Agriculture and climate: it's all about the soil

Submitted by AWL on 23 March, 2021 - 11:05 Author: David Walters
Cave painting of men and cattle

The debate in the pages of Solidarity [on animal products and climate change, here] is, in my opinion, of profound importance. Not because of the influence of this paper but because it mirrors larger debates going on in the “climate change community”, and, more importantly in the agricultural communities.

The intertwining of both the devastating effects of climate change and food security are obviously closely linked. For Marxists, it also raises the issue of what can be achieved under capitalism and what has to be put off until after a planetary seizure of power by the working class and true planning on a global scale is implemented. Much of what needs to be done has to wait until this occurs. However, we have to do something now under the aegis of capitalism at least in a transitionary way. We cannot wait.

My focus, however, does not start from the perspective of climate change, per se, but rather from my interest in food in the micro level: its diversity, its wonderful cultural communities, its history and, on the macro level: the soil it is grown in. This latter point is where I have started as a student of soil science.

Soil science

For this I have relied extensively on the works of geologist David Montgomery and many peer reviewed works on soil formation, popularly expressed in his books Dirt: the Erosion of Civilizations, The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health and lastly Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life.

On the agricultural side, the practical or “clinical effects” as presented in the video lectures to agricultural conferences of rancher-farmer Gabe Brown and grass-fed-grass-finished rancher Greg Judy all point to the same thing: it is all about the soil.

Needless to say, then, for readers of the 2019 debate in Solidarity, I come squarely down on the side of Paul Vernadsky, who rejects the idea of removing animal products from the food ecosystem. In fact, we need more ruminants (grass eaters) not less.

The idea of lab grown meat, whether vegetable-matter based or lab grown meat from the cells of cows, goes totally against the direction of letting nature do the work that it has for hundreds of thousands of years, and done so successfully.

The problem with cows is the way they are fed and managed, not that they exist. There were as many ruminants 2000 years ago as there are today. So what changed? We changed. We decided to remove cattle from the grass lands where they evolved and put them in concreted and steel pens feeding them grain (no ruminant would ever eat grains of any sort when offered real grass). We also decided to pump vast quantities of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere, adding to what nature has already puts there.

Needless to say, it is not the cows (or sheep or goats or pigs) who are the ally of devastating climate change, but us. So, it is we who need to stop much or most of the production of CO2 throughout industry and transportation. This can be done. I don’t need to run through the solutions here. I want to return to the focus of my own study of the problem: the soil.

There is a soil crisis in the world today, especially in North America but also on all the livable continents. Through farming practices organised by the political economy of Imperialism, production at any cost is the order of the day. Even primitive farming practices of the pre-industrial agriculture, such as deep plowing/tillage and mono-crop agriculture, predate the rise of imperialism in the 19th Century. But first the crisis…

Carbon and nitrogen

Due to the way in which we farm, plowing up the land (8,000 years and running), destroying the micro-biology of the soil, essentiallymining the soil for its carbon, then adding, at least beginning in the mid to late 20th Century, fossil fuel and nitrogen derived inputs like fertiliser, herbicides, insect and pesticides, we have reduced what had been extremely high Organic Carbon sequestered soils from highs of 4% to 8% down to less than 1%. Most of this OC was returned to the atmosphere in the form of CO2. Every year, gigatons of CO2 are emitted from industrial agriculture into the atmosphere.

No one debates that it is happening, though the figures are quite soft in terms of actual contributions and they range from a low of 10% to as high as 50%. In any case, those emissions can be reversed.

Running in parallel is the nitrogen crisis. Nitrogen is 80% of our air. Nitrogen-based fertilisers use millions of tons of petroleum to be produced every year. The nitrogen is washed out of the soil and downstream into the oceans, creating vast dead zones in the oceans. The largest one resides near the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico, but they exist globally. This is the result of industrial fossil-fuel based agriculture that destroys our soil.

In North America, where I reside, the soil is essentially dead. When white European farmers came to this hemisphere, they mined the soil for their crops. They didn’t even have to add fertiliser for decades because the thick top soil, about four times the depth it is today, allowed the settlers to plant what they wanted without worrying about soil fertility. While this started out as subsistence farming, it quickly, through the introduction of corn, barley, sugar and eventually cotton, allowed millions of tons ofcarbon to be removed from the soil over decades. Most of this was for commodity capitalism and the early mercantile market-place. That carbon had to be replaced.

