Eric Toensmeier, Project Drawdown


Eric-ToensmeierEric Toensmeier is the award-winning author of Paradise Lot and Perennial Vegetables, and the co-author of Edible Forest Gardens. He is an appointed lecturer at Yale University, a Senior Biosequestration Fellow with Project Drawdown, and an international trainer. He has studied useful perennial plants and their roles in agroforestry systems for over two decades. He is the author of The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agricultural Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security.


Hi everybody I’m Caryn Hartglass and thank you for joining me today for It’s All About Food. Very excited about today’s program. I think it’s very important the topic and the project we’re going to be talking about. I’m going to bring on my guest Eric Toensmeier who is the award-winning author of Paradise Lot And Perennial Vegetables and the co-author of Edible Forest Gardens. He is an appointed lecturer at Yale University, a Senior Biosequestration Fellow with Project Drawdown, and an international trainer. He has studied useful perennial plants and their roles in agro forestry systems for over two decades. He’s the author of the Carbon Farming Solution, a global toolkit of perennial crops and regenerative agricultural practices for climate change mitigation and food security. Eric, thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to speak with us.

Eric Toensmeier: Sure. Thanks for having me.

Caryn: Yes, now I was very excited when I first heard about drawdown climate change… it is something that is…I’m trying to find words to describe it but we need a lot of urgent work in this area if we want our species to continue comfortably living on this planet. And our current administration – governmental administration here in the United States – seems to want to turn things backwards when it comes to protecting the environment. And it’s scary, it’s sometimes depressing, and when I heard about Project Drawdown and read the book I felt hope, I felt inspiration, and I really appreciate everything that’s happening with this work, so thank you.

Eric Toensmeier: Well that was one of the goals of the book is to lay out that there are lots and lots of solutions. That many of them are already being done on a large scale and they are already actually growing rapidly, and don’t necessarily have to wait for governments or are not waiting for our government to move forward.

Caryn Hartglass: You know I spoke with Carl Pope a few months ago about the book, The Climate Hope, with our former New York City Mayor Bloomberg and I was inspired with that book to hear about all of the things that are related to business that are…that will work in our capitalistic society, meaning that they will be affordable and economical to make changes that improve environment. But Project Drawdown goes a lot further, and gives us many ideas on the household level as well as the commercial level and so many things that we can do worldwide.

Eric Toensmeier: Yes, yes we do. It’s really it’s a very interesting project to have been a part of because you have some things like composting that are very much a household level sort of activity or LED lights. Then you move to…let’s say more industrial scale… looking at alternative concrete. Most of us in our home maybe that’s not something we’re going to do everyday is use a different recipe for concrete. And then we have some things that are really at a much larger scale, like forest protection which is maybe more of a national level issue but there’s something for everyone in there. Hopefully meaningful for everyone.

Caryn Hartglass: Something for everyone to feel empowered and make a positive difference that hopefully will help.

Eric Toensmeier: Yeah. And now more than ever that’s important.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes, because so many of us feel like it doesn’t matter what we do or what we say. But it does.

Eric Toensmeier: It really does.

Caryn Hartglass: Ok, so this isn’t really about food and I want to focus on food. You’ve got a number of categories in Project Drawdown – energy, women and girls, buildings and cities, land use, transport materials, along with coming attractions. And there are so many things we could talk about. Let’s concentrate on food because this show is called It’s All About Food.

Eric Toensmeier: Sure.

Caryn Hartglass: And even when we focus on it’s all on the food portion all of these other topics still impact food.

Eric Toensmeier: Absolutely.

Caryn Hartglass: Because of the climate changes our way to manufacture, our way to grow food and create food, is affected tremendously.

Eric Toensmeier: Absolutely. And transport it, and keep it cool so it doesn’t go bad, all of those things are the very neat aspect to the projects to the degree in which we were able to look at integrating all these solutions and not just looking at one on it’s own in isolation but how will they help or hurt each other.

Caryn Hartglass: And before we go further, I want everyone to know that you can get all of this information at the website It’s all there.

