Heal the Soil, Cool the Climate

White Oak Pastures
White Oak Pastures

above: Will Harris, owner of White Oak Pastures ranch in Bluffton, GA, has been farming regeneratively since 1995. See the inspiring video about his ranch, 100,000 Beating Hearts. Photo by Angie Mosier.

Back when I first started at Green America, in 2000, I remember our president/CEO Alisa Gravitz often cautioning those of us on the editorial team against using the term “end” when it came to climate change. There simply wasn’t a solution available that would “end” or “stop” the climate crisis, she would say. The best the world could hope for was collective action that would curb the worst of its effects. We’d get excited about a set of climate solutions and write that they could help “end global warming,” and Alisa would shake her head sadly and ask us to strike the word “end” for accuracy. 

That’s not to say that she wasn’t optimistic about the potential of renewable energy—particularly solar—to make a dent in climate change. Or that she wasn’t hopeful that businesses could come up with some powerful innovations. Or that homeowners could cut their energy use in half through efficiency measures. But “ending” climate change simply wasn’t in her vocabulary. 

So imagine my surprise when she started talking about something that would “reverse the climate crisis”: regenerative agriculture. 

Regenerative agriculture is a set of farming techniques that help regenerate the soil. It’s not the same as organic. It includes organic steps, but its focus is on improving soil health. Even farms that aren’t yet organic can add in more practices that heal the soil. In fact, if you have a yard, you can regenerate your soil, too.

When you over-farm soil and douse it in chemical fertilizers and pesticides, you kill soil microbes and fungi. On the other hand, rich, healthy soil has microorganisms in it that consume carbon and sequester it. If society can convert a good portion of the world’s agricultural land to regenerative practices, we could heal the soil enough that it could start sequestering a whole lot more carbon—enough to actually reverse climate change. 

Today, Green America’s Center for Sustainability Solutions is helping US farmers and major food companies make the switch to regenerative agriculture through our Carbon Farming Network, a working group of scientists, experts, farmers, food-industry titans, and others.

Alisa’s right in the thick of the Center’s efforts to catalyze a widespread shift in the US to regenerative agriculture. And whenever she talks about their work, her hands start flying around, and she talks a mile a minute, eager to pass on her excitement over the potential for us to heal the soil, heal the Earth, and, yes, end climate change. Really.

As Dr. Vandana Shiva, a physicist and world-renowned food activist, writes in her book Soil Not Oil (North Atlantic Books, 2015), “Rebuilding soil fertility is the very basis of sustainable food production and food security. There is no alternative to fertile soil to sustain life, including human life, on Earth. It is our work with living soil that provides sustainable alternatives to the triple crisis of climate, energy, and food.”  

Alisa Gravitz

Green America's CEO/President, Alisa Gravitz. Photo courtesy of Bioneers.

Green American/Tracy:  What was your “a-ha!” moment about regenerative agriculture? What made you realize it was such a powerful solution?

Alisa Gravitz: Soil scientists have always known that healthy, regenerated soil is key to solving the climate and water crises. We’ve been so badly degrading the soil we rely on for food, particularly over the last 50 years, with chemical agriculture. UN FAO [the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization] released a report in 2017 that said depending on where you live and the conditions of soil there, the world has about 30 to 60 years left in our soil unless we take action. This soil and food crisis is exacerbated by the interrelated climate and water crises.

But until the past four of five years ago, not many people were listening. They call it “the soil scientists’ lament.” If scientists as a group get 15 minutes of fame, 14 minutes go to climate scientists, and one minute goes to hydrologists. None goes to soil scientists.

In recent years, there have been more and more soil scientists looking at the question of, “How do you more quickly regenerate soil?” And they began to really talk about soil’s ability to help with the climate and water crises. 

As soil scientists began to tell their story through those lenses, many people—including me—began to go, “Whoa! This is our superpower to not only mitigate the climate crisis but actually to reverse it—while feeding the world.”

Green American/Tracy: How does regenerating soil help the climate and water crises? 

