Cover crops help build soil health and avoid soil erosion. Photo credit: John Harkins.

Soil Not Oil promises hope in a world of decaying agriculture

by Antonio Roman-Alcalá, sustainable food campaigner

The recent Soil Not Oil International Environmental Conference successfully connected the many issues we face in the environmental movement around one in particular: how to transition from a fossil fuel driven food system to one based on regenerative, carbon-mitigating agricultural practices. Several members of the Friends of the Earth’s Food and Technology team attended and participated in the conference.

Staff Scientist Kendra Klein facilitated a panel on the promise of agroecological practices, featuring luminaries like John Jeavons, founder of Ecology Action; Penny Livingston, permaculture designer and educator, and Paul Kaiser, co-manager of the innovative no-till “deep organic” veggie-producing Singing Frogs Farm. Kendra outlined the meaning of agroecology and how it links techniques like “biointensive,” “permaculture” and “no-till” through a central commitment to building soil health. She also highlighted findings from Friends of the Earth’s new report: Farming for the Future: Organic and Agroecological Solutions to Feed the World. You can view the panel below:

In its dictionary definition, agroecology is “an ecological approach to agriculture that views agricultural areas as ecosystems and is concerned with the ecological impact of agricultural practices”. In practice, agroecology is both a science and a social movement that guides farmers towards a set of practices that work with, not against nature, like composting to keep healthy soils alive with microorganisms, attracting beneficial insects to control pest problems, growing a greater diversity of crops and interplanting vegetable crops with tree crops.

Agroecology has been practiced by communities around the world for millennia, and at its best, it integrates traditional and indigenous knowledge with ecological science. In recent decades, it has become a unifying framework and a social movement to combat, mitigate and ultimately heal the destruction being wrought by industrial farming systems.

Senior Food and Technology Campaigner Dana Perls led a panel on “emerging genetic engineering technologies” like synthetic biology, CRISPR and “gene drives.” Alongside longtime activists like Claire Hope Cummings, Monica Moore and Gopal Dayaneni, and scholar Maywa Montenegro, Dana educated attendees on how this “genetic engineering 2.0” is moving fast and threatens to lead to profound social and ecological consequences. Dana also facilitated a breakout session to dive further into this topic and to illuminate what we can do to put environmental precaution ahead of corporate profits. You can view the plenary below:

I facilitated a panel on land grabbing and its implications for global food systems’ sustainability. I had the honor of translating the words of Mario Romero Luna, a leader of the Yaqui tribe in Mexico who is fighting against water diversions for industry that are driving his people off their ancestral lands, and connected this specific case to the general patterns of global land grabs. A great overview of land grabs, their impacts on sustainable farming communities and the resistance these communities are presenting was provided by Elizabeth Fraser of the Oakland Institute. You can view the plenary here.

I also spearheaded a breakout session that sought to link activism for sustainable food at all scales: from on-the-ground urban projects to national policy initiatives. Many people from diverse projects participated in this vibrant conversation.

All of us can play a role in shifting agricultural policy and markets towards the solutions-based vision shared at this forward-thinking gathering.

Dana, Kendra and I were all very inspired by our experiences at the conference and we look forward to deepening the conversation and advancing all of the great work of those who presented and attended! Whether you attended the conference or not, all of us can play a role in shifting agricultural policy and markets towards the solutions-based vision shared at this forward-thinking gathering.

Diversified organic vegetable production. Photo credit: John Harkins.

We know we can’t make the transition from chemical intensive monoculture to more diversified agroecological food systems without dramatic changes in government policy. That’s why Friends of the Earth is joining with many other groups to advocate for positive policy solutions, many of which were discussed at the conference. These include:

  • Boosting public investment in conservation programs, research and technical assistance to expand support for transition to organic and more diversified, sustainable production systems;
  • Increasing small- and mid-scale food producers’ access to arable land, water, credit and fair markets, with a focus on women, disadvantaged, beginning and young farmers;
  • Shifting subsidies and policies away from support for biofuel and livestock feed crops and into support for diversified, nutritious crops and mixed crop/livestock systems; linking existing subsidies, including crop insurance to the implementation of diversified farming and conservation practices;
  • Shifting diets by enacting nutrition and procurement policies that promote consumption of more sustainably produced plant-based foods and less meat;
  • Increasing living wages and strengthen and enforce labor laws protecting agricultural workers, particularly women;
  • Strengthening the regulation of industrial agriculture and concentrated animal feeding operations to reduce air and water pollution and curb greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Enacting stricter regulation of use of synthetic chemical inputs, including banning the routine use of antibiotics in animal agriculture and bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides.
If you want to join us in this fight, please start by signing our petition to tell the USDA to increase its support for organic agriculture in the United States.