Picture of Margaret Reeves

Margaret Reeves

Reflections on “Soil Not Oil”

Earlier this month I had the great pleasure of participating in a two-day Soil Not Oil conference in Richmond, California.

Earlier this month I had the great pleasure of participating in a two-day Soil Not Oil conference in Richmond, California. Dozens of workshops and presentations addressed both crises and opportunities at the nexus of food, farming and climate change — from the science and culture of agroecology to renewable energy, land trusts and worker cooperatives.

The bottomline: climate change is upon us. And everyone from consumers to farmers to policymakers can — and must — work together to mitigate and reverse our current trajectory.

Agroecology, resilience & community

A host of inspiring speakers showcased agroecological methods that are more productive, more energy efficient and more resilient to vagaries of climate than conventional agriculture. Benefits range from healthy, productive and disease-free soils to reduced water use to dignified and well-compensated employment for farmers and workers alike.

UC professor Miguel Altieri presented data, as compelling as ever, that small-scale, largely peasant agriculture is what feeds people around the globe. Industrial agriculture, in contrast,  primarily produces fuel, animal feed and highly-processed food-like products (my words). 

Small-scale agriculture is what feeds people around the globe.

With my presentation coming on Day 2, I could shift away from the by-then-redundant ‘what is agroecology’ message to focus in on the importance of community.

I started my presentation showcasing the phenomenal story of Singing Frogs Farm. Described as an “island of biodiversity in a sea of grape monoculture,” this northern California farm models no-till plus compost resulting in off-the-charts levels of soil organic matter. The farm is also committed to local marketing, and ensures year-round employment to their highly-skilled and highly-appreciated workforce.

I then highlighted the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), an operation on California’s Central Coast that successfully trains former farmworkers to become organic farm owners and operators. Both these farms show the tremendous potential of people-centered agriculture.

Why soil?

There’s no question that restoring and building soil health is fundamental to transforming our food and farming systems — and meeting the challenges of a changing climate. The transformations we so urgently need starts with soil health, typically measured by both biological indicators and soil carbon levels.

So it was wholely appropriate that the conference started with an inspiring presentation by Rattan Lal, Director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, and my own postdoc mentor at Ohio State University in the early ’90s.

As always, Dr. Lal presented impressive data — like the estimate of five tons of living organisms in a hectare of soil (2.5 acres); or that the top 30cm of soil can hold about 700 giga tons of carbon (that’s 700 x 109).

Why is this important? Because agricultural soils around the world have an extraordinary capacity to reduce dangerous levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases by capturing carbon dioxide and holding carbon in the bodies of plants, animals, fungi, bacteria and other organisms.

As Dr. Lal put it, soils are integral to any efforts to mitigate climate change.

Soil health, public health

From city governments to Sacramento to UN meetings in Paris, public policy can make a big difference. We need policies that promote agroecological practices to restore soil health, correct the many ills of industrial agriculture, address climate change challenges — and build healthy urban and rural communities.

In this context I, as well and Dr. Ann Lopez and others, reminded the audience of the catastrophic impact of current, common, indiscriminant use of highly hazardous pesticides on the hundreds of thousand of farmworkers, their communities, and especially their children who live, play and attend schools in close proximity to routine use of hazardous pesticides.

So, while we celebrate the California legislature’s recently passed resolution in support of the International Year of Soils and the governor’s wise move to establish a Healthy Soil Initiative, we must to not forget the urgent need to also protect the public health of agricultural communities.


Picture of Margaret Reeves

Margaret Reeves

Margaret Reeves is a PAN Senior Scientist with expertise in agroecology and soil ecology. As a long-time farmworker advocate, Margaret serves on the Board of the Equitable Food Initiative and works with partners around the country to ensure worker-protective federal and state policy. Follow @MargaretatPAN

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