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Land Degradation

Posted on Jul 30, 2010 by Clean Seed Capital in Soil,Agriculture

by Mark Sircus

Picture from the National Archives, taken during the “Dust Bowl” in the 1930’s

The world’s croplands are in decline due to the pressure of human activities. The figure shows the regional and global trends in the total available area of the world’s croplands. The loss of arable land has been caused by a number of factors, many or most of which are tied to human development. The primary causes are deforestation, overexploitation for fuelwood, overgrazing, agricultural activities and industrialization. On the global basis, the soil degradation is caused primarily by overgrazing (35%), agricultural activities (28%), deforestation (30%), overexplotation of land to produce fuelwood (7%), and industrialization (4%).

The University of Washington published that throughout history civilizations expanded as they sought new soil to feed their populations, and then ultimately fell as they wore out or lost the dirt they depended upon. When that happened, people moved on to fertile new ground and formed new civilizations. That process is being repeating today but the results could be far more disastrous for humans because there are very few places left with fertile soil to feed large populations, and farming practices still trigger large losses of rich dirt.

“We’re doing the same things today that past societies have done, and at the same rate,” said David Montgomery, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences who studies the evolution and structure of the various aspects of the Earth’s surface. In essence, he said, we are slowly removing our planet’s life-giving skin. “It only takes one good rainstorm when the soil is bare to lose a century’s worth of dirt.”

Montgomery is the author of “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations,” in which he examines how soil is slowly created over time, the vital role it has played in the rise and fall of civilizations from Mesopotamia to Rome, and how it shaped where and how we live today.

Sub Story by Marvelle Media:

Vesco Agricultural Technologies recognized early on that the world is facing an agricultural crisis of pandemic proportions: the catastrophic loss of topsoil. After covering the earth for thousands of years, the world’s topsoil is being lost at an alarming rate. In reality, for the past 100 years, our land has been more ‘mined’ than farmed. Historically, farmers used the soil, depleted the soil and moved on. Even with current farming methods more topsoil disappears each year than is created.

Such poor management of the topsoil is not the failure of a single farm or even a single region. It’s a problem of worldwide dimension. Across the globe, world agriculture faces a growing crisis. The world’s four top crop-producing areas (U.S.A., the countries of the former USSR, China and India) are all losing topsoil at an alarming rate of over 13 billion tons per year.

Sediment from soil erosion is the single greatest pollutant of the world’s oceans, lakes and rivers. Scientists estimate that before intensive agricultural cultivation began, approximately 9 billion tons of topsoil was carried into our waterways annually through runoff. Today the volume has tripled, exceeding 27 billion tons every year, and continues to increase.

"Our problem with erosion was very serious and it was very damaging to the environment to the extent that, in these crops, to produce one ton of grain in Brazil, we lost 10 tons of soil per hectare per year. We solved this problem by eliminating tillage," says Almir Rebelo, grower advisor and president of Friends of the Earth, a Brazilian grower organization influential in the adoption of no-till farming in Brazil.

With conservation tillage, farmers leave the stubble or plant residue on the soil's surface, rather than plowing or disking it into the soil. Typically, the new crop is planted directly into this stubble, and growers control weeds in the crop by applying an herbicide rather than plowing.

Alternatively, with what could be considered a "best-practice" in conservation agriculture, organic growers will utilize no-till in conjunction with established certified organic methods such as crop rotation, cover crops and biological pest control.

"As a result of us keeping crop residue on the ground, we have a new foraging opportunity for wildlife," says U.S. cotton, corn and soybean farmer Jay Hardwick. "So we're seeing a new happening on the landscape in terms of wildlife emergence. Not only top of it, but underneath. Earthworms are coming back to play, and earthworms are strategic in getting water into the soil structure."

The impact of no-till farming and soil erosion control has been just as significant to farmers in the developing world. “We do not have to burn the residue in our harvest anymore," says Jerry Due, a Filipino corn farmer. "We just allow the residue to decompose in the field to become fertilizers."

Vesco Agricultural Technologies has developed superior No-Till farming equipment that produces higher yields, combats soil erosion, reduces seed, fertilizer and fuel costs and qualifies for carbon-offset credits, tradable on the growing number of carbon credit markets emerging worldwide as part of the fight against Climate Change.

Vesco Agricultural Technologies is in the final phase of development and expects to launch its pilot programs in the spring of 2011. Vesco looks forward to playing a meaningful role in the protection of our planets soil.

For more info visit www.vescocanada.com

Finance Ministers Announce $880 Million for Global Food Security

Posted on Jul 26, 2010 by Clean Seed Capital in Agriculture,Investment

22 April 2010

Washington — Finance ministers from the United States, Canada, Spain and South Korea and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pledged $880 million for a new food security fund to tackle world hunger and poverty.

“As we work to build a stronger, more stable and balanced global economy, we must renew our commitment to tackle global hunger and poverty,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said April 22. “A global economy where more than 1 billion people suffer from hunger is not a sustainable one.”

The fund — the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program — includes a U.S. commitment of $475 million and pledges of $230 million from Canada, $95 million from Spain, $50 million from South Korea and $30 million from the private Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. President Obama committed $67 million to the new global fund and requested $408 million in the fiscal 2011 federal budget.

“With the global number of chronically hungry reaching 1 billion, working together to put an end to the status quo and improve on past efforts is both a moral and economic imperative,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said at the announcement April 22. “The financial commitments to the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program announced today will help address this critical issue in a meaningful and comprehensive way.”

The fund was established to respond to a call by the Group of 20 (G20) advanced and emerging economies for the World Bank to work with interested donors to set up a trust fund. The fund is designed to implement $22 billion in pledges made by the Group of Eight (G8) advanced economies at their 2009 summit in L’Aquila, Italy.

Bill Gates, co-chair of the U.S.-based Gates Foundation, told reporters that investing in small farmers historically was an effective way to combat hunger and extreme poverty.