Alisa Gravitz: No matter which lens you look through—a climate lens or a water lens—you need to regenerate the soil. You’ll capture more carbon, because the microbes in healthy soil eat and sequester carbon. And healthy soil can hold more water, which is good in drought—more plants survive. It’s equally good in case of a flood, because rather than having everything erode, the soil is able to absorb more water, and the roots in healthy soil’s organic matter can hold it in place. Regenerating soil better equips it for the ability to grow food, as well. The soil has more nutrients, so it naturally fertilizes crops.  

Green American/Tracy: What would it take to reverse climate change? How big of a switch are we talking? 

Alisa Gravitz: Scientists agree  that our goal is to draw greenhouse gases in the atmosphere down to pre-industrial levels of 280 parts per million [ppm] of CO2-equivalent. That assumes a fossil-free energy system and no new CO2 emissions by 2050, so then we can begin drawing down legacy carbon that’s currently in the atmosphere. In 2017, the world passed 410 ppm. If we shift land use to more regenerative practices, we could sequester enough carbon to get back to 280 ppm. 

Green America is working with a team of scientists and other experts who have done the math, using data from the UN FAO, and we’ve found that we’d need to convert 58 percent of the world’s current farmland and 42 percent of our current forests to regenerative practices

How long our goal will take to achieve will depend on the speed and scale of the strategies/actions deployed. Dr. Rattan Lal, the world’s preeminent soil scientist on soil-carbon sequestration, says we need to start by increasing the carbon in the world’s soils to at least two percent, which would offset 100 percent of all greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere. In the US, the average is less than one percent.

This kind of scale is totally doable. But we need to move quickly. 

Green American/Tracy: The UN also just released a report saying that we have about 12 years to keep world temperatures from rising further and catalyzing the worst effects of climate change. Can we regenerate the soil quickly enough? 

Alisa Gravitz: We can. For the last five years or so, soil scientists have been looking into how we encourage soil’s natural abilities to go further faster. How do we regenerate soil faster so it can sequester carbon faster? 

The great news is that the potential to increase carbon in soil is much higher than two percent. Leading US regenerative farmers and ranchers have increased the carbon in their soils to six to eight percent. 

New research from soil scientist Dr. David Johnson shows that introducing super-compost, which he calls “inoculants,” along with the most regenerative practices, can shoot soil carbon to ten percent and cut the time for restoring degraded soil from 10 to 15+ years to four to five years.

These scientists are finding that under the right regenerative conditions, soil can sequester up to ten times more than anyone thought it could.

But back to the overall work of reversing climate change. When it comes to climate, we have two tasks: 1) Stop putting fossil fuels into the atmosphere, and 2) draw down the legacy carbon already there. 
We can stop using fossil fuels. It’s not just Green America’s climate team saying that, but scientists at Google, at MIT, are saying, “We could get to where we’re not putting new carbon into the atmosphere by mid-century, maybe even 2030.” 

Yet, even if we did that tomorrow, we’d still have the legacy carbon wreaking all this havoc, like with Hurricanes Michael and Florence, and other big storms. 

It’s possible to get legacy carbon down to 280 parts per million if we stop putting carbon in the atmosphere and change land use to regenerative, higher carbon-sequestration practices. In fact, 280 is a conservative number. We can sequester even more carbon. That’s what got me really excited about regenerative ag.

Green American/Tracy: This is much more optimistic than I’ve ever seen you about climate change! 

Alisa Gravitz: Yes! I believe that we really can solve it. Science keeps making new discoveries that give us even more hope. For example, because oceans are acidifying and temperatures are rising, we’ve had global collapse of seaweed forests. The seaweed industry farms it for food, fillers, and cosmetics. Most is raised by small farmers off the coasts of the Philippines or Malaysia. Seaweed has collapsed by about 50 percent because of warming oceans, so these farmers’ earnings have been cut in half, and their communities are in desperate need as a result.

