pie one night in his unheated barn. He met his wife when they were working as fuelers for aircraft on scientific missions in Antarctica, and both settled down to start a farm near Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. This year turned out to be one of the rainieston record.
As undaunted by weather as a man with his background may be, he worries about the unpredictability. “If I’m expecting it to rain next year, I’d want to invest in more high tunnels,” he says of the unheated greenhouses used to keep crops dry. “We just had our highest wind gust this last year – 70 miles per hour. It dismantled a tunnel with one gust. I want to invest but it’s also a liability. It’s getting windier.”
Still, Agoston wouldn’t trade places with anyone, gesturing out at the 900-acre nature preserve abutting his land. “We work hard and are at the whims of nature like all farmers, but at the same time we live on a huge, beautiful plot of land,” he said. “Plus, we eat very well!”
That appeal Agoston nods to is what members of the National Young Farmers Coalition want. More than 100 members of the group, which was founded in 2010 in New York’s Hudson Valley, lobbied lawmakers on Capitol Hill during an unseasonable snow spell last month to push some of their priorities – improving access to farmland, credit and markets, better support for training young farmers – ahead of a vote on the 2018 farm bill’s reauthorization. The long-delayed $867bn farm bill was finally passed last Wednesday.
“Overall, it’s a very usual farm bill for what’s an unusually bad farm economy right now,” says Andrew Bahrenburg, NYFC’s national policy director. He sees the bill as imperfect, but better for their lobbying efforts. It includes many wins for young farmers, like increased funding for farmers’ markets and coordinators in all 50 states to provide outreach and assistance to new farmers.
Brian Estes, a 33-year-old NYFC memberfrom Washington state, says the group’s day of lobbying in DC, which involved flying in farmers from all over the country, showed how many young people are interested not just in agriculture but in changing policy.
Still, Estes would like to see the government do more to level the playing field between large agribusiness and small independent farmers. “Profit margins are going in one direction, and it’s to a small pool of folks who are very well-resourced,” he says.
When going back to the land fails
At the dawn of the 1970s, amid growing consciousness of environmental degradation and unrest over the war in Vietnam, young people were feeling the urge to get back to the land – a kind of lived protest.
They organized themselves in loose collectives, started organic farms, experimented with communal gardens and tried out alternative living arrangements in defiance of monogamy’s restrictions. But these new ways of living presented their own challenges and in the years that followed, many would revert to more conventional lifestyles.
Back-to-the-landers (of whom Bernie Sanders was one) were dismissed, as millennial farmers today may be, as unrealistic dreamers (Hillary Clinton, long before her presidential matchup with Sanders, dismissed the movement as “mental masturbation”: an interesting exercise in philosophy, perhaps, but no way to live in the world).
Even Henry David Thoreau, whose book Walden helped inspire future generations to live closer to nature, failed at self-reliance in many ways, and has been derided for accepting home-cooked meals from his mother and entertaining visitors, since his little cabin at the pond was actually quite close to a busy railroad, not isolated as his text suggests.
Similar things haunted the young idealists I spoke with. One farmer guiltily confided that he still buys ice cream at the store, while another told me of the time she “scandalously” purchased broccoli rabe out of season.
Five years ago, Sarah Silverman, inspired by a classic homesteading text, The Good Life, by Helen and Scott Nearing, whom the Washington Post once called “the great-grandparents of the back-to-the-land movement”, left urban life in the California Bay Area.
She and her husband bought a half-acre plot of land in Forestville, California. Some friends built them a chicken coop as a wedding present and they filled it with chickens; they got a dog, a second cat.
They returned to Oakland earlier this year.
The initial challenges set in like a series of plagues: rats, termites, wasps, a huge ant colony. The septic system needed to be replaced, foundation had to be treated, first for subterranean termites and later, for flying ones. “We killed black widows and knocked down wasps’ nests and were constantly trying to seal up holes to rat-proof our home,” she recalls. They didn’t succeed: when rats chewed through the dishwasher water line, they had to fix it; the rats then chewed through their heating ducts, so they had to replace those too.
Between all the repairs and each working full-time jobs, they found little time for gardening or tending chickens. “We were working to pay for our mortgage and still buying our produce at the grocery store but feeling really guilty about it because we had this big garden plot,” Silverman, 34, says.
Meanwhile the community of other young homesteaders they’d imagined never materialized. “The pressure is really intense there because farm jobs do not pay enough so people had to have off-farm jobs working part-time or full-time. That kind of pressure made it hard to get together with people because people are strapped for money and time,” she says.
