Part 1 Soil: An answer to climate change
By June Birch (*) - 31. August 2017
Below the surface of the earth is an incredibly complex place, teeming with life and it is here that the answer to climate change lies. If you have a couple of moments to spare, look down.
If you are in the city, what do you see... pavement? concrete? tarmac? But what if you were standing in a field of grass, a warm wind blowing and a blue sky above, a place where no pesticides or fertilizers had been sprayed, what would you see if you could travel below the waving green blades into the dark kingdom below? A place of pillars of roots, of thousands of small animals busily working away, burrowing through the soil, eating the decaying matter and turning the soil into good tilth. A place so populous that "Each shovel of soil holds more living things than all the human beings ever born."
There would be tiny protozoa, nematodes, mites, and maybe you would see the occasional glimmer of light where an earthworm had pulled a leaf down from the surface and left a vertical tunnel. These tunnels let rainwater reach lower layers of soil and help to prevent water runoff and flooding.
Watch out for the long lengths of tubes connecting different plants and species which seem to come from the roots. What are they and why are they there?
These are some of the mycorrhizae that live alongside and partially inside the roots. It's quite a word, but just comes from the Greek, myco meaning fungus and rrhiza, meaning roots.
Have a look at the roots. Maybe you're wondering why they seem so much larger than you expected and are so ornately decorated. All the mycorrhizae wrapped around them increase the surface area of the roots and this means that the plant can absorb more nutrients. There will probably be some mycorrhizae and bacteria round the roots which protect them from disease and other threats.
How long has this been going on? Fossil evidence shows us that they were associated with the first land plants over 400 million years ago.
What are they doing there? Around 80% of plants use the incredible network of mycorrhizae and their multiple fine branches, or hyphae, to get food, especially minerals. The roots of the plants even have their own "go between" bacteria to introduce a new mycorrhiza to make sure that it's a good idea to let their defences down!
What do they get out of it? In sunlight, plants photosynthesize water and carbon dioxide to release oxygen and make carbohydrates. They use some of the carbon for energy, some to grow and they share some with the mycorrhizae. They also leak some sugar to attract microbes.
Mycorrhizae don't produce carbon; sunlight doesn't happen much underground and anyway they really don't like being in the sun. They rely on the plant for their carbon shots.
What else do these mini-fungi do? As well as feeding the plants the kind of smoothie ionic food they like, they can link up different species, like birch and larch for example, sharing carbon between them. They are also an information network!
But that's not all.
As the plant grows, the roots push out further... around you the earth is moving... and new hyphae are growing too. The mycorrhizae grow out around the new root tips. Their hyphae are probably waterproofed by those sticky globules that look like chewing gum on their surface and as the plant grows, the old hyphae slough off leaving "chewing gum string bags" littered around. Into these bags fall particles of soil, minerals and other debris. These are probably the most important sticky old bags in the world.
Why? The bags are made of glomalin, the chewing gum stuff, as well as strands of old root and hyphae. Depending on the composition of the soil they stick to, they can store carbon for up to a hundred years. In fact, deep down in the soil they can probably store it for thousands of years.
How much can they store? The Rodale Institute says:
“Simply put, we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term "regenerative organic agriculture."
Experiments have shown that the more carbon dioxide is in the air, the longer the hyphae grow and the more glomalin is created. This means that more carbon is stored. However, you don't just need increased CO2, for this. If the soil is properly looked after, it will store more and more carbon.
If these mycorrhiza are so important, maybe it's a good idea to find out what makes them happy. We know some of the things they really don't like: They don't like the light, they don't like being disturbed and they specially don't like being squashed. They can also suffer very badly from pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers.... Let's face it... if the plants get all the phosphorus they need from fast food, why bother sharing their carbon with the mycorrhizae? These hardworking fungi become less numerous and may even be stopped from reproducing.
Another problem is that the plant only gets what's on offer from human beings, whereas the mycorrhizae can give them lots of different minerals that are in the soil and they have a quick response system to deal with pests and diseases. They also don't cause nitrogen to be leached out into the soil or to increase air pollution.
Does this matter? Yes. This rich kingdom which sustains us is mostly only about two to eight inches deep. It's fragile. Plato wrote that the fall of Greece was because the once fertile soil had become degraded. He didn't know why. Ancient kingdoms whose prosperity was on based on rich soil also fell because they didn't care for the soil; maybe they overworked or over irrigated land to produce more and more food and it became degraded. They probably didn't know why. We probably do.
