Category Archives: climate change

Organic Tomato Farm’s Soils Produce High Yields During Terrible Drought

Today’s post is reprinted by permission of Charles M. “Chuck” Benbrook, who is a research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University.

Long-time readers of this site know that healthy organic soils retain moisture far better during drought-stressed conditions. Today’s post offers a pretty profound example of that principle in action this past summer during California’s drought.

Charles Benbrook reports about an organic tomato farm in California and its amazing success even during last summer’s terrible drought. The numbers he includes in this article of tomato yields and rainfall are astounding in a positive good-news way for producers of every kind, everywhere. He attributes this tomato production “miracle” to the organic soil health of the long-standing farm. (Although, I suspect because it is “Northern California-coastal” it is also receiving some moisture in the way of fogs.) Then, he warns growers that if they wish to be resilient in future weather-stresses expected from climate change, they need to establish similar soils in their own growing fields.

It’s a win-win.

Better tasting tomatoes, lower input costs, and crop resiliency.

It is better to let Nature do the work for us, instead of destroying the natural systems and then repairing the damage to get the yields we’re after.
—Kay M.


Promoting Global Food Security One Crop of Tomatoes at a Time

By Chuck Benbrook

In early September I visited a remarkable organic farm on the coast of California. This farm has been in organic production for about 30 years, and its harvests of mostly organic tomatoes have been marketed through a variety of outlets in Northern California.

I arrived on the day picking had just begun on a sloping tomato field about 6 acres in size. The crop was exceptionally clean, with virtually no insect damage and few weeds. Minimal, organically approved control measures had been used, including applications of sulfur and releases of trichogramma (beneficial wasps), along with many hours of hand weeding.

One of every dozen-plus fruits had minor, cosmetic blemishing on the skin, typically where the tomatoes contacted the soil. Otherwise, the tomatoes were picture perfect. I can also vouch for their organoleptic quality, from a first-hand eating experience at a dinner during my stay. These tomatoes also, no doubt, contain markedly higher levels of health-promoting phenolic acids and Vitamin C, for reasons discussed in an earlier blog (“A Tale of Two Tomatoes,” February 23, 2013).

The grower has since reported that the field produced about 30,000 pounds of tomatoes per acre.

Farmers in other tomato-producing regions often produce substantially more per acre.  My friend and colleague Madeline Mellinger runs Glades Crop Care (GCC), South Florida’s major independent crop consulting firm.  She and the GCC staff scout and advise farmers on pest management across about 11,000 acres of tomatoes each year.  In their neck of the woods, conventionally grown tomato yields average 50,000 pounds per acre, and in all but unusual years, range from 35,000 to 65,000 pounds/acre. Yields of 60,000 pounds per acre are common.

So what’s the big deal about a 30,000 pound per acre organic tomato yield in sunny California, when Florida (and some other California) growers often produce twice that per acre?

This was a dryland field of organic tomatoes – no, none, zero supplemental irrigation had been applied.  The field was planted in April.  Detailed weather data is accessible from a nearby weather station, which I accessed upon return to my office.

On August 6th and 7th, the last measurable rainfall had fallen in the area (0.02 inches, or two one-hundredths of an inch, i.e. almost none).  July rainfall totaled 0.16 inch, and 0.04 inch fell in both May and June. A far-below average 0.45 inch fell in April, and only 1.12 inches came in March, usually one of the year’s wettest months.

Total precipitation for the 2014 production season was 1.83 inches.  On California’s irrigated fresh market tomato fields, around 30” of irrigation water is applied to bring a crop to market, and according to the USDA, average yields are about 35,000 pounds per acre.

Organic production + 1.83 inches of rainfall = 30,000 pounds of tomatoes.

Conventional production + 30 inches of irrigation water = 35,000 pounds of tomatoes.

If a drought-weary California is forced to look for new ways to conserve water, the performance of this organic farm is both impressive and hopeful, given that it produced over 16,000 pounds of tomatoes per inch of rainfall.  On a typical, irrigated, fresh market tomato field in California, experienced growers harvest about 1,200 pounds of tomatoes per inch of irrigation water, and somewhat less than 1,000 pounds per inch of rainfall-plus-irrigation water.

How could 30,000 pounds of tomatoes per acre be harvested on a field receiving so little rainfall?

It’s all about the soil. Over the last 30-plus years, this field has been in a complex rotation, with ample amounts of added organic material and routine cover cropping. The organic matter content of the soil has been increased about two-fold – from around 1.5% to about 3% — promoting rapid water infiltration (when it rains), as well as enhancing the soil’s water holding capacity.