“The launch of this fund is an important step forward, but only a first step. Other countries meeting at the European, G8 and G20 summits in June and at the U.N. [General Assembly] in September should join the four founding partners and make good on their pledges,” Gates said.

The World Bank has estimated that the sudden increase in food prices in 2008 drove at least 100 million people into poverty worldwide. The surge in food prices caused food riots that threatened to topple dozens of governments across the world and create political chaos for many regions. Even before the spike in food prices, 850 million people in poorer countries were chronically malnourished.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick said the food crisis continues to put a severe economic burden on developing countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Agriculture, seen as vital for development, has also been affected by low levels of investment over the past few decades and issues like climate change,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The new global fund has both private- and public-sector accounts to provide financing to countries that have robust farming strategies. The public-sector account will provide aid for creating better irrigation systems, linking farmers to markets and building harvest-storage infrastructure. The private-sector account will provide financing to increase the commercial value of small and medium-sized agri-businesses and farmers, according to the Treasury Department.

The World Bank announced that the African Development Bank, the World Bank and the International Fund for Agricultural Development will implement projects that are financed by the new global fund.

“Malnutrition and hunger afflicts millions of vulnerable people in Africa who cannot afford to grow and buy sufficient food,” African Union Commission Chairman Jean Ping said. “The establishment of this fund is an important signal that donors intend to meet their commitments and help African countries implement their comprehensive agriculture strategies.”

Feed the Future: A U.S. Commitment Against Poverty and Hunger

Posted on Jul 26, 2010 by Clean Seed Capital in Agriculture,Investment

By Phillip Kurata

Washington — The U.S. government, backed by U.S. scientists and corporations, is investing money and energy into reducing global hunger and poverty on a huge scale by 2015.

A State Department official overseeing the Feed the Future program, Patricia Haslach, told a congressional subcommittee July 20 that President Obama’s pledge of $3.5 billion at the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, for agricultural development and food security through 2012 has attracted an additional $18.5 billion pledged by other donors. Haslach said the U.S. government is holding them accountable for their commitments.

“In the year since global leaders at L’Aquila announced their renewed commitment to agricultural development and food security, we have made significant progress in holding donors accountable,” Haslach said. “Our ambassadors and embassy staff are reaching out regularly to encourage donors to fulfill their financial pledges.”

The Feed the Future program is the Obama administration’s vehicle to support the United Nations’ goal of halving global poverty and hunger by 2015. Haslach said L’Aquila donors’ pledges, totaling $22 billion, can “increase significantly the incomes of at least 40 million people, including 13 million people living in extreme poverty on less than $1.25 per day.”

Haslach added that at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh in September 2009, President Obama pledged an additional $475 million to establish the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program. Private foundations and other governments have pledged or contributed more than $400 million more for this program.

Haslach said the Feed the Future program is one element of a collective global effort involving governments, agricultural researchers, corporations and nonprofit foundations.

“This is not just a U.S. initiative, but rather a global initiative. Other countries recognize that it is in our collective interest to tackle the root causes of hunger and poverty,” Haslach said.

Speaking at the same hearing with Haslach, William Garvelink of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said Feed the Future is designed to create long-term development solutions, which go far beyond delivering food aid to relieve acute suffering. With regard to children’s health in Africa, “we need to address the multiple dimensions of nutrition, spanning access to health services, women’s control of incomes, and improving dietary quantity and quality, particularly for women and young children,” Garvelink said. Women farmers in Africa, who account for the majority of the small holder producers, are a big focus of the Feed the Future program, he said.

Garvelink, who has spent much of his career as a development officer in Africa, said the U.N. goal of halving global poverty and hunger by 2015 will be difficult to achieve. “Fifty-one percent of Africans live on less than $1.25 per day. That is only 7 percent less than in 1990, and a very long way from the … target of halving the proportion who live on $1.25 per day,” he said.

William Danforth, chairman of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, said scientific advances that are leading to more food being produced with less water, land and energy will benefit the program. Biotechnology has increased food availability and affordability, reduced use of pesticides, and preserved fertile topsoil through the use of no-till farming, he said.

He said, for example, the center has developed a more nutritious strain of cassava that has vastly higher levels of vitamin A, iron, zinc and protein and is more resistant to disease. Two hundred fifty million people in sub-Saharan Africa and 700 million people worldwide rely on cassava as a major source of calories. With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Danforth said that the center and its partners in Africa are establishing cassava biotechnology laboratories in Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria. The center also is engaged in developing more nutritious varieties of sweet potatoes and peanuts.

Gerald Steiner, an executive of Monsanto Company, a biotechnology and agriculture corporation, said Monsanto is committed to supporting Feed the Future.

“We will do our part to help farmers double yields in our core crops — corn, cotton and soybeans — between 2000 and 2030, while producing each bushel or bale with one-third fewer resources such as land, water and energy. And, just as importantly, in doing so we will help farmers to earn more and improve the lives of their families and rural communities,” Steiner told the subcommittee.

Steiner said Monsanto is donating what he called a “gem” from its biotechnology pipeline: a drought-resistant strain of white maize and know-how in accelerated plant breeding.

“We estimate it could result in new white maize varieties that yield between 20 percent and 35 percent more during moderate drought, enough to help keep hunger at bay,” he said.

No Till: Wind and water

Posted on Jul 22, 2010 by Clean Seed Capital in Soil,Agriculture,No Till Farming

By Mark Watson, Panhandle No-till Educator Thursday, July 22, 2010

The value of leaving the previous crop’s residue attached and on the soil surface has been evident again this spring. The year started out with high winds during the winter which caused severe wind erosion in several summer fallow wheat fields around the region. Evidence of the wind erosion isn’t as visible now with the winter wheat covering up the bare soil. Large amounts of soil were deposited into the ditches, fencerows, and shelterbelts and these deposits are visible today.

Fields were tilled for the planting of spring crops baring more soil to the elements. With heavy rainfall throughout the Panhandle along with high winds, the soil erosion from these tilled fields has been significant. Large amounts of topsoil have been eroded due to both wind and water erosion.

