An Interview with Timothy LaSalle – Q&A with Anna Lappé
April 15th, 2008
Timothy LaSalle is the Executive Director of The Rodale Institute, one of the nation’s leading organic farming research and advocacy organizations. We talked recently by phone. Our conversation touched on some of the key findings of the Institute’s many decades of research: sort of Rodale Institute Cliff’s Notes. Check out their website for in-depth reports and articles about these themes.
What’s the vision and mission of the Rodale Institute?
We hold the firm belief and have the hard science to back it up that farmers can be our climate change heroes.
How can organic farmers make such a difference?
Organic farmers are taking carbon out of the air by feeding the biology of the soil. These farmers are feeding a soil fungi that holds carbon for a thousand years while improving soil structure.
They’re creating robust and healthy crops in healthier soils that are ensuring against drought threat, which will only get worse as climate change gets worse. And we’re improving the nutritional quality of our crops, too. At the very same time, we’re reducing costs of production especially in times of high priced and short supply fossil fuels. We are also reducing the costs of destroying our topsoil, of chemical agriculture and farm runoff.
What we’re talking about is going to appeal to people, real people—and people are listening.
What’s the organic farming-climate change connection?
Synthetic fertilizer and oil-based pesticides release carbon dioxide into the air through the quick decay of soil organic matter. On the other hand, the organic approach, which is truly regenerative agriculture, sequesters carbon: It takes carbon out of the air and puts it back in the soil.
If we pulled these synthetic fertilizers out of our farming practices and put in compost and cover crops combined with changed rangeland management and valued old growth forests for their carbon sequestering capacity, not just their esthetics or biodiversity, we could pull so much carbon dioxide out of the air it would be at such levels as make the most significant difference in atmospheric carbon dioxide removal of any potential remedy available.
Of course, we’d still have to change our fossil fuel consumption levels, too!
Explain more about how this works.
With regenerative farming we’re building in the soil mychorrhiza fungi, which creates a protein, an encasement, which has a 1000-year half-life. So it sits down there in the soil and holds carbon for a long, long time.
When you pour fertilizer down there you kill the fungi and it volatizes into the atmosphere into carbon dioxide. Agriculture, as we now practice it, is one of the biggest contributors to global warming, but it could be one of the biggest mitigators.
Why do you prefer “regenerative” farming to “organic”?
I like to say “regenerative,” because it gets at core principles: Some people can grow “organic,” but do so without the composts and cover corps and without building the root systems that I’m talking about. It’s profound farming: We’re saying this is the way nature wants to work.
We’re also talking about grassland management. Well-managed grasslands mean, for instance letting large herds come through to eat and trample the grasses, kick up the soil, and move on. This relationship between ruminant animals and grasses is the way the Earth existed long before we humans came around and that’s what we need to foster.
The food and climate change connection has been so off the radar of policy makers, the media–so many of us. Why do you think that’s been the case?
Part of the reason why more people haven’t understood this connection is because they hadn’t been thinking the right way about farming. A conventional soil scientist thinks in terms of chemicals, not in terms of biology, which is the true health of the soil. They weren’t measuring much carbon, because they weren’t asking the right questions and they were missing the damage.
The way we have been farming has been taking carbon out of the soil: There were soils in Illinois that had 20 percent carbon concentrations; today some have as little as 1 percent.
We need to put carbon back from whence it came. The neat thing is that soils want this carbon. Let’s give it back to our soils and rebuild ecological and human health.
I’ve heard that organic farming may also help us survive the vagaries of global climate chaos because organic crops will be more capable of dealing with erratic weather.
In severe weather, healthy organic soil, regenerative soils, are going to sustain the crop better, are less prone to disasters, and are going to hold the soil in place.
Organic farming can also help us deal with another actor of global warming: droughts. We know that healthy, carbon-rich soil holds water: 1 pound of carbon holds 40 pounds of water. We know that can put 1,000 pounds of carbon back into an acre each season, that means 40,000 pounds of water will be in that soil. And in years that are too wet, the water will permeate through the soil and reduce runoff, thereby reducing flooding.
