“I thought that we were having an argument, and that as soon as we had a preponderance of evidence clearly piled on one side, then our leadership would do the right thing. It took a while to figure out that we had won the argument long before. The science was abundantly clear.
“We were just losing the fight, because the fight wasn't about data and reason. The fight was about what fights are usually about: money and power. And we were losing to the fossil fuel industry, which had plenty of both.
“So we knew we weren't going to have much money, but we decided to see if we couldn't build a movement, because history indicates that occasionally big movements are able to stand up to big power.”
– Bill McKibben at the Real Organic symposium.
Dear Real Organic friends,
In our interview with Bill McKibben, he talks about the connections between climate and agriculture. But even more powerfully he talks about building a movement. As we face a food system controlled by corporate giants, we often feel overwhelmed and helpless. Having the USDA redefine “certified Organic” has made clear that we, the people, are not in charge.
It is tempting to give up. Is it possible to reclaim the National Organic Program? I have often urged people to vote with their dollars for a better food system. And we must. But this strategy brings up the core question of whether we are only consumers or also citizens? As citizens, we should also seek to make better laws, with greater integrity, greater transparency. In the end, we need to change the rules. Alone, we can change what we buy, but we can only change the way the government works together.
When we pull on any string in the world of organic farming, we discover that it is connected to…well…everything. That deep interconnection is the essence of organic farming. Everything is connected in the web of life. That is how we approach the world.
Farming is a constant tug of war between greater efficiency (money) and greater resiliency (health). We know that resilience is based on health. In one of the great acts of human faith, we have come to see that the crops and animals will thrive if the life in the soil is healthy. So healthy soil, a complex world of microbial and animal communities, is the foundation of organic farming. It is even the foundation of human resilience.
One of the greatest failures of Industrial Ag is the creation of confinement livestock factories, known as CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). They have greater efficiency (if you don’t count the hidden costs of soil health and erosion, air and water pollution, animal welfare, worker welfare, neighbor welfare, poor human nutrition, or climate change). And CAFOs have much less resilience (as clearly shown by the worker illnesses and simultaneous food shortages and farm surpluses of the COVID epidemic).
And as we pull on that string a little further, we discover that agriculture is profoundly connected to climate.
Farmers have always known that we are deeply impacted by climate. Many civilizations have been destroyed as the land becomes more arid, the result of poor farming. What was once forest became grassland, which then became desert. Afghanistan and Syria were once forested.
This pattern has been repeated many times around the world. Right now the world’s deserts are expanding at a staggering rate, consuming farmland and destroying people’s lives.
Our symposium speaker Bill McKibben also talks about the devastating impact of climate change on agriculture.
Climate change is no longer just a hidden process that is only observed by scientists. Right now, California is on fire. When I asked Bill if these terrible fires are a result of climate change, he said, “Absolutely.” Farmers are adjusting how they farm to try to deal with longer droughts, greater floods, and hotter temperatures.
But there is another thing we find when we pull on the string a little more. We discover that agriculture is often a major contributor to climate change. McKibben told me, “We think agriculture is responsible for about 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, with most of that from livestock, from CAFO cattle.” This happens in many ways. These are not simple issues, but they are important.
“Unless we get wise, and learn how to regenerate the land we’ve got, it will turn to cactus.”
“It's more than agriculture. It's our whole land management. Because that's where we have agency. That is where we, Homo Hubris, influence this planet, for good or bad. We have the wisdom. Let's use it.
– Walter Jehne, soil microbiologist and climate scientist
Symposium speaker Walter Jehne has taught me about this for years now. To greatly simplify it, when we lose the sponge in the soil created by organic matter (carbon), we lose the capacity of the soil to hold (and give back) the water that comes from the rain. Without that water holding capacity, the soil can become a desert when it doesn’t rain, and it can become a parking lot when it does rain. Meaning the rain will just run off the land, into the rivers, taking the precious remaining topsoil with it. Leaving no moisture for the next day, the next week, the next season.
Walter adds an important perspective to this conversation, examining the impact of agriculture on the planetary water cycle. “We've been changing the whole hydrology of the planet.” H2O is the greatest greenhouse gas in our climate. How we impact that hydrological cycle has a tremendous influence on the heating and cooling of the planet.
It is a beautiful thing that humans can have a positive impact on the climate by tending the life in the soil, growing and incorporating organic matter, pasturing animals, cover cropping, and building a decentralized agriculture. The very things that farmers can do to cool the planet are the same things we can do to improve the nutritional quality of our food. It is my belief that following this path is also the greatest thing that farmers can do to create a more resilient and equitable local economy.
Symposium speaker Jean-Paul Courtens talks about his experiences as a farmer.
And if we follow the string a little further, we see how climate change and agricultural choices impact people in poverty more quickly than any other population. At the symposium, organic farmer Karen Washington speaks passionately about these issues.
“People are just trying to survive in a system that is not working for them. A change is going to come, it’s inevitable. How that change looks depends on who is going to jump in and fight for humanity vs. who is going to allow the status quo of inequality to continue to exist. Are people going to jump on a movement of diversity and inclusion, or are they going to stay in a movement that is segregated and oppressive?”
“People need to get out of their comfort zone and go into communities that they know nothing about. And sit and LISTEN. Listen to what people are doing in terms of organizing around health, around housing, around education, around the environment. You know, we talk about climate change. We know the importance of climate change, but do you think that really is traveling down to a person who has no heat or hot water? Who doesn't know where their next meal is going to come from?”
“And so we talk in elitest terms, and we talk in terms of ideals when we really need to find out how does climate change really impact that person that's on the street sleeping on a bench. “We've got to be very cognizant of how we address certain things that are paramount. Yes, climate change is paramount. Yes, even eating healthy organic food is paramount. But it doesn't resonate with people whose whole life is being held down because they don't have the essential human resources to survive.” – Karen Washington
We will be featuring these speakers and many more in the upcoming Real Organic Symposium. Please join us in January as we dive deeper into why real organic matters!
“The climate crisis has already been solved. We already have the facts and solutions. We just need to wake up and change.”
– Greta Thunberg
Updated: You can still watch recordings from our January symposium by clicking here.