Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Welcome to How to Save a Planet. I'm Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.
Alex Blumberg: I'm Alex Blumberg. And this is the show about what we need to do to address climate change, and how we make those things happen.
Alex: Hey, everyone. It's just me today. My normal co-host, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, is off this week, but she was part of an interview that we're gonna be featuring in this episode, so you do get to hear her voice. So for years now, we've been hearing a lot about immigration.
[NEWS CLIP: The drama unfolding south of the border tonight]
[NEWS CLIP: Another caravan of migrants... this time about 2,000.]
[NEWS CLIP: The migrants are quickly discovering they may not be welcome in either the United States or Mexico.]
[NEWS CLIP: These people crossed into Mexico illegally. They were met with riot police and waves of tear gas.]
[NEWS CLIP: What do you say to many people in the United States who look at this as an invasion?]
[NEWS CLIP: Calling it a quote "National emergency," vowing to send in the US military.]
Alex: In recent years, news reports threw around phrases like "migrant caravan," and "border surge." But these words hide what we're really talking about, which is people. People who are trying to make the best of the choices in front of them. And many of those people trying to enter the United States through the border with Mexico aren't actually from Mexico. They're from Central America10—and specifically a region of Central America called the Dry Corridor. It's a region that includes more than 10 million people, and stretches across countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. And since 2010, this region, the Dry Corridor, which is heavily dependent on farming, has had to deal with recurring droughts.
Alex: Daniel McQuillan is a Director at Catholic Relief Services, an organization that does many projects with farmers in the region.
Daniel McQuillan: We've had projects that have lost 20, 30 percent of the participants or the families participating over a year- or a two-year period that have ended up migrating. And if you ask participants and farmers that we're working with, "Has anybody in your family left?" most will say yes."
Alirio Martinez [translated]: I know a lot of people that have left for the US—and especially Canada—risking their lives.
Alex: This is Alirio Martinez, one of the farmers that Daniel works with. He's from Jocotan, Guatemala, which is in the Dry Corridor.
Alirio Martinez [translated]: Two years ago almost to the day, we had 45 days without any rain in the region. 45 days without rain made people lose everything. People lost it all, all their money. They couldn't even break even on what they spent on seeds, nor the other costs. People leave the country because of necessity, people don't leave because they want to, they're pushed out because of their kids' or their elders' needs.
Daniel McQuillan: What I think is important to remember is that this isn't these families' life plan.
Alex: Again, Daniel McQuillan from Catholic Relief Services.
Daniel McQuillan: Their life plan is to stay on their farm, it's to stay in their communities where their family is, where their friends are. The fact is is that sometimes that's just not an option for them, and they need to look for other opportunities to make a go.
Alex: According to the United Nations World Food Programme, an estimated 12 percent of Dry Corridor residents in Guatemala have family members who've migrated recently—more than one out of every 10 people. And the thing that's driving many of those people to leave is climate change. Researchers have established that this persistent drought, which is forcing so many people to flee, is caused by climate change. So what gets reported in the US news as an immigration crisis is actually a hunger crisis, brought on by the climate crisis.
Alex: But Alirio Martinez, even though he lives in the same region from which so many have been forced to leave, he himself has not left. He hasn't needed to. He has enough food to eat, because he learned about a different way of farming, a way of farming he learned about from Daniel McQuillan's organization, Catholic Relief Services. It's a way of farming that makes your crops much more resistant to drought, a way of farming that Alirio and Daniel think could reduce the need for people to leave their farms in Central America in the first place. Make them not have to risk that dangerous journey to the US or Mexico or Canada. Today on the podcast, we are going to be talking about that solution.
Alex: Today's episode: the climate crisis causing the border crisis, and how some simple changes to the way farmers in the region grow their crops could go a long way to fixing the problem.
Alex: Welcome back. So typically, when we think of a drought we think of a period without rain. But what's happening in the Dry Corridor is a little bit more complicated. The Dry Corridor is embedded in what ecologists call a tropical dry forest, and if you've ever seen a nature documentary with, say, a giraffe, or a komodo dragon, or a sloth, you've seen a tropical dry forest before. It's where those animals live.
