by Laura Parker Roerden
(October 3, 2019) Last week I had the privilege to present at the Wright Locke Farm Speaker Series in Winchester, MA as part of Climate Week.
After an emotional week of watching youth all over the world rise up to simply ask for a livable future, it was heartening to see so many adults filling seats to hear more about climate solutions. The setting could not have been more appropriate in a barn of the same vintage as ours at Jo-Erl Farm overlooking a pasture where Rhode Island Red chickens roamed, much like they had during the time my grandfather kept a poultry on our land about sixty miles south of this one. It was hard to not wonder if these two farm families had ever met.
I’ve long held one foot each in two camps: farms and oceans. I usually quip that “farms chose me, but I chose oceans.” Yet it has become increasingly clear that climate change is asking us to look more inter-sectionally at solutions. Might thinking holistically about necessary changes to farming and ocean conservation be a climate solution that is greater than the sum of its parts?
Farming and Its impact on the Ocean
Oceans have for decades been negatively impacted by conventional farming, where a heavy reliance on inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides find their way to the sea carried downstream by rivers, rain, and flooding and cause increases in algal blooms, dead zones, and red tides. This method of farming strips soil of its living matter, which creates a vicious cycle of needing to increase nutrient loading to simply continue production. As the soil becomes more denuded, this leaves much of our farmland less able to hold water, and more subject to flooding and desertification, which further contribute to sedimentation and runoff entering our oceans.
Additionally, the carbon footprint of conventional farming has many of us wondering how we can continue to feed a growing world and attack climate change at the same time? In addition to contributing up to a 1/3 of the current greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, part of the equation includes the 50-60% of the carbon that conventional farming activities like tillage (plowing) releases into the environment from soil.
The solution appears to be right under our feet: soil! Soil is a natural carbon sink, which means it takes carbon out of the atmosphere. Yet we have degraded soil’s ability to do so by a hundred years of farm practices that takes carbon out of the soil instead.
What if I told you there is a method of farming that requires little to no inputs and helps soil maintain its health, vitality, nutrients, ability to hold water, and capacity to take carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it into the soil? You might think I was dreaming. But fortunately, it’s true! Known as regenerative farming, this method of farming rebuilds our soils by little to no tillage, the planting of cover crops that fix nutrients into the soil, a reliance on poly-culture and diversity in the community, and the careful management of animal grazing through a method that mimics the bison on the prairie with high density herd management and constant movement and rotation in temporary paddocks.
Project Drawdown rates regenerative farming as number 11 on their list of top climate change solutions.
Furthermore, there is a business case to be made for regenerative agriculture: farmers can expect a pay off in increased yields and less labor. Project Drawdown estimates a pay off of $1.93 trillion by 2050 after an investment $57.22 billion. That’s a pretty enticing investment, without even considering about the impacts related to the ocean and its conservation.
To put this context of the other Project Drawdown climate solutions, regenerative agriculture holds more promise than nuclear or offshore wind turbines.
How Does This Relate to the Ocean?
If we look back at all of the impacts of conventional farming on the ocean: from increased sedimentation to fertilizer runoff to non-point pollution from decreased water retention, regenerative agriculture is positioned through its lack of chemical inputs and water retention to reduce every one of those negative impacts. I have yet to see anyone who has done the science to reconcile the full cross-benefits of regenerative agriculture on ocean conservation, but it stands to reason that these methods could help mitigate many of these chronic and acute impacts to ocean health currently caused by conventional farming.
Ocean conservation matters—but not just for the protein from the ocean that 2 billion people in the world rely on, but as a climate mitigator. The ocean absorbs much of the heat from greenhouse gases, as well as takes 20-30% of the excess carbon out of the atmosphere. However, it is the living biomass in the ocean that makes the ocean impactful as a carbon sink. If we lose this biomass because of overfishing, die-offs and dead zones, we have decreased our ocean’s capacity to perform this critical function.
Whales, for example, can take 190,000 tons of carbon out of the atmosphere a year: the equivalence of 80,000 cars a year being taken off the roads. Their conservation is not just a matter of their charisma, romance or tourism value, but rather that they perform an important service in mitigating climate.
As Aldo Leopold once said, “the first law of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the parts.” Ocean conservation, regenerative farming, flood mitigation, fresh water conservation and our other efforts to create climate resiliency should be part of an integrated strategy, one where all the parts are on the table together.
How to Get Others to Join
Yet, as the millions of marchers across the globe during climate week were asking us to notice, to date we have lacked the political will to act at the necessary scale. What will it take to get others to join with us?
Research shows the single best motivator and predictor of activism is not information, but the degree of connectedness one experiences in community. Furthermore, additional motivators include a sense of place, a sense of meaning, and sense of self within the larger context.
Which begs the question: what sort of experiences give us that sense of place and sense of meaning within the larger context?
Over the 25 years I have been working with youth in environmental education—on both farms and in the ocean—young people have been teaching me the answer.
Sometimes, it looks like this:
We might not all come to the table, ready to eat; but just being invited can become the greatest healer of all. And once we are included, we can begin to experience the gifts of belonging, resiliency, and the expansion of our sense of tribe.
It’s the hands-on experiences within our community addressing real need that will make the difference to turn keying others to help with the urgency of climate change. We simply must engage everyone—no matter their political leaning— in understanding how our health and lives are tied to the living biosphere in ways each can appreciate and understand.
We do not need to start with climate change. In fact, perhaps it’s better if we don’t. Simply start with what there is to love about where you live and connect to how the intricately-laced systems sustain us.
Programs growing food on farms like the ones at Wright Locke and engagements with ocean conservation and our watershed like Ocean Matters are critical to this sense of connection. As my dear friend Liz Cunningham, author of Ocean Country, so aptly says, “hope is a verb.”
Climate change might just be asking us to understand our place, not just the place of whales and farms, in that larger whole. So as we reach out to ask others to join with us—our neighbors, our youth, our institutions— let’s remember to break down silos that keep us isolated and to create structures for new connections, including places for each of us to make meaning from the fact that we truly belong.
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Laura Parker Roerden is the founding director of Ocean Matters and the former managing editor of Educators for Social Responsibility and New Designs for Youth Development. She has served on the boards of Women Working for Oceans (W20) of the New England Aquarium and Earth, Ltd. and is a member of the Pleiades Network of Women in Sustainability. She lives on her fifth generation family farm in MA.