Now that they’ve moved back to the Bay Area with their new baby, things are so much easier Silverman says they’re like kids in a candy shop. “We felt like the city was calling us back and we were actually city people all along,” she says. “We just needed this experience to teach us that.”
It doesn’t work for everyone, or perhaps, for most. But 1970s-era experiments shouldn’t be completely written off, as their positive legacies abound, including an enthusiasm for fresh and organic foods, a thriving artisanal market and a growing commitment to clean energy.
Thoreau’s ideas also have their place. His living set-up, while not as self-reliantly monastic as he made it out to be, did provide the conditions for the creation of his masterpiece, even if his work was probably aided by his mom’s home-cooked meals and proximity to rail.
It’s been called hypocrisy, but it might better be described a lesson: do as Thoreau did, not as he said.
The latest IPCC report does not mince words about the state of our planet: we must act now to achieve global change at a scale that has “no documented historical precedent” in order to avoid the climate catastrophe that would result from a 2 degree C rise in average global temperature. Climate change already disproportionately affects the world’s most vulnerable people including poor rural communities that depend on the land for their livelihoods and coastal communities throughout the tropics. Indeed, we have already seen the stark asymmetry of suffering resulting from extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, floods, droughts, wildfires and more.
So far, advocates and politicians have tended to focus on reducing fossil fuel consumption through technology and/or policy, such as a steep carbon tax, as climate solutions. These proposals are, of course, essential to reducing manmade carbon emissions—71 percent of which are generated by just 100 fossil fuel companies. For this reason, fossil-fuel–related emissions reductions rightly figure heavily in the national climate commitments of the 181 nations that signed the global Paris Agreement.
Yet the international focus on fossil fuels has overshadowed the most powerful and cost-efficient carbon-capture technology the world has yet seen: forests. Recent scientific research confirms that forests and other “natural climate solutions” are absolutely essential in mitigating climate change, thanks to their carbon sequestering and storage capabilities. In fact, natural climate solutions can help us achieve 37 percent of our climate target, even though they currently receive only 2.5 percent of public climate financing.
Forests’ power to store carbon dioxide through the simple process of tree growth is staggering: one tree can store an average of about 48 pounds of carbon dioxide in one year. Recent research shows intact forests are capable of storing the equivalent of the carbon dioxide emissions of entire countries such as Peru and Colombia.
For this reason, policy makers and business leaders must create and enforce ambitious policies and incentives to prevent deforestation, foster reforestation of degraded land, and support the sustainable management of standing forests in the fight against climate change. Protecting the world’s forests ensures they can continue to provide essential functions aside from climate stability, including producing oxygen, filtering water and supporting biodiversity. Not only do all the world’s people depend on forests to provide clean air, clean water, oxygen, and medicines, but 1.6 billion people rely on them directly for their livelihoods.
Unfortunately, we are fighting a crisis of deforestation, much of it driven by conversion to agricultural lands to produce a handful of resource-intensive commodities, despite zero-deforestation commitments from companies and governments. With increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, insufficient emissions reductions and continued high rates of deforestation, urgent action is needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
Now is the time to increase investment in and attention to forest protection and restoration. In doing so, we will also address a number of other pressing global issues. For example, increasing tree cover can help address the problem of food security in many areas. Trees can enhance farm productivity and provide farmers with another source of revenue through the sale of fruits, nuts or timber—all while storing carbon dioxide. It is estimated that increased investment in the multi-strata agroforestry area could help sequester up to 9.28 gigatons of carbon dioxide, while saving a net $709.8 billion by 2050. In production landscapes where large-scale tree cover increases are difficult, agroforestry serves as an attractive compromise.
And in less-developed, rural areas—especially in the tropics—community-based sustainable forest management programs can provide pathways out of poverty. In the Petén region of Guatemala, for instance, community-managed forests have boasted a near-zero deforestation rate over the past 14 years, as compared to 12 percent in nearby protected areas and buffer zones. These communities have built low-impact, sustainable forest-based businesses that have bolstered the economy of the region enough to fund the creation of local schools and health services. Their success is especially poignant in a region otherwise besieged by deforestation; outside the community-managed zones, deforestation rates increase by 20x.
Finally, landscape restoration promises an unparalleled return on investment, in terms of ecosystem services and carbon sequestered and stored. Landscape restoration could potentially sequester up to 1.7 gigatons of carbon dioxide every year, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Reforestation projects can also intersect neatly and positively with human systems—restored forests provide a renewed resource base and new economic opportunities for communities.
There is good work being done on this front already. The Bonn Challenge, issued by world leaders with the goal of reforestation and restoration of 150 million hectares of degraded landscapes by 2020, has been adopted by 56 countries. Many governments and groups pledged to halve global deforestation by 2020 through the New York Declaration on Forests. And in an exemplary display of public-private sector cooperation, the Cocoa and Forests Initiative in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana aims to end deforestation from cocoa cultivation.
