Bob Sheak, Climate chaos, land degradation, corruption – Trump makes it worse
August 27, 2019
The purpose of this paper is to consider recent report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and land degradation. The title of the report is “Climate Change and Land Degradation.” The full IPPC report can be accessed at https://www.ippc.ch/report/srccl. One of the principal contributions of the report is to provide extensive and scientifically-based evidence on how agriculture and other land uses contribute significantly to global warming, along with the emissions from fossil fuels.
The land degradation that the IPCC authors have in mind is linked to how food is grown and consumed, how forests are harvested for lumber, but more, and the greenhouse gases that are emitted in the process, even as the land itself is degraded. The sources of land degradation are complex, from industrial farming, large ranches, over-fishing, meat-heavy diets, and the enormous waste of food, involving the inefficient storage, transportation, and consumption of food to and the growth of landfills. There are also important issues that go beyond the global focus of the IPCC report concerning in the US the use and leasing of public land that prioritizes profit over public interests.
The dominant type of farming in the US and much of it in the major countries of the world requires heavy equipment, hybrid and GMO seeds, lots of water, toxic chemicals to protect against pests and weeds, and other practices that are unsustainable.Large-scale ranching often destroys grass and other plants. Deforestation eliminates services provided by healthy forests to protect soil against wind, retain water, and nourish complex ecosystems necessary for a host of species.
Large agribusiness companies are at the center of the agricultural, timber, and mining aspects of unsustainable land use. There is opposition to these practices, and there are sustainable alternatives. The principles and practices of organic farming and healthy diets are well known. But the political forces are now arrayed against the alternatives, and the Trump administration is making the problem of land degradation even worse than it has been.
First, some good news
Proposals to rapidly phase out fossil fuels are having some effect. There are a wide range of international organizations, environmental groups, and a growing number in the public who think that such changes are necessary. Some Democrats in the US Congress are advocates and a number of Democratic presidential candidates are on board, seeing the need for major changes in US energy policy, from fossil fuels to renewables, energy efficiency measures, mass public transit, and more. Bernie Sanders’ plan is the most detailed (https://www.businessinsider.com/bernie-sanders-16-trillion-climate-change-plan-most-expensive-yet-2019-8). Democrats in the US Congress have also put forth a proposal for a “Green New Deal,” about which has been covered widely in the media, especially online. (See https://vitalissues-bobsheak.com/2019/03/16/the-green-new-deal-its-critics-and-its-promise.)
The movement is apparently having some impact on public opinion. Despite the efforts by the fossil fuel industry, the Trump administration, the Republican Party, and right-wing media to deny or dismiss climate change/global warming, a majority of American believe that climate change is happening and that it is caused largely by “human activities.” Glenn Branch reports in May on a survey by the Yale Program on Climate Communication that “offers new data on Americans’ beliefs and attitudes about climate change….documenting that 70 percent of respondents answered affirmatively that global warming is happening, while 17 percent answered no, and 14 percent answered don’t know” (https://ncse.com/news/2019/05/new-climate-change-poll-highlights-political-differences-0018916).
But, nonetheless, the problem of climate change and its increasingly harmful effects increases
The scientific evidence documenting this problem continues to come forth. Julia Conley reports that, according to research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), July 2019 “was the hottest month the planet has ever experienced since the government began recording global temperatures nearly 140 years ago,” breaking the previous record set in July 2016 and “the 43rd July in a row with above-average temperatures.” She further reports that July” was the 415th consecutive month when the world was warmer than average” [and] “Last month, NOAA reported that June 2019 was the hottest June on record.” The ice in the Arctic melted far more than average in July. Marco Teseco, a climate scientist at Columbia University put it this way for Grist: “‘We are seeing record after record after record.” And: “‘It looks like the worst case scenario put forward by the IPCC [International Panel on Climate Change] could be an underestimate because we are seeing ice melting now that we expected 30 to 40 years from now” (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/08/15/global-temps-continue-soar-upward-noaa-confirms-2019-was-hottest).