The Omaha World Herald had an article last week discussing the worst environmental disasters in the history of the United States. They were comparing the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to other disasters such as floods, deforestation, the near extermination of the American buffalo, previous oil spills, and the Dust Bowl.

The conclusion was that it’s hard to compare environmental disasters, but the Dust Bowl probably ranked near the top for disrupting the most human lives and leaving behind significant damage to the soil. I found it interesting that two of the most significant environmental disasters discussed occurred in the High Plains.

We still have significant damage to our soil in the High Plains due to wind and water erosion. The damage isn’t the magnitude of the Dust Bowl era, but still looms as a significant environmental event over time. The majority of the soil erosion is due to management decisions regarding how to best handle the previous crop’s residue.

The environment that we produce crops in is one of extreme elements provided by mother nature. We have more than our fair share of high winds, severe thunderstorms producing large amounts of heavy rain and hail, drought, and winter blizzards with driving snow. These elements provide ideal conditions for soil erosion if the soil is left bare and exposed.

We are starting to see more and more producers leaving the previous crop’s residue attached and on the soil surface to help protect our soil. These producers recognize the value of protecting the topsoil we have remaining by leaving the residue in the field. This requires producers to learn to plant through large amounts of residue which can be a challenge.

Once the crop is established, the residue provides many benefits. The residue will protect the soil surface, improve water infiltration, suppress weed competition, and reduce soil moisture evaporation.

I would encourage all producers to look at their management practices to determine if they can improve upon their erosion control. The soil and water we have in our region are our two most valuable resources. We can protect both resources by leaving the previous crop’s residue attached and on the soil surface when we produce our crops.

What is Sustainable Agriculture?

Posted on Jul 21, 2010 by Clean Seed Capital

Agriculture has changed dramatically, especially since the end of World War II. Food and fiber productivity soared due to new technologies, mechanization, increased chemical use, specialization and government policies that favored maximizing production. These changes allowed fewer farmers with reduced labor demands to produce the majority of the food and fiber in the U.S.

Although these changes have had many positive effects and reduced many risks in farming, there have also been significant costs.Prominent among these are topsoil depletion, groundwater contamination, the decline of family farms, continued neglect of the living and working conditions for farm laborers, increasing costs of production, and the disintegration of economic and social conditions in rural communities.

A growing movement has emerged during the past two decades to question the role of the agricultural establishment in promoting practices that contribute to these social problems. Today this movement for sustainable agriculture is garnering increasing support and acceptance within mainstream agriculture. Not only does sustainable agriculture address many environmental and social concerns, but it offers innovative and economically viable opportunities for growers, laborers, consumers, policymakers and many others in the entire food system.

Sustainability rests on the principle that we must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Soil management. A common philosophy among sustainable agriculture practitioners is that a "healthy" soil is a key component of sustainability; that is, a healthy soil will produce healthy crop plants that have optimum vigor and are less susceptible to pests. While many crops have key pests that attack even the healthiest of plants, proper soil, water and nutrient management can help prevent some pest problems brought on by crop stress or nutrient imbalance. Furthermore, crop management systems that impair soil quality often result in greater inputs of water, nutrients, pesticides, and/or energy for tillage to maintain yields.

In sustainable systems, the soil is viewed as a fragile and living medium that must be protected and nurtured to ensure its long-term productivity and stability. Methods to protect and enhance the productivity of the soil include using cover crops, compost and/or manures, reducing tillage, No -Till farming is key.

Efficient use of inputs. Many inputs and practices used by conventional farmers are also used in sustainable agriculture. Sustainable farmers, however, maximize reliance on natural, renewable, and on-farm inputs. Equally important are the environmental, social, and economic impacts of a particular strategy. Converting to sustainable practices does not mean simple input substitution. Frequently, it substitutes enhanced management and scientific knowledge for conventional inputs, especially chemical inputs that harm the environment on farms and in rural communities. The goal is to develop efficient, biological systems which do not need high levels of material inputs.

Water. When the production of food and fiber degrades the natural resource base, the ability of future generations to produce and flourish decreases. The decline of ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean region, Pre-Columbian southwest U.S. and Central America is believed to have been strongly influenced by natural resource degradation from non-sustainable farming and forestry practices. Water is the principal resource that has helped agriculture and society to prosper, and it has been a major limiting factor when mismanaged.

Air. Many agricultural activities affect air quality. These include smoke from agricultural burning; dust from tillage, traffic and harvest; pesticide drift from spraying; and nitrous oxide emissions from the use of nitrogen fertilizer. Options to improve air quality include incorporating crop residue into the soil, using NO tillage systems, and planting wind breaks, cover crops or strips of native perennial grasses to reduce dust.

Soil. Soil erosion continues to be a serious threat to our continued ability to produce adequate food. Numerous practices have been developed to keep soil in place, which include reducing or eliminating tillage, managing irrigation to reduce runoff, and keeping the soil covered with plants or mulch. Enhancement of soil quality is discussed in the next section.

Clean Seed Capital Group's primary initiative is predicated on identifying solution-driven, sustainable, environmentally responsible, agricultural based companies that need a strategic partner to facilitate progress. As a value added group, CleanSeed Capital Group provides strategic capital, business advisory services, and marketing strategies that yield both positive impact and significant investor returns from this rapidly growing sector.

We work in partnership exclusively with companies that share our vision of a sustainable future in agriculture and that will have a meaningful effect on the current system.

Saving Resources with New Ideas

Posted on Jul 20, 2010 by Clean Seed Capital

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

It’s difficult to know how to compare enormous disasters with one another. What has been unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico is often called the “greatest environmental disaster” we’ve faced as a nation.

My mind turned recently to an earlier environmental disaster that we Americans endured for years in the 1930s. That was the time of the Dust Bowl when a combination of drought and our own farming practices in the Great Plains launched the top-most layer of the Earth into the sky again and again.

