John Todd – Ecology From 40,000 Feet
“When we’re flying at 40,000 feet and we look down, we see a marvelous amount of innovation in agriculture, environmental restoration, green architecture, in systems design and in renewable energy development,” Dr. John Todd tells Organic Connections. “The news on the ground has never been richer, more diverse or in some respects more global. There probably isn’t a continent on which we don’t have something happening, and that just wasn’t the case 20 years ago.”
In these days of climate change, deforestation, soil depletion, industrial agriculture polluting of the environment, along with nutrient-poor produce and many other troubling issues, these words might seem just a tad overly optimistic. As with any statement, however, one must consider the source—and Dr. John Todd is definitely no lightweight. He is an internationally recognized biologist and a visionary leader in the field of ecological design, who was named a “Hero of the Earth” by Time magazine in 1999 and one of the twentieth century’s top 35 inventors by the Lemelson-MIT Program for Invention and Innovation. He holds four patents and is the inventor of Eco-Machines, also known as Living Machines or ecological engines, for the treatment of wastes, production of foods, generation of fuels and the restoration of damaged aquatic environments. In 2008, he won the first annual Buckminster Fuller Challenge for his proposal Comprehensive Design for a Carbon Neutral World: The Challenge of Appalachia, which lays out a strategy for transforming one and a half million acres of strip-mined lands in Appalachia into a harmonious self-sustaining community.
Dr. Todd was a featured speaker at this year’s Bioneers Conference—a yearly event that highlights breakthrough solutions for restoring people and the planet. Among his many other activities, he is also currently teaching Ecological Design at the University of Vermont.
Dr. Todd is certainly not blind to the problems we all see. “On almost every measure that anybody wants to make—food self-sufficiency, climate, agriculture, energy and so on—things have gotten a lot worse over the last several decades,” he says. “And I don’t think there’s any doubt that that’s the case, whether we are talking about soil degradation, whether we’re talking about environmental degradation, or whether we’re talking about climate-changing gases; it’s all not good news.”
Cause for Optimism
“On the other side,” he continues, “our little movement—what used to be called the alternative movement, now called the green movement—is really beginning to build up an incredible head of steam, whether we’re talking agriculture or medicine or community or whole systems design, even transportation. The knowledge of the last few decades is beginning to be stitched together, and this jigsaw puzzle now has enough pieces in it so that when we look at it we see a coherent story. That coherent story is what I try and teach to my students here at the University of Vermont in my Ecological Design course. What I want to impart to them when they graduate is that they know all the environmental horrors but they feel that there is some particular place that they can engage themselves, kind of make an economy for themselves, and be of use. That, I think, is the good news.”
And Dr. Todd’s graduate students are certainly learning and carrying on this important work. In the 12 years since he went back to being a professor, after a hiatus of some 20 years, his students are starting to create their own companies, incubated from their studies.
“These companies are sort of across the spectrum from diverse agriculture to medicines to energy, and now, most recently, the latest company that my graduate students and I founded is called the Ecological Investment Company in Vermont,” Dr. Todd reports. “We’re financing agriculture and renewable energy in a new sort of ecological paradigm. For example, we’ve created something called Vermont Share, the news of which we’re about to bring to the world. We’re basically paying farmers quite close to retail prices and selling shares to consumers, providing the farmers produce their crops in methods outlined by us and prepare boxes of food for each share owner on a weekly basis. We’re able to do this because we’ve learned to keep the cost down and the scale of our operation large enough. The farmers in Vermont here are lining up—whether they’re raising eggs or poultry or beef or pork or maple syrup or veggies—knowing that when they sign the contract with us they’ll get that money.”
Dr. Todd is also conducting an analysis to see if he and some of his grad students can finance the conversion of local conventional apple orchards to organic. “These apple orchards used to be very productive,” he says. “The local commercial cider makers use concentrate from China, and that’s what got our ire up and got us interested. It’s a three- or four-year process and it’s tricky for everybody and involves a lot of technical support and training; but we hope to know by next spring if that’s feasible and we’ll then select a few farmers to begin with.”
The project plan that won Dr. Todd the Buckminster Fuller Challenge Award of $100,000 involves restoring land in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia—land that has been completely ruined by the brutal practice of a type of strip-mining called mountaintop removal. He is engaging upon this project with several of his brightest graduate students from the University of Vermont.
Mountaintop-removal mining uses three million pounds of explosives per day to blast 600 to 800 feet off the top of the densely wooded Appalachian Mountains in order to reach a coal seam below the surface. All the rock, soil, trees and vegetation above the coal seam are removed and dumped in adjacent hollows or ravines. This highly destructive practice leaves a flat surface of dead soil where there once was a thriving forest, as well as an enormous amount of environmental damage and health risk to the local community.
The project’s first order of business is, of course, the restoration of the soil—essentially a three-step process. The first step is the planting of native warm-season grasses: switch grass, big bluestem, Indian grass and eastern gamagrass. The second step is the introduction into the soil of a compound called biochar, which is made from the combustion of woody material at low temperatures in low-oxygen conditions. In a unique cycle of life, the biochar is actually being produced from the mown grasses in the area.