With world leaders gathering in December for their yearly U.N. climate talks, the time is ripe for concrete action on forests and natural climate solutions. World leaders now have the opportunity to make big gains on climate by dramatically ramping up their investment in proven, natural solutions. More trees in the ground. More reforestation projects. More sustainable forestry. More avoided deforestation through sustainable agriculture and certified crops.
Agroforestry—the use of trees in farming—benefits both farmers and the environment.
According to a recent report by Biodiversity International, the Center for International Forestry Research, the World Agroforestry Centre, and Charles Sturt University, forests contribute to the livelihoods of more than 1.6 billion people. Yet, 30 percent of the world’s forests are used primarily for the production of wood products.
Agroforestry is defined as the integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems. These practices can help landowners diversify products and create social, economic, and environmental benefits.
Trees and forests provide more than just food—they can enhance soils, protect biodiversity, preserve precious water supplies, and even help reduce the impacts of climate change.
According to the World Agroforestry Centre, agroforestry is uniquely suited to address the need to grow more food and biomass for fuel while sustainably managing agricultural landscapes for the critical ecosystem services they provide.
Agroforestry efforts in Niger, for example, have resulted in 200 million trees being planted on over 5 million hectares of farmland. This has impacted an estimated 2.5 million people by improving soil, increasing yields, and creating resilience against climate change.
This week, Food Tank is highlighting 16 organizations and projects that are using agroforestry principles to bring benefits to farmers, communities, and the environment.
The Bangor Forest Garden project, located in North West Wales, was created in 1998 to showcase forest gardening as an agroforestry solution to sustainable living. The volunteer-run project has become a popular demonstration site and an effective educational and research resource for Bangor University and the surrounding community.
The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) addresses the problem of deforestation, which affects the livelihood of a quarter of the global population and endangers biodiversity. CIFOR works with communities in developing countries to help promote sustainability in the use and management of their forests.
Community Forests International started working in 2007 to help stop deforestation and improve food security on the island of Pemba, off the Tanzanian coast. Since then, Community Forests International has helped Pemban communities plant over one million trees, build agroforestry systems to provide fruit and timber, and restore forest ecosystems.
In 1984, Ernst Götsch, an agroecologist originally from Switzerland, settled on a farm in southern Bahia, Brazil. Using techniques that mimic the natural regeneration of forests, he has since restored over 450 hectares of land that were previously rendered unproductive due to years of intensive agricultural practices.
Inspired by Götsch’s principles, Fazenda da Toca is an organic, agroecological family farm in São Paulo, Brazil. Agroforestry techniques are applied throughout the farm, which covers the equivalent of 2,130 football fields. At the onsite educational center, Instituto Toca, students and community members learn about the farm’s agroecological techniques—which include planting corn with beans and apples with cherries to restore degraded soils, produce high yields, and eliminate the use of chemical pesticides.
For additional information on Ernst Götsch’s approach to agroforestry and for a closer look at Fazenda da Toca, we recommend Agenda Gotsch’s latest short film, Life in Syntropy.
In an effort to restore both local ecosystems and local economies, Green World Campaign works with grassroots partners throughout the tropics to turn degraded land green again. Their work, which centers around tree planting, has transformed communities in Kenya, Mexico, Ethiopia, India, and the Philippines.
Groundswell International is a bottom-up partnership of civil society organizations focused on agroecological farming practices such as agroforestry, crop rotation, and intercropping. Groundswell taps into the wisdom and expertise of farmers to create programs with lasting change throughout the Global South.
Hacienda Pinzacuá is a family farm in the Valle de Cauca region of Colombia using agroforestry techniques to keep their farm healthy and sustainable. Irene Montes Londoño, whose father started the farm, says the farm is “more competitive and less vulnerable to extreme weather events because the system allows soil to retain water for longer periods and has created a microclimate that protects soil from drought. We are resilient.”
In Morocco, the High Atlas Foundation has planted more than one million fruit-bearing trees, benefiting local communities. It is estimated that this project has helped as many as 50,000 Moroccans increase their incomes and improve food security through the sale of fruit trees.
La Bergerie de Villarceaux is an organic, experimental farm in northern France. Since 2011, Olivier Ranke and his team have planted hundreds of trees throughout the farmland. Their efforts mirror a larger land movement in France which, in recent years, has seen a resurgence in agroforestry practices. The farm also serves as a gathering spot for other organizations working toward sustainable development in the region.