I was thinking of both the Gulf of Mexico and the “Dirty Thirties” when I got up last month around dawn to drive 60 miles and meet with a group of wheat farmers and agricultural extension educators. We gathered – thank goodness – at a small town café that opens early. Black coffee (known to some of us as the elixir of life) was fresh and hot and flowing freely.

An agricultural “field day” is a cross between an educational seminar and a field trip, scheduled when a farmer’s work is in a natural lull. They are an old tradition in the world of agricultural education and extension, part of the effort to bring research ideas to those with their boots on the ground and – equally importantly – to help information flow back from the real world to the Ivory Tower. It’s an interesting task, giving applied research freely to anyone interested and getting back information and ideas from those whose very living depends on the soil.

Here’s the basic soil conservation problem with most farming. If a farmer plows up or “disks” soil, that work helps kill weeds and prepares a fine seed bed for planting. But it also disturbs the soil so that it is easily eroded by water and wind. Even flat ground is subject to a lot of erosion, and steep ground – which is what is farmed in my part of the country – holds the record for topsoil lost from the fields over the years due to erosion.

There are now many techniques used in farm country to help keep topsoil where it is and avoid a repeat of the Dust Bowl. “Cover crops” are planted to protect the ground during the part of the year the earth would otherwise be bare, and a new technology – called “no-till” – has been developed and is in use by some farmers.

No-till farming avoids turning over all the soil in a field prior to planting. It still disturbs soil – there is no way around that – but not to the extent that conventional agriculture does. The implement used for no-till cuts a groove in the earth, drops in seed and fertilizer, and then covers it all up again. Between the rows of disturbed ground, the roots and stubble from the previous crop remain intact, helping to hold the whole field together when the rains come and the winds blow.

No-till farming is not the same as “organic” agriculture. Because the ground is not turned over or thoroughly cultivated, weeds are not broken up and killed. This means a farmer often has to spray more herbicide in a no-till field than in one worked via more traditional means.

But there are trade-offs in everything. No-till farming requires less tractor fuel as the repeated tillage operations are eliminated. And conserving topsoil that takes centuries to form is clearly a highly prized goal. But there may also be increased insects and disease problems.

“When we make a change in the farming system like eliminating soil tillage, it affects the whole biological equilibrium between water available to the crop, soil temperature, weeds, insects and plant diseases,” commented Diana Roberts, agronomist with Washington State University Extension. “This is fascinating for the scientist – OK, call it job security,” she smiled. “But for farmers, it’s a challenge to their whole livelihood.”

I learned a lot about no-till and its advantages and disadvantages in just one morning. Let’s hope the ag researchers continue in their good work of finding new ways to conserve our topsoil – just as engineers in the Gulf meet with full success in taming the Deepwater Horizon blowout.

A New Vision for Agriculture

Posted on Jul 14, 2010 by Clean Seed Capital in Agriculture,Investment

Deepening public-private collaboration to accelerate growth in sustainable agriculture.

The Issue In the past year, food security and economic crises have highlighted both the urgent need and the potential for developing sustainable agri-food systems. Over one billion people, or one out of six globally, do not have access to adequate food and nutrition today.  By 2050, the global population will grow to a projected 9.2 billion people, and demand for agricultural products is expected to double. In the intervening years, the agri-food system will face increasing constraints and volatility driven by resource scarcity and climate change, raising the risk of production shortfalls. While substantial gains can be realized through improved technologies, policies, infrastructure and investment, it will require an exceptional level of collaboration among stakeholders in the agricultural value chain including, individual farmers, consumers and entrepreneurs; governments and companies; civil society and multilateral organizations. And while many initiatives and processes are underway, few effectively tap both public and private-sector insights and capacities. Alignment around shared priorities and large-scale initiatives is therefore key to success on both global and regional levels.

A New Vision for Agriculture The World Economic Forum’s Consumer Industries Community is championing an initiative through multi-stakeholder engagement in developing a shared agenda for action to meet food security, economic development and environmental sustainability goals through agriculture. The New Vision for Agriculture initiative engages high-level leaders of industry, government and international institutions and civil society– with support from leading experts – to define joint priorities, recommendations and opportunities for collaboration. Issues to be addressed will vary according to the region and forum, but may include:

 Leveraging public and private-sector investment for agricultural growth  Boosting good stewardship practices of natural resources and preservation of biodiversity  Developing agricultural markets through improved infrastructure and policies  Driving economic growth through agriculture, including opportunities for small-scale farmers

Through a series of structured dialogues, engaging key public and private-sector actors, the initiative will provide opportunities to develop shared insights and priorities; provide advisory input and recommendations for focus and action by key stakeholders; and identify and support existing initiatives which offer promising opportunities for collaboration and scaling.

Seeds of change sown by no-till revolution

Posted on Jul 12, 2010 by Clean Seed Capital in Agriculture,No Till Farming

In recent years, Australia’s broadacre cropping industry has witnessed a revolution of an unprecedented scale.The no-till movement across diverse Australian cropping landscapes has been highly successful with the proportion of growers using no-till now at nearly 90 per cent in many cropping districts.

According to the a report released by the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), most growers who adopt no-till use it on a large proportion of their cropping area and extensive and on-going use of no-till is being sustained.

GRDC Managing Director, Peter Reading, says no-till has permanently transformed the Australian rural landscape for the better.

"It is a practice that has been endorsed by the GRDC through its investment in and support of farming systems groups and no-till farming organisations,” Mr Reading said.

The Smith family’s cropping operation at Birchip in Victoria’s southern Mallee is representative of the changing face of Australian cropping enterprises.

David Smith is a third generation primary producer who farms a 2850 hectare property with his brother Ian, growing mainly cereal crops with some pulses and canola.

While no-till is now the norm, it wasn’t so long ago that the Smiths’ paddocks were cultivated at least three times with wheat sown into fallow, which could have had six or even seven cultivations.