Long term research has shown that with organic farming, where a plentiful supply of compost is given to the earth for the hard working population of microbes and small creatures, land flourishes and is more productive. It is also better protected against floods and drought, especially where diverse species are encouraged to grow. Furthermore, there is good evidence that growing food organically can feed the world.....the whole world.
So there we have it, regenerative organic agriculture can sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions and feed the world.
Yes it can, but there are a few snags to deal with...mostly of human origin.
Ancient kingdoms fell because of soil degradation, but we have the capacity to mess up monumentally on a global scale and there's no stopping some people...or is there?
So what is going wrong? Well, have a look at these figures from an article written in 2009 by Grain.org and see what you think. "For each kg of nitrogen applied, 226kg of maize were obtained in 1961" (a time when global industrial farming was starting), "but only 76 kg in 2006." And it wasn't just maize. The figures were down from 217kg for rice to 66 kg. They had fallen from 131kg to 36kg for soya and from 126kg to 45kg for wheat.
Apparently, this has been known for years and to quote Grain again. "It is not uncommon to hear organic farmers say that they turned organic because their yields collapsed after years of heavy industrial fertiliser use".
From my searches, I discovered that synthetic nitrogen fertilisers can cause huge problems. Firstly, if applied liberally they can diminish the role of natural nitrogen fixing bacteria in the soil. Other soil microbes, faced with a feast of fast food, are stimulated to multiply, eat all the soil organic matter they can, then, when supplies run out, they die. There is also an imbalance of minerals which affects plant growth. Secondly, the fertilisers can acidify the soil and this can kill off a lot of bacteria. Thirdly, even if they are slow release, they still aren't doing anything for the topsoil, they aren't providing anything to help its structure or maintain it. That lovely air-spaced, microbe-laced soil organic matter slowly disappears. Fourthly, there's probably a lot of stuff I don't know yet.
What happens then? The soil becomes compacted. It can't hold as much water. Roots grow shorter and absorb less nutrients. Surface layers of soil erode and water and fertiliser are leached away, affecting more soil and waterways and aquifers.
A study in 2015 linked nitrates with uranium levels which were way above the EPA guidelines, from water samples in two aquifers in the Midwest of the USA and California. The naturally occurring uranium in the rocks is said to be mobilised by excess nitrates. It's unlikely that they are the only aquifers where this is happening in the world. A number of illnesses, including blue baby syndrome, are cited as being caused by excess nitrate in drinking water.
The link between the fertiliser industry and fracking
What I hadn't realised was the connection between the fertiliser industry and fracking. According to a report by Grain in 2015, it takes a lot of energy to make fertilisers. In fact, the fertiliser industry is responsible for consuming over one to two percent of annual world energy. (Ammonia, NH3, is the basis for artificial nitrogen fertilisers. The inert nitrogen is taken from the air and the hydrogen, mostly from natural gas.) It is the fertiliser companies who, according to the report, were using most of the natural gas produced by the fracking boom in the USA. Incidentally, apparently, natural gas from fracked wells leak 40% to 60% more methane than conventional wells and methane is a greenhouse gas which is 25 times stronger than CO2.
That, however, is nothing compared to the N2O released once the fertiliser reaches the land. It is estimated that around 3 to 5% of global greenhouse gases are from N2O released by nitrogen fertilisers. This figure might even be too low, because farmers have to use more and more fertiliser every year just to try to keep yields the same and the rate of N2O emissions increases exponentially with the application of more fertiliser.
Stating the obvious, the more artificial nitrogen fertiliser they use, the more hydrogen is needed to manufacture ammonia and the more hydrogen is bought from the fracking companies.
Can organic farming really take out the problem? Yes, absolutely and it's been proved and is being proved...and I'm coming to it, honest, but there are other problems with growing food safely that can't be dealt with so easily. In fact it will take years and years...and years.
Can you imagine what over 9 million black bags of nuclear waste, each of one cubic metre, and mostly containing topsoil, look like when they are piled up in banks? That's the official September 2015 figure from the Fukushima Prefecture and the Environment Ministry....and it's still rising. The Ministry is quoted this year as estimating that it had bagged 3.5 billion gallons of soil and planned to collect much more. The trouble is, that it's an ongoing problem. They clean up an area then the rain washes more radiation down from the mountains.
