Oliver Balch interviews Project Drawdown’s Dr Jonathan Foley, but finds him oddly reluctant to talk about regenerative agriculture
Project Drawdown enjoys a reputation as the go-to place for proven, pragmatic solutions to today’s climate crisis. Its current list, which runs to 81, ranges from LED lighting and microgrids to restored wetlands and walkable cities.
Nature-based approaches feature highly, especially when it comes to land sinks and agriculture – two sectors on which the science-heavy advocacy group places special emphasis.
There’s no question that Jonathan Foley is a fan of natural solutions. Planet Earth’s ecosystems have been balancing one another out for millions of years. As he readily admits: “Nature is a better engineer than we are.”
All the same, Project Drawdown’s director doesn’t seem especially interested in discussing such solutions in detail. An hour-long interview offers up just a few crumbs.
Imagine an overflowing bathtub. Before you mop up the mess, you turn off the tap
He is keen on regenerative grazing, for instance, although he is slightly non-plussed by the attention it receives – especially when planting trees or deep-rooted grasses is equally effective at trapping carbon in the soil.
His reluctance doesn’t derive from a lack of knowledge. Prior to joining the San Francisco-based non-profit in late 2018, Foley had built up a successful, 25-year academic career as an environmental scientist. (His CV includes various professorships and prizes, including the prestigious Heinz Award for the Environment).
And besides, the ink is still wet on Project Drawdown’s fascinating recent primer on regenerative farming. So even if nature-based solutions weren’t his bag (his specialism is atmospheric science), he has a ready script to read from.
So why the caution? Three reasons. First, agriculture’s carbon footprint is way out of whack. Important as sustainable land-use methods are, priority number one has to be on fixing the current shambles.
The global food system is responsible for around one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions, he notes, with the chief culprits being carbon dioxide from deforestation, methane from cattle and rice production, and nitrous oxide from the overuse of chemical fertilisers.
Imagine an overflowing bathtub, he says. Before you think about how best to mop up the mess and fix the warped floorboard, you turn off the tap.
You can build all the carbon sinks you want, but you have to still turn off the sources of pollution
This is what a lot of the regenerative guys don't want to talk about. You can build all the carbon sinks you want on the other side of the ledger, but you have to still turn off the sources of pollution.”
Of course, one way of doing this may be to swap current nature-wrecking modes of land use with nature-enhancing alternatives. A straight exchange of slash-and-burn farming techniques for “conservation agriculture” would be a case in point.
The problem is that rarely is the transition quite so clean. With its feet rooted in lived realities, for example, Project Drawdown advocates not an end to nitrogen fertilisers but rather their reduced (and better directed) use.
Same with rice. The organisation’s answer isn’t to put an end to the intensive production of the ubiquitous cereal grain (unwise given that it’s a staple for three billion people), but to farm it more sustainably – with wider spacing, for instance, or with intermittent dry periods.
The second reason for Foley’s hesitancy about nature-based solutions is a residual scepticism towards business. It’s an attitude that he retains despite Project Drawdown’s decision last October to launch a corporate partnership programme. Drawdown Labs counts 14 founding members, including the food companies General Mills and Impossible Foods.
Agroforestry is a case in point. Despite practices such as tree intercropping and silvopasture being widespread in many parts of the world, large food companies are much keener to push regenerative cropping and managed grazing.
It's not like we're locking carbon up in rocks. It's in soil and the next farmer could plough it all up again
Agroforestry is less convenient for big, mechanised farming to have trees in the way of their tractors even if it [agroforestry] does reduce erosion and offers habitat for biodiversity.”
He goes further. Prefacing his comment with the caveat, “if you were cynical”, he suggests that big business’s embrace of regenerative agriculture could be seen as an attempt at “maintaining the status quo” rather than at fixing today’s broken food system.
So, if cattle-produced methane is a problem, don’t reduce total headcount or push plant-based diets, just graze your herds differently. It’s a case of “let me have my free lunch today, and I'll pay you back next Tuesday”, he argues.
Then there is the fact that locking in carbon through nature-based solutions only works if it stays locked in for millennia.
In a world in which farmers move on, land contracts switch and food markets fluctuate wildly, however, even progressive-minded farmers cannot offer such long-term guarantees.
“It's not like we're locking it [carbon] up in geologic soil, like in rocks. It's in soil and the next farmer could come around and plough it all up again. In fact, that's happened quite a few times.”
Everybody nods their head and says, ‘Yes, yes, we should deal with food waste’, but nobody is putting money into it
Agriculture’s current carbon footprint combines with Foley’s scepticism of business in his third reason for keeping talk of nature-based solutions at bay: namely, food waste.
Any of the long-term gains that might be achieved from working more closely with nature pale when compared to the immediate benefits of cutting post-harvest losses. To Foley’s mind, the fact that one-third of all the food we produce (equivalent to around 8% of global emissions) never makes it to our plates is a “moral catastrophe”.
Think of all the degraded agricultural land that could be restored and the threatened forests that could be saved if the problem were addressed, he argues. Yet, the focus of food companies remains fixed on increasing yields (and profits) rather than cutting losses.
“Everybody at least nods their head and says, ‘Yes, yes, we should deal with food waste’ [but] nobody is putting a lot of money into it ... I'd love to see as much money going into food waste as we put into GMOs.”
He is more enthusiastic about the contribution of ocean sinks, which hold infinitely more potential for storing carbon than land-based solutions, he says. Encouraging photosynthesis by aquatic plants (known as the “biological pump") especially excites him. (See The race to reap the climate dividend of protecting coastal habitats)
“Since we don’t farm the bottom of the ocean, we don’t plough it up and burn it, it’s basically stable down there . . . these plants get buried in mud for thousands of years,” he argues.
Our position is that time is more important than technology. There's no other variable that matters more
But let’s just suppose that the food sector heeds his advice and gets its house in order. Are nature-based solutions the way forward?
Naturally, the answer is “yes”. Not only is Project Drawdown in the game of pushing regenerative agriculture, but the alternative (ie continuing with today’s environmentally destructive farming techniques) is unconscionable.
But for Foley, what counts is what can deliver now, today. Future breakthroughs hold far less interest for him. If and when they come along, great, integrate them. Just don’t hold off acting today because of what just might – or, far more probably, might not – happen tomorrow.
“Our general position is [that] time is more important than technology. There's no other variable that matters more,” he states.
“Look, if your house is on fire, you don’t talk about disrupting the fire suppression business. You grab a damn hose. Because that's what you've got. And that's kind of effectively what we have to do now.”
Nature-based solutions are that hose. The problem is that right now we need a second hose as well – one big and powerful enough to dowse the forest fires and other planetary crises being unleashed by the unnaturalness of modern industrial farming.
Oliver Balch is an independent journalist and writer, specialising on business’s role in society. He has been a regular contributor to The Ethical Corporation since 2004, and writes the Brand Watch column in Reuters Sustainable Business' monthly magazine, The Sustainable Business Review. He also writes for the Guardian among other UK and international media. OIiver recently completed a PhD at Cambridge University, focusing on corporate ethics in foreign investment.
This article is part of The Ethical Corporation summer 2021 in-depth briefing on natural capital. Click on the cover to download your digital copy for free.