How Climate Change and Agriculture
Convene: A Planet-Saving Story
Waiting to Be Told
“Without proper care for [the soil] we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”
Every. single. time I discuss anything climate, soil, compost, or ag related, I circle around trying not to use this quote (for fear of overuse), but literally ALWAYS come back to it. What can I say? Wendell Berry nailed it.
Many of us realize the importance soil plays in our sustenance—of course, crops couldn’t grow and animals couldn’t eat without the stuff! But what many people don’t realize is that soil plays an integral role in maintaining the balance of the carbon cycle and thus, has a central role in our fight against climate change.
The story of climate change and agriculture comes with a long history of natural processes, human interaction, and natural reactions. But, as you’ll find here, these two are peas in a pod, and their story is one that offers unique hope and some satisfying resolution for action.
Meet Our Partner: Tablas Creek Vineyard
The first step to change is letting people know about the cause, and our partners at Tablas creek Vineyard are all about making change in the world of planet-saving agriculture!
Tablas Creek Vineyard is the first Regenerative Organic Certified™ (ROC™) vineyard in the world. That means that in addition to producing top-of-the-line wines we love, their agricultural practices help reverse climate change.
Instead of extracting from nature to increase agricultural productivity and causing great harm to our ecosystems, soil, and communities, Tablas Creek Vineyard is working with nature and giving rise to big picture farming.
When left on its own, the planet can do truly miraculous things. Its ability to create regulatory systems, maintain life cycles, and respond to devastation is unmatched.
But all of nature is a balancing act. When we disrupt that balance, the system cannot continue to work in the regenerative cycle that is most natural. When we work to support and enhance that balance, on the other hand, all life thrives, including humans’.
The thing that ties climate change, agriculture, and the future of human life together? Soil. As such, soil is one of our most precious natural resources.
Our industrial agricultural practices have done great harm to the health of the soil and the climate in recent decades, but it is also through our agriculture that we can heal and enhance the natural balance that our earth supports and that all life depends on.
Our fate is very much tied to the health of our soil, and the most essential thing to understand about that relationship is that the health of our soil is very much in our hands.
That’s why we jump at the opportunity to team up with people like our Partners at Tablas Creek Vineyard who are leading the way in best agricultural practices, leading the way in sustainable wine. These are the people who embrace the opportunity to make an impact in their industry that we all benefit from. And, yeah, if that means we get a side of delectable wine with the main course of human survival, we’re all in.
Industrial Agriculture and Climate Change: How do agriculture and farming affect global warming?
A Quick Look at Carbon
Carbon gets the brunt of the blame when talking about climate change, but carbon, in and of itself, isn’t the problem. Carbon is pretty incredible in fact! I mean, it has been the building block of every living thing since the first living organisms formed in the primordial soup 3.5 billion years ago, so….
You can think of carbon as a finite resource, like water, that all living things and many non-living things need to exist.
The earth has a perfectly balanced system for distributing and storing carbon in living organisms, in the soil, deep beneath the surface of the earth (as hydrocarbons/fossil fuels), in the ocean, and in the atmosphere. This delicate balance of distribution keeps the Earth’s temperatures relatively stable.
The problem is that we have disrupted the natural distribution of carbon by pumping fossil fuels from deep within the earth and burning them, displacing the carbon long held deep within the Earth into the atmosphere and our oceans, heating both of them up.
The temperatures on earth correspond to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Graph by Robert Simmon.
Similarly, conventional farming techniques have displaced the stored carbon in our soils and released it into the atmosphere and oceans. The top 1 meter (3-ish feet) of our earth, aka “topsoil,” holds about 2,500 billion tons of carbon, that’s more than the 800 billion tons in the atmosphere and 560 billion tons in plant and animal life combined!
Yet cultivated soils have lost between 50 to 70% of its original carbon content due to conventional farming practices.
