The Sequestration Solution: Soil

Karl Thidemann is co-founder of Soil4Climate, a non-profit that advocates for regenerative agriculture, with a focus on grazing and the restoration of grasslands. In this podcast he makes the case, supported by extensive scientific research, that the restoration of grasslands can provide a multi win-win––for the climate, biodiversity, soil health, good nutrition, farmer profitability, the water cycle, rural communities, anti-desertification, and maintaining traditional agrarian practices worldwide. He also challenges vegan narratives about food and climate, and, with a poem and a song, reminds us that the arts are an important part of the change toward a greener, healthier world.
Thidemann makes references to many farmers and ranchers during this podcast, and I’ve linked to their work in the timeline below.

Landscape photo provided by Studio Hill Farm


Show Notes

2’53 reducing emissions not enough, you have to remove CO2 from the atmosphere
3’16 what are the most efficient and least expensive ways of drawing down CO2
3’29 absorbing carbon into soil has many other benefits–restoring ecosystems, rural economics, herding cultures worldwide
3’41 Judith Schwartz: Cows Save the Planet
4’16 responding to soil damage from both overgrazing and crop agriculture
4’19 William Ruddiman in 2005 Scientific American article, “How Did Humans First Alter Global Climate?”
4’30 connecting climate change with the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago
5’05 the stabilizing of the climate by early farming practices
5’21 Jonathan Sanderman at Woodwell Climate Research Center, writing about carbon 
5’34 the degradation of soil is thousands of years old, but it’s risen precipitously in the last 150 years
5’59 farming was the #1 source of emissions until the 1960s
6’43 climate system works over a very long time scale
7’02 climate systems work over a 1000-1500 year life cycle because of ocean circulation
7’36 the heat being stored in the ocean will be emitted for centuries to come
7’42 Susan Solomon of MIT: even if we cut all fossil fuels immediately, the planet would keep warming for 1000 years.
8’14 stopping emissions is not enough, we need to go down to an acceptable level in the atmosphere
8’33 300 parts per million is now believed to be the highest safe level of CO2 in atmosphere–or lower
9’06 you can’t negotiate with physics
9’19 biodiversity crisis
9’46 regenerative farmers and grazers are helping to preserve biodiversity
10’21 the benefits of no-till and cover cropping
10’33 for cover cropping you need at least a dozen species
10’43 Gabe Brown used over 50 different species of cover crops (featured in the film Kiss the Ground)
10’57 the greater the diversity of plants, the greater the diversity of microbial life under the ground
11’24 quorum sensing: when you have a diversity of members in a community, they can do things that no individual member could do on its own—e.g. drought and insect reslience
12’50 Glenn Elzinga‘s cattle eat hundreds of native plants
13’02 David Johnson on the community of soil
13’08 bacteria in the soil analogous to human communities where people have different roles
14’09 2 billion hectares/5 billion acres of abandoned crop land across the earth–land that was once fertile and is now desertified David Pimentel 2013 paper
15’04 until now we haven’t known how to restore that land
15’23 Allan Savory says there are two kinds of ecosystems: dry, brittle environments and moist, non-brittle
16’06 moist environments will come back on their own, but brittle ones won’t. They need animal impact from grazing animals to regenerate
16’33 Gregory Retallack, paleobotanist from University of Oregon.
16’42 there’s a misunderstanding in the rewilding community that if you rest the land without animals it will come back. But it doesn’t because the grasses need to be grazed in order to thrive.
17’13 regenerative grazing is not “less harmful” it’s actually beneficial
17’50 the natural movement of animals on a landscape prevents overgrazing
18’12 Alejandro Carrillo in Chihuahua desert
18’19 grazing improves land and increases carrying capacity
18’46 because there’s such a huge quantity of grasslands–1/3 of the planet’s land mass–the potential for drawing down carbon is also huge
18’59 grazing land gets a bad rap because people don’t understand
19’30 most of the world’s deserts are degraded grasslands
