Can Farmers Reverse Climate Change and Save the World?

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If you haven’t heard of it yet, regenerative agriculture is catching all the buzz these days. Kiss the Ground is the latest, greatest, most star-studded act yet produced to spread the word. What has got folks so stoked about the concept of regenerative agriculture is the benefits that come out of rebuilding and healing the soil. The biggest one (more about that later) is the claim that regenerative practices can sequester carbon.

Meaning farmers have the power to reverse climate change.

Whoa. Wait a minute, say what? Building “healthy” soil can sequester carbon? And that solves our climate problem? Well, maybe so maybe not.

But the thing is, as ‘pie-in-the-sky’ as regenerative agriculture seems to be when it comes to climate change the Kiss the Ground film is on to something big that the world needs to start paying attention to — soil.

If you eat, you might want to listen up

What Kiss the Ground Gets Right
This film has to be the first time in the history of Hollywood a “conservation agronomist” has been cast as a leading man. And, germaphobes, you might want to take a deep breath here, but we learn about all the beneficial creepy-crawling bugs in our soil from a geeky organic farmer proudly sporting her KALE shirt.

If for no other reasons than those two casting decisions alone, plus Patricia Arquette telling us about “Keeping Poop in the Loop,” Kiss the Ground has won my Academy Award vote.

The producers also stole my farmer’s heart for explaining the history of agriculture. They deep-dived into how we ended up here, stuck with a deeply entrenched food production system that destroyed the very land we depend upon to survive. And the politics and money that keeps farmers trapped, unwilling and unable to change on the sort of scale that is needed to help the environment and themselves.

We can’t heal the disease by merely treating the symptoms. Which means we must understand where and why we screwed up in agriculture in the first place. History is context.

The other big winner in this film is the discussion of healthy soil equaling healthy food. I predict we’re going to hear a lot more in the coming years about regenerative agriculture, nutrient density, and how we have to deal with our soil issues if we want to deal with our health issues.

The last element that I wholeheartedly applaud is the producers took care to avoid presenting regenerative agriculture as a simple, 1+1 = 2 sort of solution. Instead, they offered up a smorgasbord of ways regenerative practices can be implemented on scales from small — plant a food forest in your backyard! — to global — regenerative grazing to reverse desertification across continents.

This is refreshing. If there is any system we must look at as a “whole,” it is the planet Earth’s system for gawd’s sake! But for some reason, the human species loves nothing more than to be told we can “pop a pill” or “buy the new gizmo-gadget!” and fix our issues. That’s not, unfortunately, going to cut it when it comes to climate change, and certainly not going to change our agricultural systems fundamentally. It is that reductionist sort of thinking that destroyed our soils in the first place.

But, as much as it filled my heart watching this film, I also have to point out the issues the producers glossed over. Because while it’s thrilling to see a movie that gets so much right, with such potential to reach a vast audience, there are a few glaring holes that I hope don’t blow the whole thing up.

Let’s talk about chemicals.

Kiss the Ground spends a fair bit of its screen time elucidating the damage chemicals have reaped on the planet. They’re not wrong. But, they left out some important information on the cutting room floor.

Here’s a wee fact folks new to regenerative agriculture need to know (and those of us preaching regenerative agriculture need to stop ignoring in the hopes consumers won’t notice!) — one of the largest groups of farmers engaging in regenerative agriculture right now, a group that call themselves “no-till farmers,” mostly use to some extent chemicals. Some say they couldn’t farm regeneratively without them.

This is my challenge to the folks at Kiss the Ground and everyone in the regenerative agriculture movement. Let’s be honest about the problems, the current status quo and the challenges of embracing solutions even when they aren’t as neat and tidy as we would like them to be.
One of the trade-offs with giving up tillage to promote soil health is weed control becomes a larger problem. The only way farmers can afford (at present) to build their soil health and adopt no-tillage practices is to use herbicides to control their weed problem. It’s a classic ‘between a rock and a hard spot’ dilemma.

On the other hand, this isn’t as bad as it seems. Because, for the most part, no-till farmers will also tell you that over time as their lands healed, they reduced and sometimes even made the ultimate switch to eliminate weed-controlling chemicals. And yes, regenerative agriculture without chemicals should be the goal.

But, it isn’t a matter of just flipping a switch. It frankly worries me that by framing chemicals as the evil warlord in this problem, while conveniently forgetting to mention the inconvenient fact that regenerative agriculture and soil building is happening right now, with the help of chemical use, we’ve shot ourselves in the foot and taken a dangerous path that could lead to a greenwashing backlash.

Consumers are smart. They don’t like being lied to, even by omission. This is my challenge to the folks at Kiss the Ground and everyone in the regenerative agriculture movement. Let’s be honest about the problems, the current status quo and the challenges of embracing solutions even when they aren’t as neat and tidy as we would like them to be.

Then There’s the Carbon Sequestration Problem
The other problem with Kiss the Ground is the film forgot to mention that the science on soil carbon sequestration is far from settled. It’s complicated.

But, if we skip the part about drawing down carbon, well regenerative agriculture doesn’t frame itself as quite such an exciting film subject (or entice nearly as many big dollar investments). That doesn’t change the situation, however. Just how much potential there is for carbon sequestration in the soil is hotly debated.

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Farmers understand the complexity of carbon sequestration intuitively. Some soil, simply by its type, is easier to build organic matter in than others, and it takes organic matter to sequester carbon.

