As the climate crisis becomes more dire than ever, there’s an easy and permanent fix that we can roll out tomorrow. So why isn’t the United States government doing anything about it?
By Victoria Jabot -- 28 May 2021
Ms. Jabot is the founder and owner of Ley Creek Farm. Before farming, she led a double-life as a public school literacy specialist and classical musician. She now runs a 5,000 square foot market garden, creates sustainable floral designs, and manages two 5-acre farm sites where she specializes in perennial cut flower and food crops.
Farming generates billions of dollars for New York State’s economy and provides job security, particularly in rural communities. If farming is becoming increasingly difficult due to the effects of climate change, and if the body of research on regenerative and sustainable agriculture has already provided us with a framework for using farming as a high-impact method for combating climate change, then the government should already be using this billion-dollar industry to the fullest.
Late May in upstate New York is my annual reaffirmation that moving here from the suburbs of Philadelphia was the right decision. The chance of frost is negligible, the days are often sunny and warm, the wildflowers are in bloom, and the conditions are just right for a leisurely drive around the countryside. That’s just what my family and I did last week, as we so often do this time of year. The windows were down, and as we drove by empty field after empty field, I heard the familiar sound and smelled the familiar smell of potential pasture being destroyed. We got closer and the clouds of dust shocked me. I see it every year up close since we are surrounded by hundreds of acres of conventional corn farmland, but this year was worse than I’ve ever seen because our spring has been far too dry. Then the familiar thought crossed my mind more intensely than ever before.
This can’t possibly be how it is supposed to be.
Every time we drive around with the kids and I see that sad, grey, barren, exposed land I feel a surge of anger. I am one of the measly nine percent of New York farmers under the age of 35, one of the slightly better 37 percent of New York farmers that identifies as a woman, and one of the marginal number of United States farmers practicing no-till, organic, regenerative agriculture. I don’t know how many times I will have to read a headline about the urgency of the climate crisis before real change - systemic change - will happen. This is a portrait of rural America: gigantic tractors, excessive fossil fuel use, harmful chemical sprays, and rapid land degradation happening right before our very eyes when science tells us repeatedly and with substantial evidence that this is indeed not the right way to be doing things. However, the research on this topic is quite clear: by mimicking the natural tendencies of our ecosystems in our farming practices, we can sequester carbon from the atmosphere into our soil, increase the amount of available water in the soil, and all the while increase our yields over time and make our land more resilient to weather extremes. While it will undoubtedly take decades to completely overhaul the global economic infrastructure, we can employ low-cost but evidence-based, effective agricultural approaches to combat climate change immediately.
Coming from a farming family myself, only one generation removed, I also know from my grandparents’ stories how the last 100 years have changed towards industrial agriculture, both crushing small family farms and pressuring them to farm big or get out of the field. In the year 1900, 41 percent of the American workforce was involved in agriculture. By the year 2000 that number had dropped to a meager two percent. Throughout the 1900s, as the workforce pushed towards urban living and industrial careers, agriculture began to shift in the same direction: monoculture crops, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), mechanization of various farming tasks, and reliance on chemical interventions for both pest and disease management and plant nutrition. From the 1950s to the 1970s, the average farm doubled in size while the total number of farms dropped in half. Though the industrial agriculture system seems economically efficient at a glance, we now have extensive evidence that shows that the ecological cost is far too great and that if we don’t act soon, it will be impossible to recover.