“Twenty years ago, we didn’t understand herbicide resistance, nor integrated pest management, and the only disease we thought we had was eelworm (or cereal cyst nematode). And water use efficiency was not considered either,” David said.

David’s farm today is very different indeed.

“I spend more time in the office than the paddock, using my computer to record information and forward plan the varieties, pesticides, fertilisers and farming practices to use to increase productivity, not just for this year, but the following years.

“We sow by the calendar, not by the clouds and utilise varieties more strategically taking into account disease risk and potential, pest management and soil biodiversity.

The Smiths also use Yield Prophet, a crop modelling program commercialised by BCG and developed by CSIRO in Toowoomba, to model crop growth and predict fertiliser requirements and yield potential.

“The best way to sum up the change over the past 20 years is that in 1990 I was looking to grow the best crop, but these days I’m aiming to grow the most profitable crop,” said David.

“The GRDC plays a hugely important role for Australian growers linking science, technology and commercialisation with industry and community needs.”

No-Till Farming May Be Best Way to Reduce Ag's Carbon Footprint

Posted on Jul 8, 2010 by Clean Seed Capital in Soil,Agriculture,No Till Farming,Investment

by Kristen Ridley

There's been a lot of talk about the benefits of open pasture with grass-fed livestock to the environment, particularly about it's capacity to sequester tons of carbon, but what about non-animal agriculture? As I recently reported, soil cultivation is responsible for the majority of agricultural carbon emissions, and over-cultivation is one of the leading contributors to the alarming spread of desertification.

 

What, then, is the most environmentally-friendly way to grow vegetables? No-till farming.

Traditional planting requires farmers to till the soil at least once a year, eliminating weeds, turning cover crops into the soil, aiding in the breakdown of organic matter, reducing soil compaction, and preparing the grounds for planting. Unfortunately, plowing also releases a huge amount of carbon into the atmosphere, making it one of the major contributors to global warming. It also leads to soil erosion and runoff, degrading the land and polluting waterways.

With no-till farming, the plow is taken out of the picture. Cover crops are either mowed down or crimped flat, and seeds are planted directly into the undisturbed soil. According to Ohio State University soil scientist Rattan Lal, "If every farmer who grows crops in the United States would use no-till and adopt management practices such as crop rotation and planting cover crops, we could sequester about 300 million tons of soil carbon each year."

In addition to preventing the massive carbon emissions caused by turning the soil — and the increase in carbon sequestering that longer-lasting root systems seem to allow — no-till farming also means fewer tractor passes over the fields, which means fewer fossil fuels burned, and a giant leap in the soil's earthworm population, which does wonders for the soil's arability and fertility. No-till means an increase in biomass, greater water absorption, and much less erosion.

The benefits of this system are clearly numerous, but it is not without its problems. First, it requires all-new farming equipment, which is always a huge investment, and farmers are notoriously cash-strapped. It's thus unsurprising that only a little over a third of the farmland in the U.S. and a mere 5 percent of the farmland worldwide utilize the practice.

Another problem is that many farmers use no-till in a way that increases herbicide use. Without plowing, weeds become a much larger problem, and often farmers turn to chemicals — and the GM crops that can resist them — to compensate. Fortunately, as the Rodale Institute advocates, using the crimping method of killing cover crops, as opposed to mowing, slows their decomposition and allows them to act as a mulch, preventing weed growth and allowing no-till to be used organically. Finally, without tilling, soil compaction can become a problem, and fertilizers like manure must be knifed into the soil lest they be subject to runoff, which is why the Rodale Institute also advocates for what is really a low-till method, plowing only once every two to three years to utilize the benefits of both systems.

Clearly the country needs to move away from the soil-degrading and carbon-emitting planting methods currently in favor. Find and support farmers who are using no- or low-till methods to build up the top soil instead of wearing it down, and support programs that help farmers financially convert to no-till equipment. Far more than any other agricultural shift we could make, no-till seems to do the most good in combating global warming and deserves all the support we can give it.

Farming carbon as a cash crop

Posted on Jul 7, 2010 by Clean Seed Capital in Soil,Agriculture

Kathleen O'Hara

Like most city dwellers, my knowledge of farming is embarrassingly limited. But a conference on agriculture and global warming has inspired me to dig deeper (pun intended) into things rural.

The speaker who grabbed my urban-oriented attention was American-born, U.K.-based Craig Sams, co-founder of Green and Black's organic chocolate bars. His message was, well, grounding.

"When we talk about food and farming we are talking about carbon," Sams pointed out. "The process by which food is made starts with carbon dioxide and nitrogen from the atmosphere and turns it into protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Plants conjure food out of thin air with help from water and sunshine ..."

Even better: "Of all the carbon capture and storage technologies on the planet, none can ever hope to be more efficient than photosynthesis ... It's absurdly cheap and has been tested for millions of years ..."

Sadly, the brilliance of nature has been tarnished by the short-sightedness of humanity.

Sams was born on a farm in Nebraska. In the 1880s, when his great-grandfather first plowed the prairie, the topsoil was four metres deep. Now it's less than one metre and "shrinking."

Every tonne of soil that Sams' great-grandfather plowed contained about 50 per cent carbon and 5 per cent nitrogen. During erosion, that tonne reacted with oxygen in the air and produced about three tons of carbon dioxide, along with the more damaging nitrous oxide – equivalent to another 30 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Sams said that his great-grandfather lost about four tonnes of soil per acre annually, "so over 160 acres he emitted 21,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide from our little farm. Every year."

That was in the days of horsepower. "In the 1930s, when oil sold for 10 cents a barrel and tractors began replacing horses, production went up, plows went deeper, and soil erosion went crazy." The result was the Dust Bowl.

Sams pointed out that half of the world's greenhouse gas emissions from 1850 to 1990 came from agricultural activity, but therein lies the good news.