A big challenge: disconnecting the American economy from fossil fuels
The understandable focus on the sources of the climate crisis has largely been on the greenhouse gases emitted by the combustion of fossil fuels and the need to stop using them as fast as we can, though the challenge to do so is immense. There is a need for rapid transition away from oil and gas to renewables and energy efficiency that would require transformational changes across the economy, including in the energy, transportation, construction, manufacturing, and other sectors. However daunting, the present situation forces us to make a choice as to whether to suffer the consequences of additional warming of the planet with all its cataclysmic effects or support transformational changes. And the challenge is made even more difficult because, according to recent scientific estimates, humanity only has a few decades at most before calamitous weather events, a seriously degraded environment, failed states, and rising waves of desperate people can be reduced or reversed.
Greenhouse gas emissions: 63% from fossil fuels, but a striking 37% from agriculture and the related processing, packaging and distribution of food
One of the chief findings in the IPCC report is that efforts to curtail global warming must pay serious attention to how land in a general sense is used and its effects. According to Georgina Gustin, the authors of the IPCC report are referring to “the entire food production system, with transportation and packaging included,” a system that “accounts for as much as 37 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions,” and the need to prioritize in the US and worldwide “better land use, less-meat-intensive diets and eliminating food waste.” Specifically, “Agriculture and deforestation account for 23 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But the report says that if the entire spectrum of food production were factored in—from growing crops to transportation and packaging—that percentage could be as high as 37 percent”(https://insideclimatenews.org/news/08082019/ipcc-agriculture-report-food-system-overhaul-climate-change-deforestation).
These IPCC assessments were reached through a collaborative scientific approach
As Guston describes it: “Negotiations over the final wording of the report, which was written after assessing thousands of studies, began in Geneva last week (first week in August). Attendees said the talks were bogged down at times by negotiators from countries, including the United States, with powerful biofuels and livestock industries. Still, they call for a very different kind of agricultural system that adds carbon to the soil, limits greenhouse-gas emitting fertilizers, stops deforestation while supporting reforestation and protecting forests, along with other efforts to manage land in ways that contain rather than release carbon and methane gases into the earth’s atmosphere.
Here is a list of key findings from the IPCC report’s findings on land degradation and associated problems.
• Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions. On average these trends have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities. Dominant agricultural practices are ones that degrade the land, including the increased use of nitrogen fertilizer, high intensity water usage, and other practices that destroy the soil and the micro-organisms that nourish the soil and plants.
• “Around three-quarters of the global ice-free land, and most of the highly productive land area, are by now under some form of land use…Grazing land is the single largest land-use category, followed by used forestland and cropland.”
• “An estimated one quarter of total anthropogenic GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions [from land uses] arise mainly from deforestation, ruminant livestock and fertilizer application, and especially methane and nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture….”
• More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production.
• The value of agricultural crop production has increased by about 300% since 1970, raw timber harvest has risen by 45% and approximately 60 billion tons of renewable and nonrenewable resources are now extracted globally every year – having nearly doubled since 1980.
• Land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23% of the global land surface, up to US$577 billion in annual global crops are at risk from pollinator loss and 100-300 million people are at increased risk of floods and hurricanes because of loss of coastal habitats and protection.
• There is a gender-dimension to the problem of land degradation. According to the report: “A gender inclusive approach offers opportunities to enhance the sustainable management of land. Women play a significant role in agriculture and rural economies globally. In many World religions, laws, cultural restrictions, patriarchy and social structures such as discriminatory customary laws and norms reduce women’s capacity in supporting the sustainable land resources. Therefore, acknowledging women’s land rights and bringing women’s land management knowledge into land-related decision-making would support the alleviation of land degradation and facilitate the take-up of integrated adaptation and mitigation measures.”
• Population growth has put increasing demands on the food-producing and -distribution systems.