Alex: You can think of a dry forest as a tropical rainforest's cousin. But while a rainforest gets its name because it basically rains all year long, a tropical dry forest swings between rainfall extremes. So for about half the year—maybe five to eight months—the region receives a lot of rain—more than six feet—but the other half of the year is followed by a relatively rain-free season, in fact that can last sometimes as long as seven months.
Alex: So the farmers who live in this region, the Dry Corridor, they've adapted by learning to plant and grow everything they'll need for the entire year during the half of the year when the rains come—planting enough during the rainy season to get them through the dry season. But Daniel McQuillan at Catholic Relief Services told my co-host Ayana and me, that starting a decade or so ago, he and his colleagues started to notice that something was off.
Daniel McQuillan: What we started to see as Catholic Relief Services is that food aid and emergencies started to become more frequent in this area. Instead of being a once in a decade thing, every two out of three years we were being called on to provide emergency aid and food aid for this region of central America. And then talking to scientists, looking at climate data from the region, you could see that patterns really were shifting and that although interestingly, the rainfall volume has not changed very much, it has become much more volatile and irregular.
Alex: Specifically what was becoming irregular was this dry spell that usually happened during the rainy season, which locals call the canicula. The canicula typically came somewhere in the middle of the rainy season, and it lasted anywhere from one to two weeks.
Daniel McQuillan: In normal years, a canicula, this dry spell, is a good thing because it dries out the crop a little bit in the heart of the rainy season, and then the rains pick up again. And it's always happened, it's not a new phenomenon. But what has been happening is that canicula has consistently been getting longer. And when the canicula gets longer, there aren't many crops that can make it through that length of a dry spell. And then the one crop farmers were getting a year, they're losing that.
Daniel McQuillan: So let's take 2018. That was the last severe drought in the region. So the canicula grew to 40 days. So corn, maize, beans cannot make it through 40 days right in the middle of the growing season without rain. And so during that drought, 2.2 million families lost their crops, and another 1.6 million were pushed into food insecurity.
Daniel McQuillan: So the stakes are high. This is the difference between being able to feed your family or not. The difference between generating a little extra production to be able to sell and pay school fees and make improvements on your household, or having to skip some meals, pulling your kids out of school, starting to sell some of your small assets like pieces of equipment, chicken, livestock that you have around the farm, liquidating those savings to get you through those difficult periods. And again, farmers the world over are used to difficult times, and are used to shocks and crises, but not three or four times every five or six years. And that's the real problem is that it's becoming more and more frequent. The bad years are becoming the new norm.
Alex: A new norm caused, of course, by climate change. Because of the amount of greenhouse gas emissions we have already released into the atmosphere, a certain amount of warming is already locked into the system. It is highly unlikely that rainfall patterns will go back to what they were before. So these farmers? They have to adapt to this new norm, which is what Daniel and his team have been working with farmers to do. Daniel and the team at Catholic Relief Services have a way of farming that they call climate-smart ag—or sometimes water-smart ag. The results are impressive.
Daniel McQuillan: Farmers that are implementing these water smart agriculture practices, as we call them, are able to make it to 20, 25, 30, even 35 days without rain. They still have humidity in their soil, they still have enough water in their soil to keep their corn growing through that difficult dry spell.
Ayana: That's extremely exciting!
Alex: So what is water-smart or climate-smart ag? Well, we're gonna start by explaining what it's not: the conventional way of farming that has been happening over the past many decades in the Dry Corridor. So conventional farming there looks a lot like conventional farming here or many other places in the world. Farmers plow or till the fields at the start of the planting season, they turn over the soil so that it's nothing but flat dirt. They apply large amounts of fertilizer and herbicides and insecticides. And then when the crop is ready, they harvest it, and often they'll burn the leftover stalks so that it's just bare dirt again. As we talked about in a previous episode, "Soil: The Dirty Climate Solution," this manner of farming, it does terrible things to the soil.
Daniel McQuillan: These practices, which have been very common over the past few decades, have been exacerbating soil degradation. So you have soil degradation plus increasing climate pressures that are creating this livelihood crisis and this migration crisis.
Ayana: Explain, like, what is degraded soil? What does that mean? What is different about that soil that makes it so much less good?
