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Michael Doane

The Nature Conservancy 

Michael Doane is the Global Managing Director for Sustainable Food and Water for The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Michael leads a team of the organization’s foremost experts to scale up conservation outcomes across productively managed farming, ranching and agroforestry landscapes.

Providing food and water sustainably is a top global priority for TNC with a focus on minimizing the conversion of natural landscapes to agriculture, restoring degraded croplands and grasslands with advanced soil health, grazing and nutrient management techniques, and securing freshwater in basins threatened by pollution or overuse.

TNC has significant food, water and climate programs across the Americas and emerging programs in Africa, India and China. Michael and his team are developing creative strategies to build new business models designed to accelerate conservation gains through catalytic finance, innovation, public policy and agri-food supply chain programs.

Additional excerpts from Pamela Tanner Boll’s interview with Michael Doane

Tell me a bit about The Nature Conservancy's work with regards to agriculture. 

The Nature Conservancy has been around for a long time, and it's been focused on environmental issues for all of its tenure, but over the last, let's say decade or so, we've realized just how important the management of agriculture, and fresh water is to our overall mission, which is to conserve the land and water upon which all life depends. So if we don't get agriculture right, if we don't have agriculture that's productive, and efficient, and also contained to a footprint that's manageable over the long run we don't have a chance of achieving our mission. 

How are you encouraging farmers and ranchers to change their practices to better manage the health of their soils?

Today farmers are farming in ways that they've learned over the last few decades. We're using practices that came out of our knowledge from agricultural science, ways to control pests, ways to add fertility to the landscape, ways to increase the productivity of both plants and animals. Many of these practices rely on fertilizers, on pesticides, on products that are brought to the farm to increase the productivity of the farm. 

Many of these products are still necessary today, but what we're now finding is that there is a way to farm that starts to focus on one aspect of the farmer's area of management, which is the way they manage the soil, and this is a paradigm shift. 

In my way of thinking, this is over the next generation, going to be really the keystone of how we can both increase productivity on the farm to meet growing food demand, but also do it in a way that starts to harmonize the ecological needs that we have for farming and ranching with nature. The opportunity is this, by focusing on managing soil as a living ecosystem, recognizing that it is, is and should be alive. There's a wonderful symbiosis that can occur when plants, and these microscopic creatures in the soil start to interact, where we can see them increasing the fertility of the soil, increasing the hydrology of the soil, sequestering and holding carbon in the landscape in ways that are very beneficial for the climate.

Is there anything problematic about tilling the soil?

No till farming started in the early 1980s, and it started without the advent of good technology.

Unfortunately, what we now know is that there are several things that happen to that soil when it's turned that are not good for the life in the soil. For one thing, their home is disturbed, the stability of the soil, the structures underneath the ground have been disturbed, and so what they've been preparing as a home has now been turned over, and disturbed. We also lose the carbon that's been stored in that soil, so there's a release of carbon dioxide that occurs when we till the soil.

What are your thoughts on cover crops? 

Another practice that is relatively new is the practice of installing a crop that is not a cash crop, it's not grown to be harvested, to be sold as grain, or to be fed to livestock, but is grown specifically to service the soil, and we call it a cover crop. The roots in the soil are actually performing a service for that soil.

Are regenerative farming practices completely new or are they rooted in some pre-industrialized farming practices?

This is fairly recent knowledge. It's also ancient knowledge, that's what makes it interesting, is that farmers a 100 years ago knew that there was life in the soil, they managed that life, they didn't understand it completely, but they knew that they needed to rotate crops. They knew that if they planted clover before corn they could create nitrogen in the soil that would then feed the corn. They knew that there was a rhythm to the way the soil would work.

Why is photosynthesis such a powerful tool? How can it benefit farmers and also society as a whole? 

Photosynthesis is a process that all plants use to sequester, and exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. We've now taken carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, it's up in the atmosphere, the plant recruits it, pulls it into the plant, and turns that into carbon and in the meantime, it takes the oxygen, the other part of that carbon dioxide, and pushes it back up into the atmosphere providing oxygen for the rest of us. 

This is photosynthesis. This is not new. It's not new technology. It's been around since the dawn of time, but we now know that we have a problem, we have excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We are looking for ways to rebalance that. We're looking for cost-effective ways to do that, and it just turns out that the scale of agriculture is enormous. 

There are something like 1.8 billion hectares of cropland around the world, and if you would convert a lot of those areas to these practices of not tilling, of planting cover crops, more diverse crop rotations, keeping the soil covered, it would make a meaningful change in the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It would also provide carbon to the soil, which we are now in deficit of. Over time as these agriculture practices have played out we've lost carbon. We've lost carbon to the atmosphere, and that creates a productivity challenge for the farmer.

In my way of thinking, there are very few win-win-win scenarios of this magnitude that we have in society today, where we could really address a major problem for farmers, which is the productivity of their lands, we could really address a major issue for society, which is climate change, and it would be good for rural communities. It would be a good way for them to make their lands more productive without bringing in more inputs to the farm, but their farms become more productive, and so those farmers, and their livelihoods become more sustainable.

Tell me a bit about the history of agriculture.  

One aspect that we have to remember is that agriculture started, we think, 10,000 years ago. The earliest farmers harnessed plant diversity for human consumption, but also for the landscape. They recognized that planting in intervals, creating cycles of weed control, pest control, and harvest, that that was a way to manage the landscape, a way to feed people.

There are places in the world where those agricultural practices have changed hardly at all over the last 10,000 years, yet there are places where agriculture looks nothing like that anymore, where we have become industrialized. 

We've used science, technology, equipment, mechanization, the latest technology to radically change the way that we produce food. What I would suggest is that one is not wrong, and one is not right, it's that we need to look at the lessons from both. 

How do we take this heritage knowledge of plant diversity, and farming with limited tools, but farming in a way where we're looking at nature, recognizing the rhythms of the natural world, and also harnessing the know-how that's been created over the last 10,000 years?

If we focus on the soil, and take our heritage knowledge, and our latest scientific knowledge, and combine them to focus on what we can do to improve the soil, I think that has great potential for us to improve agriculture enough that we can meet so many challenges for society. We can address climate change, we can produce enough food without growing the footprint of agriculture.

How do you manage land to create healthy soil? 

In one word healthy soil is soil that's alive. Soil over time has lost its life, and as the soil has lost its life it's lost its productivity, it's lost its function for both the environment, and for people. It's a home for the microorganisms, this home provides a service in terms of carbon storage, water storage, fertility management, there's just enormous benefits that come once we create this optimal home for the living creatures in the soil. 

Healthy soil is a solution for climate change. When soils become healthy and alive they sequester carbon at a high rate, a rate that is meaningful to address global climate change. 

There is an interesting transition that can occur for industrial agriculture, and that is once we start to manage for healthy soils it moves from its industrial form to a different form, to a form that is more regenerative, that uses inputs differently, that is more ecological, and more productive.

How urgent is the shift to nature-based climate solutions?  

A couple of years ago The Nature Conservancy asked this question, "Where can we get the most cost effective climate mitigation reductions between now and 2030?" What we found were in three areas, forestry, agriculture, and coastal wetlands, because we don't need to invent new technology, photosynthesis exists, it works, we know how it works, we just need to turn it on. 

The whole point was to say you don't need to put scrubbers on coal plants. You don't need to talk people into things where they disavow their lifestyle. We can really cost-effectively go invest in forestry, agriculture, and coastal wetlands, and get 40% of {the emission reductions we need} now, because we don't need to invest in photosynthesis.

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