• In 2015, 33% of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels; 60% were maximally sustainably fished, with just 7% harvested at levels lower than what can be sustainably fished.
• One of the outcomes of current land-use practices is rising food insecurity, a situation in which there is too little food availability to meet basic needs or the inability to access food. “After a prolonged decline, world hunger appears to be on the rise again with the number of undernourished people having increased to an estimated 821 million in 2017, up from 804 million in 2016. Of the total undernourished in 2018, “256 million” lived in Africa, and “784 million” in Asia (excluding Japan).”
• Unequal land arrangements and access to land is “strongly affected by local land ownership.” The authors also refer to how existing “power relations often disfavor disadvantaged groups such as small scale farmers indigenous community or women.” They add that “large-scale land acquisition (LSLA) are a factor in driving food insecurity. “LSLAs are promoted by investors and host governments on economic grounds (infrastructure, employment, market development), but their social and environmental impacts can be negative and significant.”
• Urban areas have more than doubled since 1992. According to the report: “Urban and other infrastructure areas expanded by a factor of 2 since 1960, resulting in disproportionately large losses of highly-fertile cropland.”
• Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, 300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the world’s waters, and fertilizers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean ‘dead zones’, totaling more than 245,000 km2 (591-595) – a combined area greater than that of the United Kingdom.
The authors not only assess the cause and effects of agriculture and forestry on global warming but also consider changes that would reduce such effects. Here is a list of proposals from the report.
• Farming more sustainably, i.e., using less fertilizer, lowering tillage and employing practices that increase the soil’s ability to hold carbon. In a section on “land management,” the authors says there is high agreement among the contributors to the report “on choices such as agroecology (including agroforestry), conservation agriculture and forestry practices, crop and forest species diversity, appropriate crop and forest rotations, organic farming, integrated pest management, the preservation and protection of pollination services, rain water harvesting, range and pasture management, and precision agriculture systems.” They add: “Conservation agriculture and forestry uses management practices with minimal soil disturbance, such as no tillage or minimum tillage, permanent soil cover with mulch combined with rotations to ensure a permanent soil surface, or rapid regeneration of forest following harvest.”
• Large-scale tree-planting on previously unforested land. The authors of the IPCC report write: “Reforestation is a mitigation measure with potential co-benefits for conservation and adaptation, including biodiversity habitat, air and water filtration, flood control, enhanced soil fertility and reversal of land degradation.”
• Manage fisheries to prevent over-fishing (e.g., impose quota or temporary bans on endangered fisheries).
• Reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “Rapid reductions in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions that restrict warming to ‘well-below’ 2 degrees C [say by phasing out fossil fuels] would generally reduce the negative impacts of climate change on land ecosystems” (e.g., less drought). And changes to a sustainable system of agriculture and land use generally would lower greenhouse gas emissions significantly.
• Changing diets – “‘Diets present major opportunities for reducing greenhouse gases as well, because diets that are rich in plant-based foods emit lower greenhouse gases than diets that are very heavy in red meat consumption,’ Rosenzweig said. The report’s authors conclude that, by 2050, dietary changes could free up hundreds of millions of acres of land, which could help avoid deforestation and reduce emissions.” — The most optimistic scenario, in which fewer resources are consumed and more people adopt “low greenhouse gas” diets, would translate to lower emissions and help keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—the aim of the Paris climate agreement.