Eric Toensmeier: Yes, indeed. We have not only the individual solutions, but also a sector summary for the food sector so you can read through in great detail and look at charts and rankings and a lot of the calculations that went into the results that are reported in the book.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah I love data and this is a very complicated project. I have not gone into the charts and tables, but I’m sure there were a lot of assumptions made. I know it’s hard to collect uniform kinds of data worldwide, but still, it’s a very important starting point.

Eric Toensmeier: The available data…yes.

Caryn Hartglass: Can we talk about… the number one ranked solution…and you rank them by a number of different things so even before we talk about the number one, can you just talk about how all of the solutions are ranked.

Eric Toensmeier: Sure. So essentially for each of these solutions, there was a research fellow who did sort of a great big literature review and we’ve developed these Excels models that you can enter lots of data into. So let’s say for the carbon sequestration rate of such and such a practice, we might have ten or twenty or thirty data points from different places in the world and it sort of runs meta analysis and gives us a good plausible number to work with that kind of data entered. So we tried to cast a very wide net for data to get fairly conservative numbers to work with.

Caryn Hartglass: The number one solution, which I think will surprise most people, is refrigerant management.

Eric Toensmeier: Yes. Well it wasn’t the sexiest of all of our solutions. Ultimately we rank them by the total number of gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent reduced between 2020 and 2050. So over a thirty-year period which ones have the biggest impact? Number one is refrigerant management. If you think back to when we were dealing with the ozone hole and we switched the kinds of gases we used in refrigerators and air conditioners from something that caused ozone destruction to something that doesn’t. A set of gases that don’t. Unfortunately, we switched them from something that has absolutely unbelievable impact on climate change. Some of those gases are two thousand times more powerful than carbon dioxide, so the issue with refrigeration, which very much touches on food, is to… One, develop replacements for those gases. And two, with all of the units that are out there now, when they reach their end of life, we need to safely and carefully remove the gases that are in there without leaking a bunch of it, and either treat them or reuse them. So that’s a massive global project right there.

Caryn Hartglass: That’s massive! I remember talking to someone from Greenpeace about this on the program maybe six or seven years ago. They had a program about refrigerant management, and I was just floored to find out about it. And the worst part is the end of life scenario. I live in New York City…I see people putting stuff out on the street all the time, and it can be an air conditioner. And more and more people are getting air conditioners. They’re less expensive over time and what happens when they’re done. So this is definitely a big issue and I just hope we can manage it. I’m sure enough different all over the world.

Eric Toensmeier: It’s different in different places, and it’s related to food waste production as well because in much of the world food is wasted not because people didn’t feel like eating it but because of a lack of refrigeration so it’s closely tied with another solution. The good news on refrigerant management is… an agreement was made. An international agreement was made last year that has pretty good teeth. So there is an international working agreement on refrigerant management -the Kigali Accords of 2016.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, what was amazing with the ozone hole in the environment is that was agreed upon by countries very quickly on what we were going to do about it. That happened fast.

Eric Toensmeier: Uh huh.

Caryn Hartglass: And we’re not acting as fast with a problem that seems to be just as dangerous if not more so.

Eric Toensmeier: I have notice that as well, yes.

Caryn Hartglass: Why aren’t we as scared anymore?

Eric Toensmeier: It may have something to do with the power and scale of the fossil fuel industry as compared to the ozone producing industry. I suspect it may be related to that.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes. Too much money. So you mentioned food waste and that’s number three of your solutions. And you’ve got how many total solutions are in this book? There are eighty?

Eric Toensmeier: We ranked eighty. Yeah. So food waste is a really really really big deal. It really is.

Caryn Hartglass: And you know part of it is what we leave over that we don’t need in the refrigerator but there’s much more involved in food waste. Right?