19’52 David Montgomery, author of Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations says civilizations tend to last about 500 years, which is the amount of time it takes to destroy topsoil through plowing
20’32 grazing as a function of time, not animal numbers. André Voisiné_Voisin
21’16 overgrazing is about moving the animals in such a way that the plants grow best
21’51 holistic planned grazing
23’03 destocking is an important part of the process
25’10 how you get started on land that’s extremely degraded
26’01 Carillo’s cows eat mesquite
26’30 the benefits of ruminant manure–it has lots of microorganisms and is fungal rich
27’22 Dan Dagget‘s book Gardeners of Eden, about reclaiming a mine site where there was no biological life at all and getting it back to life with hay and cattle
28’06 wildlife returned
28’19 big conservation organizations are using regenerative grazing worldwide…including The Nature Conservancy and WWF
28’28 Audubon conservation ranching program
28’53 the Africa Center for Holistic Management has lots of wildlife because of its grazing practices
29’42 food is less nutritious when the soil is poor, so when you restore the soil the food is healthier
31’08 fungi are the “masterminds” of the operation in the sense that they keep track of the minerals and providing them to the plants
31’19 Walter Jehne, soil scientist from Australia
31’33 Buckminster Fuller “cosmic accounting”
32’14 healthy soil can go on for thousands of years if it’s managed properly
32’48 no need to use synthetic fertilizer
33’41 thinking about the math problem of sequestration
34’02 “think global, farm local”
34’24 agroforestry is great for carbon sequestration because carbon is captured in trees as well as soil
34’45 soil scientist Dr. Rattan Lal said we could remove all excess carbon in the atmosphere via regenerative ag and reforestation
35’31 Tom Newmark of the Carbon Underground wrote an essay called “Don’t Call Mother Nature a Sink,” challenging the idea that there is a limit to the amount of carbon that soil can absorb
36’00 there’s no limit to how much soil can be formed and therefore sequester carbon
36’46 it’s widely thought, but not true, that it takes 500-1000 years to build an inch of soil. This is a myth that comes from Charles Darwin’s observation of Roman ruins.
38’03 by using regenerative cropping and grazing, especially grazing, you can build more soil on top of existing ground
38’23 Allen Williams from Understanding Ag has recorded ranchers growing soil at the rate of an inch per year
38’36 soil scientist Christine Jones calls it “breathtakingly rapid”
39’02 Michael Pollan describes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma how Joel Salatin was able to build soil quickly
39’47 how do you take all this land that needs to be restored and restore it
40’34 it takes a global community to solve these problems
41’35 entomologist Jonathan Lundgren wrote about the profitability of regenerative agriculture
42’20 all this is in contrast to the vegan narrative that says ending animal agriculture will save the earth
42’55 Karl sees much overlap with the vegan ideas about animal cruelty, CAFOs, and industrial crop ag to feed livestock
43’11 differences between vegans and regenerative grazers in the understanding about whether grasslands need grazing
43’45 all ecosystems evolved with animals and need animal impact
44’01 Russ Conser said, “It’s not the cow, it’s the how.”
45’04 Fred Provenza and nutritional wisdom
46’08 plant-based “meat” products—smaller carbon footprint than industrial beef but larger than grass-fed beef
47’05 climate impact of a regeneratively raised hamburger is much better than that of a plant-based burger, which are ultra-processed factory products
47’41 the plants in plant-based “meats” come from unsustainable farming practices
48’15 lab-grown meat also problematic in its inputs
48’35 when you’re eating a plant-based burger you’re “eating patents” — it’s all about intellectual property
48’49 Stephan van Vliet and others have shown that the proteins in real meat are superior nutritionally
49’25 working with Maasai Center for Regenerative Pastoralism
50’04 bringing animals together into a community herd
50’17 livestock are the bank accounts of Maasai people and there was some hesitation
50’42 restoring the land means being able to stay on the land and not have to move to the city
53’20 the importance of the arts in the movement for a greener and healthier world
54’15 Brand New Sky song

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