In addition to the removal of carbon in the form of plants harvested by our species, and exposing the soil to the elements and most notably, the sun, the microbiology was slowly being destroyed as well. Eventually the soil was depleted and fertiliser started to be applied, usually guano and even human waste.

Fertiliser

By the 18th Century, at least, nitrogen (the essential fertiliser in guano as well as the essential element in making munitions) was starting to be applied artificially. Early on it was understood by farmers that crop rotations had to be established to allow the soil to recover (a good practice in any event for any holistic-oriented farmer). But with the advent of chemical fertilisers, crop rotation became largely unnecessary. Thus the birth of industrial mono-cropping, the staple of the international export industry for everything from soybeans, to corn, to wheat and a variety of tuber and cereal grains. This has to end.

With the introduction of new, high tech and modern holistic farming practices, farmers are able to establish a more natural carbon and nitrogen cycle, one that mimics nature. This is what is called “regenerative farming” and is, fortunately, being increasingly adapted even in the advanced industrial agricultural countries. This form of farming has two distinct spheres of practice: mob-grazing of cattle in very managed rotational grazing and no-till agriculture. More of this explained in my essay here.

Regenerative farming

Briefly: cattle in nature (bison, water buffalo, wild goats, deer, elk, caribou, wildebeests, etc.) are moved around constantly by predators (including, in the past, humans). The constant moving prevents cattle from chewing grasses down to the soil, thus allowing regrowth. Their manure provides all the carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus necessary along with solar energy via photosynthesis to build up the soil with carbon (carbon sequestration). The constant movement promotes root growth (the largest part of carbon sequestration is when the roots dies off when the grass is chewed down).

Generally, pesticides are not needed as 90% of all pests that affect cattle are usually in the first four inches of the grass from the roots. All this goes for an amazingly healthy, growing topsoil. Above all it allows rain infiltration and almost gets rid of soil runoff altogether!

Cattle moving around on small paddocks mimics this. Stocking densities can actually increase tremendously and, with farmers not having to cut checks to the chemical companies, it can work well with rotational cropping as well, where farms can plant crops after the cattle pass over using seed drills instead of plowing up the soil. This is far more fossil-fuel-efficient, and is better for the soil because it preserves, if no chemicals are sprayed on the soil, the amazingly large amount of micro-biology in the soil (from fungi to dung-beetles to earthworms).

Thereis debate about how much CO2 is sequestered from the atmosphere. There is no doubt that in every study, more CO2 is sequestered that would be without regenerative methods of agriculture even when some studies show that gain to be very small. The microbial activity of methanogens in soil feed on methane and help reduce the vast amount of methane exhaled by ruminants.

Sequestration

There is, however, an upper limit on how much CO2 can be sequestered in the soil by cattle. Most studies in the vast array of agricultural studies generally only look at the first few years to determine how much CO2 is sequestered. Often times the studies are done in labs to see if science can somehow show what happens on a farm in terms of % increase in soil organic carbon (SOC). They are not life-time studies, though some are ongoing. We don’t really know what that upper limit is. But so what? If there was an increase in the planet’s agricultural lands from 1% to 5% of SOC, it would, in effect, erase almost all of the CO2 ever put in the atmosphere by our species though industry.

Regenerative agriculture is a real solution to many of the problems (including the ethical ones) regarding how we regard our grasslands, steppes, prairies, how we treat and husband our food animals and feed the world. It has the added benefit of helping mitigate megatons of CO2 that otherwise would be produced. The answer to the role agriculture plays in climate change lies in the soil, not the lab.

Comments

Submitted by Janet on Tue, 06/04/2021 - 02:04

It may be that roaming ruminants can replenish soil nutrients, but how does that mean that there ought to be more of them? I don't know the number of cattle held captive in dirty feedlots in North America and Europe, but I imagine it is far more than would be needed to contribute to the health of soil, if they were roaming.  It depends on other factors too. For example in Australia ruminants were imported less than 250 years ago, and their cloven hooves have eroded soils, churned up and polluted water courses, and destroyed indigenous edible vegetation. They don't fit the ecology of the Australian landscape, nor possibly in other countries where they were introduced by European settlement. It also depends on the ratio of nutritional value of other crops and food that can be produced on the same land. 

My point then is that land use and food production need to be democratically controlled on the basis of understanding how local ecologies and their capacities can meet people's needs. Control of land for the purpose of return on investment is destructive all round. 

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