So what does this un-irrigated, organic tomato field have to do with feeding the world?

Governments around the world are urging people to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables to at least four servings per day (the USDA recommendation is 5-8 servings/day). The population of California is currently 38 million, so each and everyday, the good citizens of the State should be consuming at least 152,000,000 servings of fruits and vegetables.  Surely, mankind does not live by tomatoes alone, but for the sake of making an important point, bear with me.

According to the USDA, one serving of fresh tomatoes weighs 90 grams, or 0.19842 pound (i.e., there are about five servings in one pound of tomatoes).  Accordingly, 1,005 acres of similarly managed, organic tomatoes yielding, on average, 30,000 pounds per acre, would produce enough tomatoes to feed 38 million Californians four servings of this vegetable for one day.  Year-round, at the same yield level, only 366,943 acres would be needed to assure 38 million Californians get their four servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

The surface area of California is about 101 million acres, of which about 30 million acres are classified as farmland.  About 6 million acres in California are regarded as “prime” farmland. Over 500,000 acres of California land are planted to cotton most years, and another 1.5 million produce hay.  Clearly, finding 366,943 acres to produce enough fruits and vegetables (F+Vs) for all Californians should not be a major problem, at least not for a very long time.

For 314 million Americans, and the 7 billion on Planet Earth, less than 3% of available, high quality agricultural land would be required to assure production of at least four servings of F+Vs a day, per capita, year round.

Doing so, and getting the tomatoes, citrus, berries, and potatoes to the people who need them, including the poor, remains an enormous challenge, but not because of land shortages, lower yields on organic farms, or even persistent drought. In years when drought, or too much rain and flooding, or an untimely freeze, reduces fruit and vegetable production in one region, other areas can pick up at least some of the slack.  And through new methods to preserve and store F+Vs, the nation could (and probably will someday) create a strategic F+V reserve.

As climate change and severe drought become more commonplace, the importance of building soil quality as a hedge against catastrophic crop failure will grow.  Experience and insights gained on long-term, well-managed organic farms will provide a benchmark of what can be accomplished and how healthier, richer soil can serve as a buffer against climate extremes. And this will promote global food security, one field at a time.


Photo via FlickrCC Mr.TinDC.

Greenhouse Emissions from Agriculture

The recent United Nations Climate Summit put agriculture’s greenhouse emissions estimate at around 50 percent of global emissions when land use changes, deforestation, and food processing, packaging, and distribution are taken into account. Without those things, emissions from the agricultural production fields alone is estimated to be about 14 percent.

This above graphic breaks down the emissions which stem from the different categories involved in the global food production system contributing to climate change.

A United Nations Council on Trade and Development paper helps sort out the emissions numbers (below):

There are an enormous number of complexities involved in understanding agriculture’s role in greenhouse emissions. Each region and each farmer’s method varies widely, so we must attempt to make generalizations. Agriculture is the number one global land use-changer, water user, and destroyer of biodiversity.

An article in today’s WSJ contains one idea about how agriculture needs to change to reduce emissions:

Agronomist and coordinator at Grain, Henk Hobbelink, says the solution to reducing agriculture emissions lies in small farming and decentralized food systems.

“The more localized emissions of small farmers barely contribute to the overall agriculture emissions because they use very little chemical fertilizer, a main source of emissions, and produce more for local markets, so they don’t contribute as much to the transport emissions,” he said. Fresh foods also don’t create as much emissions from processing, freezing, packaging and storing in supermarkets.

The underlying factor driving all of this is population, of course. You cannot separate the issues of population from greenhouse emissions, although government policies (such as biofuels mandates) and our economic systems built upon growth (while ignoring environmental costs) also play large roles — as do our dietary choices.


sources:

http://blogs.wsj.com/numbers/how-much-of-worlds-greenhouse-gas-emissions-come-from-agriculture-1782/

http://unctad.org/en/publicationslibrary/ditcted2012d3_en.pdf

Carbon Cycle Diagram

This diagram of the fast carbon cycle shows the movement of carbon between land, atmosphere, and oceans. Yellow numbers are natural fluxes, and red are human contributions in gigatons of carbon per year. White numbers indicate stored carbon.

What is left to discover about Gaia’s complex carbon cycle? It seems we are constantly hearing about some big new factor that hadn’t previously been known. For example, just recently, we’ve been told that ants play a huge role in mineral decay and might be capable of providing a promising method to geoengineer for carbon sequestration.

