New IPCC Report Warns of Vicious Cycle Between Soil Degradation and Climate Change

This Real News Network interview with Greenpeace’s Diana Ruiz discusses the new IPCC Climate report, “Climate Change and Land,” which issues a dire warning about how climate change and destructive land use reinforce each other, leading to serious threats for soil quality and hence human survival.

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with.

The IPCC, which is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released a new report. The last report showed us the dangers of a 1.5 Celsius degree rise in temperatures, and what that could do to us, what it is doing to us. This new report, called “Climate Change and the Land,” shows the disastrous results of how two very complicated issues intersect to endanger our future. It focuses on how our use of the land contributes to climate change, and how climate change affects the land. As climate change makes farming more difficult, our methods of farming also devastate the wetlands, forests, rainforests, which exacerbates and increases the intensity of climate change itself. The end of the report offered some solutions, but we’ll explore what all that means in this conversation with our guest, Diana Ruiz.

Diana Ruiz is the Senior Palm Oil Campaigner for Greenpeace USA. She’s based in DC, and she’s leading the work to make zero deforestation in Indonesia a reality. No easy task. She has worked to make change and hold United States corporations accountable in countries including Indonesia, India, Peru and Ecuador. And Diana focuses on the range of issues that draw from industrial chemicals systems to pesticide regulations, climate mitigation and adaptation, which means that she’s a very busy woman and took time to talk to us today. And Diana Ruiz, welcome. Good to have you with us.

DIANA RUIZ: Yeah. Thank you for having me.

MARC STEINER: So let me begin by showing this clip that actually from the IPCC report itself, when they offered the report, and this is one of the co-chair’s report, giving her overview of what the report is.

VALERIE MASSON-DELMOTE, IPCC CO-CHAIR: The way we produce food and what we eat contributes to the loss of natural ecosystems and declining biodiversity. When land is degraded, it reduces the soil’s ability to take up carbon, and this exacerbates climate change. In turn, climate change exacerbates land degradation in many different ways. Today, 500 million people live in areas that’s experienced desertification. People living in already degraded or desertified areas are increasingly negatively affected by climate change.

MARC STEINER: So that was the Co-chair of the IPCC. And so let’s talk a bit about what she was saying. This was the overarching look at the report because it does something that I think that has been very hard to do. I understand the report had over 170 people in the 7,000 research projects they put together to come up with this report. But showing the interaction between the earth itself and climate change and how they interact is something that most people have not yet really considered in terms of looking at what we face for the future.

DIANA RUIZ: Yes. The, the IPCC land report really exposes the reality facing the world’s forests, and how we use our land for key agricultural commodities that are used in everything we consume and also in beauty products. For example, palm oil is one of those key drivers of deforestation that is putting a lot of stress on lands, especially in Southeast Asia. And soy is another key agricultural commodity along with the production of meat and dairy.

MARC STEINER: One of the things—What you just said to me is one of the glaring pieces. On the one hand you have this report talking about palm oil production, and production that has nothing to do with eating or the food that we consume, but is completely corporate-driven in terms of what they’re trying to sell to the world like palm oil, devastating rain forests to build these giant plantations.

But even here in the United States, the report shows that, I think they said we had 591 million acres in cropland, but only one fifth of that land is used to grow crops that feed human beings. The rest are soy and corn for industrial use to feed livestock like pigs and cattle. So it really, in many ways, we can talk about the desperation of people and what they’re trying to farm around the world, but in many ways, this problem is being driven, it seems to me, by corporations, the need for profit, what to sell us.

DIANA RUIZ: Well, you bring up a good point when you look at the United States. What we’re seeing now is more of an increase and it’s not just the United States. You’re seeing it in Brazil. You’re seeing it in other parts of the world. But the intensity and the increase of, for example, soy and palm oil that is being produced to feed cattle or poultry as part feed, and it’s that part of that sick system of the way agricultural production for these types of commodities is aggressively converting land. We’re at a critical point where we face a limited amount of land. That is having huge implications on the security of the future of the production of food.

MARC STEINER: I mean, so not only does the deforestation of our planet to create these plantations create greater pollution because of the methane and everything else that it releases. And when you destroy wetlands, I was surprised to see how much more in gigatons that it releases in the atmosphere, on top of what’s happening with our fossil fuels to get us from place to place. That’s something else that I think don’t really put their hands around yet – is the extent to which how we farm and what we farm actually does contribute to the pollution that we’re facing.

DIANA RUIZ: Yeah, absolutely. Agriculture is one of the… It is the leading driver of deforestation together with forestry and other land use. It represents 23% of human greenhouse gas emissions.

MARC STEINER: So the question is—Well, let’s take a look. This is an interesting clip. This has to do with soil devastation, and that came out this report. This is a British scientist and we’ll watch what she has to say.

KAREN JOHNSON, DURHAM UNIVERSITY: Life is at risk ultimately and that’s because all the things that we take for granted, resources that are more at the top of people’s minds like water and air, healthy air, et cetera, are related to healthy soils. Unfortunately, because we’ve not been looking after soils, we’ve been taking out more than we’ve been putting in. But if we year on year don’t return 30% of all organic matter that we take out of the soil, we don’t return it to the soil, then we see soil degradation because that organic matter is the glue that holds the little bits of rock, the minerals together.