Eric Toensmeier: There is. The first piece is that we are wasting globally somewhere around let’s say thirty to forty percent of food. Which is the great big problem. One issue is that food much of it ends up in landfills where it releases methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas. But also you’re talking about a very big piece of the world’s farmland being used. And emissions associated with the agriculture that ends up being wasted, so we end up needing much more farmland than we should. And as the population increases, the demand for food increases. We have the clearing of land, clearing a forest and plowing up grassland for agriculture, which is a massive source of emission. So by reducing food waste that contributes in part to preventing deforestation. Part of the impact is from reducing the emissions from the agriculture, part of it is from reducing emissions from landfills, and part of it is from reducing deforestation. So it really has a very powerful impact across those different parts the food system.

Caryn Hartglass: Number four is my personal favorite. As a vegan, I want everyone to eat more plants. And number four is a plant rich diet. Thank you for putting that in there.

Eric Toensmeier: Yes. Well, you just can’t avoid the math on that really, can you?

Caryn Hartglass: No you can’t.

Eric Toensmeier: And it’s not that we’re saying that everyone should be vegan. And although the numbers on that are clearly very good. And it’s not that we’re saying that there are no climate clear methods of livestock production. But clearly most people should be eating plants. When you look at, let’s say, for every kilo of beef, you would need ten kilos of feed if you were going to feed that animal on a feedlot. So you’re eating for ten. That just doesn’t make sense. And with the amount of meat in the diet around the world increasing in many places as population increases, you just can’t. It’s not possible to feed people that much meat unless you massively deforest what remains of the world’s land. And the emissions from that are just utterly unacceptable. So clearly very very high rank and just slightly behind reduce food waste.

Caryn Hartglass: That’s right.

Eric Toensmeier: And ahead of solar. Ahead of solar.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes. It’s amazing. Yes. Reducing food waste – three. Plant rich diet – four. I feel like Robert Goodland. He’s deceased. He died three years ago. He was the lead environmental advisor at the World Bank Group for a long time, and he co-authored an article in the World Watch Journal that had to do with the impact of livestock on global greenhouse emissions. I’m sure he’s smiling down on this Drawdown Project.

Eric Toensmeier: It really goes back to diet for a small planet as well. It’s not a new concept that livestock are very resource intensive. It’s just suddenly in this context it gets more publicity you might say. And important idea gets more publicity.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, but the numbers help. The numbers help that you provided.

Eric Toensmeier: They do.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah I mean diet for a small planet that came out in the seventy’s. Here we are almost like thirty-five years later and we’re still trying to get people to understand that message.

Eric Toensmeier: Yes.

Caryn Hartglass: All right, after plant rich diet, I want to talk about trees. Now a lot of people when they talk about climate change they simply say we need to plant more trees. And I’ve learned in this book how really really amazing trees are. My favorite expression was the “wood wide web”.

Eric Toensmeier: Uh huh.

Caryn Hartglass: Which came in the hidden life of trees article.

Eric Toensmeier: Uh huh.

Caryn Hartglass: It’s really fantastic. But there are so many different things that are related to climate change and trees. There are lungs, really. And there are so many solutions related to trees can we touch on some of them?

Eric Toensmeier: Absolutely. We really can’t mitigate climate change without them. So the broad categories of ways we cut touch on trees – one, is protecting forests that exist now – forests and mangroves – and so on. And peat lands. Forests and peat lands. The number one is to keep it in the ground. Keep the forests in the ground. Protect the vast amounts of carbon that are locked up in these ecosystems. Then we have some solutions related to restoring forests. On degraded land, bring forests back there. And we have some sort of forestry-type solutions. Planting timber trees, planting bamboos. And then there’s a number of solutions that are agricultural solutions that involve trees. Incorporating trees on the farm, which fall under the heading of agroforestry. So you might be integrating them with annual crops, which we call tree intercropping. They might be planted out on pastures, which we call silver pasture. The trees themselves might be the primary crop, as in our tropical tree staple solution. Or they may be really complex mixtures of different species of trees, like multi-strata agroforestry. So the classic example of that would be shade coffee or shade cacao growing under larger native trees, but can also embody more complex systems. One I visited recently had avocados and macadamias as the tallest trees. And then in the middle with a layer of bananas, and below that was coffee. Which is a very delightful system and if that’s what we have to do to mitigate climate change, I’m all for it. I’ll just say that.

