#NaturallyInformed: Saving the Planet, Soil First

Part one of our coverage on this event focuses on the solution that's been right under our noses (or feet) this whole time: soil.

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One alarming statistic that was referenced repeatedly throughout the Naturally Informed sustainability conference, which took place on August 26-27: We have around 50 years left before we’re out of topsoil.

“What we’re looking at is man-made desertification,” said Josh Tickell, Director of the  movie Kiss the Ground (available to stream on Netflix September 22), in his keynote speech at Driving Value Through Sustainability Across the Supply Chain.

Fortunately, Tickell explained that this can be reversed—and he explained how.

“Regeneration means to ‘repair damage,’” said Tickell. “We learn about lizards—they can lose their tails, and then regenerate them. With the environment, we want to accomplish multiple benefits per action. We want to reduce atmospheric CO2, restore ecosystemic habitats, make healthier food, and create water—and we can do all that by helping the soil, and regenerating the soil.”

What makes healthy soil? Microbes, carbon, and water. “If there’s no carbon in the soil, there’s no nutrition in the plant. If the microbes aren’t active, if you don’t have a soil strata that’s full of life, then no plant is getting the nutrients it could be getting—and even if you eat plants, you’re not getting the nutrition you could be getting. And microbes exist in an aqueous solution, so if there’s no water in the soil, there’s no microbes, and again there’s no nutrition in the plant.”

How did the soil get to where it is now—ever-decreasing, with little life, not enough carbon, and no water? In the U.S., Tickell explains, our farm system is driven by corn, soy, wheat, and hay—and this is hurting the soil. “Field corn, to feed cattle, makes up the majority of our acres. And most of that is sprayed with glyphosate, which is in the water, in the rain, and we know it’s in our bodies. In the U.S., we produce three pounds of toxic chemicals per person per year. We are trying to export that to other countries. And this is all to create the densest form of calories—meat. But herds of animals used to run the country, and when they did—grazing and leaving behind manure—they made healthy soil, which is the bank from which we draw today. But as is, we’re losing topsoil.”

That feels like a lot—but Tickell put forth solutions. “In general, in regenerative agriculture, you don’t till the soil, because when you do, you break the fungi, you break the connections in the root infrastructure. You use cover crops—five, 10, 20 different species mixed together so roots pull carbon down, into the soil; when roots and plants cover an area and rain falls down onto that area, instead of running off as it would on bare soil, it trickles down the plants and into the soil, storing the water where it can be used. Regenerative agriculture uses planned mob grazing instead of confining animals, using animal waste to increase the health and fertility of the soil and getting nutrients from the land rather than requiring feed crops—this captures water and greenhouse gasses instead of creating more.”

Another solution Tickell suggested: small water cycles. “Most of the time, if you think about water cycles, you think about the big one—water from the ocean evaporates and turns into precipitation. And this is where up to 60% of the world’s water comes from. But we’re interested in transpiration—the water that comes from trees, from plants. If we take the trees and plantlife out of an area, we stop transpiration from happening, and we suddenly have a situation where we’re suddenly needing to provide all the input needed for plant growth. You can create a transpiration cycle on less than an acre, with constant plant coverage. This reduces the need for water and produces nutrient-rich food.”

Tickell pointed to the Loess Plateau in China as one example of a successful regeneration. He explained that it had effectively lost its topsoil—it was down to rock. The World Bank and partners in China funded two projects to restore it. According to the World Bank, grasslands and tree and shrub cover came back. Perennial vegetation cover increased from 17 to 34%. Sedimentation of waterways was dramatically reduced, which in turn reduced risk of flooding. Average yields were increased, and became more secure, more resistant to drought. On the human end, more than 2.5 million people were lifted out of poverty; farmers’ incomes doubled, and employment rates increased. The World Bank reported: “Even in the lifetime of the project, the ecological balance was restored in a vast area considered by many to be beyond help.”

And regenerative agriculture could have impacts beyond soil and food. All that carbon required for healthy soil? It can come from what’s in the atmosphere—and it will. “The largest carbon sink we have is the soil,” Tickell said, “and it’s largely unused.” And looking at the carbon in the atmosphere and existing projects intended to solve the issue, Tickell says that they’re not enough—it’s going to take regenerative agriculture to solve the issue. “We can’t just level off the amount of carbon we use; that leaves a teraton of carbon in the atmosphere, and that’s too much, we’d be sitting here hoping the warming effect doesn’t kill us. We need to draw it down.” Regenerative agriculture does that—and creates more nutritious food in the process.

