What Massive Land Rehabilitation Project Teaches Us About Ecological Health, Poverty and Our Prospects for the Future

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June 07, 2016 | 183,456 views

Story at-a-glance

  • The Chinese Loess Plateau regeneration project proves that in a mere decade, a community can transform a desert landscape into a lush, thriving landscape capable of producing abundant amounts of food
  • Floods, mudslides, droughts and famines are not inevitable. They’re the result of improper land management. Poverty is also closely connected to land degradation, and is therefore not an inevitable fate either
  • Modern agriculture drives destruction of ecological systems, polluting soils, air and water, and uses so much water it threatens to deplete ancient aquifers that cannot be replenished

By Dr. Mercola

The featured film, "The Lessons of the Loess Plateau" by John D. Liu reveals the pitfalls of agriculture. Yet it gives hope for the future — if we take the correct route. Man has done great damage to the environment with our short-sighted vision for food security and the production of goods.

Yet projects such as the regeneration of the Loess Plateau in China show that when we make the right corrections, we can reestablish a thriving environment once more, and much quicker than expected.

The Loess Plateau was until recently one of the poorest regions of China where centuries of agriculture had taken its toll. Erosion turned once fertile soils in this mountainous region into a desert-like landscape, unable to support plant growth. Similar situations exist all over the world.

In fact, according to Maria-Helena Semedo, Ph.D., of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), if the current rate of land degradation continues, all of the topsoil around the world will be gone in 60 years.1 There is hope though — provided we DON'T continue the way we're currently going.

Soil scientist Liu of the Environmental Education Media Project (EEMP) has followed the Loess Plateau regeneration project for the past 15 years, and today, the once barren landscape is again filled with thriving forests, and farmers are again able to produce abundant amounts of food.

The film documents this truly historic project, and how lessons learned at the Loess Plateau might help restore fertility to barren lands around the globe.

Poverty and Land Degeneration Go Hand in Hand 

The regeneration of the degraded Loess Plateau began in 1995, when locals joined forces to construct a new landscape on a truly vast scale. As noted by Liu, many of the tragedies witnessed around the world on a regular basis are actually rooted in improper land management.

Floods, mudslides, droughts and famines are not inevitable, he says. Moreover, all over the world you find that poverty is closely connected to land degradation, so poverty is not an inevitable fate either.

The good news is that the destruction can be reversed. We have the ability to dramatically improve the condition of the land, thereby reducing these kinds of threats to our health and wellbeing.

So how did the locals on the Loess Plateau do it? First, they ceased farming in certain areas to allow trees and shrubs to regrow. This was by no means easy, as poverty-stricken farmers had to be persuaded to let their land rest and turn into forest.

Ultimately, what got everyone onboard was the promise that they would have tenure of the land and that they would directly benefit from these efforts.

Next, the tops of the hills were replanted with trees, and terraces were constructed for the planting of crops. At the bottom of the barren ravines, dams were constructed to provide water.

Hills and gullies were designated as protected ecological zones. Farmers were financially compensated for not farming in these zones, and for keeping their livestock in pens rather than roaming free to graze the hills bare.

Lessons Learned at the Loess Plateau

Thirty-four minutes into the film, you'll see before and after footage of this mountainous area. It's a truly breathtaking transformation from tan sandy slopes to lush green terraced hills, which now produce very high yields of a wide variety of food crops.

This superior yield is the result of the supporting natural vegetation, Liu says. When it rains, rather than eroding the sloped fields the water now stays put, trapped by the vegetation on and surrounding the fields.

Moreover, as water is trapped in the soil higher up on the mountain, it continues to feed the terraces below with water over weeks and months as it slowly trickles downward.

An area spanning 35,000 square kilometers (more than 13,500 square U.S. miles) has now been restored. And it only took 10 years for this transformation to occur. It has also transformed the lives of the people, with incomes rising threefold since the project began.

Rehabilitation projects such as this also have global benefits, as plants remove carbon from the air via photosynthesis, countering rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere that contribute to climate change.