Caryn Hartglass: It’s beautiful! It’s absolutely beautiful. The multi-strata scenario.

Eric Toensmeier: We’re still figuring out how to that here in cold climates. But many of these are very widely practiced today. They’re just not really fully appreciated or understood. The scale at which these things are practiced isn’t really widely appreciated. Nor is the rate at which they’re growing, which is quite impressive. So we try to give these tree base solutions their due. Not that other agriculture solutions aren’t very important as well. But the general trend is everywhere you can add trees without impacting the productivity of the farm you should. And in many cases it increases the productivity of the farm. Sometimes quite substantially.

Caryn Hartglass: One of my least favorite words these days is efficiency.

Eric Toensmeier: Uh huh.

Caryn Hartglass: And many times we sacrifice so much for efficiency. And I like to put “efficiency” in quotes. Because we’re doing so much damage, when we’re trying to do something fast to save money make more money whatever it is, and so I’m wondering where do trees fit it with our giant agribusiness. The large farms, mono cropping, that sort of thing. Or do we just try and change that?

Eric Toensmeier: Sure. Well, Drawdown, as a general principle, our approach is to try and kind of find each farm where they are and move them a step forward. So the next step for many, let’s say large American farms in Iowa, is probably not planting out a high density of trees all through their farm. It might be adding cover cropping; it might be applying compost and so on. With that said, there are many examples around the world of very large annual cropping operations, incorporating trees that at pretty high densities. Rows of trees that their tractors and equipment can fit between ergonomically. In China for example, we have twelve million hectors, which is, let’s say, something like twenty-five or thirty million acres of Princess trees intercropped with annuals. These are trees that are late to leaf out in the spring. So mostly they’re growing wintergreens like wheat under them that mostly mature over the winter. So there isn’t actually that much competition for sunlight, and the rows are spaced. The rows of trees are spaced far enough apart to minimize competition. And what they find is that you’re able to get the same production of the annual crops, plus timber. And building with wood is a really important solution because that wood itself in a building represents sequestered carbon. And when you plant new trees again in the field, or allow those other trees to resprout, they begin actively sequestering carbon again. So we do have large-scale models, even in cold climates, of integrating trees with annual crops. And I feel like that’s the wave of the future. That if you want trees – I’m sorry – if you want carbon, you want agroforestry. You want more trees on the farm. And maybe that starts with a border planting or a windbreak, and it slowly works it’s way to this end of the farm over a long period of time. There’s places where it’s too dry, there’s places where it’s too cold…it’s not a one size fits all prescription. But as a general guideline more trees and agriculture is essential for us to do the job that’s ahead of us.

Caryn Hartglass: Early in the book there was the mention of the oxygen depleted dead zones. And I’ve read about them. I had no idea that there were over five hundred of them.

Eric Toensmeier: Uh huh.

Caryn Hartglass: This is just devastating. And it’s primarily due to petrol chemical fertilizers putting too much nitrogen into our water supply. Along with pesticides and herbicides. What are the Draw Down solutions?

Eric Toensmeier: Excellent question. The first one is nutrient management. What’s really interesting – not in a good way – but what’s really interesting about chemical fertilizers is that they are routinely over applied. So people are putting down more fertilizer than they need. Often because the price is very low, sometimes there’s government subsidies, and so on. A sort of like risk management strategy. You think, okay well I’d rather put out too much than too little. Because if there’s too much, I’ll still got my crop. And what happens when people over apply fertilizer is that it ends up in waterways and cause of all this damage and it off gases as nitrous oxide, which is 290 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Caryn Hartglass: Wow.

