14. All states shall support improvements of soil health for resilient food production and carbon sequestration

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Rapporteur: Joanna Santa Barbara

This plank is directed at two of the six items on the Platform for Global Survival — Global Warming and Famine. It is also relevant to another major threat to human survival — the biodiversity crisis.


Soil health

A widely used definition is that of the US Department of Agriculture: the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans.

Soil is composed of inorganic matter (ground up rock), organic matter (living and dead plants, animals, bacteria, protozoans, actinomycetes and fungi), air and water. Soil health depends on complex interactions between these components. These determine the physical structure of the soil, its chemical composition and its nutrient levels, all of which affect the capacity of the soil to sustain life of plants, animals and humans. In general, the higher the organic component of a soil (generally about 5%), the more life it can sustain. This component is variously referred to as ‘soil organic matter (SOM)’ or ‘soil organic carbon (SOC)’, as it comprises carbon-rich compounds.

We need healthy soils to eradicate hunger, mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis, reduce poverty, provide clean water, restore biodiversity, reduce pollution, provide livelihoods and reduce the harm from extreme weather.

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How do countries check their soil health? Is there an overseeing body, or is it up to agriculture corporations?

This Is the “Most Economically Important” Fern on Earth

By Sarah Sloat

One species of fern (Azolla) has potential as a biofuel and major carbon sink. Of note is that “millions of years ago, this fern “sequestered so much carbon that it switched the globe out of ‘hothouse’ conditions into the relatively cooler conditions that we experience now.”/

“Much like Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, the fern Azolla filiculoides proves that the small can certainly pack a punch. This minuscule water fern, which has leaves the size of a single gnat, was the focus of a 2018 study published in Nature Plants. Scientists say the bright green plant is complete with unique capabilities — and has the potential to help us mitigate the effects of climate change.

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Canadian Cacti: YUM!

Did you know that Canada has several native cacti species? These are all in the Opuntia family of cacti – commonly called prickly pears. Opuntia are more commonly found in Latin America, Mexico, and the Southwestern USA, though they grow throughout the Americas. Indigenous and Latin American peoples have used the species for centuries as sources of dyes, fibers, and food. One common cuisine produced from Opuntia are Nopales——grilled cacti pad. Cooks prefer thornless varieties. Prior to colonization, cacti were only native to the Americas.

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A Call for Climate-Focused Agriculture Policy

By Tara Ritter, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

The current Administration has gone to great lengths to suppress climate change research, weaken key research institutions, and scrub mentions of climate change from government websites and documents. Despite these efforts, American farmers already know that the climate crisis is on our doorstep because they’ve been experiencing the negative impacts of it for years. Agriculture is among the hardest hit sectors by the climate crisis, and yet U.S. farm policy is largely devoid of climate considerations, and most climate change policy proposals insufficiently address agriculture.

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Dispensing Liquid Manure

I appreciate the article, and the points it makes, as well as several of the comments. However, there is an important technical error. The article says that methane, which is one of the most important ag GHGs, is mainly from increases in CAFO liquid manure. Although manure is a source of methane, it is actually much less than from ruminant digestion (“cow burps”). And the biggest source of methane from ruminant digestion is cows grazing on pasture.

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Hi Doug,

Your comment is partially right in that cow burps (enteric methane) are the major source of methane from agricultural systems – we address this issue in detail in the actual report, which we would encourage you to check out if you haven’t already. On page one, and in Figure 2 on page 8, we note that enteric methane from livestock at 32% is the number two contributor to GHGs behind only N20 from fertilized soil. GHG from manure storage facilities (which is both methane and N2O) ranks as third at 14%.

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I keep coming across references to the usefulness of feeding seaweed to cows. How much does that reduce methane emissions?

How Eating Seaweed Can Help Cows to Belch Less Methane

Hi Metta,

The Yale Environmental Law Review published an article in July 2018.

Unfortunately, the article notes that only a specific species of seaweed reduces methane emissions in cows. This species, Asparagopsis taxiformis, (a type of red algae) is endemic to tropical waters. Traditional Hawaiian cuisine sometimes incorporates this seaweed into dishes. Apparently getting cattle to eat the stuff can be difficult at first – as some cattle are picky eaters – so researchers sometimes mix it with molasses.

The article additionally notes some regions such as Ancient Greece. 18th century Iceland, and modern day Prince Edward Island (Canada) would graze cattle along beaches — so it is possible that cows additionally ate seaweeds in these environments — though whether it was the right type to reduce methane emissions has yet to be determined.

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Is it Ethical to Eat Meat?

One extremely important controversy about reducing global warming is whether to eat meat — and whether to raise livestock. The overwhelming preponderance of opinion holds that we should give up meat and convert land to vegetable crops and forests. But an alternative point of view is represented by the followers of Allan Savory, who insists that soil degradation can be reversed by the proper use of grazing techniques. I’d like to encourage an intelligent discussion of this issue on this website, since the evidence so far seems very mixed — and the answer is hugely important. Here is a post from a regenerative agriculturalist posted elsewhere.

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Staple Crops produce Cyanide?!

Cassava (aka Yucca)

Several staple crops such as cassava and sorghum naturally produce cyanide. The levels of cyanide in these crops increase with atmospheric CO2 levels and droughts. A case — several years ago in the Philippines — saw 27 children die at a school after eating toxic cassava.

“Staples such as cassava become more toxic and produce much smaller yields in a world with higher carbon dioxide levels and more drought, say Australian scientists.

The team grew cassava and sorghum at three different levels of CO2; just below today’s current levels at 360 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere, at 550 ppm and double at 710 pm.
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Nitrogen Fixing Helps Soil Health

Nitrogen fixing is a vital component of soil health. This can be done artificially or naturally. The tree species which are planted can have a significant role regarding this. I recently wrote to Urban Forestry at the City of Toronto regarding the increased prevalence of Kentucky Coffee Trees (Gymnocladus dioicus) being planted in the City of Toronto.

These trees are apparently quite hardy, but they have another advantage: the trees are in the pea family and thus naturally fix nitrogen into the surrounding soil as they grow. This is quite the advantage in urban areas – as nitrogen is a vital nutrient for plant growth and thus ecological health. The trees are additionally quite unique – with the largest compound leaves in Eastern North America – and the seed pods likely date from the era of Woolly Mammoths – who may have chewed on them.

First Nations folks used the pods as a laxative and stimulant – in something not dissimilar to coffee. (The trees are not related to traditional coffee trees). The importance of nitrogen fixing in soil health related discussion cannot be ignored.

Please explain earthworms. I had heard that they were very good for the soil — presumably all soil. But now I have learned that Canada never had earthworms until recently. They are an invasive species and biologists worry about them. Should we worry?

‘Environmental bastardry’: Looser grassland controls slammed
By Peter Hannam, August 5, 2019

The Sydney Morning Herald

A dispute is raging in Australia about managing grasslands in the state’s south just weeks after a scientific committee deemed them to be critically endangered, a move which has been blasted by environmental groups.

This is an excellent piece on soil degradation and the possibilities of reversal. It includes a very interesting section on perennial grain crops as developed by The Land Institute.


Terra Preta is a rich black soil in the Amazon that was created by Indians who lived there a thousand years ago. They created charcoal from their household waste and buried it. This removed carbon from the atmosphere and sequestered it permanently. We need to do the same. It’s the best possible soil for agriculture.

Mother Earth, our soil, can not only feed us but absorb the excess carbon we’ve poured into the atmosphere. But we have to respect it and treat it right. Charcoal, added to the soil or even spread on top, can sequester carbon for thousands of years and improve the fertility, enabling abundant food to be produced.