MARC STEINER: So, and that was Sarah Johnson—Karen Johnson, excuse me, who’s professor of environmental engineering. But so what she describes here has a couple of – really attacks things in a couple of ways. I want you to comment on this. One has to do with what they’re doing to the soil itself, and what that’s releasing into the atmosphere, but also destroying the soil so we can’t grow things. But B, one of the things that side bars all this, and a major one, it forces migration because people aren’t going to sit around and just starve to death. They’re going to go somewhere to find food. So it hits the earth and our countries in more than one way.

DIANA RUIZ: Yeah. It increases the conversion of more land for agricultural use. And the issue raised around soils, it just underscores the importance that forests play in regulating our climate, as forests are a safety net for humans and for all living beings. Forests breathe in carbon. They’re able to absorb carbon. They end up regulating our atmosphere. And there’s some forests that are very carbon-rich; for example, peatland forest. And peatland forests are an ecosystem that is being threatened by palm oil plantations.

And you see the similar situation in Brazil with the savanna grasslands, known as the Cerrado, that also has rich, carbon rich soils that is also being cleared for cattle grazing. That’s part of the story of how we’re getting to desertification of these lands. Because essentially with forest areas that are very carbon-rich like peatlands, you’re essentially detonating a carbon bomb when you drain those peatlands, and then you clear that land for agricultural production.

MARC STEINER: What was also shocking on top of that and part of that is to raise cattle and to raise other livestock, that what I think I read in the report was that it was equivalent to releasing as much methane in the air as 600 million cars released in the air. Not methane, but—So that to me, those are shocking numbers. So the question becomes, the end of the report, they really tried to wrestle with what to do and how to mitigate this and how to change this.

But I must say that having read the last part of the report, it didn’t leave me in a really good mood, nor very sanguine about what the future might hold because what it will take to stop this is a major change in our culture and not just the corporate world, but our culture, the way we eat, the way we think what we need, that corporations keep pushing on us about what they think we need. This is real. And I think it’s something that we don’t understand, I think, the depth of danger we’re facing.

DIANA RUIZ: Yes. No, we agree completely. I think what the report underlines is the consequences and the urgency. I think everyone has a role to play. I think as consumers, we have a role not just in terms of shifting our consumption pattern, but we also have a role of putting pressure on these companies. Because as long as you are a company that is making multi-billion dollars off of snack foods where the key ingredient is palm oil, then you need to change course. And what changing course means is you need to change your business model so that you’re operating under environmental boundaries, that you’re taking the needs of the planet into consideration now because time is running out. It’s about stopping deforestation, but it’s also about forest restoration.

MARC STEINER: Right. I think it also clearly shows that there has to be some fairly radical measures on this planet if we’re going to save ourselves and the earth that we live on. And I think that’s part of what we’re going to be facing in all those elections taking place here in the United States, across the globe. And it’s increasingly a really serious matter. I deeply appreciate the work you do, by the way, at a Greenpeace, Diana Ruiz. Thank you so much for taking your time with us today. I look forward to talking to you a great deal more as we explore this report in greater depth.

DIANA RUIZ: All right. Thank you so much.

MARC STEINER: Thank you so much. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Good to have you with us. Please let us know what you think. Give us some of your ideas. Take care.

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  1. Don Utter

    I may have posted this link before but as I looked through the latest newsletter and saw many interesting links so I will post it again. It is the Soil Care Network from UK.

    Here are a couple of articles which are linked in the newsletter

    Meanwhile, urban soils are struggling with cigarette butts, which have been found to be a significant and long-lasting form of soil pollution in cities.

    Capturing atmospheric CO2 and returning it to agricultural soils in the form of pellets may be another way to use soils in the struggle against climate breakdown, Dr Janice Lake at the University of Sheffield finds.

    Under the new Common Agricultural Policy in the EU, soils are seen as delivering multiple functions beyond food production. This interesting paper notes that the societal demands on soils, however, vary between member states, with consequences for their future management.

    Soil health is a contested concept. This paper draws lessons from understandings of human health and ecosystem health for the conceptualisation and application of soil health.

    They had a workshop in 2017

    The workshop “Rediscovering soils: knowledge and care in the worlds of soil” bridged across disciplinary, theoretical, and empirical boundaries to debate ways of engaging with soils which promote abundant futures for all.

    Soil Care Network
    The Soil Care Network is an interdisciplinary, global community of scholars animated by the love of, fascination with, and dedication to soils.

    Soil Care Network

  2. hester

    Eat more fruits and veges. Limit your red meat consumption to once/ week was what I took from a long listen on the radio yesterday.

