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A Farm Bill to Save The Earth, Fix Health Care, and Create Jobs

by Jonathan Denn, published

I’ve written here previously asking if we, the People, should be subsidizing obesity? In response, it seems a super majority (84%) believe we should not. However, many people may not know that the U.S. subsidizes sugar and high fructose corn syrup manufacturers.

There is overwhelmingly good science that excess simple sugar consumption over-stimulates insulin production and can lead to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Yet, cash-strapped Americans will eat what they can afford to put on the table. It appears we, the People, are incentivizing the wrong behavior if we truly desire to cut health care costs. These subsidies are in our Farm Bill. And, the healthy folks are subsidizing the health care costs of the not-so healthy folks through ever-higher premiums.

While it may be clear how a farm bill can help lower health care costs, how could it possibly reduce climate change? Dr Christine Jones, a prominent Grassland Ecology Scientist from Australia, says:

It would require only a 0.5% increase in soil carbon on 2% of agricultural land to sequester all Australia’s emissions of carbon dioxide. That is, the annual emissions from all industrial, urban and transport sources could be sequestered in farmland soils if incentive was provided to landholders for this to happen.   This would provide Australia with a 50 year ‘window of opportunity’ to be carbon neutral while implementing viable technology to meet future energy needs.

Here is an excerpt from an article by California group, Sweetsoil, in the context of Dr. Jones’ assertion:

“So what exactly does that mean to us in the United States?  Well, here in California, 50 years ago our Carbon levels in the soil were at 8 or 9%.  Now they are down to 4 or 3%. Where did all that extra carbon go……atmosphere perhaps? The big question is how long does it take to build soil?  In nature it takes at least a thousand years to build one inch.  With modern techniques we have seen dramatic increases in soil formation.  Abe Collins, Founder of Carbon Farmers of America, has documented 8 inches of soil depth in a single season! That’s more than enough to increase soil Carbon by 1% in less than a year.”

Using basic math, we could theoretically dial back the carbon load on the atmosphere in about 6 years — if we had the will. It might not even increase U.S. expenditures if Farm Bill subsidies were redistributed away from obesity, toward topsoil management, and away from corporate topsoil strip farming.

A quick chemistry question: What is CHO? That's one Carbon atom (C), one Hydrogen atom (H), and one Oxygen atom (O).

The answer is carbohydrate. Our three macronutrients are protein, fat, and CHO. Grasslands are carbon stockpiles not only in the plant materials, but more so in the soil.

Livestock ate grasses for millennia — not corn. Grass-fed livestock is better for the animal and for people, but corn feeding is cheap and easy and makes a quicker buck. Native American corn used to be chocked full of phyto-nutrients, delicious, and was high in protein. Unfortunately, it has a lower yield, which begs the question, can we as a nation afford quality food? And if not, shouldn’t that be a goal?

There is also good science that much of our American diet is Omega 3 fat deficient. Omega 3 is the primary building block of the myelin sheath that protects our entire nervous system. Dr. William Sears, also known as "America’s Pediatrician," says that ADD and ADHD symptoms, for example, are the same as Nutritional Deficiency Disorder (NDD), which is especially lacking in Omega 3.

Grass has Omega 3. Grass-fed beef and pastured chickens have Omega 3. Corn feeding deprives the rest of the food chain of its Omega 3. Many doctors and nutritionists even recommend using butter in moderation if it is from organic grass-fed cows.

Wes Jackson the president of the Land Institute, states:

“Let’s assume that those who are concerned about climate change may know that land use is the number two source of greenhouse gases. When they ponder the various solutions and how long each will take to yield significant results, they will realize that we have a “fast track” solution. By that I mean it is sure to bring dramatic positive results long before the number one source of emissions, power plants, have been significantly shut down and before the transportation problem as the number three source of emissions has been licked."

A major piece of the Land Institute’s 50 Year Farm Bill are perennial grasses. Much progress has been made since 2009 when this proposal was first made as two firms are already eying the Kernza wheat grass they have been developing. One is Patagonia for a line of sustainable food products, and the other is Ventura Spirits who wants to use it to make Grass Roots Whiskey.

The goals of the 50 Year Farm Bill are to protect soil from erosion, cut fossil fuel dependence to zero, sequester carbon, reduce toxins in soil and water, manage nitrogen carefully; reduce dead zones, cut wasteful water use, and preserve or rebuild farm communities.

While Jones and people like Alan Savory -- who is an advocate for the tight management of grazing herds -- are more aggressive in their predictions of how much carbon can be sequestered in the natural course of restoring earth’s topsoil, others are not so optimistic. Dr. Jason West and Dr. David D. Briske of Texas AgriLife Research and Extension estimate:

“…of the 8 Petagrams (Pg; trillion kilograms) of carbon are added to the atmosphere every year from fossil fuel burning and cement production alone…to put these emissions in perspective, the amount of carbon taken up by vegetation is about 2.6 Pg per year.”

They go on to say that the planet’s plant production would then need to triple just to be zero carbon based, and that the availability of water could be a limiting factor.

It appears Jones and Savory are arguing with West and Briske over whether this is an outstanding plan or a miracle. I suspect the difference has something to do with depth of topsoil, but that is drilling down too deep for this article. (Oh, but individually drilling oats into prairie grasslands is a terrific soil/yield management plan.)

A simple solution to the debate of deeper soil carbon sequester would be to add some research dollars to the 50 Year Farm Bill or any Farm Bill for that matter. It’s hard to imagine leaving the possible long-term investment in deep topsoil to an agriculture industry focused on next quarter’s profits. At the very least, a three-track approach focusing on short, medium, and long-term food production seems prudent.

, which is pretty much most places. It would reduce health care costs by both ending subsidies for unhealthy foods and supporting a return of healthier perennial foodstuffs. Oh yeah, it’s arguably the most viable plan to curb climate change.

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