BioCycle May 2017
“Growing A Revolution”
In Dirt, the Erosion of Civilization, David Montgomery described how the degradation of soils leads to the degradation of civilizations. The Dust Bowl is just one example of how we in the U.S. have been making the same mistakes as civilizations now relegated to history books. The rate of erosion for almost all soils in the U.S. is far greater than the rate of soil formation. As a result our topsoils have lost structure, organic matter and fertility. No amount of anhydrous ammonia can bring them back to life. In Growing A Revolution, the sequel to be published this month by W.W. Norton, Montgomery gives us simple and readily available tools to bring our soils back from the brink.
Referring to this as both the “Brown Revolution” and soil regeneration, Montgomery starts with the science of soil destruction and regeneration and then takes us on a tour across the globe of farmers, scientists, and individuals who are bringing soil back to life. They are making it happen in record time, and, in the process, the bottom line for farmers improves. Montgomery argues convincingly that soil regeneration cannot only feed our growing population, it will also bring economic viability back to the family farm. There is a lot of discussion of the problems associated with what we now know as large-scale agriculture: too much tillage, too many chemicals and too heavy a focus on technology to fix a problem that requires a holistic approach.
Montgomery describes the basic principles of soil regeneration. Attempting to adapt characteristics of soil in natural systems is the key. Soils should not be bare and should be disturbed as little as possible. Plantings should be as complex as possible — whether this means more complex crop rotations or use of cover crops that include multiple species. Just as the tall grass prairie supported multiple species, cover crops and mixed plantings should include multiple species, each with a special function. This increases the organic matter, structure and fertility of the soils and in turn makes the systems more resilient.
Interviewing farmers across the U.S., in Africa and in Costa Rica, Montgomery gives multiple examples of how this can and does work. Each example is a little bit different, showing that variations on a theme are appropriate rather than fixed formulas. In each case he compares the rich soil that has been regenerated often within a decade to disturbed soils that have been managed conventionally. He points out that existing labels including “organic” and “no-till” in and of themselves are insufficient to capture the basic principles required to regenerate soils. He prefers the term soil regeneration as that encompasses an approach, taking the best tools from multiple options.
Montgomery notes that this approach is happening from the ground up so to speak, with little help from traditional agricultural researchers. He argues convincingly that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and university soil scientists are too dependent themselves on the conventional system and thus are reluctant to change. In fact, he argues against our whole system of crop insurance with its focus on simple rotations of commodity crops that excludes the more complex rotations required to rebuild soils.
Organic amendments are part of the toolbox. Montgomery discusses biochar and bokashi composts in Costa Rica. He includes a visit to the Tacoma, Washington wastewater treatment plant in a chapter called “Closing The Loop.” This chapter provides a fascinating historical context to the use of wastes to enrich soil and maintain levels of productivity that eclipse conventional farming.
Growing A Revolution is an optimistic book, a call to battle. It is a book that leaves you inspired and gives you hope. — Sally Brown
Walmart’s Project Gigaton
Walmart launched Project Gigaton on April 19, 2017 at its annual Milestone Summit, committing the retailer to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions resulting from its operations (Scope 1 and 2 emissions) and supply chains (Scope 3 emissions, e.g., from manufacturing, materials and use of products). Walmart has identified energy, agriculture, waste, packaging, deforestation, and product use and design as the goal areas in which to target their Scope 3 climate efforts. Participating suppliers are encouraged to focus their commitment in one or more of these goal areas.
Among the Project Gigaton goals is to reduce GHG emissions by 2.7 million tons by eliminating peat-based horticultural products and replace them with manure-based digested solids. Magic Dirt, a peat-free line of soil products made from digested dairy manure fibers, can contribute to meeting that goal (see “Selling Your Sustainability Story,” March/April). It is currently sold in close to 1,500 Walmart stores in 20 states. The founders of Magic Dirt were one of roughly 200 suppliers selected to participate in Project Gigaton’s announcement at the Milestone Summit. In her closing remarks at the Summit, Laura Phillips, Walmart Senior Vice-President of Sustainability, noted: “Those of you here today are one of the 200 suppliers we’ve identified that can help us most in achieving our Project Gigaton commitment.”
A reduction in one gigaton of emissions is equivalent to taking more than 211 million passenger vehicles off of U.S. roads and highways for a year, according to Walmart. The company’s goal is to reduce its absolute Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions by 18 percent by 2025. Walmart reports it is the first retailer with a verified science-based target emissions-reduction plan. An emissions reduction toolkit is available to its suppliers.
Scope 1: Direct GHG emissions from sources owned or controlled by Walmart; Scope 2: Indirect energy emissions from consumption of purchased electricity, steam, or other sources of energy generated upstream from the organization; Scope 3: Indirect GHG emissions (excluding purchased energy) that occur in the value chain of the reporting company, including both upstream and downstream emissions.
Economic Impact Of Food Scraps Diversion
The Illinois Food Scrap Coalition teamed with Seven Generations Ahead to hire Skumatz Economic Research Associates (SERA) to examine the influence of expanded food scraps recovery and composting programs to: Improve the viability of commercial composting ventures in Illinois; Drive Illinois-based food production; and Enhance the local food economy in Illinois, including jobs and revenues. Analyses in the recently released report indicate that food scraps, compostable yard trimmings (not including woody materials), and compostable paper comprise significant recoverable resources in the state. SERA found that if Illinois can achieve a 65 percent organics diversion goal for these three streams, it would potentially create: 3,185 jobs paying an average salary of $50,000 annually; $290 million/year in economic output for the state and $10.5 million/year in local and state tax revenue; over 2 million tons/year of diversion away from landfills; and over 800,000 MTCO2e in GHG emissions reduction annually.
The SERA report recommends a multiyear implementation plan for statewide diversion programs, using the State of Vermont’s Act 148 approach as an example. Recommended steps include: adding food wastes to the existing yard trimmings landfill disposal ban; add tip fee surcharges for landfilled organics; develop and implement residential Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) programs; promote urban gardens and backyard composting; and clarify food donation regulations and encourage more recovery.