If we can regenerate seaweed forests, we not only sequester huge amounts of carbon, but it also revives the economy in those farming communities, and that regeneration can help the land. New studies show supplementing cow feed with seaweed greatly reduces methane from cows. And seaweed fertilizer can speed up remediation of the soil.

I’m also excited because soil and climate work is coming together. Let me tell you about Will Harris, a fifth-generation rancher who participates in our Carbon Farming Network. Will converted his Bluffton, GA, ranch to regenerative agriculture starting in 1995. I’ve seen his ranch, and it’s so healthy. It’s for real. Not only that, but his daughters loved what he’s doing and came back to the ranch after leaving it. And business is booming, so he’s hiring more people. 

Just north of his ranch, there’s another 2,000 acres where a solar company came to put in a solar farm. They asked Will if he would be willing to manage the land, so they could have a regenerative solar farm. On solar farms, weeds can grow between  the solar panels, and the companies often put chemical weed killer, glyphosate, on them. But this company wants to work with Will to allow him to use the land to graze underneath the panels. 

I’m seeing more and more of these types of solutions as people catch on to the benefits of regenerative agriculture, and our work at the Center brings these solutions to more farmers and companies. Green America members will hear more of these stories when we launch our Soil Heroes campaign next year.  

Green American/Tracy: Are there any naysayers who don’t believe regenerative agriculture can cool the climate?

Alisa Gravitz: You will find some people saying, “Oh, no no no, carbon will not be sequestered in soil because there’s a carbon cycle, and it will respirate back out.” It’s true that some of it does. But what the new research has shown is that a lot of the models are based on degraded soil.

Again, the average amount of carbon in agricultural soils is less than one percent. In the current research, when carbon in soil approaches three percent, you have enough diversity in the microbial community where you go from sick soil conditions to a healthy enough soil to really start regenerating and rebuilding the soil. And that sequesters more carbon that stays sequestered. 

The three percent tipping point is also when the soil microbial and fungal community just takes off. The things that they do! The networks that form with the root system can literally signal for miles what kind of nutrients a plant needs and can call those nutrients from great distances. When soils are healthy, single-cell microbes act as a unit that then can do a lot more. They can be a lot more regenerative. They can protect soil and plants a lot better from diseases and invaders, just like the human immune system. It’s just so cool. 

Which is also why, if you can regain soil health, you can have amazing yields, too. We can save the world and feed the world. 

Green American/Tracy: So regenerated soil sounds like it doesn’t need chemical fertilizers to feed the world? 

Alisa Gravitz: That’s true. Soil itself fights diseases, and it can give plants the nutrients they need without synthetic fertilizer and other chemicals. People like Will Harris, who have spent 20 years making their fields really healthy, show that even if you know nothing about regenerative agriculture, you walk onto these fields, and you know there’s a difference. There are butterflies; there are bees. You can see the healthy, diverse plant life above ground, and it’s reflective of the diversity below it.

In fact, one of Will’s problems is that he’s made his land so healthy—without chemicals—that the eagles know it’s a great place to hang out, so they like to go after the chicks on the ranch. The adults only eat what they need, but the juveniles go in and destroy a whole pasture full of chickens. That’s why he thinks farming among solar panels would be great because chickens can hide under solar panels. 

It’s kind of like the early days of solar, where even if you don’t believe in the climate crisis, it has other benefits. Regenerative agriculture will also increase biodiversity, create more jobs, and make soil more flood-resistant and more fertile, so we can grow more food. 

Green American/Tracy: So much behind-the-scenes work is happening through our Center for Sustainability Solutions. Can you tell us more? 

Alisa Gravitz: Basically, the Center established a goal to reverse the climate crisis through agricultural carbon sequestration while restoring soil health, water quality, and ecosystem biodiversity, and providing global food security. Our core metric is to reduce atmospheric CO2 from 410 ppm to below 280 ppm by 2050. So we don’t have a small goal! . 