Where has this carbon gone? Into the atmosphere and ocean! The agricultural sector accounts for approximately 24% of all global GHG emissions, 45% of total methane (CH4) emissions, and a whopping 80% of all nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions. And yet topsoil has the potential to be one of the biggest carbon sinks, alongside forests, if we were to restore its health.
To understand how this works we must first get the dirt on soil and how conventional farming methods affect it.
Dirt vs. Soil
The main difference between dirt and soil is LIFE! Healthy soil is made up of about 3-10% organic matter (decayed and living materials). In fact, about a tablespoon of healthy soil will have more microbes than people on earth!
These fungi, bacteria, and other sorts of microbial life are responsible for breaking down nutrients and providing immunity for their plant friends. But they are also vitally important in the soil’s ability to store and sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Like any good student, you probably remember that plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere to create sugars (carbohydrates) for energy. But what you might not have known, is that they excrete 40% of those sugars down through their roots to feed mycorrhizal fungi and other beneficial microbes that live beneath our feet.
In this way, plants act as carbon pumps, taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequestering it back into the soil where it belongs! Their microbe friends help store this carbon in their bodies, and when they eventually decay (as all things do), they help create a rich substance known as “humus.” (not hummus…*h-yoo-mus*).
Humus contains all the organic matter and nutrients the soil needs. Since all life is carbon-based, this humus—made of decomposed once-living matter—is FULL of carbon. You know that deep, rich color soil is famous for? That is the carbon content! This humus creates a soil structure that allows for most of the carbon from the sugars, decayed substance, and microbe matter to remain underground, in the soil as long as farming practices don’t unearth the humus and the carbon it’s storing.
The more carbon and humus in the soil, the better the soil’s ability to retain nutrients and water. The better soil’s retention capacity for nutrients and water, the better plants can thrive! The more plants thrive, the more carbon is taken out of the atmosphere! You see where I’m going with this?
Mother earth has the soil-ution to climate change, we need just listen! The thing is, unfortunately, that’s not always our strong suit.
The Impact of Conventional Farming on the Climate
What our Partners at Tablas Creek aren’t utilizing is conventional farming methods. And that’s a big deal! So we can all fully appreciate the regenerative practices they rely on, it’s worth looking at the practices they’re choosing not to use and understanding why that’s worth celebrating.
Most conventional agricultural techniques do not bear in mind the health of the soil microbiome nor maintain the organic matter content in the soil at all. With nearly all farms in the U.S. using conventional agricultural practices, we have lost 50-70% of the carbon once stored by our soil. In the past 40 years, we have lost ⅓ of our agricultural lands due to erosion and poor soil health.
What are the practices of conventional farming that cause the harm? Tilling, the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, factory farming, and improper animal management are a few that have stripped this all too precious symbiosis from the soil and with it, the soil’s carbon content. They have also contributed largely to global greenhouse gas emissions and other ecological pollution.
Let’s go over some of the most common agricultural practices that are in use and how they impact soil health and contribute to climate change.
Tilling the land is the process of turning the soil with the idea that it will loosen the dirt to make it easier to plant seeds and for those seeds to grow.
But what actually happens is that all that organic matter, all nice and happy under the ground, gets picked up and disrupted, exposing it to the sun and wind where it burns, killing all the beneficial life and drying up all the soil organic matter (SOM). This releases all that stored soil carbon up into the atmosphere and does serious damage to the health of the soil.
Not only does the production of chemical pesticides and fertilizers emit toxic greenhouse gases, but their use on our fields is also contributing largely to the pollution of our atmosphere and waterways.
Chemical pesticides work indiscriminately to kill all fungi, microbes, and bugs, even the good ones.
Like we just covered, without these important lil’ guys doing their thing in the soil, the soil cannot store as much carbon, nutrients, or water.
Additionally, the use of chemical fertilizers releases nitrous oxide (N2O), the third most potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere and into our water. In fact, the majority of N2O emissions in the U.S. come from the use of artificial fertilizers.