• Reducing food waste – “The authors say reducing food waste is another key strategy for cutting emissions from the food system. Nearly a third of the food produced in the world is lost or wasted.” To address this problem, the authors recommend “advancing harvesting technologies, storage capacity, and efficient transportation” as methods that “could all contribute to reducing these losses with co-benefits for food availability, the land area needed for food production and related CHG emissions.” They also point to the need for individuals to waste less food, for there to be less food waste at the retail level, and for there to be reductions in food waste along production and consumption supply chains.” Generally, “overconsumption was found to waste 9-10% of food bought” A further benefit of reducing food waste is that if it was reduced by 50%, greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by “20 to 30% of total food-sourced GHGs
On the one hand, the IPCC authors have done us all a great favor by bringing further attention to the problems of land degradation and forcing us to think about big solutions. Indeed, it is important to highlight the problems of how land is degraded by current agricultural and forestry practices, how high-meat diets from prevalent livestock ranches interact with the accelerating problem of climate disruption, and how food security for hundreds of millions of people across the planet is undermined by the enormous scale of food waste that is part and parcel of the present dominant agriculture system. More than that, it provides additional factually based, verifiable evidence that helps to dispute and reveal the counterproductive policies of the Trump administration, as the administration brazenly opens more public lands, including national parks, to mining, farming, ranching, logging and fracking, while also eviscerating laws and regulations that have been designed to protect the public land and the species that inhabit them. Trump, his advisers, and the powerful corporate interests that benefit in profits and enhanced political and economic power from these unsustainable policies, ignore the extensive damage that is being wrought for their short terms economic gains and political advantage. (I’ll come back to this below.)
On the other hand, the report fails to consider how, for example in the US, the problems of land use, reflected in the current agriculture system and in related land uses, are a consequence of a capitalist system that is inherently exploitative of people and land at home and abroad. On this point, the dominance of agribusiness in the US agricultural system has been well documented. For example, Vandana Shiva, physicist and world renown environmental thinker and activist, tireless crusader for economic, food, and gender justice, has written about “the toxic cartel,” which includes the “Big 6 pesticide and GMO corporations that own the world’s seed, pesticide and biotechnology industries.” They include: “BASF, Bayer, Dupont, Dow Chemical Company, Monsanto, and Syngenta.” Dupont is said to be merging with Dow, and Bayer with Monsanto (p. 57). The principal owners of these corporations are “investment funds like Vanguard, Blackrock, Capital group, Fidelity, State Street Global Advisers, Norges, Bank Investment Management (NBIM), and others” (p. 58). The toxic cartel, Shiva writes, is expanding and “going beyond the convergence of seeds, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers, to farm equipment and information technologies, and to climate data, soil data, and insurance in a bid to have total control over our daily food” (p. 62). There can be no solution to the problem of land degradation without an effective challenge politically to the influence of this complex of powerful interests.
Along these lines, the IPCC report says nothing about how the governments in the US and other “rich” countries have facilitated the commercial and extractive land-relevant interests of mega corporations, ranchers, and others private, for-profit interests in perpetrating or launching practices that degrade the land, while paying little attention to the sustainability or regenerative practices, the plight of small farmers or farm workers, or the importance small farmers in the solution. Vandana Shiva has also written extensively about the latter point (e.g., Who Really Feeds the World: The Failures of Agribusiness and the Promises of Agroecology). US government farm and farm-relevant policies have been crucial in enabling the current unsustainable and land degrading agriculture system to continue, and played a particularly important role with respect to public land and how administrations have opened this land, allowing private corporate interests cheap, easy, little regulated access to exploit the public’s land for farming, ranching, the extraction of minerals and fossil fuels, timber, and for various other commercial interests.
Going in the wrong direction with Trump – on public land
Randi Spivak reports generally on how Trump and his administration are “attacking our public lands” and plundering them at a terrifying rate, as they have “kicked the door open and let in profiteers to mine, drill, frack, log, and bulldoze. Along the way, it’s worsening the climate crisis, endangering wildlife, and divesting our natural inheritance to fatten the dividends for massive corporations” (https://www.yesmagazine.org/planet/public-lands-trump-climate-change-20190816). Spivak brings to our attention to how Trump and his administration have “slashed” the budgets for two national monuments in Utah, while the “Interior Department and U.S. Forest Service have been quietly, systematically ceding control of America’s public lands to fossil fuel, mining, timber, and livestock interests since the day he took office.” And a lot of land is at stake. We are talking today about “670 million acres of forests, canyons, rivers, wetlands, mountains, and high deserts. Native American sacred sites. Ancient migratory pronghorn paths and towering temperate rainforests. Pristine streams that feed wild salmon and endangered pikeminnow. Prehistoric artifacts.”