Modern Agriculture Drives Water Crisis

Drinking pure water every day is a key component of optimal health, yet more than 1 billion people on Earth do not have access to safe, clean drinking water, and this problem is by no means restricted to impoverished nations. The U.S. is also struggling with increasingly scarce and toxic water supplies.

Agriculture again plays a crucial role. Two of the primary water polluters are large-scale monocrop farms and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), states with high concentrations of CAFOs report 20 to 30 serious water quality problems each year.2 These operations also deplete aquifers of valuable drinking water.

In fact, agriculture uses up to 70 percent of the world's fresh water. Regenerative agriculture could cut that by a significant margin, as healthy soil is an excellent water conservator. Rich soil holds and retains water well, and since it's not running off, you don't have to water nearly as much.

Many American Aquifers at Risk of Depletion

As previously noted by National Geographic:3

"Aquifers provide us freshwater that makes up for surface water lost from drought-depleted lakes, rivers, and reservoirs.  

We are drawing down these hidden, mostly nonrenewable groundwater supplies at unsustainable rates in the western United States and in several dry regions globally, threatening our future.

We are at our best when we can see a threat or challenge ahead ... we see the looming crisis and respond. We are not as adept when threats — or threatened resources — are invisible."

Disappearing groundwater is one such invisible threat that most people rarely, if ever, think about, let alone actively address. The problem is that while shallower aquifers can be replenished (provided you're not pumping out more than is seeping back in), deeper aquifers usually cannot.

Once they're drained of their ancient water supplies, they will remain empty for eons to come. Once that happens, it will likely have a dramatic impact on our way of life.

A number of aquifers across America are now at risk of depletion, including California's Central Valley, the Colorado River Basin, the Southern Great Plains, and the Ogallala Aquifer below the High Plains. (Researchers predict that if farmers in Kansas keep irrigating their fields at present rates, nearly 70 percent of the Ogallala aquifer will be gone in less than 50 years.4)

The Water Crisis in Mexico

Mexico is also facing serious water shortages. Large-scale farms use so much water that villages are left "high and dry." In the state of Guanajuato, 82 percent of the total water use goes to large farms that don't even have to pay for it.

"As far back as the 1980s, even before the free trade agreement, the government imposed a ban on most new wells in Guanajuato. But water extraction increased exponentially. What allowed that to happen is 'a pretty well-known system of bribes and corruption,' Mr. Terrell [executive director of CATIS-Mexico] said.

Every year, farms bore farther into the aquifer, and scientists warn that as they go deeper they are reaching tainted water deposited between 10,000 and 35,000 years ago.

'Here is the challenge for the authorities,' said Marcos Adrián Ortega Guerrero, a hydrogeologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. 'It is to administer water that is thousands of years old, water that is contaminated with arsenic and fluoride which is causing great harm and that they have never wanted to acknowledge,' The New York Times writes.5  

CATIS-Mexico

According to a recent report by the Royal Botanic Gardens in the U.K., one-fifth of all plants worldwide are now threatened with extinction, primarily through the expansion of agriculture.12 Forests are also being destroyed through the reckless practice of disposing municipal sewage sludge in wooded areas.

According to Environmental Health News,13 about 120,000 tons of sewage sludge is disposed in King County, Washington each year. From there, rainfall distributes the toxins into streams and wetlands, and on into the Snoqualmie River and the Puget Sound. As explained in the article:

"This sludge, known euphemistically as 'biosolids,' consists of semi-liquid waste obtained from the processing of municipal sewage. The goal of this process is to obtain clean water to release into the environment, and thus, the cleaner the water, the more toxins and contaminants are retained in the sludge.

This sludge used to be dumped into the ocean, but because of its toxicity this process is banned. Instead we now spread it in our forests and on our agricultural lands."

The 'Organic' Dirt You Buy at the Hardware Store Is a 'Biosolid' Fraud

Last year, I interviewed David Lewis, PH.D., a microbiologist and former EPA scientist. He actually got fired for blowing the whistle on the corruption and conflict of interest at the EPA that caused industrial waste and toxins to be stealthily inserted into the fertilizer applied to our farmlands, and sold to us in potting soil with biosolids.  

