The Soil Revolution That Could Save Farming And The Climate

Joe Biden and other Democrats are backing regenerative farming, which pulls carbon from the atmosphere and restores nutrients to soil. But is it ready for prime time?
Patty Gentry transformed two acres of trash-strewn dirt on Long Island into a profitable organic farm by betting big on regenerative farming.
Patty Gentry transformed two acres of trash-strewn dirt on Long Island into a profitable organic farm by betting big on regenerative farming.
Alexander Kaufman/HuffPost

BROOKHAVEN, N.Y. ― Tropical Storm Isaias downed power lines and trees across the greater New York City area in early August, snapping limbs from the ancient oaks that ring Patty Gentry’s small Long Island farm.

Dead branches were still dangling a month later. But rows of mustard greens were unfurling nearby, and a thicket of green vines reached toward the sun, dotted with tangy orange bulbs.

“These sungold tomatoes were toast,” Gentry said, sounding almost astonished. “But now look at them. They’re coming back. It’s like spring again.”

Over the past four years, Gentry has transformed two acres of trash-strewn dirt on Long Island’s southeast coast into a profitable organic farm by betting big on soil. Instead of pumping her crops with pesticides and petrochemical fertilizer, Gentry grows vetch, a hardy pea-like plant, and rye to cover the exposed soil between the rows of greens intended for harvest. She layers the soil with specially mined rock dust that replenishes minerals and pulls carbon from the air. And in the spring and summer, she uses a system of crop rotation ― shifting around where different crops are planted ― so that one plant’s nutrient needs don’t drain the soil. These practices are collectively known as regenerative farming.

Tests of the soil show the organic content is now seven times higher than when she began. The result is produce so flavorful that she can’t keep up with the number of restaurants and home cooks looking to buy shares.

Gentry’s farm is also resilient, one where healthy soil soaks up rainwater like a sponge and replenishes the crops. She barely missed a delivery after the storm.

At a moment when fires and storms are wreaking havoc from coast to coast, mounting research suggests that practicing the soil techniques Gentry uses on a much wider scale could remove climate-changing gases from the atmosphere and provide a vital bulwark in the fight to maintain a habitable planet. They’re part of a mix of solutions experts say are needed to keep global temperatures from surpassing 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial averages, beyond which projections show catastrophic threats to our coasts, ecosystems, and food and water supplies.

Regenerative practices range from growing trees and reverting croplands to wild prairies, to rotating crops and allowing remnants after harvest to decompose into the ground. The techniques, already popular with small-scale organic growers, are steadily gaining traction among big farms and ranches as the chaotic effects of climate change and financial pressure from agribusiness giants eat away at their businesses.

“This is about covering the soil, feeding the soil and not disrupting it,” said Betsy Taylor, the president at Breakthrough Strategies & Solutions, a consultancy that focuses on regenerative agriculture. “Those are the basic principles.”

Countries such as France are promoting large-scale government programs to encourage farmers to increase the carbon stored in soil. Members of Congress have also proposed legislation to push regenerative farming in the U.S., and several states are designing their own policies. Progressive think tanks call for small shifts in existing U.S. Department of Agriculture programs and beefed-up research funding that could trigger the biggest changes to American farming in almost a century. Nearly every Democratic presidential candidate pitched paying farmers to trap carbon in soil as a key plank of their climate platform, including nominee Joe Biden.

“We should be making farmers the recipients of a climate change plan where they get paid to absorb carbon,” the former vice president said during a CNN town hall last week.

While the benefits to soil and food nutrition are difficult to dispute, there are some critics of the push for regenerative farming. They argue that its climate advantages are overhyped or unproven, the product of wishful thinking about a politically palatable solution, and that the focus on regenerative farming risks distracting policymakers from more effective, if less exciting, strategies.

Industrial Agriculture’s Bill Is Coming Due

At the end of World War II, federal farming policy started to transform the breadbasket of the Midwest into vast plains of corn, soybeans and grains. The same principles of mechanized bulk production that turned the United States into a military powerhouse capable of fending off the Japanese and Nazi empires were applied to farming. Surplus chemicals from weapons manufacturing found new uses eradicating crop-eating insects, and nitrogen plants that once made components for bombs started producing ammonia to feed fields.