A third step involves the introduction of healthy populations of arbuscular mycorrhizae, fungi that rapidly produce humus materials in soil. Humus is the dark brown organic component of soil that is derived from plant and animal remains and animal excrement; it improves the water-retaining properties of soil, adds nutrients, and makes it more workable.
“The photographs already show an amazing development of the warm-season grass communities in just one year,” remarks Dr. Todd. “I believe we’ll have the data from just that plot by the spring of 2010 to announce to the world. Something really wonderful is happening, and it’s kind of exciting to be able to go to hell on earth and make soils.”
As can be seen in the Appalachia project, a major component of Dr. Todd’s work concerns returning vital nutrients to our soils. A primary way of doing this is a process called remineralization. Over time, especially in heavily farmed areas, crops that have deficient mineral content are unable to resist pests and “require” increasing amounts of chemicals to survive.
Dr. Todd is currently engaged in another ongoing project to specifically and scientifically prove that remineralization makes a considerable difference in plant growth and can do so without the use of environmentally damaging chemicals. Several years ago he embarked with a former colleague, William Turley, and Turley’s wife, Angie Sanchez, on a project to plant trees on a plot of land on the deforested lower slopes of the Miravalles Volcano in Guanacaste Province of Costa Rica. Their plan was to replace the once forested, overgrazed grasslands there with a working landscape of trees.
The variety of plant life was carefully planned—some of which will allow the project to make an income for itself. There is slow-growing hardwood that is native to Costa Rica but which is threatened by overcutting; there are fruit, nut and livestock-fodder trees; and there is a tree called Jatropha, which produces an oil-rich fruit that can be easily processed into diesel fuel.
Rock dust from a nearby volcanic quarry was applied in the seedlings nursery and also in the field plantings, and a control area was set up with no rock dust for comparison.
However, 18 months later the project ran short of funding (as many things did in the faltering economy) and an event occurred that was both wildly comedic and scientifically frustrating.
“After a year and a half something happened that I had absolutely no control over, so it’s now no longer an experiment,” Dr. Todd relates. “The chief tree propagator and caretaker stopped doing the control—that is, growing non-remineralized trees as a comparison—because she found that the remineralized trees were so much healthier. She saw a major difference in plant vitality, in leaf mass and, in some cases, height. Not being a scientist, she said, ‘Why would I want the short one when I can have the tall one?’” While Dr. Todd’s theories about remineralization were on the one hand proven out, the lack of a control means he can’t publish a scientific paper on it—at least not yet.
Once he obtains further funding, Dr. Todd will finish the experiment, which also includes scientifically documenting the amount of carbon taken from the atmosphere by healthy soil—a process known as carbon sequestration. Dr. Todd’s organization Ocean Arks International is currently seeking a benefactor that will allow them to purchase a larger plot of land in the same area and scientifically document all factors involved.
Mining Nutrients from Wastewater
Another source of nutrients for soil may come in the future from an interesting source: wastewater. Two of Dr. Todd’s graduate students are studying how to use biochar to mine nutrients from wastewater. The process involves flowing wastewater through biochar, from which the biochar picks up nutrients for agricultural use that can later be added to soil as fertilizer.
Since phosphorus is an element that may be obtained through such a procedure, Dr. Todd has also been examining the mining, by similar methods, of phosphates—a group of elements that have very widespread use in manufacturing, food production and many other areas. Worldwide, phosphates are beginning to be in short supply, with major mines in Florida, Saskatchewan (Canada) and North Africa becoming played out.
“Some experts think that as early as 2025 we’re going to start running short of phosphates,” warns Dr. Todd. “If you look at the price increase in phosphorus over the last decade, it seems to be increasing exponentially. So my son and I are determined to start now. My son, Jonathan, is the president of a company called John Todd Ecological Design, and since we treat wastewater throughout the world, we’ve decided that the new future is mining nutrients. We’re looking for materials to mine them into that can then be reformulated as fertilizers.”
The economics of such an enterprise may cause the average businessperson to rethink attitudes on sewage plants. “People are going to want to start owning sewage plants instead of hating them,” he says. “We hope to be able to publish results of biochar mining of nutrients out of wastewater pretty soon.”
Into the Future
“So that’s the sort of big-picture view from 40,000 feet here,” Dr. Todd concludes. “And without question the most exciting thing that I’ve done is create this remarkable brain trust of former students and former colleagues to bear down on some of these problems, because you can’t do it yourself. Just like Eco-Machines have to have all their kingdoms of life in them, trying to make big changes around climate stabilization requires the whole pool of skills and all the forms of intelligence that exist in a highly motivated group of people.”
For more information on the amazing Dr. John Todd and his activities, visit the following websites:
www.remineralize.org (section on Dr. Todd and the Costa Rica project)
Reprinted with permission from Organic Connections Magazine