Our work includes: 

  1. Identifying a suite of financial benefits for farmers, so doing regenerative agriculture is more cost-effective. There are number of federal grants and certain farm credit bureaus that will give you a reduced rate on loans for organic and regenerative practices, but not everyone knows those are available. 
  2. Putting together farmer-buyer innovation forums. We’re getting the farmers who are doing regenerative ag together with the companies that want to purchase regeneratively farmed foods, so they can do business together. 
  3. We’re also putting together a database of agencies that can provide technical assistance with regenerative agriculture. Our database will help farmers  learn where they can go for regenerative information and technical assistance. 
  4. The Soil Carbon Initiative: We’re developing this standard, along with our partners, The Carbon Underground, to provide assurance that farmers are actually doing regenerative agriculture. So if a company says, “Yeah, I’ll buy your food, but I need to know you’re doing it,” our standard will provide proof. 
  5. Help Build It! This work will help investors learn what they need to know, so investors can invest more in regenerative agriculture. And we’ll help project developers know how to speak “investor,” so they can better encourage people to invest. 
  6. Roots in the Ground: We have two initiatives to encourage farmers to put regenerative farming into place. Rotating crops is a big part of regenerating the soil. So our Midwest Grains Initiative aims to put 5 million more acres to work growing a rotation of barley, oats, and other small grains. We’re developing markets and putting together a list of buyers for those crops, to reward farmers that make the switch.

    And our Drawdown Dairy initiative is creating a model dairy that can be regenerative, rather than a greenhouse-gas emitter. Cows alone represent huge methane emissions. But there are a range of solutions that can make a dairy a net carbon sequesterer—even accounting for the methane cows emit—by growing food in a regenerative way, giving cows better diets and more grazing opportunities, and finding better ways of holding manure.  
  7. Soil Heroes: We’re generating movement momentum by telling stories of what’s happening and who is doing it. Consumers don’t really know about the soil connection to climate and water. It’s like fair trade 25 years ago, when Green America staff knew about it, but most of our members didn’t, so we went into high gear to educate people about fair trade.

Green American/Tracy: There are some big companies involved. Are any of them willing to be named?

Alisa Gravitz: Danone and Ben and Jerry’s are very involved in working with us to switch their supply chains to regenerative agriculture. General Mills is involved. Several companies in our network that are not household names are important to the supply chain. 

Green American/Tracy: Why are you so hopeful that the world can act fast enough with regenerative agriculture to end (Yay!) the climate crisis? 

Alisa Gravitz: There are three reasons: 

  1. The focus on regenerating soil is spreading rapidly in farming communities. I have seen that shift since the Center first started this work in 2013. At first, farmers would say, “No way am I joining them.” Now they’re asking to take part. 

    For example, farmers call me because they hear what Danone is doing, and they want to be part of the Danone supply chain. If farmers call you early in the morning, that’s very specific and real proof that they know something good is happening.
  2. Companies are actually ahead of consumers on the soil health question, and how loss of healthy soils impacts their supply chain. Not all, but many companies recognize they have a food security problem due to widespread soil degradation, and they have to start addressing it. 
  3. Also, companies have made big, public climate commitments they need to meet. For a food company, at least 50 to 70 percent of the climate problem—and therefore, the opportunity to meet those commitments—is in their agricultural supply chain. All of these things are pushing big food companies to look at what’s going on in soil. 
  4. There’s really a fourth. Around the world, there’s now global attention on climate. We’re the last of the climate denier countries. The rest of the world is really looking at these climate questions, and, more and more, they’re having these soil conversations. France has a plan to increase its soil carbon content, for example.

I just got an e-mail today from Finland, where they’re doing a research project with 100 farms, providing full public funding for a transition to regenerative agriculture in a pilot program, and, after this program, they’ll spread regenerative ag country-wide. They’re looking into using our Soil Carbon Initiative as the standard.

The switch to regenerative agriculture is happening, and it’s happening fast. Our job is to get the US on board. We can reverse the climate crisis. The answer lies beneath our feet. 

From Green American Magazine Issue