"There are 1.5 billion hectares of arable land on the planet and if you just saved one tonne of carbon emissions per year per hectare that would give us a 1.5 billion tonnes emission reduction. If you went further and instituted practices that captured and locked carbon in the soil, then you would have another 1.5 billion tonnes reduction, giving a total of 3 billion tonnes per year of carbon reduction."

This would cover more than half of the 80 per cent emissions reductions we need to stabilize our climate, he told us.

If this principle were extended to the 9 per cent of the Earth's surface that is farmed as pasture or grazing scrubland, then we could more than double that figure – and agriculture alone could bring about all the emissions reductions we need.

"Agriculture has always been a big part of the problem. It has more potential than any other industry to be the biggest part of the solution."

Sams said that society must offer farmers price incentives to farm "not just organic, but carbon-conscious organic." They should be rewarded for removing carbon from the atmosphere by the plants they grow. If they got a good price for every tonne of carbon they sequestered, "they would see carbon as their primary product."

"We are at war with an enemy, greenhouse gas ..." Sams concluded. "We can win it and farming is our most powerful weapon."

Who would have thought that the solution to the Earth's problems lay in the earth itself? And on our plates.

Kathleen O'Hara is a Canadian journalist currently based in London.

A Case for No-Till Farming

Posted on Jul 7, 2010 by Clean Seed Capital in Agriculture,No Till Farming

This story is a supplement to the feature "No-Till: How Farmers Are Saving the Soil by Parking Their Plows"

The slow pace at which soil rebuilds makes its conservation essential

By David R. Montgomery   

A fundamental drawback of conventional farming is that it fosters topsoil erosion, especially on sloping land. Tillage leaves the ground surface bare and vulnerable to runoff, and each pass of the plow pushes soil downhill. As a result, the soil thins over time. How long this process takes depends not only on how fast plowing pushes soil downhill—and wind or runoff carries it away—but also on how fast the underlying rocks break down to form new soil. 

In the 1950s, when the Soil Conservation Service (now known as the Natural Resources Conservation Service) began defining tolerable rates of soil erosion from agricultural land, hardly any data on rates of soil production were available. The agency thus determined the so-called soil loss tolerance values, or T values, on the basis of what farmers could do to reduce erosion without “undue economic impact” using conventional farming equipment. These T values correspond to as much as an inch of erosion in 25 years. But recent research has shown that erosion rate to be far faster than the rate at which soil rebuilds.

Over the past several decades, scientists have determined that measuring the soil concentrations of certain isotopes that form at a known rate permits direct quantification of soil production rates. Applying this technique to soils in temperate regions in coastal California and southeastern Australia, geologist Arjun Heimsath of Arizona State University and his colleagues found soil production rates ranging from 0.00118 to 0.00315 inch a year. As such, it takes 300 to 850 years to form an inch of soil in these places. My own recent global compilation of data from soil production studies, published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, revealed an average rate of 0.00067 to 0.00142 inch a year—equivalent to 700 to 1,500 years to form an inch of soil.

The soil on undisturbed hillsides in temperate and tropical latitudes is generally one to three feet thick. With natural soil production rates of centuries to millennia per inch and soil erosion rates of inches per century under plow-based agriculture, it would take just several hundred to a couple of thousand years to plow through the soil in these regions. This simple estimate predicts remarkably well the life span of major agricultural civilizations around the world. With the exception of the fertile river valleys along which agriculture began, civilizations generally lasted 800 to 2,000 years, and geoarchaeological studies have now shown a connection between soil erosion and the decline of many ancient cultures.

Clearly, then, if we are to conserve resources for future generations, we need alternatives to conventional farming practices. No-till systems simultaneously reduce the erosive force of runoff and increase the ability of the ground to hold onto soil, making these methods remarkably effective at curbing erosion. In a study published in 1993, researchers at the University of Kentucky found that no-till methods decreased soil erosion by a whopping 98 percent. More recently, investigators at the University of Tennessee reported that no-till tobacco farming reduced soil erosion by more than 90 percent over conventional tobacco cultivation. Although the effect of no-till on erosion rates depends on a number of local factors, such as the type of soil and the crop, it can bring soil erosion rates down close to soil production rates.

In the mid-1990s Cornell University researchers estimated that undoing damage caused by soil erosion would cost the U.S. $44 billion a year, and that it would take an annual investment of about $6 billion to bring erosion rates on U.S. cropland in line with soil production. They also estimated that each dollar invested in soil conservation would save society more than $5. Because it is prohibitively expensive to put soil back on the fields once it leaves, the best, most cost-effective strategy for society at large is to keep it on the fields in the first place.

 

Securing carbon in our soil

Posted on Jul 6, 2010 by Clean Seed Capital in Soil,Agriculture,No Till Farming

By Nicole Schuetz

Better farming practices can improve crop yield and lock up greenhouse gases

Everybody knows plants store carbon. But soils do too.

That’s the idea behind organic no-till farming, a cultivation technique that could dramatically increase soil carbon storage across the globe.

Research has shown organic farming methods sequester more carbon per acre than fossil fuel-based conventional methods. While scientists are still fleshing out the reasons for this, one likely cause is the increased level of mycorrhizal fungi in organically managed plots. These microscopic fungi literally help “glue” soil particles together, which traps organic carbon, nutrients, and water in the soil for the long haul.

Similarly, no-till farming preserves soil carbon storage through the thick crop root systems that develop when tillage is dramatically reduced. The combination of the two methods is now being studied by the Rodale Institute for its potential to produce even more climate benefits.

The early results are striking: compared to conventional farming techniques, which result in 300 lbs of carbon emissions per acre each year, Rodale’s research (pdf) suggests that organic no-till farming combined with utilizing compost as a natural fertilizer could store over a ton of carbon per acre per year in the ground.

The best part? Crop yields are likely to remain the same or even increase under organic no-till management. Rodale’s long-term comparison study of organic and conventional methods showed no difference in yields between the two farming techniques in normal years, and increased yields in organic plots during drought years (thanks to all those mycorrhizal fungi holding water and carbon in long-term storage). The variety of other benefits generated by organic no-till farming — from reducing nutrient runoff and erosion to decreasing fuel and fertilizer cost — are icing on the cake.