In China, huge industrial expansion has come at environmental cost to the countryside and around one fifth of their farmland is, reportedly, severely polluted. The government is introducing an ambitious "soil pollution prevention action plan." People in China are being asked to report polluted waterways. Greenpeace, East Asia, has also started their own map of China's hazardous chemical facilities.
Meanwhile, the number of rivers in China has been reported to have halved, waterways and soil have become heavily polluted with chemicals such as Cadmium, Caesium, Chromium, Mercury and Lead, and there is a published list of "Cancer Villages".
Change can't come quickly enough for the little village of Liuchong, revisited by a journalist in 2016. He found that it was towered over by a 200 foot high hill of the grey ash of phosphogypsum, still being dumped daily by a local factory producing fertiliser. Phosphogypsum is radioactive and according to the EPA, contains chemicals like uranium, radium and arsenic....all cancer causing.
A doctor working in the village said that thirty of three hundred villagers living near the factory had already died from cancer and five more were likely to die soon. He spoke anonymously about the owner of the factory.
“He has told us that if we say anything bad about his company, he’ll have us killed." He said that their only hope was that journalists got the word out.
China needs to feed its people. They are importing food. China has been buying swathes of agricultural land or entering food production contract in other countries.
They certainly aren't the only country to have soil problems or to be buying up, leasing or entering land contracts in other nations. Some countries in Africa, South America and South East Asia, have been especially badly affected, but the problem is widespread. People who have farmed their land for generations can be suddenly driven off, beaten, even killed. The foreign companies can do a deal with intermediaries or governments and wait until the clearances have happened... and they do. It's not just companies from different countries or their own opportunist governments who are land grabbing. As might be expected, corporations are involved for profit and surprisingly, so are some pension funds.
We are blitzed with information about how the world population will rise and how we need to feed them. Who are these hungry people? Apparently, they are mostly the very neighbours of the small farmers who are being displaced. What are some of the crops now being grown on their land by the new owners or leaseholders? Cut flowers and roses for the European market, (I am not joking) and especially flex crops such as palm oil, sugar cane, cassava and corn.What are they mainly grown for? Export.
Even where farmers keep their land, it can now be illegal for them to sell their own seeds. They may be pressured into buying patented seeds annually. Seed patenting laws are being resisted in countries around the world.
There are acres and acres of genetically modified mono-crops. In the southern cone of Latin America, there are over 54 million hectares of G.M. soy, according to Grain.org. Millions of peasants were displaced to achieve this, and thousands had to abandon producing local food, unable to co-exist with G.M.soy. Hundreds of peasants were criminalised, persecuted and murdered trying to defend their land.
Grain.org has produced a downloadable poster giving 20 reasons for opposing the G.M. soy crop. Two of them are that the land is being depleted and destroyed with an unprecedented loss of nutrients and that every study to date has found GM soy varieties to be less productive than conventional varieties.
PART 3 The answer: small organic farms and seed sovereignty
Some people, however, have always been doing it right: Not the corporations, not the fertilizer and pesticide manufacturers, but lowly, small farmers round the world... and they are mostly women. Seeds are handed from one generation to another, mother to daughter, shared with neighbours, tried under different conditions, planted in rich variety.
Small farms are, overall, more productive than large ones. In fact, small farms produce most of the world's food, but they are having to do it on less and less land. They only have a quarter of the world's available farmland and this unbelievably small share is shrinking rapidly. If the landgrab around the globe continues, they may not be able to do this any more.
Not only are small farms better at producing food, growing organically, and sequestering carbon in the process, but often, with help from neighbours and NGO's showing them new ways of farming organically, they are increasing crop harvests dramatically, while enriching the land.
Take SAT, Sustainable Agriculture Tanzania. This small NGO has their training centre in the dry area of Viazal, the antithesis of the kind of land offered to investors. Janet Maro, head of SAT, said "If we can do it there, we can do it anywhere." Trees are planted to conserve water when it rains and their irrigation system uses water bottles to consume less. Farmers are taught how to make compost with plants cut from their own fields. They are taught mixed cropping and how to make extracts from local plants to control crop pests and diseases.