Tickell also says that, as consumers realize that regenerative food is more nutritious, the market for it will grow. “Organic is going to taper off. If you’re really looking to push market growth, you should look at regenerative. You’re not going to be competitive in 10 or 20 years if you’re not.”

Missed the event? You can access the educational sessions, including Tickell’s keynote and slides to learn more about his solutions, on demand here

Along the same lines, Diana Martin, Director of Communications and Marketing, Rodale Institute, says “sustainable” is going out of fashion. “Robert Rodale thought that we couldn’t just live in a sustained environment—we need to make it better,” she explained in the session Beyond Sustainability: The RegenAg Movement. And this, she says, is what regenerative agriculture is. “Organic has a very set definition that we’re all working from, but one thing you’ll find is that there’s still varying definitions regarding what regenerative agriculture is, how it works, and how you measure outcomes. We all agree that it’s a holistic way of looking at farming. It rehabilitates an entire ecosystem and enhances natural resources, rather than depleting them.

“There’s not really a single description,” Martin continued. “It’s really about knowing your land and what’s best for your farm, but some practices are things like having a diverse crop rotation—like people, soil needs a diverse diet—plant cover crops, because when we leave soil bare it can wash away in wind or water; use compost instead of synthetic fertilizers; use highly managed grazing; reduce tillage; move away from synthetic chemicals.

Like Tickell, Martin said this: “It all starts with the soil.” She expounded: “There are more living organisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on the planet. It can sequester carbon, helps us have resilient agriculture so we can produce food in drought or flood conditions, helps farmers be more profitable. It can resist erosion and runoff. Healthy soil keeps chemicals out of our water, and it can help produce healthier, nutrient-dense foods.” And that’s not something we’ll get by stopping at sustainable. Healthy soil requires regeneration.

MegaFood is looking into ways of accomplishing and quantifying this. “Especially in this time where there’s so much to do and so much change that needs to happen and so many deserving areas for people to spend time on,” explained Bethany Davis, Director of Advocacy and Government Affairs for MegaFood, in the same session, “we as a brand are asking ourselves where we can do the most and pull the most levers, what is uniquely ours to do, and the answer to that is regenerative agriculture. And while we do outreach and education, we have to start at home.” Part of that is the Healthy Farm Standard—a scorecard that looks at MegaFood’s suppliers and incentivizes farmers through on-farm investment to help problem solve on the farm to help move them forward on regenerative agriculture. Part of every MegaFood product that’s sold goes directly into this bucket of money that goes straight back to farmers.”

Soil Carbon Initiative is a major step towards this goal. “What does healthy soil look like?” Davis asked. “How do you measure that? We’ve created this standard, and we’re piloting it within our supply chains. And we’re encouraging everyone else to pilot this in their supply chains—and retailers can work with farm partners to do the same. And if you’re interested in that, please contact me.” Her message: “Every farmer can take an action tomorrow that moves them incrementally towards regenerative agriculture. Every brand needs to care about regenerative agriculture if we want to move the needle. There’s room for everybody.”

This is not all the information that came out of this conference; it’s just a fraction of it. For more, keep an eye on our #NaturallyInformed tag; sign up for our newsletters, if you’d like to have this reporting sent directly to your inbox; and if you’d like to learn more,all of these sessions are available on-demand. This includes presentations on real-life experiences like those of  Thomas M. Newmark, Founder and Chair of The Carbon Underground and Co-owner of Finca Luna Nueva Lodge, who saved his farm by transitioning to regenerative, and Kamal Bell, Owner of Sankofa Farms, who started a farm with the hopes of creating a space for black people to get involved in the land and is learning and growing right along with his students. Their powerful, inspiring, and informative talks can be accessed on demand here.

There were several case studies from Indena, proving that regen ag and sustainable business involves helping people directly. The sessions also include business tips regarding a circular economy; tips from retailers on sustainability in retail; the necessity of transparency.

One final message from Tickell, for those looking to take steps into regenerative agriculture: “There’s always a cost to changing. But the cost for not changing, in this system, is higher.”

Related: #NaturallyInformed: Food First
Regenerative Agriculture in the Age of COVID-19 & Beyond