What if we really could have it all? Abundant, nourishing food for everyone, farmers able to make a good living while producing it, beautiful wildlands, a resurgence of threatened plants, bugs, birds, and animals, and a cooler planet?
Maybe we can. In fact, maybe we must. A growing consensus among environmental and climate scientists points to the crucial importance of restoring soil to its proper functions of supporting life while absorbing and holding global carbon stores. A study published in the journal Nature on October 14, 2020 (http://bit.ly/Nature-10-14-20), is just the latest example. Comissioned by the United Nations (UN) Convention on Biological Diversity, it provides a global guide to soaking up nearly half the CO2 added to the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution and averting nearly three-quarters of the predicted animal and plant extinctions. How? By returning 30% of world farmlands to the wild. This would preserve and enhance the human food supply and stay within the timeline needed to meet the upper target of the Paris Agreement, a temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius.
Too expensive? In fact, “(i)t’s one of the most cost-effective ways of combatting climate change,” according to Bernard B.N. Strassburg, a study author and scientist with Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and the International Institute for Sustainability. This most recent study calculated which swathes of which ecosystem would yield the most cost-effective returns for mitigating biodiversity loss and climate change.
A similar tool, The Global Safety Net, was released last month, identifying the most strategic 50% of the planet to protect. Other campaigns with similar aims include The Bonn Challenge and The Campaign for Nature. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has looked at the science and comes to the same conclusion. “We have lost the biological function of soil,” says Barron J. Orr, lead scientist for the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. “We have got to reverse that. If we do it, we are turning the land into the big part of the solution for climate change.”
Almost five billion acres of land around the globe has been degraded by agriculture, specifically tillage and deforestation. Returning a large fraction of that land to pasture or trees would convert enough carbon into biomass to stabilize CO2 emissions for 15 to20 years, buying us time to convert to carbon-neutral technologies. FAO believes that it is doable with an investment of about $300 billion. (To put that number in perspective, it’s the amount the world spends on the military in 60 days.) It can be done quickly and with existing techniques and technology. In fact, we can all help.
What some call ‘the pedosphere,’ literally the ground beneath our feet, isn’t just there to cushion our footfalls from the ‘lithosphere,’ the rocks. It’s an agregate of minerals and microscopic life-forms that is an essential component of generating and sustaining life on earth. Soil and plants evolved together, cooling and oxygenating the planet as they did so.
Soil is the third largest carbon sink, one we’ve been emptying into the sky for the last several centuries. Since the dawn of agriculture, we humans have been reverse-terraforming the only planet we know can sustain us, ripping open the soil, exposing the stored carbon (aka humus) to sun, wind, and rain. We’ve washed soil into the ocean or flared it off into the sky, contributing to global warming. We’ve encroached deeper and deeper into the wild, endangering countless species that are of great value for themselves alone and may prove crucial to world ecosystems. (However little we remember it, each one of us lives embedded in an ecosystem, a web that produces oxygen, food, clean water, weather, shelter, and beauty for us and other living beings.)
Luckily the solutions are, according to permaculture designer Rhamis Kent, “embarrassingly simple and embarrassingly inexpensive.” A new book by Vermonter Judith Schwartz, The Reindeer Chronicles, details several successful projects that illustrate this point. The most notable is the restoration of China’s Loess Plateaus, recently an impoverished, degraded landscape that shed billions of tons of topsoil annually into the Yellow River. The Chinese government and the World Bank determined that restoring this land would cost less than continuing to deal with the damage and poverty endemic there. Through controlling grazing, digging terraces, and planting trees, the brown dusty landscape was transformed. In an area where grandmothers once routinely starved themselves so their grandchildren could live, springs, streams, and birds have returned, farming is productive and profitable, and grandmothers live to enjoy their grandchildrens’ smiles. An area that was a cradle of Chinese civilization is now healthy again. And this transformation came at an astonishingly low cost of $7 per acre.
Film-maker, John Liu, who chronicled this restoration, says in Chronicles ( http://bit.ly/Chelsea-Reindeer), “This knowledge is a responsibility. Human beings are required to understand this, because this is the determination of whether we can become sustainable and…survive into future generation.”
Liu also says, “There is nothing wrong with the earth.” Nature is ready and eager to work with us. Life wants to live, seeds want to sprout, solar energy is everywhere. We can do more than we think. It’s time to get started.
Jessie Haas has written 40 books, mainly for children, and has lived in an off-grid cabin in Vermont.