  3. Tyronius

    As someone whose life’s work is at the intersection of agriculture, technology, efficiency and carbon emissions (I’m developing technology to reduce the energy consumption of indoor growing facilities by as much as 70%), I find the condescending attitude of such activists as the one interviewed in the Real News piece to be both infuriating and counterproductive. The last thing Greenpeace needs to engage in is ‘environmentalism shaming’ at the hands of someone who clearly does not have a deep understanding of her subject matter. A prime example is palm oil production; it turns out that the latest innovation in that industry is to grow other crops in the palm oil plantation to encourage habitat for natural predators that eat pests and to dampen the spread and severity of disease. This amounts to actually returning the plantation to a state very much like virgin forest! That’s right; Palm oil production is increasingly part of a conservation strategy. Another example; knowledgeable cattle ranchers here in the American West know very well how to use herds of cattle to maintain and even restore grasslands and shortgrass prairie. It turns out that such habitats need regular grazing and fertilising by herd animals as part of its life cycle. Yet she paints both industries in a bad light with overly broad strokes. Her narrative is all but guaranteed to annoy the very people who are in the best position to implement it improve such responsible land management techniques. This is a big reason why Midwest farmers and ranchers really don’t like or trust conservation activists and regularly question their motives. These conservation organizations could take some advice from Mary Poppins; ‘a spoonful of sugar’ – in the form of advocating for and education about responsible and carbon friendly land use practices will ‘help the medicine go down’ and respect the imperative that everyone’s needs must be respected for progress to be made.

    1. Anon

      Conservation activists are not targeting small mid-western farmers, nor all palm oil producers. The mid-western farming techniques of large corporate farms are the concern. The palm oil plantations they target are those placed on peat soils, or other inappropriate locations. Permaculture is an attempt to create ecologically compatible agriculture. It requires very different practices than standard agriculture.

      The activist in the video was disclaiming the proliferation of cattle ranches in Brazil that are destroying tropical forests; forests that are essential to capturing CO2 and are sustainable. The forests in the southern hemisphere are different than the forests in the northern hemisphere; the soils are very different as well.

      The environmentally aware ranchers in California, for instance, understand that grazing cattle need to be moved (and culled) to match the rainfall (which has variability) and sustain the indigenous PERENNIAL grasses that are native to the America West. Often this requires smaller herds; so many of the ranchers promote higher priced “organic, grass-fed beef” to maintain the economic viability of their ranches. They cannot reduce the negative environmental consequences of cattle trampling wet soils and flowing streams without expensive fencing. In SoCal these ranches must rely on rainfall, in NorCal they transition to growing wine grapes. (My grandfather was one of those ranchers.)

      There will be a real experiment in environmentally sound ranching at the ~45,000 acre Jalama Ranch (Cental California Coast) purchased by The Nature Conservancy last year. As I see it, the biggest challenge is going to be removing /rehabilitating the crazy quilt of unnecessary dirt roads that cause soil erosion and despoil streams (Jalama Creek).

  4. Scylla

    I’m certainly no expert on palm oil production, but it certainly looks bad to me, and deforestation is indefensible. That said, There is currently a quiet revolution happening in agriculture. This involves intercropping cover crops with row crops, and intensive rotational grazing of livestock. It is still relatively early days, but it looks like these methods actually sequester carbon when all inputs are considered, and inputs are indeed reduced. Intensive rotational grazing also actually reduces/reverses desertification. Allan Savory has done a great deal of research on this, and he has a TED talk (I know- I make fun of TED talks too) that summarizes what he has found for those interested. People like Gabe Brown and Allen Williams (There are tons of youtube videos of these guys) have also done a great deal of work showing how intensive rotational grazing improves soil health by mimicking the effects the movements of large herds of prey animals(ruminants/ungulates) and predators had upon soil health/topsoil production and vegetation growth in antiquity. I’ve been heavily involved in agriculture in a supporting role for over a decade now, and I used to share the view that we needed to rapidly move away from livestock to the fullest extent possible. I have reversed that view, and it now seems to me that crop production is entirely dependent upon animal agriculture. We most assuredly need to move away from feedlot production, but intensive rotational grazing on cropland while it is fallow, rather than using machines to remove hay growth and thus nutrients/soil quality, will prove to be absolutely essential to crop production in the future, *especially* if you share the view that petroleum consumption will be reduced, either willingly or unwillingly.

    1. ObjectiveFunction

      Having spent some time traversing a few palm plantations, I must say they are generally quite dark, not much sunlight gets to the floor; a Tolkien Mirkwood feel. And the harvesters still need to get to each tree to remove the oil bearing fruit clusters. So while I hope there’s a way to make these plantations something other than biodiversity wastelands, I have my doubts. I suspect it’s more of a PR attempt by Asian producers to duck boycotts and sanctions.

  5. Telee

    Changing directions to deal with climate change is not likely to happen. Oil is a major part of the the geopolitical policy of the United States. The goal of the US policy is to control oil extraction and it’s supply to the rest of the world in order to give the US an upper hand inforcing our global dominance. Climate change is merely viewed as collateral damage to the powers that be. The financial elite are not unaware of the negative outcomes but have plans to use their riches to escape the conditions the rest of us will be force to endure.

  6. Knute Rife

    The heavy rains in the Midwest this spring drowned a high percentage of the earthworms. Which means they weren’t available to support no-till cropping. Which means a lot of folks had to pull the plows back out. Which increased erosion. Which….

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