The Loma Prietan - October 2015

Sierra Club Debuts at 'Soil Not Oil' International Conference

Club members join other leaders to promote carbon sequestration in the soil.

By Bill Buchholz

Chapter presenters Karen Maki and Bill Buchholz thank the Pope for his recent Encyclical on Climate Change and for attending the Soil Not Oil International Conference. Photo: Janet Buchholz
Chapter presenters Karen Maki and Bill Buchholz thank the Pope for his recent Encyclical on Climate Change and for attending the Soil Not Oil International Conference. Photo: Janet Buchholz

Did you know that what you eat has a big impact on climate change? New research shows that farming practices that protect and conserve the soil, like no-till farming and raising grass-finished beef, can keep soils healthy and greatly reduce the amount of CO2 lost to the air. This win-win approach is one step beyond Organic - it’s called Regenerative Agriculture.

For two days over Labor Day weekend, members of the Loma Prieta Chapter Soils Committee joined members of the California Stop Clearcutting Campaign and the San Francisco Bay Chapter to represent the Sierra Club at the Soil Not Oil International Conference in Richmond, CA.  The conference focused attention on the ground beneath our feet, asking: how do we care for and manage forest, agricultural, and ranchland soils sustainably? Our group gave a presentation on the Club’s Stop Clearcutting California Campaign, staffed a table of handout materials, heard presentations by national and international leaders on healthy farming and ranching practices, and made valuable contacts with other groups.

The takeaway message from the conference was that we can solve the climate crisis by working together and implementing a few simple changes in how we think about and work with soil -- in particular, agricultural soil. (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that over 1/3 of all GHG emissions are due to agriculture.)

Our ancestors knew that healthy soil was the basis of life. The word Adam comes from the Hebrew word Adama which means soil, and Eve means life.  The story of Adam and Eve is the story of life coming from the soil. At the conference, world-renowned soil scientist Dr. Rattan Lal, Professor at Ohio State University and Dr. Vandana Shiva, activist and author of the 2008 book, Soil Not Oil, joined dozens of other presenters in promoting carbon sequestration in the soil as the 21st-century way to build healthy, living soil.  

Regenerative Agriculture, a subset of organic agriculture that focuses on building healthy soil, helps achieve many goals.  Healthy soils reduce CO2 levels in the air, grow more nutritious crops, produce higher crop yields, store more water, reduce the need for pesticide use, help reverse desertification, and support a food system that is more resilient in the face of weather extremes.  Transitioning to regenerative agriculture means shifting away from current destructive farming practices and toward organic and regenerative land management practices.   A powerful four-minute video presentation by the California-based Kiss The Ground Foundation summarizes the problem and solution. See “The Soil Story”.

Two key strategies for regenerative agriculture and regenerative grazing are minimizing tillage (farming without tillage or plowing) and grazing cattle on grass rather than grain. One of the most informative presentations was entitled “Soil is Life, Tillage is Death: A Future with No-Till Agriculture” by Paul Kaiser of Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastopol, CA.  Their research found that while organic farming is a step in the right direction and lessens soil degradation, it does not dramatically improve soil health, because tilling not only releases large amounts of carbon into the air, but also kills most of the life in healthy soil. Not tilling the soil (no-till farming) brings soil organic matter back up to healthy levels.  After just 5 years, their organic no-till system of growing crops brought soil organic matter from 2.4% up to 7 - 9% (tested to a depth of 12 inches) - back to where it was before conventional agriculture and tillage destroyed it. 

The answer is clear: avoid tilling soil.  Besides sequestering huge amounts of carbon in the soil, organic no-till farming increases crop productivity, decreases water use, increases crop resilience to weather extremes, and increases crop resistance to pests, weeds and disease.  Organic no-till agriculture is a win-win solution to climate change.               

Bill Buchholz is a member of the Loma Prieta Chapter’s Soils Committee, Forest Protection Committee, and the national Forest Certification Committee.