Diagram adapted from U.S. DOE, Biological and Environmental Research Information System. (NASA)

8 Informative and Interesting Recent USDA Charts

For this post, I’ve gathered together some recent and especially noteworthy USDA charts with their accompanying descriptions. The subjects vary widely, so there should be something of interest for everyone.

1. Conservation Program Funding in the New Farm Bill

While the new CRP acreage cap cuts maximum enrollment by 25 percent, the impact on program enrollment and related environmental benefits may be relatively modest. CRP acreage has been declining since 2007, falling from 36.8 million acres to 25.6 million—30 percent—by December 2013. Environmental benefits, however, may not be diminishing as quickly as the drop in enrolled acreage might suggest. CRP has shifted rapidly from enrolling whole fields or farms (through general signup) to funding high-priority, partial-field practices, including riparian buffers, field-edge filter strips, grassed waterways, and wetland restoration (through continuous signup). On a per-acre basis, these practices are believed to provide greater environmental benefits than whole-field enrollments while taking less land out of crop production. Because partial-field practices are more expensive, however, CRP annual payments have fallen by only 10 percent since 2007. At the end of 2013, the average annual payment for partial-field practices was $103 per acre, versus only $50 per acre for whole fields.


2. Global Demand and Rising Costs to Affect Prices of Corn, Wheat and Soybeans

Although market responses to high crop prices in recent years, both in the United States and in other countries, are projected to lower U.S. crop prices over the next couple of years, in the longer term prices for corn, wheat, and soybeans are projected to remain high relative to historical prices. The continuing influence of several long-term factors—including global growth in population and per capita income, a low-valued U.S. dollar, increasing costs for crude petroleum, and rising biofuel production—underlies these price projections. Corn prices are projected to decline through 2015/16, but then begin increasing in 2016/17 as ending stocks tighten due to growth in feed use, exports, and demand for corn by ethanol producers. Soybean prices are expected to initially fall from recent highs but then rise moderately after 2015/16, reflecting strengthening demand for soybeans and soybean products. Wheat prices are projected to fall through 2016/17, in response to rising wheat stocks and falling corn prices, but strengthen in the longer term due to export growth, moderate gains in food use, and declining stocks.


3. Agriculture’s role in climate change: greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration

The greenhouse gas (GHG) profile of the agricultural and forestry sector differs substantially from the profile of other sectors. Agriculture is an emission-intensive sector; it accounted for less than 1 percent of U.S. production (in real gross value-added terms), but emitted 10.4 percent of U.S. GHGs in 2012. Energy-related CO2 emission sources—which dominate GHG emissions in most other production sectors—are dwarfed in agriculture by unique crop and livestock emissions of nitrous oxide and methane. Crop and pasture soil management are the activities that generate the most emissions, due largely to the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers and other nutrients. The next largest sources are enteric fermentation (digestion in ruminant livestock) and manure management. Agriculture and forestry are unique in providing opportunities for withdrawing carbon from the atmosphere through biological sequestration in soil and biomass carbon sinks. The carbon sinks, which are largely due to land use change from agricultural to forest land (afforestation) and forest management on continuing forest, offset 13.5 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions in 2012. ERS is currently involved in research on the economic incentives farm operators have, or could be provided with, to take steps to both mitigate GHG emissions and adapt to climate change.


4. U.S. Wheat Export Market Share Projected to Continue to Fall

Although global and U.S. wheat exports are projected to rise over the next decade, the U.S. share of the world market is projected to continue to decline because of competition from other exporters. Global demand for wheat is expected to expand, driven primarily by income and population growth in developing country markets, including Sub-Saharan Africa, Egypt, Pakistan, Algeria, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Brazil. The number of major exporting countries has, however, expanded in recent years from the traditional wheat exporters–the United States, Argentina, Australia, Canada, and the European Union–to include Ukraine, Russia, and Kazakhstan. Although variable, the wheat export volume of those three Black Sea exporters together now rivals that of the United States. Low production costs and new investment in the agricultural sectors of the Black Sea region have enabled their world market share to climb, despite the region’s highly variable weather. Competition from the Black Sea region, as well as from traditional exporters, has resulted in a decline in the U.S. share of expanding world exports from an average of about 39 percent in the first half of the 1980s to an average of about 20 percent over the last 5 years.