An initiative of The International Center, The New Forests Project (NFP) supports community efforts in sustainable agriculture, reforestation, and natural resource preservation. Recognizing the numerous benefits of agroforestry—soil restoration, carbon sequestration, and increased farm productivity—the organization keeps the practice central to its work. Over the years, NFP has distributed tree seeds and provided technical assistance, education, and equipment to support reforestation efforts in 4,500 communities in over 120 countries.
The Sahelian Areas Development Fund Programme (FODESA), launched by the International Fund for Agricultural Development, created a parkland agroforestry initiative in partnership with the World Agroforestry Centre that grows native trees alongside staple food crops, such as millet and sorghum. The initiative promotes soil fertility and water conservation while increasing access to native tree species that provide food, medicine, fuel, and building materials to locals. FODESA has also established village nurseries that aim to cultivate more drought-resistant native species to address deforestation in Mali.
Timberland and the Smallholder Farmers Alliance made a pledge to plant five million trees in Haiti after the country was struck by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake in 2010, using a community-based agroforestry model. The model was designed to increase tree cover, soil quality, and crop yields while also offering participants educational training, business skills, and entrepreneurial opportunities for the long-term economic sustainability of the program. Margaret Morey-Reuner, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Timberland, said “once the farmers experienced success in the form of increased crop yields that led to increased income, they were able to afford things like school tuition for their children and animals for their farms.”
Trees for the Future has planted 128 million trees around the world since 1989. Through integrating farming, animals, people, and trees, the project has improved soil quality, increased crop yields, and boosted the standard of living for families in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Trees.org, an initiative of Trees for the Future, educates farmers on the importance of planting trees alongside food crops and provides technical assistance as families transition their land into productive “Forest Gardens.” They currently have 14 “Forest Garden Programs” underway in sub-Saharan Africa and planted more than four million trees on Earth Day 2016.
The World Agroforestry Centre, part of the CGIAR Consortium, works in Cameroon, China, India, Indonesia, Kenya, and Peru. The Centre helps smallholder farmers increase use of trees on their land in order to improve food security, nutrition, income, health, and environmental sustainability. Their research also includes working toward a more productive, diversified, integrated, and intensified agroforestry system that will benefit smallholder households.
With an emphasis on sustainable land management, Vi Agroforestry partners with smallholder farm families and farmer organizations in the Lake Victoria region of East Africa. Since its inception in 1983, the organization has planted over 100 million trees and thereby improved the livelihoods of 1.8 million people.
WASHINGTON — When people think of potential solutions to global warming, they tend to visualize technologies like solar panels or electric cars. A new study published on Wednesday, however, found that better management of forests, grasslands and soils in the United States could offset as much as 21 percent of the country’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.
At the high end of the projections, that would be roughly equivalent to taking every single car and truck in the country off the road.
The paper, published in the journal Science Advances, identified a number of promising strategies, like replanting trees on degraded lands, changing logging practices to better protect existing forests and sequestering more carbon in farmland soils through new agricultural techniques.
“We’re not saying these strategies are a substitute for getting to zero-carbon energy; we still need to do that too,” said Joseph E. Fargione, a scientist at the Nature Conservancy and lead author of the study. “But we think that natural climate solutions generally get overlooked. And we found a lot of opportunities here to help mitigate climate change.”
Other scientists agreed that storing more carbon in forests and soils could be a potent tool, though some were more cautious about how much was feasible in practice. For instance, the authors of the study used remote-sensing data to identify more than 100 million acres of land in the United States that is not currently being used for crops or pasture but that could be suitable for planting more trees, which absorb carbon from the air.
“I’m intrigued and hopeful but also a little skeptical,” said Timothy D. Searchinger, a researcher at Princeton University and the World Resources Institute. “They’ve provided a very rough map of these lands, and it would be a good idea to go out and examine this land more closely to see if they’re right and if so, more closely determine what it would take to reforest it.”
A growing number of states are now looking at better managing their natural landscapes to store more carbon. California, for example, is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in programs to restore degraded wetlands and forests and in efforts to reduce the risk of severe wildfires through improved forest management. (Wildfires release millions of tons of carbon into the air, and it takes many years for the burned trees to fully grow back.)
It’s not an easy task. While many states track the emissions coming out of their power plants and vehicles, they have not traditionally studied how much carbon is released into the atmosphere when, say, grasslands are plowed up and converted into cropland. And it takes detailed modeling to figure out which ecosystems should get priority for restoration.
“I’d say we’re still learning,” said Claire Jahns, the assistant secretary for climate issues at the California Natural Resources Agency. “But there’s a growing recognition that we’re not going to hit our state climate targets without paying attention to our lands and the physical environment.”