Daniel McQuillan: One way to think about it is healthy soil is like a sponge. It's able to absorb rainwater when it falls on it, it allows rainwater to permeate into the soil. Whereas degraded soil is like concrete. It's compacted, and that's made even worse when you're in a dry area, and the sun is baking down on that soil. Just think about in the city when a downpour comes and hits the sidewalk and it all just runs away. That's degraded soil. And healthy soil is a sponge that's capturing that water and allowing the plants and allowing the crops to uptake that water. We often call it green water. You need to be able to hold that green water in the soils to get you through the canicula.
Alex: So that old way of farming, this conventional way of farming that turns soil into something like concrete, it's working less and less well. People need a new system, which brings us to water- or climate-smart ag, the system that Daniel's group has been working to implement in the region.
Daniel McQuillan: So climate-smart agriculture, or we call it water-smart agriculture, we mainly focus on four main pillars.
Alex: Pillar one: use fertilizer the right way, which means use the right kind in the right places in the right amounts at the right time. So for example, try to time your applications after a big rain has come, so you don't get a lot of run-off. Pillar two: don't till and don't burn. Just leave the stalks in the ground, and let them be absorbed back into the soil. Pillar three: use cover crops, which are crops that aren't your main food crop, and that add nutrients to the soil. And pillar four: diversification. Which means planting other stuff besides your crops. Things like trees.
Daniel McQuillan: Trees are important for many reasons. We're talking about—since these are maize and bean staple crop systems, we're not talking about huge trees, we're talking about smaller species, many of which are nitrogen-fixing species of trees. And so you're integrating them onto the farm, they provide some shade, they add biomass to the soil, organic matter to the soil. So there's also a carbon sequestration piece there as well. They're fixing nitrogen if they're nitrogen-fixing species, and they also hold soil. And so they cut down on that runoff, they capture more water in the soils.
Alex: Got it.
Ayana: Help with erosion.
Daniel McQuillan: Help with erosion.
Alex: Uh-huh. Cool.
Ayana: Gotta love trees.
Alex: The emphasis on trees helping to improve the conditions on a farm is known as "agroforestry." And long-time listeners might recognize a lot of these practices: low or no tilling, cover cropping, diversification. It's the same suite of practices the regenerative farmers were using in our episode, "Soil: The Dirty Climate Solution." And Ayana and I talked to Daniel about how the farmers in that episode, they loved the results they were getting by using these regenerative farming techniques, but they were also getting a lot of pushback from their neighbors still doing it the old way.
Alex: We did a podcast a while ago where we talked to some regenerative farmers in Minnesota, and these are sort of like large holding sort of American farmers, a thousand acres. They were doing this sort of like, no till regenerative farming, leaving the cornstalks on the fields. Which in their neighborhood was pretty scandalous and, like, all the neighbors called them lazy. And I wonder if the same social pressure applies in the places you're talking about.
Ayana: Yeah. "Your field looks like a mess."
Daniel McQuillan: Yeah, yeah. In fact, it's very similar. There's a lot of pressure to clear that field and keep it like a billiard table. Just perfectly clean.
Alex: But is it green in the dry season? It's not green, right?
Daniel McQuillan: No. It's just dirt. It's just dirt in the dry season, but "tierra limpia," keep that field clean is—there's big pressure. We did a social marketing study on what would be some of the barriers for farmers to adopt water-smart agriculture. and one was this pressure to, you clean your field after the harvest, you don't leave anything on it.
Alex: The folks at Catholic Relief Services were pretty certain that this climate-smart form of farming really worked. But for it to be successful, the farmers in the region actually had to use it. So to find farmers that would be willing to try, Catholic Relief Services partnered with local organizations.
Daniel McQuillan: So we'll work with smaller nonprofits or church organizations or agricultural organizations, co-ops that are already working in these regions. And we partner with them on the program. So to recruit this first set of leaders for water-smart agriculture, we had our local partners identify innovative farmers in the regions, farmers that were more likely to be open to experimentation.
Alex: And they worked with these local experimentally-minded farmers and leaders—3,000 of them in all—to set up test plots.