And organic systems can help us clean up the water we have: the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico is caused mainly by agricultural pollutants; 94 percent of the pollution in the Cheasapeake Bay is from agricultural nitrate and phosphates runoff.
Organic farming detractors often say that the only way we are going to feed the world is through chemical agriculture—there simply isn’t enough organic fertilizer to farm without chemicals.
I would say just the opposite. Conventional farms are on a one-way journey of addiction. You need to keep adding more and more: more fertilizer, more chemicals. And at the same time you’re destroying waterways and taking carbon out of the soils.
Conventional chemical-based systems are feeding the plant on a short-term basis. We’re feeding the soil investing in long-term and sustainable soil fertility.
Our studies are showing that organic systems outperform conventional systems in terms of production, especially in stress years, which we’re going to have many more of in the coming years.
Those who say we can’t feed the world with organic farming are perpetuating a myth of falsity. With the onset of peak oil, we will not be able to feed the planet with conventional chemical-based agriculture.
How did you get interested in organic farming?
I come from a chemical agriculture background and I used to believe in it; I was reared on it. I was convinced that this was the technology that was going to feed us. But I now realize that it’s this kind of farming that is causing us to lose top soil every year, to deplete the quality of our soil, to pollute our water. Today, I realize it’s what going to kill us.
What changed for you?
It wasn’t one epiphany, but a gradual awakening. I’ve traveled to 80 countries, including China, and I kept seeing, over and over, that what we’re doing is not working. I realized that the course we’re on is not sustainable and started critically thinking about my own training.
I also realized that your training can be your biggest impediment to growth and breaking through to new more healthy paradigms because it stops you from getting to solutions. You’re stuck in the old paradigm and you can’t get out of it.
After all, the candlestick makers didn’t invent the light bulb.
You talk about the potential for carbon sequestration if we converted corn and soy to organic, but what would happen to yield, which seems especially important in the face of climate change?There can be a transition loss as a farmer learns a new methodology. There might be some decline for a year or two, but the longer we wait the more difficult it will be. We have learned a lot on our farm and adept farmers could make the transition immediately most likely with no decline in production. If we converted all our land to regenerative agriculture, we could see immediate ecological and health benefits that would greatly outweigh any potential short term decreases in yield.
But to do this we need major policy change. We are currently suggesting legislation that would pay our farmers to sequester carbon. We’d get farmers asking how they could get that carbon into the soil. They’d learn to adapt pretty quickly. Right now they’re competing on how many tons of corn they can produce. That’s the wrong incentive.
How could farmers measure how much carbon they’re sequestering?
We’re working with DEP in Pennsylvania to look at ways to measure it quickly and easily on the farm. We’re also starting to ask: Can we start to read it from satellite? That’s not feasible yet. That’s some of the research we’d love to do with NASA.
When we hear about carbon offsets, we’re mainly hearing about forests not soil. What about forests versus farms?
Forests hold a huge amount of carbon. We know that, but even foresters don’t always understand the role of the soil in this story: Do they understand the mychorrihiza fungal role? They tend to talk about the sequestration above ground, when the important part is what’s happening below ground.
We need to pay attention to “terrestrial stewardship” – to how we manage the Earth’s land surface, how are we reinvesting in forests and grasslands and in farm land. This should be the cornerstone of the climate change conversation.
How does all this work connect with the Farm Bill?
Right now, virtually all of the billions spent by the federal government for agriculture is not going to the regenerative agriculture you describe, but to conventional agriculture.
We should all be working with our legislators to get them to see that the 2012 Farm Bill should pay farmers, foresters and rancher to sequester carbon, and pay for only the carbon that can be validated and confirmed so the incentives to better stewardship are insured. We should be paying the farmers who truly benefit every citizen of the world.