Undermining the Endangered Species Act has general implications
Then, in early August, 2019, Spivak reports that “Trump launched a massive attack on imperiled wildlife, finalizing changes to the Endangered Species Act that could lead to extinction for hundreds of animal and plant species. The changes, which will make it harder to protect wildlife habitat from development, come in the face of urgent scientific warnings that humans have driven up to 1 million species worldwide to the brink of extinction.”
In an article for Inside Climate News, Sabrina Shankman points out that Endangered Species Act has been given credit “with keeping 99 percent of listed species from becoming extinct, including humpback whales and bald eagles” (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/13082019/climate-change-endangered-species-act-arctic-trump-changes-polar-bear-wildlife). The revisions advanced by the Trump administration will “make it harder to take climate change into account when deciding whether a species needs protection,” “limit protections for critical habitat,” and allow “agencies to consider economic interests when deciding whether to list a species – something that was explicitly forbidden in the past.” That is, profits will take precedence over the environment. Also, “Under the new application of the rule, a species can only be listed as threatened if its population is going to be affected in the ‘foreseeable future,’ allowing decisionmakers in the Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA to ignore long-term threats like climate change.”
Who benefits? Shankman nails it: “The oil and gas industry, which has long argued that the Endangered Species Act restricts its ability to pursue natural resources by putting some areas off limits, would benefit from the revisions, and the American Petroleum Institute said it welcomed the Interior Department’s changes. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, whose president was with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt for the announcement, also applauded the move, calling it.” And: “Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement that the revisions ‘fit squarely within the President’s mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species’ protection and recovery goals.’”
Trump and his administration want to lease millions of acres of public land to oil companies and other for-profit enterprises
Zach Coleman reports for Grist on this story (https://grist.org/article/under-trump-public-lands-could-see-leases-on-millions-of-acres). He writes: “The administration’s new policies would bring sweeping changes to this Rocky Mountain landscape, facilitated by a growing bond between federal officials and the oil and gas industry. Emails and other communications between government employees obtained by E&E News reveal directives and orders by Trump officials to shelve environmental policies to speed energy development.” He continues: “In one instance, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke courted oil and gas drillers in private by assuring them that changes to federal land policy would make their companies more profitable.”
The land is being sold at bargain-basement prices. The policies of the Trump administration “will set the nation on a future course of reliance on fossil fuels that cause climate change, more air and water pollution in rural areas, and new threats to endangered species. In return, the government charges oil companies as little as $2 per acre to lease the land for drilling.” Trump administrators have already been implementing such leases and hope it turns out to be a long-term trend. According to the documents obtained by E&E News, Trump “wants to open millions of acres across the West, all owned by taxpayers, to private oil and gas companies. Last year alone, his administration put 11.9 million acres on the auction block. It was the most in nine years. In sheer size, that’s twice as big as Vermont.” It remains to be seen whether all the leases will be purchased. They justify the self-off as one that will generate revenues for federal and state governments and claim that the royalties from the leases will be used for conservation, under-estimate the volume of greenhouse gases that are expected to be emitted, and downplay how the policy has been coordinated with fossil-fuel interests.
Unsustainable land use practices existed prior to Trump; he just doubles-down on them
Such practices did not begin with Trump, as Christopher Ketchum lays out the history of how the public land have for generations been plundered for profit in his book, This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Ruining the American West. He considers the history of this helter-skelter, exploitative and corrupt process. One example: “During the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth, much of the land was leased and sold off in a frenzy of corrupt dealings. Railroads, corporations, land speculators, mining interests, and stockmen gorged on the public domain, helped along by the fabulously pliable General Land Office, which from 1812 until its closure in 1946 privatized more than a billion acres, roughly half the landmass of the nation” (p. 23). This land acquisition, abetted by the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service, has led to the despoliation of the soil and grasslands, to damage and destruction to eco-systems and habitats, and the extinction of wildlife and plant species. Ketchum provides a rich, in-depth historical analysis of how private interests have benefited from access to public lands. Here’s a recent example.