Daniel McQuillan: So these 3,000 farms are smallholders' fields. And what they have been doing is they've been trying out the new water-smart agriculture practices on a portion of their land, and they've been leaving another part of their land as a comparison. And so farmers have been learning through doing.
Alex: Yeah, you're literally like, "Here's an A-B test, guys. Check it out. Don't trust me. Trust the science." [laughs]
Daniel McQuillan: There's two nice benefits for it. One is farmers are learning by doing it. The other thing is is these plots are positioned so that other members of the community can see what their neighbors are doing, what practices they're trying, and see the results. We have one farmer, Geraldo, who we've been working with for years who has a very inclined plot. So this is a hard plot to capture water on, even if you are doing the best practices. And in the first couple of years, he didn't see much of a bounce in his yields, in his production. But what he was seeing was that the soil was changing, and that his plot that had typically had tremendous amount of runoff was starting to capture more water.
Daniel McQuillan: And so he kept on applying these practices, and during the last drought, he had some of the highest yields of any of the farmers we're working with. And what's amazing is that these plots are so small, in some cases like a quarter of an acre, half an acre max, that the neighbors are really right next to each other, side by side. You can look down the fence line as if it's an asymmetrical photo. And on one side you have bare soil, nothing growing during the canicula, and on the other side, you have a nice layer of mulch. You have robust vegetative growth and you have a healthy crop. It's truly impactful when you can see them side by side.
Alex: It's literally a side-by-side comparison.
Daniel McQuillan: Literally side-by-side.
Alex: Catholic Relief Services also organized these farmers with the trial plots into working groups, almost like study groups, but for farmers. And these working groups, like, 10 or 15 farmers, would sometimes meet with other working groups throughout the region to share knowledge and trade best practices.
Daniel McQuillan: We help them to capture data, scientific data and evidence on what's going on with their farm so that they can share that within their groups as well. So we have a lot of knowledge transmission happening directly farmer to farmer in the same communities. Sometimes we do farmer exchanges, where a group of farmers will go from one community to another to share. And since we're in five countries implementing this program, we've even had interchanges between the countries.
Alex: Coming up, we hear from one of the farmers Catholic Relief Services worked with about just how much better is this form of farming anyway? Also, what this farmer learned from Catholic Relief Services—and what he taught them. That's all after the break.
Alex: We're back. Hello. Before the break, we were talking to Daniel McQuillan, who'd worked with farmers in the Dry Corridor to help them introduce this suite of agriculture techniques that Catholic Relief Services call water-smart ag. Helps them deal with the changes they were experiencing because of climate change. One of the farmers Catholic Relief Service started working with early on was the guy you heard from at the beginning of the episode, Alirio Martinez.
Alirio Martinez [translated]: I received training and started working on one of my plots of land with help from engineers from CRS and Caritas. With their support, I began. I have a plot I've been working on for the past four years, five counting the current year, using a mixed cropping technique, a system that we call here in the Jocotan region, the Ch'ortis area of Guatemala. We call it the cuchurun system. Cuchurun means wet soil.
Daniel McQuillan: Specifically, Alirio came to us through a local church organization. He's an important member of his local church, and so our local partner was able to identify Alirio as both a leader in his church and also somebody willing to innovate on his farm. So he seemed like the perfect candidate to be a farm leader for one of these experimentation plots.
Daniel McQuillan: I remember the first time I met with Alirio, he had just started to implement the practices. So Arlirio was starting just then with the cover crops, which was one of the most difficult practices to roll out because there wasn't actually much availability of cover crop seed in the region. And so we started working with Alirio on this cover crop of seed that we had sourced from somewhere else. It hadn't gone that well on his farm, but Alirio, in fact, alerted us to a specific kind of bean, a different kind of black bean, that they grew only in a few communities around him. And he suggested—in fact to the project—that we use this very, very local type of black bean as the cover crop.
Alirio Martinez [translated]: There's a bean that we call chiapaneco. It's big and local from this region. There's another one that we call cachito, the famous cachito that we also plant and harvest around here.
