Earth Matters: Fight climate crisis by regenerating soil

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Dr Hildur Palsdottir

This summer my family spent time at the Vermont Icelandic Horse Farm. Nothing goes to waste at the farm, especially food waste that is composted efficiently. Soothed by Ben & Jerry’s clear blue skies with fluffy white clouds overhead, health and wellness seemed to surround us, until we found out that they also have problems with polluted waterways in Vermont.

We learned that the purity of Vermont’s crown jewel, Lake Champlain, is compromised with high phosphorus levels causing at times toxic algal blooms. This is perhaps not surprising given decades of agricultural runoff from chemically charged industrial farming methods. Progressive Vermont farmers are increasingly aware of the importance of best practices, such as eliminating chemical fertilizers and pesticides and restoring soil health with perennial polycultures of native plants and trees, cover crops and no-till techniques in order to reduce runoff into the lake.

There’s a lot of talk about reducing fossil fuel emissions, but not enough focus on soil health and soil-assisted carbon capture. We must return carbon back into the ground where it came from and the good news is soil could be optimized for carbon storage. The bad news is humans rely on food systems that systematically disrupt the soil while emitting greenhouse gasses. From farming to fracking and fossil fuel extraction we mechanically disrupt the soil oxidizing carbon in the process. Earth is exhausted, depleted after hundreds of years of extractive, degenerative farming. Our waters are sour and the air is polluted. When hiking in pristine wilderness, you better bring your own drink as you can’t trust the quality of mountain streams anymore.

For most of human history CO2 levels stayed rather stable at roughly 280 ppm, but recently we’ve passed alarming thresholds measuring record highs of 415 ppm. We must act fast. We must act now. We must capture carbon to prevent the catastrophic collapse of our world’s ecosystems. Unless we turn towards regenerative practices we are pushing the limits of our own existence.

Regeneration in biology refers to the process of renewal, restoration and growth that makes cells, living beings and ecosystems resilient to damage. In terms of agriculture, regenerative methods aim to return nutrients to the ground without disrupting the carbon cycle. The plant kingdom is our trusted ally in cleaning the air and always has been.

Progressive farmers Caroline and Jessie McDougall manage Studio Hill Farm in Vermont. As fourth-generation farmers mourning the loss of a dear family member to cancer, they stopped spraying chemicals, abandoned pesticides and fertilizers and realized that the ecosystem didn’t rebound as they had expected. Their soil without chemical assistance was dead! They joined the regenerative revolution, including thoughtful grazing practices where ruminants help restore soil health and enable natural carbon sequestration with the promise to reverse climate change.

Jessie and Caroline pioneered legislative change in proposing a bill to the Vermont Senate titled “The Vermont’s Regenerative Agriculture Certification Program.” Regenerative agriculture is rooted in chemical-free topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity, improving water sheds and repairing the broken carbon cycle. It can be thought of as a rehabilitation approach for food and farming systems, with the benefit of purifying the air.

People assume livestock and agriculture lead to environmental destruction, but it doesn’t have to be that way. To build more resilient food systems there must be political and public interest in supporting that change. It will take both education and activism to advocate for this systemic change and at Soil4Climate you’ll find soil restoration activists fighting for global soil health.

Kirstin Ohlson explains in her book “The Soil Will Save Us” how restoring the right relationship with Earth will help combat climate change and preserve the planet to produce food for future generations.

To learn more about this exciting regenerative movement please enjoy a star-studded documentary film “Kiss the Ground” (2020) that is now available on Netflix.

You, too, can participate in the soil health movement by composting your food scraps and yard waste. If you’re not sure where to begin, join us at the Science Museum of Long Island, Plandome, Saturday mornings at 10 a.m. where members of Transition Town Port Washington will share with you techniques and methods to compost your organic waste. Email me at hildur@sol.center to schedule a Covid19 safe appointment with us.

Finally, please leave the leaves. If you absolutely need to clear your lawn, raking the leaves to the side of your yard provides excellent physical activity with no emission costs. Composting leaves support healthy soil.

This fall do these four things that’ll help repair the broken carbon cycle:
Learn how to compost.
Don’t bag your leaves, let them be or compost them.
Support local, regenerative and organic farms.
Vote for politicians who care about soil health.

“If you’ve never heard about the amazing potential of regenerative agriculture and land use practices to naturally sequester a critical mass of CO2 in the soil and forests, you’re not alone. One of the best-kept secrets in the world today is that the solution to global warming and the climate crisis (as well as poverty and deteriorating public health) lies right under our feet, and at the end of our knives and forks.”-Ronnie Cummin

Dr. Hildur Palsdottir

Transition Town Port Washington

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