February 2015

Conservation Agriculture: Conserving Cryosphere

“The soil does not belong to me, it belongs to every living thing on this planet.”  Conservation agriculture pioneer and author Carlos Crovetto, Chequen Farm, in the Andean foothills of the Concepción region of Chile.

I recently have become a lurker at agricultural conferences, examining direct-seed farm equipment, cover crop opportunities and financing possibilities side-by-side with folks sporting grain caps at a recent University of Vermont Extension meeting near ICCI-Global offices in Vermont, the patois of Québécoise and French-Americans blending with more New England twangs.  What does such a meeting have to do with climate change in the cryosphere?

As it turns out, quite a lot. Open field and forest burning contributes to regional and global climate change by producing CO2, methane, and – of special interest near cryosphere regions – black carbon, which deposits on nearby snow and ice, speeding melting.  Set agricultural fires often burn out of control, spreading and causing forest and grassland wildfires that release additional black carbon (BC) as well as greenhouse gases including methane and carbon monoxide (CO) in addition to CO2; damage nearby sensitive ecosystems; and cause loss of human life and infrastructure. Smoke from open burning also negatively impacts human health, sometimes significantly, as occurred during the Russian fires of summer 2010.  Russian authorities attributed an additional 35,000 death to nearby fires in July-August that year.

Consciousness of black carbon’s impact on climate has risen exponentially in the past few years, but few focus on the reality that open burning is by far the single largest source of black carbon globally, at 42% dwarfing all other sources (biomass burning for residential cooking and heating is 18%, diesel transport 14%), based on the Bond et al. emissions inventories.  Yet, almost no programs exist to address this crucial BC source.

Why the lack of attention? In part, this comes from a lack of understanding of the roots to such burning; but also, frankly, to prejudice against the farming community. Most believe, mistakenly, that a large number of forest and grassland fires are “acts of God,” due to lightening strikes or spontaneous fires arising during extreme dry periods. As such drought events multiply in a changing climate, it is true that such “spontaneous combustion” fires have become more common but lightening strikes are important in only the high boreal regions nearest the Arctic tundra. Nevertheless, outside the high boreal the vast majority of fires are caused by human activity: trash burning and, especially, set agricultural fires.

This is where preconceptions about farmers come into play: one often hears that farmers will “refuse” to stop burning, that it is rooted in tradition, stupidity and ignorance that cannot be changed and, at best, only managed.  Such preconceptions do a disservice to the farming profession, populated by people ranging from subsistence farmers struggling to feed their families and wanting to adopt the most effective and creative methods possible to improve their lives, to highly-educated corporate farmers with the same skill set as any manager of a large business. From subsistence to thousands of hectares, however, all farmers share needs for creativity, flexibility and an acute awareness of their dependence on both weather and the health of the soil. (As to “stupidity,” anthropological research cited in the works of Jared Diamond note that traditional farmers score as high or higher on intelligence tests today than Western contemporaries.)

This is where some continuing education does, however, come into play because decades-long studies now indicate that agricultural burning negatively impacts soil quality by compacting and destroying the humus and organic matter that make agricultural lands productive. Degradation of soil by burning occurs quickly and can take decades to re-build, making addressing this practice highly urgent. Destruction of root systems by burning and subsequent plowing destroys the structure of the soil, leading to more erosion, nutrient run-off and ever-greater needs for fertilizer, increasing costs for farmers as well as contributing to pollution and eutrophication of nearby lakes and streams. Far from helping then, burning of fields drastically decreases yields, at a time when agriculture is already under stress from climate change.

Yet, good alternatives exist to burning, especially those that integrate low-till or no-till methods. Conservation agriculture methods involving direct seeding, preservation of stubble to hold moisture, cover crops and crop rotation, as well as alternative uses for crop stubble such as bio-energy or livestock bedding and feed, all hold special promise as win-win alternatives to burning.

ICCI has been one of a handful of organizations working to address this issue since its founding in 2009, first in European Russia (where burning remains highly prevalent) and now with programs beginning in Ukraine, the Andes and the greater Himalayan region.  ICCI has created a new separate website with partner organizations on addressing open burning near the Andean and Himalayan cryosphere, www.openburningcryosphere.org, including Spanish-language pages; information on Russia is on this website in English and also available in Russian on the webpage of our partner there, ERC Bellona at www.bellona.ru.  In February, under the auspices of UNEP and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, we organized parallel conferences on open burning in Lima, Peru, for the Andes; and Kathmandu, Nepal, for the greater Himalayan region; and are in the process of designing pilot projects to demonstrate viable alternatives appropriate to regional and local conditions.

Carlos Crovetto, the pioneer in these methods cited above, notes that, “…after 60 years working old eroded soils, today instead of losing soil we are building soil every year through no tillage. We have increased soil organic matter from 0,6% up to 5% in the first inch,” greatly increasing his yields. With proper supports, this is the kind of result that any farmer – and cryosphere champion – wants to experience.

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