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Dr. Kristine Nichols and Mark 'Coach' Smallwood, of the Rodale Institute, are walking with a message and carrying a solution. (Photo: Rodale Institute)

The Solution Is the Soil: How Organic Farming Can Feed the World and Save the Planet

One man, backed by many, marches on Washington to tell lawmakers and the world that 'there is hope right beneath our feet.'

Jon Queally

Just over a week ago, the executive director of the Rodale Institute, Mark 'Coach' Smallwood, set out from the group's research farm in eastern Pennsylvania on a 160-mile journey to Washington, DC with a walking stick, a brimmed hat, and a simple but profound message: We can not only stop climate change. We can reverse it.

"I think climate change is Mother Nature's gift to us... And I believe it's not too late and that she is providing opportunities for us to change." — Mark 'Coach' Smallwood, The Rodale InstituteWhen Smallwood makes his expected arrival in the nation's capital on October 16, he will deliver a Rodale white paper—titled Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming (pdf)—to lawmakers alongside a broader message from a global coalition of organic farmers, scientists, and food justice advocates who argue that a global transformation in how the world grows its crops, manages its soil, and feeds its livestock is the key solution available to us that can best stop, even reverse, the growing and dangerous volumes of carbon and other greenhouse gases now pushing world's atmosphere and oceans beyond capacity.

"We must bring awareness to this research and encourage the USDA and Congress to create legislation that supports organic farmers," said Smallwood on Wednesday night as he marked the halfway point of his trek. "Only organic farming can stop the chaos that we have created—chaos that is deeply impacting our environment on so many levels."

The crucial role that regenerative organic agriculture (or ROA) can play, as well as the notion of "soil as the solution," is explained in the white paper itself:

Solving the long-term climate equation means getting to a zero carbon economy devoid of fossil fuels. It is widely acknowledged that we are not going to arrive at a new low-carbon economy any time soon; the technologies, markets, political and social structures needed to shift the world’s economies are not materializing quickly enough. In the decades it will take to decarbonize the economy, an unacceptable level of warming will become locked in. With each passing year of inaction, hope for our planet’s future becomes harder and harder to rally. We are on a trajectory of too little too late.

If we wait, our only hope for the future lies in yet-to-be-discovered technological fixes coupled with the loss of whole cultures and species. The numbers are so sobering that untested technologies for carbon capture and storage have in short order gone from unsafe, outlandish whims to pressing societal needs: bioengineering the human body has even entered the climate conversation. And yet, there is hope right beneath our feet. There is a technology for massive planetary geoengineering that is tried and tested and available for widespread dissemination right now. It costs little and is adaptable to local contexts the world over. It can be rolled out tomorrow providing multiple benefits beyond climate stabilization. The solution is farming. Not just business-as-usual industrial farming, but farming like the Earth matters. Farming like water and soil and land matter. Farming like clean air matters. Farming like human health, animal health and ecosystem health matters. Farming in a way that restores and even improves on soil’s natural ability to hold carbon.

The concept that is most critical to understand about Rodale's research, explained Smallwood recently, "Is that we're not talking about slowing things down. We're talking about the capability of regenerative organic agriculture being able to actually reverse and draw down the excesses" of carbon and other greenhouse gases that are now overwhelming the capacity of the planet's atmosphere.

"We don’t have to wait for technological wizardry," reads the report, "regenerative organic agriculture can substantially mitigate climate change, now."

The theories contained in the institute's white paper are backed by decades of study and "lots of deep science," said Smallwood, but his goal is to keep the ideas simple and accessible for both policy-makers and regular people. He says he has "taken a completely different look at what climate change is," as opposed to the tendency among some advocates of climate action to focus on droughts, extreme weather, and apocalyptic warnings.

"I think climate change is Mother Nature's gift to us," he said optimistically. "I believe that it's nature knocking us on the head with each of those kinds of events. And I believe it's not too late and that she is providing opportunities for us to change what is happening currently."

As part of the effort to promote and generate for support for Smallwood's journey—during which he'll meet with local farmers, food system experts, and people curious about his message—Rodale released this short video:

Last month, at an event in New York City that took place in the wake of the People's Climate March that brought more than 400,000 people into the streets demanding climate action, some of the world's leading voices gathered to endorse Rodale's most recent research and  Smallwood's symbolic journey. In a conference room just blocks from the United Nation's headquarters where leaders were gathering to discuss what should be done to address the climate crisis, the panel of experts shared their informed perspectives on why transforming how we manage the soil beneath our feet is the key solution towards tackling the most worrisome—and interconnected—challenges now facing humanity: resource scarcity and environmental degradation, economic inequality, rampant poverty and food insecurity, and the overarching threat posed by human-caused climate change.

"Mother Nature set up the entire system so that photosynthesis would—using the largest solar-powered engine ever created on the planet—remove carbon from the atmosphere and put it back to work for the benefit of all life." —Tom Newmark, Carbon UndergroundAndre Leu, director of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), acknowledged that there is not a single solution that can by itself halt or reverse climate change, but that the work put forth by Rodale is "one of the most significant solutions" that needs to be given to the world and fought for by anyone serious about the crisis.

And for Leu, what Rodale's work—which he called "some of the most important research being done on this planet"—has shown with over thirty years of side-by-side trials, is that organic farming out-performs conventional farming and can, indeed, feed the world. "We know it can," said Leu.