“State and federal officials of both parties, elected and appointed, defend the panoply of subsidies as the cattlemen’s divine right, passing legislation and tweaking regulations to favor the industry and protect it from oversight. Consider this emblematic instance: when in 2010 the Department of the Interior funded $40 million for the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] to conduct a broad study of ecological trends and ‘change agents’ on public lands, the Obama administration exempted grazing – the change agent with the heaviest footprint. ‘One of the biggest scientific studies ever undertaken by BLM was fatally skewed from its inception by political pressure, reported the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). ‘When the scientific teams were assembled at an August 2010 workshop, BLM managers informed them that grazing would not be studied due to anxiety from ‘stakeholders’ – code for ranchers – and ‘fear of litigation.’ A participating scientist remarked at the time, ‘We will be laughed out of the room if we don’t [include] grazing.’ PEER’s executive director, Jeff Ruch, observed, ‘If grazing can be locked so blithely into a scientific broom closet, it speaks volumes about science-based decision-making” (p. 70).
Jim Robbins highlights the effects of the industrial-type farming practice have occurred for a long time and it is “one of the most ecologically destructive things that humans do.” He continues: “Plowing large fields every year causes a mammoth loss of topsoil; erosion removes 30 tons of soil per hectare per year, on average, according to one study.” The monoculture crops are subject to diseases that can wipe them out. The fungus Tropical race 4, for example, has decimated the global Cavendish banana crop – the kind we all eat – largely because they are a genetically identical fruit grown in vast one-crop plantations” (https://e360yale.edu/features/with-new-perennial-grain-a-step-forward-for-eco-friendly-agiculture).
Evaggelos Vallianatos observes that American farmers “have been addicted to huge petroleum-fueled machines, mountains of petroleum-based fertilizers, and rivers of petrochemical poisons.” She continues: “These ‘inputs’ undermine the fertility and life of the land. Petrochemicals [the herbicides, insecticides] fight nature, primarily by killing beneficial microorganisms in the soil and poisoning beneficial insects and other wildlife” (https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/08/12/farm-rot-is-eating-america-alive). This method of “farm chemical warfare has been going on for several decades.”
It was decades ago when Rachel Carson brought the world’s attention to the lethal effects of DDT and chemicals in food production in her famous book, Silent Spring, in 1962. The research then and since then show documents that “petrochemical companies, and the land grant universities have been inventing toxic weapons of the farmers [that] keep farmers hooked on every newer hazardous substances” and keep farmers on a chemical treadmill, as insects morph into ever more resistant varieties. Vallianatos points out that the spraying starves birds and other wildlife, poisons honeybees, impoverishes wildflowers and reduces the amounts of pollinated plants and crops. A recent peer-reviewed study published August 6, 2019, “revealed that American agriculture is now about 50 times more deleterious to insects than it was 25 years ago. The second terrible truth is that neonicotinoid insect-killing chemicals account for 92 percent of the growing toxic wrath of land and farming.” Additionally, Vallianatos writes, “Insects, after all, are the ‘food web’ sustaining life on Earth. They are essential for birds, amphibians, fish, reptiles, and mammals. They decompose animal wastes and dead vegetation, enriching the soil. They make farming possible. They pollinate our crops and eat those bugs harming our fruits, vegetables, and other crops.”