Climate has a huge impact. Moderate regions with more rain can sequester carbon faster because the rain encourages faster vegetative growth, which means more carbon is drawn out of the atmosphere and stored in the soil.

Different enterprises lend themselves better to carbon sequestration. Managed grazing of livestock, for instance, is generally considered a quick way to sequester carbon. But not all farms can incorporate livestock production into their operations.

All this creates a problem because there is no way to make a one-size-fits-every-farm equation to sequestering carbon. Every situation is unique.

To make it even more complicated, there are the debates in the science community. Is there a point when the soil has sucked up as much carbon as possible and inevitably reaches a steady-state? Why do some no-till practices seem to work, but others don’t?

And then there’s the logistics of implementation in the long run. Even if a farmer spends 20 years avoiding tillage, sequestering carbon and building soil health, that can all be lost and released back into the atmosphere when a new owner comes along and decides to plow. Who stops that from happening?

This doesn’t mean regenerative agriculture isn’t worth it. Even if regenerative agriculture does nothing to “drawdown” carbon, we know it improves our soil health, cleans up our watersheds, grows healthier crops, heals damaged lands and reduces the use of chemicals. These are all pretty good things when we consider that climate change is already making food production harder. Farmers are on the frontline of climate change and whether they can help to reverse it or not, are already being beaten up by it. Regenerative agriculture can help them (and our food supply) be more resilient in the face of climate change.

When it comes to real solutions for climate change we have to look beyond agriculture. As much as the romantic notion of farmers reversing climate change can capture the attention of the public, the rest of the world has to be on board as well. Energy use is the primary culprit of greenhouse gas emissions belching out 73.2 percent of our annual carbon problem. Even if it turns out that soil and agricultural practices are the ulimate answer to carbon drawdown, it’s not going to help if we don’t reduce our emissions simultaneously.

Years ago, I heard a speaker talking to a group of farmers about climate change. He told them to think about our approach to climate change in the same way they traversed the Midwest’s narrow, one-car-width rural roads. These are the roads you drive on a straight and narrow path for hours, only occasionally meeting an oncoming vehicle that forces you to pull over and hug the shoulder until you pass by.

But every so often, you hit a rolling a hill, and you can’t see if there is a car coming. Even though you haven’t seen another driver for hours, what do you do? Well, you hug the shoulder hard and trust any driver coming at you does the same thing, until you’ve crested the hill and can see you’ve got smooth sailing ahead.

That’s how I feel about regenerative agriculture. We don’t know when we’re going to crest the hill, and we’re not entirely sure what’s coming at us. But, we have learned enough to know we sure as hell better be hugging the shoulder hard until we can crest the hill.

Lest We Forget, Who Pays the Farmers?
The last point I can’t help but point out is that the Kiss the Ground producers forget to mention is how we pay for all this. Specifically, how we pay the farmers for all this.

Google regenerative agriculture and you’ll quickly see the many mega-companies (some that have been around for a long while, others brand new) positioning themselves around the regenerative agriculture concept. Whether it’s selling more cereal or carbon credits, there’s a lot of money on the line.

Call me a skeptic, but I have to wonder how much of that profit pie will get back to the farmers. Sure, the hope is regenerative agriculture can help farmers bottom-line by reducing their costs. But what if they reduce their costs and the price of crops fall. Yet again. That has been the vicious cycle of the past.

…the Kiss the Ground producers forget to mention how we pay for all this. Specifically, how we pay the farmers for all this.
Farmers were promised “reduced costs” during the “green revolution” that heralded the advent of chemical agriculture. My father was part of that in the 1960s.

They chemical dealers didn’t say, “Buy this stuff! It will be great! You’ll screw up your soil and be stuck for life purchasing it from us because now your land is addicted. Oh, and btw, watch for a drop in your crop prices any day now. Have fun!”

They said, “this will help you be a better farmer and able to provide for your family.” Sort of sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
And the steel bottom plow we now revile so much? You got it, the same damn marketing plan.

So, farmers are suspicious and rightly so. If we expect them to save the world, we better be willing to pay for them to do it. Fairly, equitably and directly. And I’m not talking about just the ones you buy your lettuce from at the local farmer’s market. I’m talking about them plus the ones in the middle of Kansas farming 6000 acres of soy and corn that they currently sell into the commodity marketplace. Our food system is vast and if we want a chance in hell of making a real difference in regenerative agriculture, we can’t play favorites. We have to help and support farmers across the playing field.

Right now, there are regenerative farmers who have spent years building up their land’s soil health, embracing the techniques that Kiss the Ground tells us will save the world. But, are they paid any more for their better crops? Not unless they have developed a direct sales stream for their produce, which is ridiculously hard to accomplish. Those farmers sell their regeneratively-grown crops into the same commodity stream for the same price that all their neighbors get. There is no separate supply chain for regenerative agriculture and many reasons for the big food brands and ingredient buyers to not want one (i.e., then they’d have to pay more!).

I can’t say it enough. I don’t care how we figure out to do it, but we have to pay the farmers for doing better. Not just expect them to do it because we saw a cool film with Woody Harrelson narrating. The fraction of the food dollar that gets back to farmers is criminal. We can’t expect change if we don’t fix that.

What do I think about the new Kiss the Ground movie, when it’s all said and done? I think it’s a good start. I’m worried, but hopeful, about what’s ahead. But every journey has got to start somewhere.