Disappearing dirt rivals global warming as an environmental threat

Posted on Jul 5, 2010 by Clean Seed Capital in Soil,Agriculture

The lowdown on topsoil: It's disappearing

By TOM PAULSON

 

The planet is getting skinned.

While many worry about the potential consequences of atmospheric warming, a few experts are trying to call attention to another global crisis quietly taking place under our feet.

Call it the thin brown line. Dirt. On average, the planet is covered with little more than 3 feet of topsoil -- the shallow skin of nutrient-rich matter that sustains most of our food and appears to play a critical role in supporting life on Earth.

"We're losing more and more of it every day," said David Montgomery, a geologist at the University of Washington. "The estimate is that we are now losing about 1 percent of our topsoil every year to erosion, most of this caused by agriculture."

"It's just crazy," fumed John Aeschliman, a fifth-generation farmer who grows wheat and other grains on the Palouse near the tiny town of Almota, just west of Pullman.

"We're tearing up the soil and watching tons of it wash away every year," Aeschliman said. He's one of a growing number of farmers trying to persuade others to adopt "no-till" methods, which involve not tilling the land between plantings, leaving crop stubble to reduce erosion and planting new seeds between the stubble rows.

Montgomery has written a popular book, "Dirt," to call public attention to what he believes is a neglected environmental catastrophe. A geomorphologist who studies how landscapes form, Montgomery describes modern agricultural practices as "soil mining" to emphasize that we are rapidly outstripping the Earth's natural rate of restoring topsoil.

"Globally, it's clear we are eroding soils at a rate much faster than they can form," said John Reganold, a soils scientist at Washington State University. "It's hard to get people to pay much attention to this because, frankly, most of us take soil for granted."

The National Academy of Sciences has determined that cropland in the U.S. is being eroded at least 10 times faster than the time it takes for lost soil to be replaced.

The United Nations has warned of worldwide soil degradation -- especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where soil loss has contributed to the rapidly increasing number of malnourished people.

Healthy topsoil is a biological matrix, a housing complex for an incredibly diverse community of organisms -- billions of beneficial microbes per handful, nitrogen-fixing fungi, nutrients and earthworms whose digestive tracts transform the fine grains of sterile rock and plant detritus into the fertile excrement that gave rise to the word itself ("drit," in Old Norse).

As such, true living topsoil cannot be made overnight, Montgomery emphasized. Topsoil grows back at a rate of an inch or two over hundreds of years. Very slowly.

"Globally, it's pretty clear we're running out of dirt," Montgomery said.

Ron Myhrum, state soil scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's office in Spokane, agreed that global soil loss is a huge problem. But Myhrum said erosion rates in the Northwest region have improved recently because of better conservation farming practices, including federal payments to farmers to leave some natural ground cover in highly erodible areas.

"We don't have the kind of dust storms here we used to have," Myhrum said. "What's more alarming to me than erosion is conversion of farmland to urban use."

That is indeed another way to lose soil -- paving it over. Judy Herring, manager of King County's farmland preservation program, said the county has lost 60 percent of its farmland since the 1960s. In 1979, Herring said, voters approved a bond program that buys back farmland to protect it from development (and has done this for 13,200 acres so far).

But while some land is lost to development, pollution or changing weather patterns, Montgomery, Reganold and others say global soil loss is a crisis mostly rooted in agriculture.

"Erosion rates have improved here, but that doesn't mean they're good," Reganold said. Topsoil clearly is still being stripped off faster than it can be regenerated, he said.

Aeschliman, the Palouse farmer, a stocky and energetic man who doesn't seem to notice that he's in his 60s, stood on a dirt road looking at the difference between his land and that of a neighbor. Because most neighbors are relatives, he did not provide any names here.

"Just look at that!" he bellowed, pointing to a series of water-carved cracks and gouges running down a recently tilled field of wheat. Every year, he said, these fields are tilled and the rains come, washing the soil down into the road so deep the county routinely has to dig it out. The rest of the soil runs off to the Snake River and, eventually, to the Pacific.

"Here, look at this stuff," Aeschliman said as he held up a handful of the fine brown silt that had eroded off his neighbor's (cousin's) hillside. "Now, look over here."

He walked across the road to his no-till wheat field. Unlike the rolling hills of loose dirt on the tilled field, Aeschliman's field looks more like a shag rug, with its rows of dead wheat stubble. He reached down into the dirt and pulled out a coarsely textured, much darker clump of dirt, roots and debris.

"This soil is full of worms, bacteria and all sorts of life," Aeschliman said. "And it stays put. That stuff over there (waving his thick hand back behind him) is just powder, brown dust. It's dead. There's no worms, no life in it."

Thirty years ago, Aeschliman was one of the first in the Palouse to grow his grains using no-till farming methods. He's an ardent no-till proselytizer today, but he didn't abandon tilling the fields based on some organic epiphany or desire to save the world.

"I just got tired of all the mud," Aeschliman said. The family home, built in the 1880s, sits at the base of a long drainage off the rolling wheat fields. Every spring, with the tilling and the rain, his home would be a foot deep in muddy runoff.

No-till farming could do a lot to reduce topsoil erosion, Reganold said, but it's not without its downsides. Switching to no-till farming requires heavy upfront investment and learning new techniques, he said, and also tends to depend more on herbicides because the weeds are no longer controllable by plowing them into the soil.

Organic farming methods also can reduce soil loss, Reganold said. He cited his own research, which has shown a marked increase in soil health, water retention and regrowth when organic methods are used rather than the traditional methods.

A regional association of farmers and other proponents of no-till agriculture, also known as direct-seed farming, is holding its annual meeting in Kennewick next week. Aeschliman is one of the founders of the organization, the Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association, and is happy to see that no-till farming is growing in popularity.