Carey Gilliam has spent recent decades in researching the effects of toxic chemicals in agriculture, with attention to the role that Monsanto has played in this continuing story. In her book, White Wash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science (2017), she documents how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have refused to test for the herbicide named glyphosate, known by consumers as Roundup, a weed killer patented, produced and distributed by the mega-corporation Monsanto, which recently merged with another mega-corporation, Germany’s Bayer AG. Gillam notes that glyphosate “has for many years been the most widely used herbicide in the world” (p. 9). Research has indicated that glyphosate may cause cancer in animals and humans, and that “Monsanto faces a long list of people who attribute their cancers to Roundup (p. 15). Nonetheless, the weed killer is found virtually everywhere in the environment. Gillam writes:
“By 2013, glyphosate use was so widespread that U.S. government researchers were documenting it in our air and waterways as well as in human and animal urine, including that of dairy cows. An analysis of state water agency data by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group found glyphosate in tap water in at least six states, flowing through water utilities that serve more than 650,000 people” (p. 20).
Sustainable alternatives are available – some examples
The recommendations from the IPCC report on land degradation
Recall that the IPCC report on land degradation offered a set of proposals aimed at the regeneration of the land, including how to farm sustainably, large-scale tree planting, management of fisheries, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels and poor agricultural and land-use practices, changes in diets away from red-meat consumption, the need to greatly diminish food waste.
The Union of Concerned Scientists’ report on “sustainable agriculture”
The Union of Concerned Scientists have issued a report in which “sustainable agriculture” based on agroecological principles and practices is defined (https://www.ucsusa.org/food-agriculture/advance-sustainable-agriculture/what-is-sustainable-agriculture). The report posits that “[e]nvironmental sustainability in agriculture means good stewardship of the natural systems and resources” that is based on” building and maintaining health soil, managing water wisely, minimizing air, water, and climate pollution, and promoting biodiversity. According to the scientists, sustainable agriculture practices includes “several key sustainable farming practices, such as:
“Rotating crops and embracing diversity. Planting a variety of crops can have many benefits, including healthier soil and improved pest control. Crop diversity practices include intercropping (growing a mix of crops in the same area) and complex multi-year crop rotations.”
“Planting cover crops. Cover crops, like clover or hairy vetch, are planted during off-season times when soils might otherwise be left bare. These crops protect and build soil health by preventing erosion, replenishing soil nutrients, and keeping weeds in check, reducing the need for herbicides.”
“Reducing or eliminating tillage. Traditional plowing (tillage) prepares fields for planting and prevents weed problems, but can cause a lot of soil loss. No-till or educed till methods, which involve inserting seeds directly into soil, can reduce erosion and improve soil health.”
“Applying integrated pest management (IPM). A range of methods, including mechanical and biological controls, can be applied systematically to keep pest populations under control while minimizing use of the chemical pesticides.”
“Integrating livestock and crops. Industrial agriculture tends to keep plant and animal production separate, with animals living far from the areas where their feed is produced, and crops growing far away from abundant manure fertilizers. A growing body of evidence shows that a smart integration of crop and animal production can be a recipe for more efficient, profitable farms.”
“Adopting agroforestry practices. By mixing trees or shrubs into their operations, farmers can provide shade and shelter to protect plants, animals, and water resources, while also potentially offering additional income.”
“Managing whole systems and landscapes. Sustainable farms treat uncultivated or less intensively cultivated areas, such as riparian buffers or prairie strips, as integral to the farm – valued for their role in controlling erosion, nutrient runoff, and supporting pollinators and other biodiversity.”
There is also research that confirms the viability of agroecological principles and practices. They give this example: “an ongoing study at Iowa State University’s Marsden Farm research center has shown that complex crop rotation systems can outproduce conventional monocultural in both yield and profitability.” You can obtain further details and a wealth of information by going to the Union of Concerned Scientist site and accessing a series of reports related to sustainable agriculture.
Example of ecologically sustainable farming
In an article for Yes! Magazine, Kristin Ohlson gives us examples of ecologically sustainable farms (https://truthout.org/articles/for-a-sustainable-climate-and-food-regenerative-agriculture-us-the-key/?utm_source=sharebutton&utm_medium=mashshare&utm_campaign=mashshare). She tells of a visit to a South Dakota cornfield with “entomologist and former USDA scientist Jonathan Lundgren.” She witnesses corn “as a high as an elephant’s eye” and describes the field as follows.