Geopolitics only hastened the trend, as widespread Soviet crop failures forced Russian officials to buy grain from overseas and the Nixon administration capitalized on the opportunity. Agriculture Secretary Earl “Rusty” Butz, who served under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, directed farmers to “plant fence row to fence row,” and quantity trumped all else. Farmers took out loans to expand operations, turning “get big or get out” into a mantra, as Butz promised that any surplus could be sold overseas.

Water pools in rain-soaked fields on May 29, 2019, near Gardner, Illinois, after near-record rainfall in the state caused farmers to delay their spring corn planting.
Water pools in rain-soaked fields on May 29, 2019, near Gardner, Illinois, after near-record rainfall in the state caused farmers to delay their spring corn planting.
Scott Olson via Getty Images

The damage to farm soil kicked into overdrive as farmers planted the same monoculture crops year after year and added more chemical fertilizers to make up for the sapped minerals and dead microbes. The cumulative effect has been twofold. The U.S. loses top soil at a rate 10 times faster than it’s replenished. And carbon and other gases seep from the plowed, exposed soil into the air, contributing to the emissions rapidly warming the planet and increasing the frequency and severity of destructive droughts and storms.

Less than two weeks after Tropical Storm Isaias made landfall over Gentry’s farm, a powerful storm known as a derecho ― or “inland hurricane” ― formed in Iowa, some 1,100 miles west. The storm destroyed nearly half the state’s crop rows. “This will ruin us,” one farmer told a local newspaper. Another called it a “catastrophic scenario.”

Losses from extreme weather are only expected to grow in the years ahead. Even if warming is kept within a 2 degrees Celsius warming scenario, the less ambitious goal spelled out in the Paris climate accords, U.S. corn production will likely suffer an 18% hit, according to a 2018 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For many farmers, the federal crop insurance program has been a lifeline in tumultuous times. But it also encourages them to plant in harm’s way by providing incentives to cultivate every inch of land, including marginal acres prone to flooding, and it promotes monocultures by making it difficult for farmers to insure a variety of crops at once. In 2014, the federal Government Accountability Office found that, as a result of the insurance program’s policies, farmers “do not bear the true cost of their risk of loss due to weather-related events, such as drought — which could affect their farming decisions.”

“As farmers, we’re trying to make rational economic decisions in an irrational system,” said Matt Russell, a fifth-generation Iowa farmer who promotes regenerative soil practices. “We have externalized the pollution so the public pays for those costs and nobody in the supply chain pays for it, while at the same time, when I do something good, I can’t externalize the cost at all.”

‘You’ve Got A Win’

Plans to shift federal incentives to favor regenerative farming aim first to loosen big agribusiness’s grip on the industry.

The think tank Data for Progress has proposed overhauling the federal crop insurance program to limit the total acreage eligible for coverage, phase out incentives for single-crop planting and create new tax credits designed specifically for family-owned farms, restricting how much corporate giants could benefit from the subsidized insurance.

With that stick would come a carrot: Under Data for Progress’ plan, Congress would increase the budget for the USDA’s existing conservation programs.

“As farmers, we’re trying to make rational economic decisions in an irrational system.”

- Matt Russell, a fifth-generation Iowa farmer

The Conservation Stewardship Program already provides farmers with cash payments of up to $40,000 per year and technological assistance for steps such as assessing which plots of farming and grazing land should be allowed to go natural. With an expanded mandate to sequester carbon dioxide, the program might fund a national assessment to determine which areas are best suited for rewilding or carbon farming and compensate farmers directly to do that.

The program paid out $1.4 billion last year alone. Data for Progress proposed that the USDA significantly increase funding for both the program and research, and provide employees in all its conservation programs with training to understand and help regulate regenerative farming practices.

“There are so many wins in regenerative agriculture,” said Maggie Thomas, a former climate policy adviser to the presidential campaigns of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) who serves as political director of the progressive climate group Evergreen Action. “You’ve got a win for farmers. You’ve got a win for soils and the environment. You’ve got a win for better food. There’s no reason not to do it.”

The hopes for such changes are dim under the Trump administration, which spent its first three years sidelining climate science and spurring an exodus of scientists from the USDA as frustration over political appointees’ meddling with research grew. (A five-year proposal the agency released in February did seem to show a growing acceptance of the need to address climate change, offering what InsideClimate News called “hopeful signs.”)

Maryland already pays farmers $45 per acre for fields maintained with cover crops. Montana state officials collaborated with a nonprofit consortium paying ranchers to adopt sustainable grazing practices that increase carbon storage in the soil.

