Let’s cut out pesticides: Healthy soils mean healthy people and can bring county closer to zero emissions
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Let’s cut out pesticides: Healthy soils mean healthy people and can bring county closer to zero emissions

Jul 02, 2023

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Our community is spot-on when we ask for advance notification of pesticide applications. The need to protect human health from hazardous pesticides is clear. In July, 35 doctors asked for this very thing in an editorial in the Pajaronian.

What was missed in this call to action about human health was what the pesticides are also doing to the health of our soil. It, too, is negatively affected by pesticides.

In 2018, 67% of Santa Cruz County’s overall pesticide applications were fumigant gasses, mainly chloropicrin, a toxic air contaminant, and 1,3-dichloropropene (Telone), a toxic air contaminant and carcinogen. No other county in California applies such a high ratio of fumigants compared to total pesticides. This trend continues year after year.

Chloropicrin and 1,3-dichloropropene kill soil microbes and nematodes so that plant pathogens cannot attack berry plants. Over time, continuously fumigated soils become “denatured,” depleted and low in essential organic matter. Worms and other soil organisms disappear. Soil loses its fertility.

Such soils hold little moisture, are prone to wind and water erosion and leave crops vulnerable to climate change. A recent United Nations study states that in 60 years, our planet will lose most of its topsoil unless we move away from conventional chemical farming.

Organic farming practices offer an alternative. Healthy, living organic soil teems with billions of beneficial microbes, channeling soil nutrients to plants in exchange for sugars the plants produce. Simply put, microbes in healthy, living soil take carbon from the air via plants and store it underground — a natural, low-tech, low-cost solution to climate change. This carbon adds organic matter to soil, increasing resilience to droughts and floods by improving soil structure.


• Watsonville City Council supports organic conversion near area schools• Pressure building on pesticides, Driscoll’s says it will consider organic-only by schools• Organic’s big South County moment: Might school-zone pesticide switch provide momentum for change?• Pressure mounts on pesticides near schools — especially those on Pajaro Valley outskirts• Pesticide activists meet with Driscoll’s leaders, say organic transition details remain ‘unclear’• OPINION: Ag companies regularly spray my neighborhood with pesticides; it’s time to make them stop• A LOOKOUT VIEW: It’s 2022; we need to stop spraying pesticides around our children and schools

Staff of Life Natural Food Market and Lakeside Organic Gardens offer some useful phrasing in their promotional materials: “Organic farming creates healthy soil. Healthy soil creates healthy food and a healthy environment. It keeps the bees and pollinators and rivers and lakes free from toxic chemicals.” In addition, healthy, living soil takes carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal climate-changing greenhouse gas, and puts it in the ground where it belongs.

I attended a Watsonville City Council meeting in early November 2021, in which the council gave final approval to its Climate Action Plan 2030. In the slideshow consultants presented, it was clear that with all the interventions of city and resident electrification, recycling and renewables, there would still be an estimated 100,000-metric-ton shortfall in reaching zero emissions by 2030.

In 2017, Watsonville’s carbon footprint was 210,000 metric tons; at present it is 150,000 tons. By 2030, it is projected to be reduced to 100,000 tons.

However, when the slideshow reached the heading, “Climate Restoration & Sequestration — Removing CO2 from the Air,” tree planting and regenerative agricultural practices were listed, but there was no blueprint for implementation. This is how the role of healthy soil in carbon capture is often overlooked and underplayed.

I attended that council meeting to invite the public to CORA’s (Campaign for Organic & Regenerative Agriculture) first town hall meeting on Nov. 14, 2021. In my two minutes of council input, I explained that healthy, living organic soil is an ecosystem teeming with billions of beneficial microbes, channeling soil nutrients to plants in exchange for sugars the plants produce. A teaspoon can contain as many organisms as there are humans on our planet.

The passage of Measure Q preserves farmland and prevents suburban sprawl in the Pajaro Valley. Santa Cruz County has about 7,000 organically farmed acres and it is time to recognize and incentivize these farms as climate-action champions which sequester multiple metric tons per acre per year and actively reduce CO2 in the air.

Nationally recognized soil expert Bobby Whitescarver offers some metrics: “Agricultural soils, at least in Eastern North America, can store about 8 tons of carbon per acre (at a depth of 10 inches) for each 1% increase in soil organic matter. So if a farmer has a field of soil at 1% organic matter and increases that to 2%, [they are] storing 8 tons of carbon per acre. We could have a soil carbon payment program or a tax credit program that would then pay or credit the farmer …”

Tim LaSalle, former CEO of Rodale Institute, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that supports research into organic farming, agrees. Offsetting greenhouse gas emissions by implementing and incentivizing carbon storage in healthy organic soils, he says, is a plausible, workable method of addressing climate change.

Applying this data to the Pajaro Valley, expanding and improving our already-existing 7,000 organic acres over eight years (to 2030 and beyond) could sequester thousands of metric tons of carbon — possibly more than Watsonville’s estimated shortfall of 100,000 metric tons per year in reaching zero emissions by 2030.

As the acreage of healthy soil increases, so will the capacity for carbon capture.

Whether or not these numbers are exact (soil ecosystems are variable), the point is that the carbon cycle in healthy soils can be applied to reduce greenhouse gasses in Watsonville and the Pajaro Valley by continuing and expanding organic agriculture.

We are an agricultural community, and we should inventory and recognize the contributions of our county’s healthy-soils agriculture toward mitigating climate change. We owe it to our future.

Woody Rehanek was a farmworker in Washington state for 18 years and a special education teacher in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District for 18 years. He is a member of SASS (Safe Ag Safe Schools) and a founding member of CORA (Campaign for Organic & Regenerative Agriculture).