5. Food loss in U.S. grocery stores, restaurants, and homes valued at $162 billion in 2010

In the United States, 31 percent—or 133 billion pounds—of the 430 billion pounds of the available food supply at the retail and consumer levels in 2010 went uneaten. The estimated value of this food loss was $161.6 billion, using 2010 retail prices. Food loss by retailers, foodservice establishments, and consumers occurs for a variety of reasons—a refrigerator malfunctions and food spoils, a store or restaurant overstocks holiday foods that do not get purchased, or consumers cook more than they need and choose to throw the extra food away. Food loss also includes cooking loss and natural shrinkage, such as when leafy greens wilt. In 2010, the top three food groups in terms of share of total value of food loss were meat, poultry, and fish ($48 billion); vegetables ($30 billion); and dairy products ($27 billion). Meat, poultry, and fish’s 30-percent share in value terms is higher than its 12-percent share when measured on a weight basis due to these foods’ higher per pound cost relative to many other foods.


6. Dynamic growth projected for world poultry trade

Poultry meat imports by major importers are projected to increase by 2.5 million tons (34 percent) between 2013 and 2023, led by rising import demand in North Africa and the Middle East (NAME), Mexico, and Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Similar factors are expected to drive import growth in each region. Rising incomes and the low cost of poultry meat relative to other meats are projected to favor growth in poultry meat consumption among the low- and middle-income consumers in each region. At the same time, limited local supplies of feed grains and feed protein in all three regions are expected to continue to limit the expansion of indigenous poultry meat production. The NAME region currently accounts for 47 percent of imports by the major poultry importers, and is projected to account for nearly 80 percent of the increase in their poultry meat imports between 2014 and 2023. In contrast, little import growth is projected for Russia, where policies continue to deter imports in favor of domestic producers, and for China, where domestic production is projected to keep pace with demand.


7. World population growth is projected to continue slowing over the next decade, rising about 1.0 percent per year for the projection period compared to an annual rate of 1.2 percent in 2001-10.

• Developed countries have very low projected rates of population growth, at 0.4 percent over 2013-23. The projected annual average population growth rate for the United States of about 0.8 percent is the highest among developed countries, in part reflecting immigration.

• Population growth rates in developing economies are projected to be sharply lower than rates in 1990-2010, but remain above those in the rest of the world. As a result, the share of global population accounted for by developing countries increases to 82 percent by 2023, compared to 79 percent in 2000.

• China and India together accounted for 36 percent of the world’s population in 2013. China’s population growth rate slows from 1.0 percent per year in 1991-2000 to less than 0.4 percent in 2013-23, with its share of global population falling. The population growth rate in India is projected to decline from 1.8 percent to 1.2 percent per year over the same period, increasing its share of world population.

• Brazil’s population growth rate falls from 1.6 percent per year in 1991-2000 to 1.0 percent annually in 2013-23. The population growth rate in Indonesia is projected to decline from 1.7 percent to 0.9 percent per year over the same period. Although Sub-Saharan Africa’s population growth rate declines from 2.6 percent to 2.4 percent per year between the same periods, this region continues to have the highest population growth rate of any region in the world and its population decline is modest relative to other regions of the world.

• Countries with declining populations include Greece, Germany, most central European countries, Russia, Ukraine, and Japan.


8. Global trade: Wheat, coarse grains, and soybeans and soybean products

Global trade in soybeans and soybean products has risen rapidly since the early 1990s, and has surpassed global trade in wheat and total coarse grains (corn, barley, sorghum, rye, oats, millet, and mixed grains). Continued strong growth in global demand for vegetable oil and protein meal, particularly in China and other Asian countries, is expected to maintain soybean and soybean- products trade well above either wheat or coarse grain trade throughout the next decade.

• Globally, the total area planted to grains, oilseeds, and cotton is projected to expand an average of 0.5 percent per year. Area expands more rapidly in countries with a reserve of available land and policies that allow farmers to respond to prices. Such countries include Russia, Ukraine, Brazil, Argentina, some other countries in South America, and some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. On the other hand, in many countries area expansion is less than half that rate, and cropped area even contracts in some countries. Over half of the projected growth in global production of grains, oilseeds, and cotton is derived from rising yields, even though growth in crop yields is projected to continue slowing.

• The market impact of slower yield growth is partially offset by slower growth in world population. Nonetheless, population growth is a significant factor driving overall growth in demand for agricultural products. Additionally, rising per capita income in most countries supplements population gains in the demand for vegetable oils, meats, horticulture, dairy products, and grains. World per capita use of vegetable oils is projected to rise 6.5 percent over the next 10 years, compared with 15 percent for meats and 7 percent for total coarse grains. In contrast, per capita wheat use does not rise, and per capita rice consumption drops 1 percent.

