Act: Inspiration

How to Save the World: Turning a Big Negative into a Big Positive

November 22, 2019

Whenever speaking at a conference, I would often get the same anguished question from an audience member: what’s the one thing I can do to save the world?

My answer for many years was a recommendation to vote with your pocketbook for local farms and ranches that provided grassfed food, improved their soil health, reduced their carbon footprints, employed predator-friendly practices, were holistically-managed, or did environmental restoration work on their land.

Starting in 2009, however, my answer became much simpler. That’s because I had become aware of the links between land use and climate change via a report from the Worldwatch Institute (see) that changed my life. If you have a chance, take a look at this publication – it’s still totally relevant.

Normally, healthy soils have a healthy fraction of carbon in them (6-8% typically). When land is disturbed or degraded, however, much of that carbon leaves the soil and enters the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. Carbon loss from soil has been going on since the Agriculture Revolution began twelve thousand years ago (see) but has accelerated in the last century – a lot. That’s the bad news.

If undisturbed or restored to health, however, soils not only continue to hold their carbon but can ‘soak up’ even more from the atmosphere (originating as carbon dioxide) which is very good news for fighting global warming. Soil is one of the great carbon pools on the planet, along with the atmosphere, oceans, and vegetation. Thanks to the miracle of photosynthesis, carbon can be safely stored underground in plant roots and as part of the natural, biological soil-building process.

Here’s a brief summary about the potential of soil carbon published by the Earth Institute at Columbia University (see).

In regenerative agricultural systems, the amount of soil carbon can rise over time through the use cover crops, crop diversification, the elimination of chemicals, and the application of compost and animal manures, all of which can restore and maintain healthy plants and a thriving soil microbial universe.

But there’s an important catch. Actually, I like to think of it as a Commandment – and this is where my new answer to the anguished audience question about saving the world comes in:

Thou Must Not Till.

Turning over the ground with a plow every year exposes soil to wind and water erosion and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that was previously stored safely in the soil. Plowing can also destroy critical microbe networks and result in bare or compacted soil that creates a hostile environment for all sorts of life.

I’ll put it frankly: Nature doesn’t till. So why do we? Does this look natural to you?:

In contrast, regenerative agriculture doesn’t disturb the soil. It prefers a form of food production called no-till in which seeds are planted into the soil with a specialized drill that is pulled by a tractor. The ‘cut’ through the soil is thin and disappears quickly as plants begin to grow. No soil is overturned. The carbon is safe and the microbial universe largely unmolested (see).

The challenge is weeds. Possibly the only benefit of tilling is weed suppression, a result of overturning the soil early in the growing season. Nature doesn’t like bare ground and will act quickly to cover it with plants, usually with a member of an annual, fast-growing species. Weeds get a bad rap, in my opinion. I like to think of them as the right plant in the wrong place. Even if they’re exotic where you live, they’re native to someplace.

In conventional no-till systems, herbicides are used to kill weeds. Of course, they also kill microbes in the soil along with many other forms of life, which means it’s really just a variation on chemical-heavy agriculture.

Regenerative agriculture, in contrast, doesn’t using killing chemicals to fight weeds. There are lots of different ways to keep weeds down organically, including cover crops, layers of compost, and grazing animals. There’s also a mechanical method, called roller-crimping, which was pioneered by the Rodale Institute. This is a breakthrough concept and I encourage you to check it out (see).

Whatever method is chosen, the goal is the same:

The organic, no-till movement is gaining traction around the world, which is a very hopeful thing. It has a long way to go, however, mostly because of the stubborn belief in the primacy of the plow, which borders on the religious among many farmers. After all, we’ve been using it for nearly 5000 years! But as Edward Faulkner, a visionary farmer from Ohio, wrote in his now famous (and long-ignored) 1943 book Plowman’s Folly “no one has ever advanced a scientific reason for plowing.”

Today, there are MANY scientific reasons to give up the plow, not the least of which is the huge potential for protecting and enhancing soil carbon storage in order to help fight climate change. Here’s one about land owned by Ohio farmer Dave Brandt, a pioneer of no-till and conservation agriculture (see).

Building soil carbon also increases the water-holding capacity of the soil (beneficial in a drought). It boosts fertility (good for growing more crops), reduces erosion, and provides more resilience against disruptive events.

Tilling is also a metaphor, one that all of us should consider. I’ll ask it again: Nature doesn’t till – so why do we? There are natural, organic, regenerative ways to grow food and heal land, so why don’t we pursue them instead? There is a huge global population of people to feed, I know, but I firmly believe that regenerative practices can feed everyone.

The real challenge is changing the way we think. Our paradigms are the principle obstacle to progress – and saving the world. We can start by challenging our uncritical belief in the plow. By doing so, many doors open suddenly.

That’s what Terra Firma is all about: looking at the world in a positive way, grounded in nature, experience, facts, and hope.

Here is additional information about soil carbon and organic no-till:




Ed. note: This piece is taken from Courtney’s weekly newsletter. You can subscribe to it here.

Courtney White

A former archaeologist and Sierra Club activist, Courtney dropped out of the 'conflict industry' in 1997 to co-found The Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to building bridges between ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists and others around the idea of land health. Today, his work concentrates on building economic and ecological resilience on working landscapes, with a special emphasis on carbon ranching and the new agrarian movement. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Farming, Acres Magazine, Rangelands, and the Natural Resources Journal. His essay The Working Wilderness: a Call for a Land Health Movement" was published by Wendell Berry in 2005 in his collection of essays titled The Way of Ignorance. In 2008, Island Press published Courtney's book Revolution on the Range: the Rise of a New Ranch in the American West. He co-edited, with Dr. Rick Knight, Conservation for a New Generation, also published by Island Press in 2008. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his family and a backyard full of chickens.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, carbon sequestration strategies, organic no-till, regenerative agriculture