Carbon Farming & Cutting Food Waste: Climate Solutions That Don’t Require Trump’s Buy-in

Paul Hawken, the editor of a new book, 'Drawdown,' has found that changing the way we grow and eat food has surprising potential to reverse climate change.

Donald Trump’s recent decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate has many wringing their hands. But Paul Hawken doesn’t have time for despair. In fact, the veteran author and entrepreneur has spent the last several years working with a team of scientists and policy experts to map and quantify a set of climate solutions he says have the power to draw down the carbon in the atmosphere and radically alter our climate future. And he’s confident that many of these efforts will continue to take place with or without government buy-in.

Hawken’s new book, Drawdown, illuminates 100 of the most effective of these solutions and points to food and agriculture as hugely important when it comes to both sequestering current greenhouse gases and releasing fewer of them in the first place. From composting and clean cookstoves to managed grazing and multistrata agroforestry, Drawdown makes a compelling case for radically changing the way we eat, farm, and tend to the land. Civil Eats spoke to Hawken about the book, the surprising role food has come to play among climate optimists, and his advice on how to keep our eyes open while imagining the future of our planet.

Can you tell us about what you wanted to do with this book and how food plays a role in the picture it paints?

We mapped, measured, and modeled the most substantive solutions to reversing global warming. We didn’t have a horse in the race. We may have biases, I’m sure we do, but our process and methodology was to eliminate bias and just to look at [the solutions] from the point of peer-reviewed science in terms of the carbon impact.

There are only two things you can do really with respect to the atmosphere, which is to stop putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and then bring them back home. There’s nothing else. Some solutions—like land use solutions—do both.

We didn’t go into it knowing what would be the biggest sector. Or even what would be the top five or 10. We went in very open-ended and it turns out food is eight of the top 20 suggestions.

You ranked the solutions in terms of potential impact. Number three is reduced food waste and number four is the shift to “a plant-rich diet.” Why then, do you think food and ag are so rarely a part in the mainstream conversation about climate change?

My guess as to why food and land-use solutions have been marginalized and even ignored is because of the way solutions have been approached by climate scientists. Estimates vary, but at least 65 percent of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are due to combustion of fossil fuels, so it is easy to come to the conclusion that replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy is the biggest solution.

One of the reasons reducing food waste ranks high is because most of the food that is discarded ends up in landfills where it is buried in an anaerobic environment causing methane emissions, which are 34 times more potent in their greenhouse warming potential compared to CO2. A plant-rich diet reduces the consumption of animal protein, and the production of meat—whether grass fed or in CAFOs—is also a very significant source of methane.

And finally, there is agriculture itself, another source of significant emissions as practiced by conventional and industrial agriculture. Tillage removes carbon, mineral fertilizers create another potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, glyphosate sterilizes soil life creating emissions, monocultures expose the soil to sun and heat, an emission cause, etc.

When you change these three practices, and cultivate types of sustainable food production techniques, like system of rice intensification and agroforestry, it turns out that food has a greater potential to help reverse global warming than the energy sector. That’s also due to the fact that land use can sequester carbon, whereas renewable energy simply avoids carbon emissions.

However, your question stands. Why did we not look at this more closely sooner? That is a mystery at Project Drawdown. These data, math, and conclusions detailed in Drawdown could have been calculated and disseminated a long time ago. The science these calculations are based on has been known for a long time.

Food is seen as inherently personal. Do you think the urgency about the climate has the potential to get more people thinking about food on a systems level?

I tend to think of food as more cultural than personal. In the U.S., subsidies have allowed people the ability to eat large quantities of expensive foods, like milk and meat. In most countries, the true cost of these items limits the stroke and heart-disease outcomes we have in the U.S. I believe people move toward healthier food because of their own needs and understandings, not because of the climate impact.

What we see in our research is that regenerative practices (in many areas besides food) are increasing because they work better, are less expensive, create greater productivity, can be locally sourced, create meaningful jobs, enhance human health, engender community, and much more. In other words, making choices that are better for your body, the soil, workers, your children, and your community are almost invariably practices that reverse global warming.

Let’s talk about the term “regenerative.” I’ve heard from several folks in the organic community who worry that another label will confuse consumers. Why did you choose to highlight regenerative agriculture vs. organic? 