Daniel McQuillan: And so Alirio started experimentation with a different kind of cover crop. And the benefit of that one is that you can actually eat it as well. And so it's providing all of the biomass and moisture locking of other cover crops, but it's also one that you can cultivate and eat. And this new practice, which we've now scaled and this new seed was not new seed, but a new seed for many farmers, was one that one of our farmer leaders actually identified.
Alex: And did the bean plant that Alirio recommended, did that work just as well as a cover crop?
Daniel McQuillan: Yes, it did. And it was actually—it was a crop that was starting to lose its prominence in the region. Like, Alirio's parents would say, "Oh, everybody used to grow this kind of bean with their maize." But every year, fewer and fewer farmers were actually planting it. And so it's actually seen a bit of a revival now as a cover crop/also a product that you can eat.
Ayana: I'm into this trend.
Daniel McQuillan: And I think it just emphasizes the point of when farmers are the leaders, when farmers are the teachers, the project can grow much beyond your initial expectations. And water-smart agriculture, although the four pillars or the four principles or whatever you want to call them are quite similar in the five countries, the way it has evolved and the different kinds of seeds and species, and the timing of implementation of the practice, have taken on their own local flavor in the different countries.
Ayana: You're collecting all this data on how it's going, right, with these thousands of different, small farms. Are there any numbers you want to share with us about how this program overall ...?
Alex: Dr. Johnson would like to see results.
Daniel McQuillan: Yes. And I think when we talk about results, it's always the most impactful if we talk about difficult years, because that's when you really see the gap between the water-smart agriculture practices and the conventional practices. And so in 2018, farmers harvested 41 percent more corn and 37 percent more bean than on conventional plots.
Alirio Martinez [translated]: In the plot where I am working with agroforest system, I harvested 19 quintales of corn because my plot is small. 19 or 20 quintales, that's what I harvested. But in the neighboring control plot which is the same size, I only got eight quintales.
Alex: A quintal is 100 kilograms, or about 220 pounds. So Alirio is saying he got twice as much yield on his water-smart ag plot than he did on his conventional plot.
Alirio Martinez [translated]: That means that if people here, the farmers, start using this system and applying the agroforest system, we are going to get a lot more production.
Daniel McQuillan: And what's really interesting about these practices is that the gap between the yields on the water-smart agriculture farms and the conventional plots actually begins to grow over three or four cycles. So the gap between the two was about 20 percent in the first cycle, but it's now 40 percent after three or four crop cycles. And so the practices work pretty early on, but as you build up that healthy soil, you actually start to see the gap expanding between the two forms of doing agriculture.
Alex: Hmm. Wow!
Alex: So the results of climate-smart ag are very encouraging for the farmers like Alirio who are incorporating it on their land. But Daniel McQuillan? He's clear: this is just a first step.
Daniel McQuillan: Because we're not—3,000 farmers again. There are millions of smallholder farmers in this region. We need other partners, we need allies working with us if we're going to scale this to a territory or landscape level.
Alex: Mm-hmm. How far away is that, do you think? Like, how fast does it go from 3,000 to 300,000, and from 300,000 to a million? Like, what's your prognosis on that?
Daniel McQuillan: I don't know how long it's going to take, but it's certainly critical given how if you really want to see landscape level changes, you need people to start doing it across a watershed. You need to have more than an acre there, two acres here. You need most of the families in the watershed to start implementing these practices. And then in addition to the data or the results I've shared with you guys, you start to see results on a watershed level. You start to see the benefits of more water, improved water quality. Cities and urban areas, which tend to be at the bottom of the watershed, start to benefit from these practices as well. And so water-smart agriculture works on one acre, it works for an individual farmer, but the impacts can actually be multiplied if it's rolled out at a territorial or at a watershed level.
Alex: I guess if world governments, rich countries, the US, whatever sort of constellation of like, the people with the money would act, what would you want them to do?
Daniel McQuillan: Invest in agricultural education. Many of these farmers rely on extension to get information, to learn about new technologies. So it's critical that agricultural extension understands regenerative agriculture, understands water-smart agriculture, can work with farmers to implement these practices on their farm. I think more support needs to be directed towards smallholder farmers. Smallholder farming produces 80 percent of the world's food. It's critical to the world's food security, not only the food security of these individual families. And there has not been enough investments in smallholder agriculture given its importance.