Many well-intentioned gardeners actually purchase biosolids that are legally sold as "organic," and they have no idea that they're loaded with highly toxic materials.

Beneficial use of sewage — human waste — could be a great system for recycling nitrogen and phosphorus back into the soil by using it as fertilizer. The problem is, the sludge approved for use in fertilizer also contains industrial waste, which is loaded with heavy metals and toxins, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and brominated flame retardants like polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs).

According to the featured article, still unpublished analyses reveal high concentrations of PBDEs in soil and water samples taken from forests where sludge has been applied.

How did the EPA end up allowing this, you might ask? In 1970, after the Cuyahoga River caught on fire and the EPA was created, various industries were dumping bioproducts and pollutants straight into the river through a pipe. The EPA began to regulate this waste, and it became very expensive for factories to comply with the Clean Water Act — and this applied to virtually all industries, not just pharmaceutical and chemical companies.

Today, city sewer lines run right to the factories, allowing them to dump their waste into the city's sewage treatment plants. This is now a standard part of our infrastructure, and it saves industries of all kinds a ton of money — billions of dollars — because once a regulated chemical or waste enters the sewer line, they're suddenly exempt from EPA regulation!

So the EPA basically created a system in which chemicals we know to be problematic in part-per-billion or part-per-trillion levels in water and in air, are concentrated millions of times higher in sewage sludge, and then applied to farmland, and other areas where we live and work.  

Trees Play an Important Role in Regenerative Agriculture

We certainly make an awful lot of mistakes. Several problematic areas have been discussed in this article. The good news is there are also plenty of really good solutions. Speaking of trees, they do more than contribute to clean breathable air. They also play an integral role in regenerative agriculture.

Last year I interviewed Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, an innovator in the field of regenerative agriculture who has developed an ingenious system that has the potential to transform the way food is grown. In his poultry-centered system, trees perform the protection function of hen houses. Trees also help optimize soil temperature and moisture content, extracting excess nutrients that the chickens deposit, bringing up valuable minerals from below the soil surface.

Trees were also a critical part of the solution when McDonald's U.K. tasked Benchmark Holdings with improving their egg supply chain. As noted by Benchmark:14

"[W]e started our process by understanding the chicken. What we found was that our ordinary chicken's ancestor was a South East Asian jungle fowl. It lived and flourished under the canopy of trees.

This varied environment allowed the chicken to have and do what it wanted some shade and protection from predators, elevation and opportunities to perch, the covered ground to scratch and peck for food and dust bathe to keep its feathers clean ...

We found that simply planting trees outside hen houses improved the welfare and production of the flocks. When laying hens in free range systems are provided with trees, they range more. We found that being out more and venturing further afield means that the laying hens don't peck at each other as much, which in turn improves the welfare of the flock.

For the first time, we also showed that this improves the productivity of the flock ... [T]he provision of trees on the range reduces the mortality in the flock. We also found that planting trees on a minimum of 5 percent of the range lowered the numbers of 'egg seconds' which due to their lower eggshell quality are worth 30 percent less than grade A eggs subsequently boosting the farmers income."

In closing, it's worth reiterating that regenerative farming methods are the answer to every single issue brought forth in this article, from the rehabilitation of land turned to desert and improving water management and quality, to eliminating the need for toxic fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals and reducing greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide.

I've focused mainly on reviewing the problems in this article. To learn more about the ins and outs of implementing regenerative farming systems, please review the related articles listed in the sidebar.

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 Scientific American December 5, 2014
  • 2 CDC.gov, Understanding CAFOs and Their Impact on Communities (PDF)
  • 3 National Geographic August 2014
  • 4 Wichita Eagle August 26, 2013
  • 5 New York Times May 19, 2016
  • 6 CATIS-Mexico
  • 7 MPR News May 24, 2016
  • 8 MPR News May 20, 2016
  • 9, 10 In These Times April 28, 2016
  • 11 2008 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development
  • 12 Newsweek May 10, 2016
  • 13 Environmental Health News May 25, 2016
  • 14 Benchmark Holdings November 19, 2015