• Increasing demand for grains, oilseeds, and other crops provide incentives to expand the global area under cultivation and the intensity of cropping the land. The largest projected increases in the area planted to field crops are in the former Soviet Union (FSU) and Sub- Saharan Africa. Large expansions are also projected for Brazil, Indonesia, and Argentina, including some uncultivated land brought into soybean and palm oil production in response to increased world demand for vegetable oils.

Allan Savory: “Agriculture is More Destructive than Coal Mining”

Note that this post is part of a series of posts that I am making after attending the first ever Savory Institute International Conference held last week in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado.


Allan Savory inside the Boulder Theater. June 2013.

The first talk to kick off the Savory Institute International Conference held in Boulder, Colorado last week was by the institute’s founder, Allan Savory.

Savory began his talk by explaining that he’s been addressing the subject of desertification for fifty years.

He rattled off soil erosion numbers. . . “our planet is losing 80-100 billion tons of soil per year,” calling that “the most frightening statistic in the world.”

He named some of the factors related to this soil loss, which included the burning of grasslands around the world, the loss of forests, the loss of biodiversity, and the silting of continental shelves.

Then, he explained to us that because healthy soils are an important natural reservoir of water, today we have a big problem of decreased effectiveness of rainfall due to degraded and eroded soil. This is caused by agricultural practices, not by climate change. Because healthy soils sequester Carbon, large soil losses and resting soils have led to a reduced capacity to mitigate climate change. So, agriculture is more destructive than coal mining or anything else going on in the world today. [1]

He questioned why people aren’t more aware of these facts, and then, proceeded to answer how we got ourselves into this situation.

He explained that the change began in the grasslands of the world when early humans developed plants and animals for food which altered or eliminated the grasslands. And, he explained that humans shelve their problems for future generations.

He went on by listing three problems that are causing an acceleration of these wrong agricultural practices: population growth; exploding technological advances; and a modern educational system which divides knowledge into parts so that we no longer see the whole.

Savory was on a roll here already, when next, he said he doesn’t understand why something that makes no sense, like turning 40% of the U.S. corn crop into ethanol is a policy, and there are so few people who protest it.

He questioned a system where not one dollar is spent saving soil but we spend billions looking for new oil reserves. “The world is leaderless,” he said.

He warned that, “Worse wars will be fought over water than oil.”

So, those are the problems, what is the Savory Institute doing to make solutions?

The Savory Institute is combining science, social, and environmental principles to reverse desertification at Savory Hubs which are popping up around the world. The goal is to remove the barriers to the human creativity and knowledge that we have, and then, teach and share this knowledge.

“The barriers to sensibility are 100 percent human caused,” he said. Working in Zimbabwe, Savory finds, is a good fit since “if any change occurs, it’ll happen in a small nation, not a large nation” further stating that such work would be impossible in the U.S.

Working with Zimbabwe leaders, he has seen the anger which arises from confusion of mixed messages from multiple sources that suggest different agricultural solutions. Who are these small nations to believe?

He likes the openness of agricultural policy in Zimbabwe, and then describes what it is like to pass agricultural legislation in the London Parliament, which he visited. There are so many complex pages to read, that the voters in Parliament give up trying to understand it, and just turn it back to those who wrote it to let them decide.

More quotes . . .

“We do not have a larger problem than our rising population and our deteriorating environment.”

Since the world is so very complex, “we need a holistic context.

“The role of the government in agriculture is to get out of the way for human creativity, and to remove the policy barriers.”

Bringing up another important world problem, he said that we have got to find benign sources of energy and develop them.

And yet another, “Because of desertification and other problems, many people are already migrating.”

“Nobody is talking about agriculture. Because of our agriculture, climate change will continue.”

“Although agriculture is the problem, it can also be the solution.”

He said that the world is crying out for leadership that will shift public opinion and that will come from ordinary people in communities. He added that most people are inherently good.

Then, he closed his talk with this question, “What can ordinary people do?”

Savory’s answer was a challenge to the audience with a call to action, “If you care about your children, put it on a war footing. Look in the mirror and ask yourself what did you do when you were in the prime of your life to help solve these problems?”

NOTES:
[1] This is to say that healthy soils would be capable of mitigating the CO2 that has been released from the burning of fossil fuels. This will be covered more fully in an upcoming post.

……………………………………………………………………..

DESERTIFICATION MAP FOR REFERENCE:


(Click to enlarge)

Photo Credit: Allan Savory by Kay McDonald.

Desertification Map Credit: Soil map and soil climate map, USDA-NRCS, Soil Survey Division, World Soil Resources, Washington D.C.

Previous related post here: The Savory Institute Conference.