Alex: Investing in smallholder agriculture like this would be money well spent. In 2019, the US federal government spent billions detaining undocumented immigrants, a response, in part, to the increasing number of Central Americans who have been attempting to cross the border since the drought began. Federal agents apprehended more than 600,000 people from Central America attempting to cross the border. Of those, 260,000—almost half—came from Guatemala—more than any other country. A small fraction of those billions of dollars, if we just spent it getting the word out to farmers in the Dry Corridor about water smart ag, that could potentially end up saving money in the long run, since the US would no longer have to spend money apprehending and housing and processing people at the border.
Alex: Not to mention, it would alleviate a lot of human suffering, and it's the right thing to do. Rich countries like the US account for a disproportionate amount of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming, which is wrecking the lives of people in the Dry Corridor—people whose individual climate footprints are a tiny fraction of the average US resident's. Someone in the US emits roughly 16 times more greenhouse gas emissions than someone in Guatemala, where Alirio lives.
Alex: And in fact, one of the principles of the Paris Climate Agreement is that developed countries owe financial resources and technology to developing countries. But developed countries, often led by the United States, have resisted that. An article in 2019 in Buzzfeed said, quote, "The US has aggressively opposed any kind of climate compensation scheme for years."
Alex: Given all this history, Ayana and I were eager to ask Daniel this one question: the question we almost always ask at the end of this podcast.
Ayana: So as you may or may not know, there's a question we ask every guest on the podcast, and that's our final question for you, which is: given everything you know about agriculture and climate change and the region in Central America where you've been working for the last decade, Dan, how screwed are we?
Daniel McQuillan: I would say I'm actually quite optimistic compared to five or six years ago. These farmers have been willing to change behaviors. They've implemented water-smart agriculture practices on their farm. They've been able, to a great extent, mitigate the impacts of some of these droughts, at least some of the less severe droughts. They've been able to produce more food. In many cases, they've been able to sell some of that product to generate more income for their families. And so I would say I'm more optimistic than I was five years ago. I think really the big next step is moving this to scale, because it needs to get out to millions of families so that we can start through reverse soil degradation, and help farmers become more resilient to climate change, but also to give farmers the opportunity to stay on their land, and live from farming and invest in farming, if that's what they choose to do. So at least give them the option to continue to invest in their farm and live from their production.
Alex: To learn more about the work that Catholic Relief Services is doing on climate-smart ag, Daniel MacQuillan has a blog on the Catholic Relief Services website. We will link to that in our show notes right there on your phone as well as in our newsletter.
Alex: Also, the Biden administration has crafted an executive order designed to increase the adoption of climate-smart ag both domestically and globally. That order has gone through a comment period and is now onto the review period. We will also include a link to that executive order for those curious to find out more. Also, if you like what you see in it, or you want to see more, there are email addresses in that executive order that you can certainly send your thoughts to, comment period deadlines be damned.
Alex: And while we are on the subject of federal policy, there is a big climate bill under discussion right now in the United States Congress. And one of the most powerful tools in the bill is something we've talked about before on this podcast: something called a national clean electricity standard, which basically establishes a deadline by which we as a country have to move to clean power. If we pass a clean electricity standard, it would be a huge step in the right direction towards keeping climate change from getting much, much worse for farmers like Alirio and for all the rest of us. And there is something you can do right now to support that legislation, to have your voice heard. There is a website: Call4climate.com—that's Call, the number four, climate.com. They make it very straightforward and simple to call Congress and voice your opinion on this legislation. Check it out: Call4climate.com. With the number four. Call, number four, climate.com. As always, we'll put links to all of these resources and calls to action in our show notes, as well as in our newsletter, which you can sign up for at howtosaveaplanet.show.
Alex: All right, onto the credits. How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Alex Blumberg and Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. This episode was produced by Kendra Pierre-Louis. Our reporters and producers are Rachel Waldholz and Anna Ladd. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard, with original music by Peter Leonard, Bobby Lord and Emma Munger. Special thanks to Daniel Rochmann and Carmen Graterol for helping with translation. Thanks to all of you for listening. We'll see you next week!