Healthy soils are the foundation of a healthy food system. These soils teem with life: earthworms create water channels as the burrow through the soil, allowing rain to soak in; residues from previous crops help soil retain moisture, suppress weeds, and prevent erosion and runoff; microorganisms help filter contaminates and form the glue that helps keep soil intact; and cover crops—second crops planted to protect and improve soil health during the off-season—deliver natural fertilizer to the soil, prevent erosion, increase biodiversity, and improve water filtration as their roots create pores in the soil. Together, all of this works to create healthier crops. Read more
John Jeavons expects that 20 years from now most of the world’s people will be struggling to eat.
Jeavons, a developer of sustainable agriculture methods, delivered this dire message at a three-day workshop I recently attended. Although his vision might seem to approach the apocalyptic, this class was not “How to Build Your Own Backyard Bomb Shelter” or “The Book of Revelation Explained!” It covered a more humble subject, one to which we moderns have paid far too little attention: soil. Read more
“Dirt is community at many levels.” That’s just one of the many rich quotes from this wonderful documentary all about “earth’s living breathing skin called dirt.” The film is so packed with wisdom, knowledge, ideas, and purpose that I took four pages of notes while watching it and barely scratched the surface. Each enraptured moment brought me to the conclusion that this film has something for everyone – from the hardcore dirt aficionado to the casual earth dweller who stumbles upon it on PBS, when it makes its nationwide broadcast debut at 10:00 p.m., April 20th, Earth Day’s 40th Anniversary. (Set your DVR.) Read more
Around one third of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the way we produce, process, distribute and consume the food we eat according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Meanwhile, farmers the world over will be the most affected by climate change, as higher carbon in the atmosphere and higher temperatures increase erratic weather patterns, pests, and disease occurrence, while decreasing water availability, disrupting relationships with pollinators and lowering yield and the efficacy of herbicides like glyphosate (aka Roundup) — all detailed in a revealing new report from the USDA called The Effects of Climate Change on U.S. Ecosystems [pdf].
We should all give the USDA credit for keeping the ties between agriculture, food and climate change at the forefront of the discussion. Even in Copenhagen, where agriculture is getting less attention than it arguably should be considering its impact and potential for mitigating climate change, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke about the need for research, and seeing agriculture as an opportunity for climate change mitigation. He even said to the delegates in Copenhagen, “We need to develop cropping and livestock systems that are resilient to climate change.” While I agree on the surface with these statements, taking a deeper look reveals potentially problematic ideas for just how to do this. Read more
Climate change presents California agriculture with two major challenges: how to reduce its contribution to climate change while arming itself against the threats a warming planet poses to agricultural production.
Fortunately, many of the measures that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions or sequester carbon in the soil will also make agriculture more resilient to extreme weather patterns, such as the current drought. Cover cropping, composting, conservation tillage, organic fertilization and other best management practices will increase the amount of soil organic matter, reduce erosion, conserve water and enhance fertility. This, in turn, will help increase crop productivity and drought and pest resistance in the face of an increasingly dry and hot climate. According to a January 2009, ground-breaking study by University of California at Davis researchers, these practices, when combined, will generate significant greenhouse gas reduction benefits, primarily through carbon sequestration. Read more
A report issued yesterday [PDF] by Dr. Alan Dangour of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK, claims that there is no substantial difference in nutritional content between organic and conventional food. The report was based on the review of fifty years worth of research papers on the subject. But reading it makes one wonder if influence caused a misreading of the findings, and in addition, if the agency has addressed the wrong questions entirely. Read more
I recently had the pleasure of eating lunch next to Dr. Wes Jackson, President and Co-Founder of The Land Institute in Kansas. Among a plethora of other accolades, Rolling Stone Magazine just named him as one of the nation’s top 100 “Agents of Change” due to his lifetime commitment of creating a healthier agricultural system. The setting was a sunny spring afternoon on Earthbound Farm in Carmel Valley, in conjunction with Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Cooking For Solutions annual Sustainable Foods Institute for members of the media. We sat there, sipping iced tea and munching on salads and savory tarts (all made onsite at one of the few completely certified organic commercial kitchens in the U.S.), but the pleasant environment, the chitchat of food lovers and chirping birds nestled in the children’s herb playground, seemed to highlight an ironic contradiction as the self-described “Dr. Doom” earnestly discussed with me how we are running out of time. Read more
It’s Earth Day, and in the spirit of stewardship I’m thinking about good soil. Gardeners all over the Northern Hemisphere are preparing for another season of growing, often beginning with readying the ground and germinating seeds. Every gardener knows that peat is a magical growing medium, creating ideal conditions in which plants thrive. But choosing this ancient dirt could do unforeseen damage to the Earth, while an otherwise environmentally engaged gardener’s plot thrives. The question has been, are the alternatives worth using? I think the answer is yes. Here I lay out 5 reasons home gardeners should go peat-free from now on. Read more
Starting a rooftop garden requires tenacity and a good plan. Tenacity because there are more hurdles to climb in order to plant your roof, including assessing weight limits and reading the fine print of tax abatements. If you are like me and live in a multiple-resident building, you’ve also got to present your neighbors with the pros and cons, and hope they’ll be so excited by the former that they agree about allocation of funds for your project. Meanwhile, you have to devise a plan. Read more
Can something be old as dirt and the next big thing? According to Helge Hellberg, of Marin Organic, it can.
“I believe the sustainable food movement will be focused more and more on soil,” Hellberg told a group of farmers, food producers, educators and advocates at a panel on carbon sequestration at this year’s Eco-Farm conference. “Farmers,” he added, “are crucial because they’re the ear to the soil.” Read more