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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

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

June 07, 2016 | 176,050 views

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  


The TED Talk above features Dylan Terrell, executive director of CATIS-Mexico,6 a non-profit organization based in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato State, in central Mexico.

CATIS-Mexico works in partnership with economically limited communities to provide them with resources and training to help them access safe and clean drinking water. One of their major projects and successes has been the development of ceramic filters that can provide clean water for drinking, free of bacterial contamination.

The filters used by CATIS-Mexico are made in a simple hand mold using locally available clay and burn-out material (such as waste sawdust). They are fired in a kiln and then treated with a colloidal silver solution to kill pathogens. One CATIS filter produces about 24 liters of water a day, requires little maintenance and lasts two to three years. It can reduce the cost of potable water from $0.10 a liter to $0.001 a liter.

I partnered with CATIS-Mexico last year, after I visited the organization to see their work first-hand. The ceramic filters are making a great impact on the safety of drinking water in these local communities in central Mexico. However, they're not able to remove fluoride or arsenic from the water, so CATIS is also working on other technologies that can be coupled with these filters to also remove these toxic contaminants as well.

Researchers at Northern Illinois University (NIU) in DeKalb, Illinois are collaborating with CATIS-Mexico to develop a system using bone char and biochar a charcoal that absorbs heavy metals. It too can be created locally and may help remove pathogens along with dangerous components in the water like arsenic and fluoride. If you would like to support the water-filtration efforts in rural Mexico, please donate directly to CATIS-Mexico.

Agriculture Responsible for Water Pollution as Well

Toxic blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) also plague many areas. In Minnesota, at least 18 dogs have died from blue-green algae poisoning in the past decade after playing in contaminated lakes.7 Chemical runoff from farms is again the primary culprit. Cyanobacteria feed on phosphorous and nitrogen, and while dead plants, leaves and fish produce these chemicals naturally, fertilizer runoff gives them a turbo-boost, as the amounts are that much greater than normal.

Minnesota now has cyanobacteria growing in thousands of its lakes. As noted by MPR News:8 "Those lakes can be rescued, but it's a massive undertaking that requires farmers, firms and homeowners to change the way they do business."

Similar situations exist just about everywhere there are major farming operations. To address the problem, we need land-use management practices that address fertilizer runoff. The most ideal long-term solution is to alter our farming practices altogether to root out toxic chemicals and soil additives, and to grow crops in such a way that the farm actually contributes to the overall health and balance of the environment rather than polluting it and creating a dysfunctional ecosystem.

Fertilizer Industry Shouldn't Be Allowed to Rule Climate Policy

Crazy enough, 60 percent of the private sector members of the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture, launched at the 2014 United Nations (UN) Summit on Climate Change in New York, belong to the fertilizer industry. The notion that the fertilizer industry would actually be helpful in devising long-term sustainable solutions to improve agriculture and combat climate change is laughable on several accounts.

For starters, fertilizer companies don't want regenerative agriculture since such a system involves eliminating as many agricultural chemicals as possible. Secondly, the fertilizer industry is a major supporter of fracking — hardly an environmentally sound practice that helps combat greenhouse gas emissions. As reported by In These Times:9

"One possible explanation for the fertilizer industry's successful policy coup is that its role in climate change is poorly understood and severely underestimated ... [It] is Yara and other fertilizer companies that suck up most of the natural gas produced by the fracking boom in the United States.

Fertilizers, especially nitrogen fertilizers, require an enormous amount of energy to produce. Estimates are that fertilizer production accounts for 1 to 2 percent of total global energy consumption and produces about the same share of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This production gets bigger every year.

Supplies of nitrogen fertilizer, which is produced almost entirely from natural gas, are expected to grow nearly 4 percent per year over the next decade. And this production will increasingly rely on natural gas from fracked wells, which leak 40 to 60 percent more methane than conventional natural gas wells. (Methane is 25 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas.)"

Agricultural Fertilizer Use Creates as Much Greenhouse Gas as All Gas-Powered Vehicles Combined

While fertilizer production produces its share of greenhouse gases, most of the emissions occur upon application. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 1 out of every 100 kilos of nitrogen fertilizer applied to farmland ends up in the atmosphere as nitrous oxide (N2O), a potent greenhouse gas (300 times more potent than CO2) known to deplete the ozone.

In 2014, the amount of N2O created by nitrogen fertilizer spread on American farmland was equal to one-third of the N2O released by all cars and trucks in the U.S. More recent research suggests the real number is three to five times higher than that, and that nitrogen fertilizer use in 2016 will generate more greenhouse gas emissions than all the vehicles in the U.S.

"The fertilizer industry has long known that their chemicals are cooking the planet and a growing body of evidence shows that their products are not needed to feed the world," the featured article states.10 "Farmers can stop using chemical fertilizers without reducing yields by adopting agroecological practices.

This was the conclusion supported by the 2008 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD)11 — a three-year intergovernmental process involving over 400 scientists that was sponsored by the World Bank and all of the relevant UN agencies.

Faced with this dilemma, the fertilizer companies have moved aggressively to control the international debate on agriculture and climate change, and to position themselves as a necessary part of the solution."

Forests Destroyed by Toxic Fertilizer

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.

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