In January, Vermont proposed a plan to incorporate carbon sequestration by farmers into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade scheme that includes most of the Northeast states. In March, Minnesota officials gathered for a summit on using soil to combat climate change. In June, Colorado solicited input for a state-level soil health program aimed at “advancing climate resilience.”

Investors see potential profit in the shift to regenerative agriculture. In January, the Seattle startup Nori was able to raise $1.3 million to fund its platform using blockchain technology to pay farmers to remove carbon from the atmosphere. And Boston-based Indigo Ag, a similar startup, announced in June that it had brought in another $300 million from investors, becoming the world’s highest-valued ag-tech firm at an estimated $3.5 billion.

But some fear these platforms offer dubious benefits, particularly since the credits generated by the farmers’ stored carbon could be bought by industrial giants that would rather offset their own pollution than eliminate it.

“It’s right to be skeptical of these companies,” said Mackenzie Feldman, a fellow at Data for Progress and lead author on its regenerative farming proposal. “It has to be the government doing this, and it can be through mechanisms that already exist, like the Conservation Stewardship Program.”

Are The Benefits Being Oversold?

But not everyone is jumping on the regenerative farming bandwagon. In May, a group of researchers at the World Resources Institute (WRI) offered a skeptical take, arguing “that the practices grouped as regenerative agriculture can improve soil health and yield some valuable environmental benefits, but are unlikely to achieve large-scale emissions reductions.”

“No-till” farming ― a seeding practice that requires growers to inject seeds into fields without disturbing the soil, which became popular with environmentalists several years ago ― has had only limited carbon benefits because farmers inevitably plow their fields after a few years, WRI argued, pointing to a 2014 study in the journal Nature Climate Change.

And cover crops can be costly to plant and difficult to propagate in the weeks between a fall harvest and the winter months, WRI said, highlighting the findings of an Iowa State University study. The group also cast doubt over the methods used to account for carbon added to soil.

Scientists say flooded corn fields pose a major risk to food supplies as climate change worsens.
Scientists say flooded corn fields pose a major risk to food supplies as climate change worsens.

In June, seven of the world’s leading soil scientists published a response to WRI’s claims, which they said drew too narrow conclusions and failed to see the potential of combining multiple regenerative practices.

WRI researcher Tim Searchinger renewed the debate last month with his own response to the response, accusing the critics of his critique of relying on misleading information from a 2007 United Nations report to inflate the potential for capturing carbon in soil at large scale.

“The realistic ability to sequester additional carbon in working agricultural soils is limited,” he wrote. “Because what causes carbon to remain in soils is not well understood, further research is needed, and our views may change as new science emerges.”

Rock You In A Hurricane

Some of the latest science sheds light on one aspect of regenerative farming that didn’t factor into the recent debate at all. In July, a major new study published in the journal Nature found that spreading rock dust on soil at maximum scale in the world’s three largest carbon emitters ― China, the United States and India ― could collectively remove up to 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air per year.

The process, known as “enhanced rock weathering,” occurs when minerals in the rock dust react with carbon in rainwater and turn into bicarbonate ions. Those ions are eventually washed into the oceans, where they’re stored indefinitely as rock minerals.

“The more we looked into it, the more it seemed like a no-brainer,” said David Beerling, a soil researcher at the U.K.’s University of Sheffield and the lead author of the study.

That’s a leap Thomas Vanacore took nearly four decades ago. The Vermont farmer and quarryman realized in the 1980s that mineral-rich dust from basalt and shale quarries could replenish nutrients in soil without using synthetic fertilizers, which would appeal to his state’s organic farmers. But as he studied climate change, he also concluded that his product could help pull carbon from the atmosphere.

“You can’t do what modern farming has done for years, where you kill everything and expect to grow life,” Vanacore said, standing before a pile of black shale at a quarry in Shoreham, Vermont. For farmers looking to make the shift to regenerative practices, “rock dust is the jumpstart,” he said.

This month, he delivered his largest shipment to date to an industrial farm supplier in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Vanacore said he expects to ship another 245 rail cars full of rock dust over the northern border in the next 12 months.

His customers swear by the stuff ― including Gentry, who started buying bags of his brix-blend basalt when she first started her farm. Without the rock dust, Gentry doubts that her soil would be as fertile as it is today. Her embrace of pioneering techniques is reflected in the name of her plot: Early Girl Farm.

This story is published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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