The study looked at nearly two dozen possible approaches. For instance, policymakers could encourage more farmers to plant cover crops between their main harvests rather than leaving their fields bare, which would help pull more carbon from the air into the soil. While cover crops are becoming increasingly common in the United States, the practice often requires extra labor or equipment, so financial incentives may be needed to speed adoption.
Other steps could prove more contentious. The study noted that large swaths of forests in the South and Pacific Northwest are being cleared as cities expand. But restricting urban sprawl, as cities in Oregon have tried to do, can be tricky in practice.
The researchers contended that many of these actions are relatively affordable. For example, they calculated that reforesting unused land around the United States would cost between $10 and $50 per ton of carbon dioxide avoided. That is cheaper than many subsidies to encourage clean energy, and in line with the cost per ton of several recent carbon tax proposals.
Actions to replenish natural landscapes can also have valuable side benefits. Restored wetlands don’t just pull carbon out of the air; they can also improve local water quality and protect cities from flooding.
Still, challenges abound. Policymakers have to make sure that efforts to protect forests or convert marginal farmland back into carbon-rich grasslands don’t just spur deforestation or more intensive farming elsewhere. And if we fail to get global warming under control, more of the carbon locked away in forests could be released as more frequent wildfires, droughts and pest infestations kill off trees.
Another huge obstacle to conserving more of these ecosystems is the growing global demand for farmland, as the world adds billions more people. Reducing that pressure will most likely require difficult steps like significantly improving crop yields, curtailing food waste and perhaps moderating global meat consumption.
“We need to pay attention to everything that’s happening across different landscapes,” said Katharine Mach, a scientist at Stanford University who was not involved in the study. “So much of this is tied to the way we grow food.”
Thanksgiving tables may miss an American icon this year: families across the United States are ditching conventionally raised turkeys, instead featuring turkeys raised with best practices or even plant-based alternatives to meat.
Preferences for healthier, traceable food produced by transparent companies are on the rise nationally. A 2017 survey by Cargill revealed that 88 percent of consumers agreed that brands need to be transparent about the ways they produce food, and 80 percent of consumers specify that at Thanksgiving, they find it important to buy a turkey from a family farmer using safe and sustainable practices.
Consumers prefer free-range, naturally raised turkeys, particularly during the holiday season: natural and organic turkeys raised by transparent producers generated 153 percent more in dollar sales on a weekly average leading up to Thanksgiving, in comparison to average weekly dollar sales throughout the year. Typically smaller in size—less than 14 pounds on average—these turkeys are changing the stereotypical Thanksgiving table.
“People are starting to understand it’s not natural to grow turkeys up to 30 pounds,” Ariane Daguin, co-founder and owner of D’Artagnan LLC, a wholesale and e-commerce food company told Bloomberg. “In general, that means they were penned up with no room to move around, and that’s why they’re fat like that.”
Consumers are also turning away from turkey in the wake of a salmonella outbreak across the turkey industry, which sickened at least 164 people during the past year. The USDA recently recalled over 90,000 pounds of ground turkey after sample testing. While salmonella contamination is less common in whole birds, the Center for Disease Control still advises Thanksgiving cooks to take health precautions such as cooking products thoroughly.
Overall whole turkey purchases leading up to Thanksgiving dropped, from 305 million pounds in 2011 to 270 million in 2015, and sales of kale, collard greens, brussel sprouts, mashed potatoes, and even tofu have risen, suggesting a transition to plant-based Thanksgiving meals.
According to Nielsen, 39 percent of Americans skipped meat protein at last year’s Thanksgiving celebrations. Plant-based alternative products skyrocketed at an annual growth rate of 62 percent from 2013 to 2017, a rise often attributed to Millennials who are nearly three times more likely to try meat substitutes. Food companies are releasing creative alternatives to the roasted turkey geared toward a new plant-based consumer base, including tofu and vegetable-based roasts.
“The whole bird is not necessarily on everyone’s Thanksgiving table the way it used to be,” said Russ Whitman, a senior vice president at commodity researcher Urner-Barry.
Americans choosing to forego the Thanksgiving turkey may do so not only for health reasons, but also environmental reasons. Each year, consumers waste about 200 million pounds of turkey over Thanksgiving week. And, according to a study led by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, cooking a Thanksgiving dinner in most states emits over 40 pounds of carbon dioxide. In states with energy resources that emit higher rates of carbon dioxide, such as West Virginia, dinner can require 80 pounds of carbon dioxide—the equivalent of driving 100 miles in an average car.
Originally published by Food Tank, on Nov 21, 2018