Chemical fertilizers and pesticides also end up running off and leaching into our waterways, affecting groundwater and polluting our oceans. Due to agricultural runoff, high levels of nitrates and heavy metals, which have been shown to have toxic effects on human and animal health, have been found in groundwater (which many rural communities depend on). Similarly, runoff of nitrogen fertilizers are in large part responsible for toxic algal blooms (known as red tides) that kill marine life in droves.
Tablas Creek uses all kinds of animals to maintain the balance of their viticulture ecosystem. Sheep eat weeds and fertilize the soil, owls keep their pesky gopher populations in control, and native plants help deter pests and attract beneficial pollinators.
Like in a healthy old-growth forest, having an abundance of biodiversity in food production helps maintain a healthy ecosystem in which no single pest or weed can cause significant harm. Plant and animal diversity also invites a larger diversity in soil microbes and can help store more carbon in the soil.
And yet, today, 75% of the world’s food comes from only 12 plant and 5 animal species, including wheat, rice, soybeans, cattle, and chicken. Farmers have lost about 75% of all genetic diversity in their crops in the last 100 years as they repeatedly prefer using modified crop varieties (hybrid or GMO) for larger crop production and better shipability.
Not only does this genetic monoculturing leave our crops more vulnerable to pathogens and pests by decreasing the genetic pool, but it also increases our reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilizers. And for all the reasons just listed, that’s a big no-no.
Improper Grazing Methods & Intensive Animal Farming
Let’s face it, if you were a cow, you too would probably want the freshest, tastiest grass you could find. Who can blame them? The love for delicious treats is universal.
The problem with letting cows roam free on a pasture is that they are going to favor particular and newly grown plants every time. This kind of grazing doesn’t allow the roots of these plants to grow deeply because their energy is exerted on repeatedly regrowing their leaves and stems. Stunted root growth also stunts the soil microbiome and the soil’s ability to maintain its structure in order to hold…?! Carbon, nutrients, and water!
The same thing goes when there are too many animals on a single patch of land, ground cover is annihilated, plants can’t recover, and the soil structure is lost.
More than disrupting soil health, intensive animal farming, also known as factory farming, emits tons of methane gas. All livestock, but especially cattle and other ruminants, produce methane gas in their digestive processes. (Second universal fact? We all toot. 🤷🏽♀️)
On average, a single cow produces between 150 and 260 lbs of methane per year, and there are about 1.5 billion cattle in the world. Thassss a whole’lotta gas, people! Conventional livestock raising is also a large contributor of CO2, N2O, and ammonia gases. In fact, livestock produces 18% of total greenhouse gas emissions globally and 80% of those emitted by the agriculture sector.
More than methane emissions, livestock production is largely responsible for large-scale deforestation—about 80% of all deforestation in the Amazon is due to animal farming. Deforestation caused by cattle ranching is responsible for the release of 340 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year and makes up 3.4% of current global emissions.
More than deforestation, the feed used to sustain these animals are sourced from industrial farms that use all these harmful ag practices we are talking about and have their own carbon footprint to boot. More than half of all corn (a crop known for its heavy use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers and high carbon emissions) produced is used for animal feed.
Without mindful grazing and animal welfare regulation, animal agriculture does serious harm on the environment and contributes significantly to global warming.
Bare Soil & Erosion
Bare soil, like tillage leaves behind, leaves the soil exposed to the elements, drying and killing its organic matter and making the topsoil vulnerable to erosion and runoff.
Acting as a black top, the soil accumulates the sun’s heat and ends up burning the organic matter, releasing carbon into the atmosphere.
But still, as you drive through the countryside during off-season, a large portion of the fields are completely naked. (How embarrassing!)
Due to poor soil health, we are losing our topsoil at alarming rates. Again, we have lost ⅓ of all arable land just within the past 40 years!! Erosion is one of the most serious threats to agriculture not only because we lose our precious soil, but also because of its impact on our water sources.
Without our topsoil, water can’t penetrate properly into the ground, filter and cool through the layers of earth, and travel to the impervious rock layer where it swells up and flows to our springs, rivers, and aquifers.
Instead, the water is carried off on the surface of the land, bringing all the pollutants with it to our rivers, lakes, and oceans.
Without water infiltration, our lands are much more vulnerable to extreme weather conditions, like droughts and floods.
Many people believe that conventional agriculture is necessary in order to feed the billions of people living on our planet. But if we continue like this, with no defenses in place, climate change will in turn inflict irreparable harm to our agriculture and disrupt how we feed the planet, and it’s already starting to do so.
Reaping What We Sow: How Does Climate Change Affect Agriculture?
The balance of nature is clear—everything affects the other. Disrupting the climate through our agriculture means that the changing climate will certainly disrupt our agriculture if nothing changes.
The USDA reports that a changing climate can affect agriculture by raising seasonal temperatures long-adapted to by our plant and animal friends, disrupting precipitation, and causing more frequent occurrences of extreme weather events (hurricanes, droughts, floods, etc.). Together, these conditions threaten to shrink our food and water supply, and have already been shown to do so.
Climate Change & Agriculture Across the Globe
Rising Temperatures & Drought
Record-breaking hot months are 5X more likely than would be expected without global warming, meaning that 80% of these heat records are due to anthropogenic climate change.
Higher seasonal temperatures and heat waves will lower crop yields for cooler temperature crops such as wheat and crops that depend on freezing temperatures to flower and fruit, like peaches. Prolonged heat waves can also dry out soil and negatively affect root development and other functions of plant and fruit growth.
Extreme heat can increase the presence of pests and weeds, and also adversely affect pollinator populations and livestock health. Exposure to heat stress increases disease and parasites in livestock and can reduce their fertility.
High average temperatures have already begun affecting farmers worldwide. In California and American Northwest, the largest wine-producing area in the United States, higher temperatures mean that certain grape varieties are becoming more difficult to grow. Additionally, sudden variability in temperature can damage grapes for harvest and fewer cool nights can compromise grape quality.
I need not remind you that the 2020 forest fires, which the National Climate Assessment largely attributes to the area’s prolonged heat and drought, set this wine-area ablaze, resulting in the loss of several vineyards and the viability of the 2020 harvests. It is estimated that 80% of Napa Valley’s 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon grapes will not be made into wine due to the fire and smoke damage.
If increased heat and drought continue, one Stanford study predicted that land suitable for growing premium grapes in Northern California could shrink by half by 2040. That is why it is vitally important to introduce regenerative techniques that curb water usage and protect crops from temperature variations and extreme heat.
And it can be done! One-third of Tablas Creek’s grapes are dry-farmed, meaning they have no irrigation system, and they take several measures to protect the soil, and therefore the grape plants, from the hot weather.
Droughts and Desertification
Throughout the planet, rising temperatures and poor soil health are contributing to an increase in droughts and a surge in desertification, the transformation of fertile lands into deserts.
In Ethiopia, for instance, 2 billion metric tons of fertile soil are lost every year to desertification due to excessive heat, drought, and improper land use. Right now, a third of Ethiopian land is degraded and “overstressed”. Since 75% of the Ethiopian workforce is based in agriculture, drought and desertification are a serious threat to the stability of the Ethiopian economy and its ability to feed its growing population.
That is why the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Green Legacy Campaign has taken drastic measures to ensure the planting of 5 billion trees in the country by the end of 2020. Even more, several groups have been working together to improve soil fertility within the last few years through enacting wide-scale regenerative practices. For example, Catholic Relief Services and its local partners were able to reclaim 105,662 acres of land since 2019 with soil and water conservation techniques.
The IPBES came out with an assessment report that projected that, with continued population growth, soil degradation, and extreme weather, the number of people living in drylands could increase by 43% to four billion by 2050. Nations will need to act adaptively in order to preserve their precious soil and water resources and prevent mass economic and food insecurity.
Precipitation & Extreme Weather
In other areas, high temperatures mean more evaporation, translating to heavier and more forceful storms.
Coupled with rising sea-levels, these extreme weather events are growing more common and catastrophic for coastal communities.
Without the necessary protection and care for the soil, limited amounts of water are able to penetrate into the ground when floods occur, leaving farmers and communities even more vulnerable to these extreme weather phenomena.
Farmers must become more resilient against extreme weather as scientists warn climate change will increase these occurrences even more than previously thought. In the Philippines, the threat is already being felt. Three back to back typhoons: Quinta, Rolly, and Ulysses (2020) affected 150,000 farmers and destroyed almost 680,000 acres of farmland and billions of Philippine Pesos worth of agricultural goods, from livestock and fisheries to corn and rice.
Food Systems Worldwide
Research has shown that climate change is already starting to decrease overall food supply, and if the effects of climate change continue, climate models predict that agricultural production will plummet even more steeply.
Especially as populations grow, the impacts of climate change on our food systems not only will affect food prices across the globe, but also threatens food security in many developing nations who cannot afford to import their food. Meaning that it is the most vulnerable among us that will suffer through economic collapse, forced migration, and food insecurity and get the brunt of the harm inflicted by global warming.
How We Can Reduce Climate Change through Agriculture
Whew! Okay…Wow…Let’s pause a sec and take a deep breath. THAT was a lot to cover…
Ready? Good! ‘Cause now we’re at the good news part! The mitigation of climate change is possible! Remember how we started this whole story?! The soil holds the power to do it all—decrease atmospheric carbon, protect our water resources, increase crop resiliency, and protect against erosion and desertification. When done properly, agriculture can facilitate all these things.
According to the 4 Per 100 Initiative, if we generally increase the carbon in farm soil by just 0.4% per year, it could offset all carbon dioxide humans put into the atmosphere!!
The trick is to move agriculture away from conventional and into regeneration. What the heck does that mean? It means we definitely can’t continue what we are doing and it means we must do everything in our power to regenerate our soils.
Regenerative Organic Agriculture & Its Planet-Saving Relationship with Climate Change
Regenerative organic farming is a huge agricultural movement that focuses on the regeneration of the soil and the revitalization of our ecosystems. Regenerative farming uses the benefits of composting, biodiversity, no-till land management, cover cropping, managed grazing, and other natural techniques to unlock the soil’s potential, enhance the balances that exist in nature, and create a self-sustaining, adaptive ecosystem within the field.
Tablas Creek is exploring awesome ways to do exactly that in their winemaking process. On their 120 acre-vineyard, they are transforming wine production through the use of biodiversity and animal integration. Biochar for the land, increased biodiversity and controlled grazing, and democratic organization with their crew are a few of the methods that set the vineyard, and its wine, apart from the herd.
This places Tablas among the frontline leaders as farmers, organizations, and governments work to make regenerative agriculture and forestry spark the global change that is needed to reverse climate change.
Groups like the ROC™, Kiss the Ground, Savory, and the 4 per 1000 Initiative are all working to educate farmers and the public about the importance of regenerative agriculture and the role soil plays in our fight against climate change. Governments, too, are joining the mission—Bhutan, is the first and only country so far to have reached its status as a net carbon sink, meaning they sequester more carbon than they emit.
Even here in the U.S., the DOI has begun LandCarbon, a research program to better understand carbon sequestration and land management.
As a global community, we will need to heed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) warning to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius, which they project to occur within our lifetimes if rates remain the same. To do this we will no doubt need to adjust what “sustainability” means and change how we grow our food. Agriculture in the 21st century will need to center around the protection of our soils and natural resources— the future of farming is regenerative!
Alma Rominger is an educator passionate about sharing the powers of regenerative agriculture, composting, gardening for mental health, and outdoor education. She believes the health of the earth and the health of its people are intrinsically connected, and advocates for both. She currently works for Compost Queens, a community composting company based in the San Antonio, TX area.
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