What is also so hopeful about the idea of regenerative organic agriculture, argue its supporters, is that it takes one of the primary systems driving climate change—modern industrial agriculture—and supplants it with a solution that also addresses numerous other crises now facing modern society.

"Soil, not oil," said Tom Newmark, co-founder of the Carbon Underground, an advocacy group that has endorsed Rodale's research and is collaborating with the institute on bringing the message of ROA to the broader public. "The soil is available and it wants its carbon back," Newmark explained. "Mother Nature set up the entire system so that photosynthesis would—using the largest solar-powered engine ever created on the planet—remove carbon from the atmosphere and put it back to work for the benefit of all life."

The Indian scientist and food sovereignty activist Vandana Shiva, who actually wrote the book titled 'Soil Not Oil,' was also in attendance.

Shiva championed Rodale's latest research data, but said it was important to note that what the institute's scientists are presenting "in principle" has been well-known by organic farmers, including indigenous people and ecologists, going back generations. The fact, she said, is that the world's industrial agriculture system—exemplified by large monocultures and factory farms—is maintained by powerful interests who "refuse to recognize" the benefits that RAO (sometimes referred to as agroecology) can deliver. "I think that is a specific and large challenge we face," Shiva said, "because it is a deliberate denial."

"We should be subsidizing small-holder farmers, as they are not only the lungs, but they are the food-providers of the world." —Alnoor Ladha, The RulesAnti-poverty activist Alnoor Ladha, co-founder of the The Rules project, articulated the tensions between corporate-controlled, large-scale agriculture and small-scale, regenerative farming practitioners by saying: "We have industrial agriculture that uses 75 percent of the world's resources and only yields 25 percent of the world's food, versus organic farming which provides 75 percent of the world's food while using only 25 percent of the world's resources. Why is there even a debate going on here? I think we have to understand the power that's at stake here and why we're not having these conversations about soil."

Instead of subsidizing industrial agriculture with hundreds of billions of dollars in annual subsidies, argued Ladha, "We should be subsidizing small-holder farmers, as they are not only the lungs, but they are the food-providers of the world."

The additional challenge, in terms of promoting the solution, said Shiva, is showing how ecological farming practices address that series of intertwined crises that now pivot on the climate crisis and are created by our reliance on fossil fuels, industrial-scale farming, and neoliberal globalization.

"Monocultures of the mind have given us this either/or framework," she explained, "'You either have more food or you can have the environment.' 'You can either have anti-poverty or you can have the environment.' And those kind of arguments are a big part of the mindset that's created this problem."

"We say 'No' to more false solutions to hunger, the climate, and other environmental crises that we're facing and 'Yes' to the real solutions of agrarian reform, agroecology, and food sovereignty." —Dena Hoff, La Via Campesina

Instead of 'either/or,' Shiva concludes, agroecology provides benefits that come one after another. "It is 'and' and 'and' and 'and' and 'and' and 'and," she explained, referring to the multitude of socio-economic, nutritional, ecological, and climate benefits that flow into and out of organic farming systems.

Larry Kopald, Newmark's colleague at the Carbon Underground, expanded on Shiva's argument  by saying that agroecology could be seen as one of those 'And, you also get....' infomercial sales pitches.

With ROA, Kopald explained, "We can reverse climate change. We can have more secure food. We can reduce our water use. We can eat better. And, quite frankly, rather than spend the projected $5 trillion in adaptation that [some experts] are talking about, we can save $5 trillion in healthcare, because we're gonna be healthier people. We're going to create more jobs, and because the input costs are less, we're going to be able to pay for them."

Organic farming and regenerative practices are profound, says Shiva, not only because soil sequestration could create "a 100 percent solution" in terms of carbon, but because it simultaneously addresses "the health problem, the unemployment problem, the poverty problem, and the water problem" all at once.

According to Newmark, "The solution is available now and there are no technological impediments."

"This is the great promise of the regenerative organic agricultural movement," he concluded: "It is the only known technology whereby we can take the excess hundreds of billions of tons of CO2 in the atmosphere now and—using Mother Nature's genius—gently restore that carbon back to where it is the greatest tonic for all life on the planet, permitting all of us to look at our children and our grandchildren."

Dena Hoff, the North America coordinator for La Via Campesina said the message from her group, which represents small-holder and peasant farmers from across the world, is simple: "We say 'No' to more false solutions to hunger, the climate, and other environmental crises that we're facing and 'Yes' to the real solutions of agrarian reform, agroecology, and food sovereignty."

"Join us," she said, "As we globalize the struggle and globalize the hope."

And as the Rodale Institute's white paper that Smallwood carries with him concludes:

We are at a critical moment in the history of our species. Climate change is a monumental opportunity to change course and move into a future that embraces life, a future bent on encouraging health, a future where clean air and clean water is available to all. In so many ways, a fundamental restructuring of how we cultivate our food is at the heart of this shift. Widespread regenerative organic agriculture will be built on supports that necessarily also support rural livelihoods, strengthen communities and restore health the world over. Regenerative organic agriculture is our best hope for creating a future we all want to live in, and a future our children will be happy to inherit.

Seems like a message worth delivering.

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