“Instead of the sunbaked, bare lanes between cornstalks that are typical of conventional agriculture, these lanes sprout an assortment of cover crops. These are plants that save soil from wind and water erosion, reduce the evaporation of soil moisture, and attract beneficial insects and birds. Like all plants, these cover crops convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into a liquid carbon food, some for themselves and some to support the fungi, bacteria, and other microscopic partners underground. A portion of that carbon stays there, turning poor soil into fragrant, fertile stuff that resembles chocolate cake.”
This thriving cornfield is part of an experiment of a research institute called Ecdysis that Lundgren started back in 2016. They conduct “comparative studies between conventional agriculture and regenerative agriculture, which is generally defined as agriculture that builds soil health and overall biodiversity and yields a nutritious and profitable farm product.” Furthermore: “Regenerative farmers avoid tilling so that they protect the community of soil microorganisms, the water-storing pores they create underground, and the carbon they’ve stashed there. They encourage plant diversity and plant cover that mimics nature in their fields, avoid farm chemicals, and let farm animals polish off the crop residue.”
In 2018, Lundgren published a study that, according to Ohlson, “followed 10 cornfields per farm on 20 farms over two growing seasons, half of which were regenerative and half conventional. The study tracked soil carbon, insect pests, corn yield, and profits.” The key findings? “…while the regenerative farms used older, lower-yielding corn varieties without fertilizer and had lower yields, their overall profits were 78% higher than the conventional farmers.” This was partly “because the regenerative farmers’ costs were so much lower, with no cash outlays for costly insecticides and GMO seeds. They also ‘stacked enterprises’ and had two or more sources of income on the same acre—in this case, they grazed their cattle on corn residue after harvest and got a premium price for pastured beef. What was the primary factor correlating with farm profitability? The amount of carbon and organic matter in the farmers’ fields, not their yields.”
Finally, Ohlson refers to a 2018 interview with soil scientist Rattan Lal, “one of the first people to connect the loss of soil carbon caused by destructive farming to the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.” In that interview, “Lal said that he and his colleagues estimated that regenerating landscapes—farms, forests, coastlands, and so on—could restore up to 150 gigatons (a gigaton equals 1 billion tons) of carbon to the world’s soil in 80 years.” Continuing, he said: “All the extra vegetation grown to put that carbon in the soil would store 150–160 gigatons more, resulting in a terrestrial biosphere holding an additional 330 gigatons of carbon, equal to a drawdown of 150 to 160 parts per million of CO2 from the atmosphere,” and concluded: ‘We should encourage the policy makers that this process of restoring degraded soils and ecosystems is a win, win, win option.”
As in other spheres of our oligarchically-structured contemporary life, here in the US we are saddled with a President and administration who want to advance private interests over the public interest generally and specifically how their policies pay no attention to how to protect the soil and conserve water, forests, fisheries, etc. and only think of how to give away public land to for-profit enterprises.
Nonetheless with all that going on, we are fortunate to have what appears to be a growing movement of people here and across the world who are concerned about ending fossil fuels, and engaging variously in support of policies that support sustainable agriculture, reforestation projects, a greening of economies, and, in these and other ways, challenge existing power structures. We are fortunate to have farmers who sustain the land. We are fortunate to have scientists who carry out illuminating research and investigative journalists who unveil the truth. We are fortunate to have authors who dig into sources to reveal what’s going on behind the scenes. We are fortunate to have some elected representatives in the US Congress and across the country who have the courage and knowledge to support bold policies. We are fortunate to have teachers at all levels who are committed to their students and strive to understand and convey the sound information. We are fortunate to have many citizens who find time to be informed about important issues. And we are fortunate that time to create sustainable alternatives has not yet run out.