Regenerative agriculture is being mooted about because organic agriculture practices as defined by the USDA can harm the land and even reduce carbon in the soil. The standards are broad, which is why you can have a 30,000-acre “organic” carrot farm in the middle of the San Joaquin valley. It is a monoculture requiring constant cultivation, which decarbonizes soil over time. The growing demand for organics means Big Ag has taken advantage of the premiums. There is nothing inherent in USDA standards that require regeneration of the soil, and soil health is the key to better water infiltration, plant health, productivity, and carbon sequestration. That being said, most organic farms do sequester carbon.

CO2 is the greenhouse gas with which most people are familiar. But methane and nitrous oxide are both very potent and very prevalent in food production. How do we expand the discussion?

I think the science around climate change has not been well-communicated to people. We can expand that discussion more artfully by ceasing to use fear, threat, doom, and guilt as communication motifs. Drawdown was designed and written to make addressing and reversing global warming a subject that is accessible, fascinating, engaging, and inspiring. Imagine you are in a room with two doors. One says, “Discover why you are sick and getting sicker.” The other door says “Enter here to be healthier and happier.” Which are you going to open? It is not that that climate science is incorrect; it is impeccable. But if all the messaging we get focuses on the terrible things that will happen if we do not act, we go numb and turn off.

On a similar note, the Trump administration doesn’t acknowledge that climate change is a fact. Where are the opportunities for moving the needle on climate here in the U.S. over the next three to five years?

The current executive administration is the result of ignorance. It is essentially the sunset effect of the fossil fuel industry. What was made very clear in the economic analyses we did is that the fossil fuel industry has peaked and will shrink and become non-essential to the future. Not soon enough by any measure, but truly. Trump can open up every coal seam on federal land he wishes, but not one utility in the U.S. will build a new coal-fired power plant. The least expensive form of new electrical generation today is onshore wind. Similarly, I believe electrical vehicles will eliminate internal combustion engines much faster than is predicted.

Implied in your question is that the needle is moved by the federal government. There is not one solution in our book that is created, caused, or produced by the executive branch of the U.S. government. We continue to look for love in all the wrong places. The executive branch of the U.S. government has never led on climate. I am not saying Trump cannot cause damage. He already has. But he cannot stop any of the solutions outlined in Drawdown.

What are the odds that food and agriculture will be on the table at the next UN Framework Convention of Climate Change in a new way?

It will be front and center at COP23. I have just returned from Europe and met with representatives from over 50 countries who will link reversal of global warming to regenerative land use practices.

It has been a long time coming for food to get to the table on climate change. It’s a formidably important subject on a problem level, but the greater the cause, the greater the potential solution.

When it comes to forests and farming people think, “We’ve done that.” But there are these brilliant new techniques being developed and it’s really fascinating to see how quickly it’s evolving and changing. There’s a perception that [agriculture] is lagging, that there’s a gap—so many people are not fully appreciating the brilliance that is emerging in these areas.

There’s a way that it’s seen as the territory of peasants and not modern life.

Exactly. And Big Ag is like, “step aside, we have to feed the world.” And that’s just so incorrect scientifically and economically. Big Ag doesn’t feed the world. It feeds cows and pigs and makes trans fats, palm oil, and sugar—foods that make us sick.

My background in organic farming goes back to when I was 20. I come from a family of farmers, and have a farm. It’s not abstract for me.

It’s always been this thing that’s seen as very quaint. We hear, “You can’t feed the world organically. People will starve. Don’t you care about children?” And that’s just upside down and backwards. If you care about children, hunger, and nutrition, then you really want to study regenerative ag—not Syngenta and Dupont. Because that’s what’s feeding the world now—smallholder farms. And that’s what can feed the world moving forward.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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  1. Darlene Schanfald
    Tuesday, June 6th, 2017
    AG, particularly CAFOs, whether land or marine (shellfish and floating fish pen farms) are clearly culprits. So, too, is the allowance of spreading toxic sewage and industrial sludges on land, filled with thousands of contaminants and multiple pathogens that are not treated in wastewater treatment plants. This interferes with the safety and health of microbial activity and CO2 exchange between air and soils. And states are moving more and more to allowing the sewage effluent on food crops and elsewhere, even as potable water. EPA knows the safety of both practices -- sludge and effluent spreading on food crops -- are unsafe for the soils and public health. This Israeli research piece makes the point that viruses aren't removed this waste water:

    EPA admits it doesn't know about the safety of reclaiming this water for public use: