Want the Dirt on Farming?

There are some rather important conversations going on at the moment regarding our agriculture policy.  There are also important conversations happening on the topic of global warming.  It’s a shame the two aren’t connected. Farming is a very important topic.

The international climate conversation in Paris is entering its final week.  While negotiations for a climate pact still have a ways to go, a major breakthrough occurred with the agreement of 184 governments submitting plans detailing how each would reduce domestic emissions.  One of those governments is the United States.  While the world toils to finance this work, especially for poor countries, our own Congress could be playing a major role in some very simple ways to facilitate our commitment to reducing carbon emissions.

As Congress maneuvers to pass a budget bill, fund transportation projects and hopefully keep the government running, it finds itself tackling the issue of crop insurance (to fully fund or not fully fund).  Agriculture issues are big business in Congress with lots of politics to consider if you are hoping to win the Iowa caucuses, and lots of campaign money for all those in farming states.  This matters because soil scientists estimate 50 to 70 percent of current global emissions could be stored in the soil. 

A Washington Post column written by Debbie Barker and Michael Pollan, entitled, “A Secret weapon to fight climate change: Dirt,” states that a third of the carbon in our atmosphere used to be contained in the soil.  Instead, the use of too many chemicals, tilling and machinery combine now to actually create carbon dioxide.  According to the authors, climate change simply can’t be fixed without addressing the world’s agriculture practices.  Practices that they assert are serving to degrade soil health and actually reduce crop yield two percent per decade.  In addition, water runs off poor soil, versus being absorbed, leading to chemicals such as nitrogen polluting our waterways and adding to water shortages.  The good news is that getting carbon back into the ground is actually not that hard.

Regenerative agriculture practices, including cover cropping – planting oats, rye or beans between rows of vegetables in the off season, crop rotation, no-till farming, composting and avoiding synthetic fertilizers, have been documented to increase soil organic matter by three to four percent in just three years.  So what’s stopping us from adopting these practices?  While there are a plethora of answers to that question, one in particular has the ability to be addressed easily: simply remove restrictions on growing seasons for cover crops, an unintended consequence of U.S. agriculture policy.

Instead of battling over funding for crop insurance at this very moment, Congress needs to be discussing how to improve soil quality.  Instead they are staking out positions on government intervention, fiscal conservatism and votes.  If only they could pop their heads up out of the ground in the final weeks of this International Year of Soils to see what’s possible.   Which takes me back to the French who really get this issue, as is evident by their launch of 4 per 1000, the first international initiative to create soils for food security and climate. 

Soil is defined as “the upper layer of earth in which plants grow, a black or dark brown material typically consisting of a mixture of organic remains, clay, and rock particles.”  Dirt is defined as “a substance, such as mud or dust, that soils someone or something”, or “loose soil or earth.”  I’m hoping we stand up, dust the dirt off and plant our feet and future firmly on soil replete with carbon. 

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Biography: Karen Howard, CEO and Executive Director of Organic & Natural Health Association, is a visionary and results-focused leader who has spent more than 30 years working with Congress, state legislatures and healthcare organizations to develop innovative healthcare policy and programs. She has held a variety of executive positions, including serving as professional staff for a Congressional committee, and has policy expertise in the diverse areas of integrative and complementary medicine, managed care, healthcare technology and mental health. An advocate at heart, she has worked to strategically advance the mission and vision of organizations through effective advocacy and strong collaboration.

 



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