Tending the Soil

In the race not just to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but find ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere, soil has taken central stage. And hence, so has agriculture; not just because of the industry’s carbon footprint, but because, if managed properly, soil may hold the potential to reverse climate change. However, a narrow fixation with greenhouse gas emissions has brought a host of solutions that seem to be perpetuating the industrial, high-input, export-oriented agriculture that favors the private sector—therefore missing an opportunity for a real transformation of our relationship to soil, which could address our debt not just to climate change, but also food sovereignty, ecosystem health and human rights.

To think about our relationship to soil, we need to start by looking into what healthy, fertile soil looks like. The answer seems to lie in microbes. Microorganisms “digest” nutrients in a form that plant cells can assimilate, and protect plants against pathogens and other threats. Soil microbes have also been responsible for sequestering carbon for hundreds of millions of years. They perform these and other ecosystem services “in exchange” for the organic matter they feed upon. Thousands of years ago, indigenous farmers in the Amazon seem to have understood this. They would fertilize their soils using organic matter, wastes, ceramics and charcoal to form what is known nowadays as terra preta. Today, this dark soil still presents more nutrients, more biomass, and higher pH than other soils in the Amazon, contributing greatly to the rainforest’s biodiversity. There is, then, an undeniable connection between the soil’s biological health and its fertility, as well as with biodiversity and soil’s capacity to sink carbon. A healthy soil is a living soil.

For years, though, the agroindustry has been aggressively destroying the soil microbiome with monocultures dependent on chemical fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides, as well as by using heavy tillage and failing to provide organic matter. Turning living soil into dead dirt, these processes have released tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Plus, they have made the land more and more dependent on other inputs to produce food—inputs which are themselves fossil fuel derivatives and that further pollute water and land, negatively affecting people’s health. If we add to this the fossil-fuel dependent supply chain of export agriculture and the deforestation involved in land-conversion for farming, the results are devastating, positioning the agroindustry as among the most significant contributors to climate change.

The irony is that, as droughts and floods strike harder every year, agriculture is also one of the sectors most affected by climate change, which is why the question of how to produce enough food under the current climate conditions has become central. One of the answers that has gained significant traction is Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA), a sort of umbrella concept covering a range of pathways for effectively managing the relationship between agriculture and climate change around three pillars: mitigation, adaptation and increased production. The problem with CSA is that it is goal-oriented and doesn’t define processes or methods. Besides that, it is very narrowly focused on carbon emissions. So when we look at the pathways gaining the most support, we find a set of solutions that may indeed mitigate emissions, but do very little to actually transform business as usual.

Some of the techno-financial solutions proposed, like biotechnology, climate-ready GM crops, intensification, carbon-trading mechanisms for agriculture, and agro-weather tools, represent attractive options for the big players in agriculture because they provide continuity for a high-input, market-oriented model. That is, they give agribusinesses a chance to ‘greenwash’ their activities through technological fixes, while also accessing new climate financing schemes and carbon markets, until now targeted mainly at forestry. On top of that, it opens new market niches for CSA interventions through pilot schemes, reports and top-down capacity building initiatives, and even for crop insurance against climate change events.

Carbon might indeed be mitigated through CSA, but this reductionist fixation with quantifying carbon fails to address other long-standing issues in agriculture like ecosystem pollution, impoverished genetic diversity, land grabs, weakened food sovereignty, destroyed cultural heritage … the list goes on, by some estimates with at least 400 agriculture-related conflicts reported around the globe. Without structural changes in the way food is produced around the globe, although carbon-farming may prove relatively successful we would still miss an opportunity to fix the larger problem: an exploitative relationship with the soil and the people dependent on it. There is, however, an alternative which has proven for decades to be more efficient, even if it comes down to just carbon and yields, but which encompasses a lot more than climate change.

Agroecology is an agricultural paradigm that encourages local food production by small farmers using agroecosystems with minimal to zero dependence on agrochemical and energy inputs. Some of its core principles include recycling nutrients and energy on the farm, enhancing soil organic matter and biological activity, genetic and biological diversity, integrating crops and livestock, and optimizing productivity of the total farm system (rather than yields of a single species). In essence, it is agriculture in true partnership with the living soil.  But beyond this, agroecology also implies a set of social principles that defend peasants’ and indigenous peoples’ access to land, seeds, water, loans and local markets. As such, it is also a movement for food sovereignty. It seeks to break small farmers’ dependence on external inputs and on foreign and volatile markets, and instead build an ecosocial fabric based on cooperation, traditional knowledge systems and on-site farmer innovations shared in horizontal, farmer-to-farmer relationships.

It is estimated that peasants already feed 70% of the world’s people, using less than 25% of the resources (land, water and fossil fuels). It has also been shown that, if measured by total output rather than yields from a single crop, small family farms are much more productive than large-scale agriculture. Besides yields, research in Latin America shows that, compared to chemical-dependent monocultures, agroecological systems tend to be significantly more biodiverse, present greater soil moisture, have larger stocks of carbon, and have also proven more resistant and resilient to natural disasters like hurricanes and droughts. By developing a deep understanding of their biophysical context, peasants and indigenous peoples have been able to tap into nature’s gifts to build diverse, abundant, resilient agrosystems.

In short, agroecology opens the possibility of building an agri-culture not only better prepared to face climate variability, but that also protects the whole ecosystem, sinks larger amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, enhances biological and cultural diversity, and provides food security for local communities. The key to this approach is a holistic understanding of the interconnectedness between biological and social systems, creating a more-than-human web of reciprocity.

Conversely, the CSA dominant pathways promoted by agroindustry seem to think that biophysical conditions are something to be overcome with new technology and bioengineering. They want to manufacture and sell what nature gives freely, making soil and the millions of people working it dependent on tools and tech owned by a few. It would not be the first time. La Via Campesina, an international peasant movement, has convincingly argued that CSA is a continuation of the Green Revolution, expanding and creating new markets for inputs and technology. Only this time around, what was once marketed as ‘progress’ is now presented as ‘climate change solutions.’ A new frontier for an old dominant system. Meanwhile, scientific evidence is increasingly supporting what peasants and indigenous peoples have known for generations, showing that their relationship to land perhaps holds more answers than the reductionist question carbon asks.

We learn from an early age that photosynthesis can pull carbon out of the atmosphere, giving us oxygen and food in return. But we were taught this in a very mechanistic way, overlooking the myriad organisms the process involves and how humans relate to them. From a deeper perspective, climate change is a lot less about greenhouse gas emissions than it is about our underlying relationship with land. We can’t expect to solve agriculture or climate change problems if we keep perceiving our living world only as resources to be exploited and commodified.

Fortunately, all around the world, peasants and indigenous groups have resisted the monocultures of the mind and ground, and have continued to honor the land. It is them, and their living soils, who we need the most at these pressing moments. And so, defending their rights and guaranteeing their access to land and resources is one of fastest, most cost-effective and sustainable ways to make agriculture compatible with a life-supporting planet. Not just because its soil will capture and hold more carbon, but because it will cultivate thriving communities under and above ground.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on Aug. 4, 2020.

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