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Klaus Mager

Dec 19, 2017


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Restoring Biodiversity to Agricultural Soils

Imagine there was a process that could remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, replace it with life-giving oxygen, support a robust soil microbiome, regenerate topsoil, enhance the nutrient density of food, restore water balance to the landscape and increase the profitability of agriculture? Fortunately, there is. It’s called photosynthesis.

Agriculture and Climate Change

Climate change is accelerating at a pace that is much faster than was expected or understood by science. Feedback systems are stronger, impacts of climate disruptions are already visible, while the global consumption patterns of humanity are still increasing.

A wide range of mitigation efforts are under way, but there are apparently 2 core levers that can slow down the rate of change and mitigate the worst impacts. One is energy, well understood with global efforts under way to shift away from burning carbon fuels towards renewables. The other could be summarized as ‘photosynthesis’, the process of carbon sequestration into plants and soil.

At the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, the French government introduced an initiative titled ‘4 per thousand’ that focuses on the sequestration of carbon into the soil. As of today, over 130 countries signed up to support this measure by incentivizing a shift in farming techniques referred to as ‘Regenerative Agriculture’. A 0.04% increase in the soil carbon stock would make it possible to stop the present increase in atmospheric CO2.

Integrated into regenerative agriculture must be a shift in livestock operations. The current system of CAFOs to raise animals in mass confinements creates significant issues with methane and ammonia, requiring a new approach. It is also a shockingly inhumane treatment of sentient beings that should be modified.

In order to understand how the global food web has changed towards its present form we need to start with an understanding of what is referred to as industrial agriculture, the system of chemically intensive food production developed in the decades after World War II, featuring enormous single-crop farms and animal production facilities. This has facilitated an unparalleled level of Corporate Concentration in Agriculture.

The results of this system are not sustainable; the world is losing top soil at an alarming rate, water tables are being polluted with fertilizer runoff, and the health of the population is adversely impacted beyond the capacity of any health care system.

The food system as currently conceived will experience a near future collapse if not adjusted as summarized and explained in ‘The Future of Food’ by Prince Charles in a keynote address at Georgetown University. Please note the date of this speech was May 12, 2011. If trend lines continue in its linear form, we will reach collapse, it is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’.

Role of Agriculture in the Food System

Why then does the food system not adjust to such obvious pathologies in time to prevent further deteriorations and the risk of systemic collapse? The current solution within the corporate executive suites is to deal with rising demand caused by population growth and shifting consumption patterns towards a more meat based diet by increasing yields. Yield per acre is the targeted solution by the industry to work within the available arable land.

By any measure, such thinking is not informed by the statistics pointing towards unsustainable trend lines, not even considering climate change as an added risk factor. What would it take to shift course in a responsible, market driven way and build resilience into the food system? The answers are complex, starting with farm policies that optimize the use of land for food production, and adjustments within the food retail industry that will support regenerative farming practices.

We have to start at the farm to understand the technical issues, what is regenerative farming, what does it take to shift course, how does it work. Tom Driscoll, Director of the US National Farmers’ Union, explains in a conversation titled ‘Connecting with Farmers on Climate’.

In the Q&A of this same conversation with Tom Driscoll is a discussion around what it would take to support farmers to shift towards restorative farming. The answers point towards a reformation of the wholesale market as it has evolved in response to systemic changes enabled by industrial agriculture.

Regenerative farming needs to apply no till farming, crop rotation, and the use of cover crops such as legumes to increase and maintain soil fertility. But the current form of contract farming uses synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to maintain fertility, causing the above listed pathologies. The brokerage of farm goods has been replaced with a form of contract farming that allows no flexibility to the farmer to control his soil. The traditional wholesale markets in the US are a thing of the past, there is no access to market for products that have not been contracted in advance of production.

What has formed is a closed loop supply chain providing products with industrial level uniformity to retail outlets with thousands of locations, all featuring the exact same menu. This chain starts with seed and breeder stock, to the farmer who has been relegated to contractor status, to processing operations and finally to retail. The nature of these operations has little room for modifications, and any shift in sourcing practices would require significant and costly adaptations throughout the supply chain.

In that sense, the food industry is facing the same obstacles as the energy sector. Legacy systems are creating an inertia preventing the system form shifting towards resilience.

Leverage Points

Just as in the energy sector, innovation in sustainable and regenerative production has to replace legacy systems. Since reform from within the existing structures appears to be too slow to make the necessary impact in time to prevent a crisis, it has to come from the outside.

There are efforts focused on reforming the food system from a range of perspectives that are ready to go to scale. On the one hand, consumers are looking for nutrient rich food free of antibiotics and pesticides. On the other side, farmers and artisan food producers are trying to get into the market to offer what the consumer is looking for.

Current attempts are limited to CSAs, farmer’s markets, and a small number of high end retailers to sell their wares. Organizations such as Food Revolution, or the alliance between Harvard School of Public Health and the Culinary Institute of America that has developed the ‘Menus of Change’ program are driving consumers towards a healthy diet. The health care sector is represented by organizations such as GreenMed to explain the link of nutrition and food.

Food Deserts are a concern to organizations focused on food justice, a significant problem in the US caused by the uneven distribution of the industrial system to the low end of the market with limited profitability. 22 million people live without regular access to fresh food. That should be the first target market to address.

The health care sector is impacted by a deficient diet, now being recognized as a core contributor to a national and global epidemic of obesity, cancer, diabetes, heart disease.

Places to Intervene

Food hubs have emerged as an attempt to bridge upstart and novelty farmers and artisan producers with the wholesale market. So far, none have gone to scale or made a significant inroad with conventional businesses, such as grocery stores or restaurants.

Of critical importance are brokerage and incubation services that provide market intelligence to all participants, and organize the aggregation capacity required to service larger accounts. This approach is in need of structure. The National Good Food Network sponsored by the Wallace Center has engaged in the support of food hubs. Here is a study listing the most successful food hubs in operation in the US. So far there has been very limited success in linking up between higher capacity producers and retailers. Missing is a high level business incubation service, not one done by speculation and often mischief as is currently done by hedge fund investors, but by one of informed understanding of the needs of a market designed to serve. Bringing the highest level of thought and understanding to every level of the spiral.

Maybe the best way to explain the future of food as it must evolve from a systemic perspective is this article, which captures the essence of how to move forward, initiating a peaceful revolution. “Harvesting Opportunity: The Power of Regional Food Systems Innovation”.

All it takes is to connect the dots. TheoryU is designed to assist a team to go through a process of discovery that has it map out the system which bring forth the shape of what it is we are looking at. Food is what connects us all, on the deepest level possible.

Rally Around the Farm Bill

“We continue to pay too much to the wrong people to grow the wrong food in the wrong places,” Oregon House Representative Blumenauer explained in his office on Capitol Hill recently when describing the bill he has introcuded to the House floor. “We don’t have [enough] incentives for innovation, for helping new, beginning, and small farmers. We don’t put enough emphasis on the opportunities for good nutrition. So, for me, [the Food and Farm Act] is an opportunity to pull out of the shadows a bill that has so much importance that people don’t appreciate.”

The next version of the trillion-dollar omnibus bill is due for reauthorization in 2018, and discussion is already well underway. The farm bill funds nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (around 79 percent of the bill); as well as all major agricultural programs such as crop subsidies and insurance (around 14 percent); conservation programs (around 6 percent); and research.

We need a call to action for all groups focused on the wellbeing of humanity to start focusing on the tools required to move towards our desired destination. As individuals, we can create the change with our own buying and consumption habits.