The problems with specialized monoculture operations, such as those seen in industrial agriculture, are extensive. A 2015 Soils Report from the USDA Forest Service stresses that soil is the best storage system for organic carbon, making it absolutely essential for both mitigating and adapting to climate change. Specifically, the report notes that one-third of all soil resources on our planet are degraded, that human pressure on the remaining soil resources continues to increase, and that it takes up to 1,000 years for nature to create one new centimeter of soil. To be clear, we are degrading the soil much, much faster than it can be replaced naturally, and that should be cause for alarm. A 2014 publication from the Rodale Institute, a leading nonprofit in the field of research and education about organic agriculture, entitled Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming, analyzed longitudinal data on the effects of conventional agriculture compared to regenerative organic agriculture. Their review of the literature found that conventional monoculture cropland consistently had the following effects: (1) tilled, exposed, eroded soils allowed carbon to be released as a greenhouse gas; (2) the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer increased the microbial respiration of carbon dioxide, (3) the use of synthetic phosphorus fertilizer suppressed the growth of root fungi that play a key role in carbon sequestration in the soil; (4) the use of synthetic fertilizers in general led to smaller plant root systems; and (5) the soil consistently lost carbon over time and contributed to greenhouse gas emissions. While these findings are clearly related to field crop production, similar statements can be said about industrial, conventional meat and dairy farming. According to separate reports from both the Environmental Protection Agency and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the top two sources of emissions in the agriculture sector are the production and processing of animal feed grains and methane production from grain-fed beef and dairy cattle. And that’s exactly why the Rodale Institute, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and so many other organizations oppose the practice of specialized conventional monoculture farming practices and instead favor regenerative agriculture that relies on holistic systems management.
Regenerative agriculture can be defined as agriculture that minimizes soil disturbance, promotes biodiversity instead of monocultures, keeps the soil covered, and maximizes the amount of living perennial root systems in the soil. In cropland this looks like the use of cover crops, crop rotation, intercropping, and a combination of compost and naturally-derived fertilizers in lieu of chemical pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and monocrops. The combination of these factors is key to the positive effects. It has been found in numerous research trials that holistic management systems have been found to sequester carbon in the soil. In contrast to the conventional systems described above, no-till organic cropland has been shown to increase soil organic carbon by nine percent in only two years and 21 percent in six years. In addition, the use of cover crops increased the soil carbon, reduced the leaching of nitrogen, and discouraged both wind and water erosion while also offering a number of non-climate related benefits such as reduced weed pressure, decreased water run-off, improved soil tilth and water drainage, reduced evaporation, and improved nitrogen fixation from plants in the legume family. Even simple changes such as intercropping two different grain crops at the same time instead of planting corn alone, leaving plant and root residue in the ground instead of re-tilling the land or burning the residue, and applying organic matter like compost instead of a synthetic fertilizer were found to grow more roots per plant, which in turn led to greater amounts of atmospheric carbon stored in the soil. In all cases, perennials played a key role because of their deep, permanent root systems.
While conventional “factory farming” of both meat and dairy animals has been found to greatly contribute to the climate crisis and greenhouse gas emissions, it is crucial to speak about the opposite effect from regenerative pasture management systems. Rotational grazing as a method for pasture management has demonstrated itself as an inexpensive and efficient way to rebuild and rejuvenate perennial pasture. Oftentimes a paddock is grazed by ruminants like cows and sheep, then followed by poultry who scratch through and spread the manure and eat insects, and finally given a gracious rest period in which the grasses can focus their energy on expanding their root systems underground (and we already know the benefit that has on carbon sequestration). Animals raised in this method benefit from the humane experience that comes from consistent offerings of fresh pasture and lower rates of disease, the grasses benefits from long post-graze rest periods, the soil benefits from being covered at all times thanks to the avoidance of overgrazing and being burned from too much hot manure, and the consumer benefits from a more nutritious food product that has been found to be much richer than the conventional alternatives in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. But in relation to the climate crisis, if we know that we need to keep the soil covered, rely on deep perennial root systems, apply naturally-derived organic matter instead of synthetic fertilizers, increase biodiversity, and mimic the systems found in nature, I really can’t think of a more comprehensive way to address it.
The science is so clear on best agricultural practices that it may sound easy for farmers to just jump off the conventional ship and move towards regenerative agriculture. I agree wholeheartedly with the aforementioned reports that we could quite literally start making these transitions tomorrow. Of course, that doesn’t mean it is a simple task by any means. Those who have the knowledge and the drive to farm regeneratively often don’t have the financial means to acquire the land they need (in 2020, the average prices per acre for cropland and pasture in New York State were $2,800 and $1500 respectively) nor for the infrastructure required to manage it properly. Similarly, it would be unfair not to acknowledge the hurdles in place for those who are currently farming conventionally, as they likely cannot even fathom making the switch to regenerative practices when taking into account the amount of capital they’ve already invested into their existing infrastructure and equipment.