"It's both good for the soil and good for your pocketbook," he said.

Sub Story by Marvelle Media:

The world is facing an agricultural crisis of pandemic proportions: the catastrophic loss of topsoil. After covering the earth for thousands of years, the world’s topsoil is being lost at an alarming rate. In reality, for the past 100 years, our land has been more ‘mined’ than farmed. Historically, farmers used the soil, depleted the soil and moved on. Even with current farming methods more topsoil disappears each year than is created.

Such poor management of the topsoil is not the failure of a single farm or even a single region. It’s a problem of worldwide dimension. Across the globe, world agriculture faces a growing crisis. The world’s four top crop-producing areas (U.S.A., the countries of the former USSR, China and India) are all losing topsoil at an alarming rate of over 13 billion plus tons per year.

Sediment from soil erosion is the single greatest pollutant of the world’s oceans, lakes and rivers. Scientists estimate that before intensive agricultural cultivation began, approximately 9 billion tons of topsoil was carried into our waterways annually through runoff. Today the volume has tripled, exceeding 27 billion tons every year, and continues to increase.

Vesco Agricultural Technologies has developed superior No-Till farming equipment that produces higher yields, combats soil erosion, reduces seed, fertilizer and fuel costs and qualifies for carbon-offset credits, tradable on the growing number of carbon credit markets emerging worldwide as part of the fight against Climate Change.

Conventional agriculture is a key contributor to man-made climate change and environmental degradation. The pressure to improve crop efficiencies and reduce GHG emissions is expected to continue to receive significant and increasing global attention and investment.

The product of many years of research and development, the patented Terra-GlideTM precision planting system offers significant technological advances in No-Till farming and is expected to become the industry standard in No-Till agriculture.

for more info visit www.vescocanada.com

Farm Output Efficiency Climbed 158% Since 1948

Posted on Jul 2, 2010 by Clean Seed Capital

American farmers have become far more efficient over the last 60 years, experiencing efficiency gains of 158 percent per unit of energy used since 1948, according to a new study by the National Research Council. Output grew 1.58 percent on an annual basis while inputs only grew at 0.06 percent.

Techniques such as crop rotation have helped reduce the incidence of pest infestation, requiring less use of energy-intensive pesticides, while natural fertilizer use has decreased need for synthetic fertilizers.

Meanwhile, new agricultural technologies, expansion and commercialization of markets, government programs, and research and development have been the major drivers of U.S. agriculture for the past half century. In the case of corn, the report attributed increased productivity to increased yields per unit land as a result of improved breeding, fertilizer use, pest management, and irrigation.

However, the agricultural sector also is the largest contributor of two greenhouse gases, nitrous oxide and methane, in the United States.

The report presented both an incremental approach and a transformative approach toward increasing sustainability in the agricultural sector. Among the report’s recommendations is the implementation of conservation tillage systems, crop diversity, traditional plant breeding alongside genetic engineering techniques and water efficiency technologies such as metering.

Using a no tillage approach, for example, can result in considerable energy savings. According to the report, a no-till approach was practiced on 62.4 million acres in 2006, resulting in a net energy savings of 243 million gallons of fuel. Meanwhile, the use of cover crops can reduce water evaporation, and therefore water consumption.

The report cited market forces in conjunction with public policy decisions as two of the most significant influences on sustainability decisions. It was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Storing CO2 in soil should be on U.N. agenda: Gore

Posted on Jul 1, 2010 by Clean Seed Capital in Soil,Agriculture,No Till Farming,Investment

Developing emissions markets to encourage farmers in poor countries to store more carbon dioxide in soil should be a key topic on the U.N. climate talks agenda, global warming activist Al Gore said.

"I think that soil carbon conservation and recarbonizing of soil must be the next stage in this negotiating process," former U.S. Vice President Gore told reporters on the sidelines of a climate conference at the United Nations.

Agriculturists can store more carbon in soil through techniques such as no-till farming that leaves crop residue on the ground instead of plowing it up and releasing the carbon into the atmosphere, or through crop rotations.

Soils can hold carbon for thousands of years when dead leaves, crop residue and other vegetation combine chemically with existing soil particles instead of rotting fully. More carbon is held in this way than in trees and other vegetation.

But agricultural techniques such as heavy plowing, the use of too much fertilizer, and the discarding of the practice of rotating crops have led to the depletion of soils and the carbon in them in many countries.

Gore said polluters and investors in rich countries could potentially help invest in projects promoting new and improved agricultural methods that retain carbon, such as no-till farming, in developing countries through carbon credits.

Similar offsets resulting from storing carbon in forests and soils are already available in voluntary carbon markets, including ones for domestic projects on the Chicago Climate Exchange.

Opponents of such programs say the science is still young on measuring how much carbon is stored in this way. As a result, the price for soil sequestration offsets has traditionally trailed the price of other offsets projects such as solar energy farms.

Others say measurements are improving and that the offsets are a huge potential market that could reward farmers and make the soil yield more and better food.

Gore said improving the soil in many poor countries through such offsets could help fight against hunger and malnutrition.

Vesco Agricultural Technologies has a developing nations initiative that can address this issue.

Developing Nations farmers face a wide variety of agronomic and economic conditions. No single solution has been identified and made available to, useable by or affordable to farmers in all regions and circumstances.

However, the scalable range of options made possible by the Vesco Terra-Glide™ technology has allowed the development of a range of machine sizes that bridges these problems.

Within the Vesco Terra-Glide™ family of technologies there is a combination that will provide the seeding solution to the needs of most farmers in developing nations. Our goal is to work with government agencies, NGOs and the UN to establish a framework that supplies this technology to the poorest nations of the world at no cost to the farmers by establishing the Vesco Terra-Glide™ technology in a verified offset project for no-till carbon credits sold and traded under the Chicago Climate Exchange and others as Soil Carbon Management Offsets through the newly established carbon offset credit programs.

For more information visit www.vescocanada.com