SAT also trained farmers in an area where the government gave subsidies to buy fertiliser. Many farmers were so successful that they returned the vouchers to the government, asking "Why go into town to buy expensive synthetic fertiliser?" The government has now asked SAT to train farmers because the quality and quantity of water in two rivers has worsened because of their own agricultural projects and they have seen that SAT's projects have a much better effect on the environment.
There are many NGOs doing this kind of work; the battle against "smart" industrial agriculture which is anything but smart, is being fought, field by field, farm by farm. The NGOs are there, waiting to help. Farmers and gardeners are learning from each other. People are working together for the ecological restoration of the planet. Grass roots movements start on the ground, our common inheritance.
Does it work? In 2011, an analysis of 114 cases in Africa showed that converting farms to organic methods increased agricultural productivity by 116%. That same year, Olivier De Schutter, special rapporteur to the UN on the right to food, said that global food production in critical regions could be doubled within a decade by small scale farmers using ecological methods. This year, the new rapporteur, Hilal Elver has produced a report together with the special rapporteur on toxics, Baskut Tuncak. Outlining the dangers of hazardous pesticides, they say "A rise in organic agricultural practices in many places illustrates that farming with less or without any pesticides is feasible. Studies have indicated that agroecology is capable of delivering sufficient yields to feed the entire world's population and ensure that they are adequately nourished."
In the words of Warren Bam, growing organic grapes in South Africa,
"If we look after the earth, the earth will look after us."
Three minute video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WoJZ7eeWec4
(*) The author, June Birch, writes novels currently for teenagers and beyond, ecology and sustainability. She stands firmly against nuclear power and nuclear waste. Completely for renewable energy. Thinks we should save our forests and woods from being built over or quarried. See more at Inside Outsider Publications www.insideoutsider.co.uk
In Europe: People4Soil https://people4soil.eu/en European citizens' initiative, because in Europe there is not yet a specific law that protects the soil. The petition needs a million EU citizen signatures by September 12th 2017.
For Ethiopia: Defend the oppressed people in Ethiopia
Titles: Helpful organisations. The case for organic farming. History. Sources of material in order.
IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements.) https://www.ifoam.bio/en
IFOAM EU https://www.ifoam-eu.org/
Navdanya (Indian based movement) https://www.navdanya.org/home
OCA,The Organic Consumers Association (USA but international reach). https://www.organicconsumers.org/
Open Source Seed Initiative OSSI (USA but international reach) https://osseeds.org/
Open Source Seeds (Germany based) https://www.opensourceseeds.org/en
Regeneration International https://regenerationinternational.org/
Save Our Soils www.saveoursoils.com
Seed matters (USA) https://seedmatters.org/
Seed savers exchange https://www.seedsavers.org/
Soil Association (UK) https://www.soilassociation.org/
SAT (Tanzania) https://kilimo.org/WordPress/
The Carbon Underground https://thecarbonunderground.org/
The Oakland Institute https://www.oaklandinstitute.org/
The Rodale Institute https://rodaleinstitute.org/
The case for organic farming:
Three UN items below:
https://www.grain.org/bulletin_board/entries/5490-tanzania-fighting-for-seeds-and-soil Video: Please watch if you can.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pWKfg0d63SA Video: Please watch if you can.
Some sources of material in approximate order:
https://scienceheathen.com/2015/01/05/desertification-effects-causes-examples-top-10-list/ https://www.grain.org/article/entries/735-earth-matters-tackling-the-climate-crisis-from-the-ground-up 2009 GRAIN.org article
https://www.grain.org/article/entries/5270-the-exxons-of-agriculture 2015 GRAIN Fertiliser report.
https://www.zukunftsstiftung-entwicklung.de/media/Bilder_ZSE/UEber_Uns_Dateien/Grundlagentexte/Land_grab_article.pdf (in English)
https://www.navdanya.org/campaigns/584-bija-swaraj-is-our-birthright (seed sovereignty)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pWKfg0d63SA From Ghana: Whoever controls seeds controls the food system. Video: Please watch if you can.
https://www.grain.org/bulletin_board/entries/5490-tanzania-fighting-for-seeds-and-soil Video: Please watch if you can.
https://www.grain.org/bulletin_board/entries/5633-tanzanian-farmers-are-facing-heavy-prison-sentences-if-they-continue-their-traditional-seed-exchange Also about the work of SAT
(Eco-farming can double food production in 10 years.)