When change comes about, it’s natural to face skepticism. One of the concerns I see listed in the literature is that meta-analyses have shown that organic production has lower yields. However, the yield gap is prevalent only when the organic practices are attempting to mimic conventional farming related to chemical and synthetic inputs. Actual yields when following all of the principles of regenerative organic agriculture have been shown to outcompete conventional yields for most food crops, including corn, wheat, rice, soybean, and sunflower. And more importantly, yields under organic management have been found to be more resilient to the extreme weather patterns of which we face increasingly each year due to climate change. In fact, in drought years, corn yields were 28-34 percent higher in organic production than in conventional. Due to a world hunger crisis that estimates that a shocking 690 million people do not have access to the calories they need to thrive, these concerns about losing yield are valid. It is rather disturbing that a 2013 study from the University of Minnesota found that 36 percent of usable cropland is utilized to grow animal feed despite the fact that these cereal grains are not part of these animals’ ideal natural diet, not to mention that when grown in conventional monocrop systems they have been found to release carbon and worsen greenhouse gas emissions. World hunger and food access are clearly not issues of yield, but rather of systemic policies that work to reinforce inequities in areas of poverty. The only thing new about regenerative agriculture is that we now have peer-reviewed data, some entering its third decade of data collection, to verify the efficacy of these practices. Make no mistake; this is a problem, like so many problems, that needs to be addressed on a nationwide systemic scale before real change will happen.
It baffles me that the crops that receive the most federally-funded tax subsidies largely remain those monocrop cereal grains and pulses - i.e. corn, soy, wheat - when they are such a well-documented offender. On January 27 of this year, the White House issued an Executive Order regarding their action plan for tackling the climate crisis. While I appreciate the effort and acknowledgment that it is, in fact, an urgent matter, I was troubled at the lack of focus on farming practices and the lack of urgency related to agriculture. For example, in section 216, the Executive Order calls on the Secretary of Agriculture to spend the first 60 days from the issuance of the Executive Order to collect input from various stakeholders on how to (a) make the most of Department of Agriculture programs and funding and (b) get people to adopt “climate-smart agricultural and forestry practices”, and furthermore, to submit a report of recommendations to the Task Force within 90 days of the issuance of the Executive Order. Why take two months to collect input and three to make a list of recommendations when both research and practical applications in this area has been available for years now? Regeneration International, an international non-profit organization that aims “to reverse global warming and end world hunger by facilitating and accelerating the global transition to regenerative agriculture and land management”, has an entire farm policy agenda that is research-based and ready to go. Here are the key points in layman's terms:
Get rid of the current government crop and livestock subsidies for single crops.
Introduce a tax credit for current conventional farmers in which the government shares in the risks of transitioning to regenerative systems.
Reform USDA farm programs that incentivize industrial conventional agriculture and redirect that funding to incentivize the switch to organic regenerative agriculture.
Pay farmers to transition their conventional monocrop fields to well-managed pasture.
And while I agree with all of these goals, I want to emphasize that with the average age of farmers so high, we also need to incentivize more young professionals to enter the agricultural workforce. I would argue that there should also be grant programs in place to subsidize the start-up costs of regenerative holistic management systems such as no-till annual food production, rotational grazing, and biodiverse perennial plantings. Farmland needs to be made affordable for new and aspiring farmers. There should be incentives in place for farmers willing to regenerate community nonprofit farms in urban and rural food deserts. The most nutritious food should be both available and affordable to every single person in the world, and I truly believe that we can work towards that goal while simultaneously using regenerative agriculture to make strides against the climate crisis.
Go ahead and shop at the farmer’s market. Sign up for weekly produce boxes. Buy spray-free local flowers instead of the imported sprayed and dyed ones. Eat less factory-farmed meat. Voting with your dollars matters a little bit, but in the grand scheme of the climate crisis it just isn’t going to make enough of a dent. If the government doesn’t step in to push for regenerative agriculture to become the norm in this country immediately, it will be too late. What it boils down to is this: if there are so many systemic obstacles in the way of making the desperately-needed changes to the way we manage soil in the United States, yet we know that this is what needs to happen in order to make rapid progress in terms of the climate crisis, then it’s time for the government to step up and step in. Your local farmers are more than ready to lead the way.