Eric Toensmeier: So dialing back the fertilizer is number one. Just applying the amount you need is number one, which actually saves farmers money. So that’s one solution that looks at this. We also have a regenerative agriculture solution. Which looks at annual cropping systems and how fertility can be provided on the farm with green manures, with compost applications, and various kinds of organic fertilizers. So we can shift away from… And also agroforestry solutions…also nitrogen fixing trees which themselves provide fertility. So there are number of ways to get around this issue. And also buffers, which are part of our agroforestry system, involve basically a strip of perennial vegetation like trees along waterways, which help too. Basically, their roots suck up the excess fertilizer and use it to grow, and keep it from entering the waterways, so we actually have four or five different solutions that look at this particular issue.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, there are eighty exciting solutions that are presented in this Drawdown Project. Now, how is this information getting out so that people can really incorporate them?

Eric Toensmeier: Well we’re doing some radio interviews with me. And Paul Hawken, who is the editor and the mastermind, wrote much of the content that’s really is his vision and his baby that we’ve all been contributing to. He is on the road constantly. And a number of our staff are on the road and at conferences, and so on. Pounding the pavement so to speak for these solutions. There’s been coverage on television; there’s been coverage in magazines. We found lots of interest in the business and investment communities. We found some interest in the policy world and I think being on the New York Times bestseller list has been a really big thing in terms of generating additional publicity. And quite a few people have copies of this book at this point.

Caryn Hartglass: Fantastic! I’m just thinking in my own small world here living in New York City. For example, I live in a co-op building, and I was reading about the green roofs and the cool roofs, and thinking about how difficult it is to make change in my own building here. And there are so many of us living in New York City. We need help making change.

Eric Toensmeier: On the other hand I would just like to celebrate what a fantastic job all of you are doing and having very low transportation emissions by living in New York City.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes, that’s one of the reasons I live here.

Eric Toensmeier: Well done in that regard…very well done in that regard. And I think people maybe don’t give cities enough credit for that.

Caryn Hartglass: I know we complain a lot about our subway system here but it’s the best in the country and it’s over one hundred years old and it takes a lot of repair. And I would love to see the entire country filled with improved rail systems.

Eric Toensmeier: There is much, much room for improvement in the area of transportation…absolutely. Well, to me it comes back to what Al Gore has said, which is that the question is political will. And I think that’s true at the building and the block level of state and national and international policy level. What we’re doing with drawdown is not laying out a political roadmap so much as providing a toolkit to people who are in those conversations, and who are part of those decision making processes is to say, well this is what we get to fight about now, or this is what we get to fight for now.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes, it’s a good beginning. I don’t want to keep you much longer, but you did mention Al Gore. And why isn’t he talking about plant-rich diets, even though he’s eating one?

Eric Toensmeier: I’m afraid I can’t answer that. I don’t know, and I have not met him, so I couldn’t comment on that. We’re certainly all in debt to him for all the marvelous things he’s done. And our hope with Drawdown actually is to bring attention to a number of these things that really have not been getting talked about much. Like refrigerant management, like the agroforestry kinds of systems, to cast light on these neglected powerful solutions. One that I really am a fan of and advocated for getting in the book is womens’ smallholder solution. We find that globally, female farmers receive a tiny fraction of the total amount of loans and technical assistance and other kinds of resources for farmers. And were female farmers to be brought to parity with men, it would greatly increase world food production to the point that it would actually avoid deforestation in a pretty significant way. It would be producing so much more food on the farms that there would be that much less land that would have to be cleared.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes, absolutely.

Eric Toensmeier: So that hasn’t been in the public conversation much either. But it’s really important. Really important!

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah it’s really important. I think of Wangari Maathai and all of her efforts in Kenya building, planting trees.

Eric Toensmeier: Absolutely.

Caryn Hartglass: When people told her she couldn’t, and she did.

Eric Toensmeier: She sure did.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes. Well Eric, thank you so much for taking the time today to talk to me. I’m very excited about this Drawdown project. It gives me a lot of inspiration and hope, and a plan of where we can go to make great change. Thank you for joining me on It’s All About Food.

Eric Toensmeier: Thanks so much for having me.

Caryn Hartglass: Take care. All right, let’s take a quick break and we’ll be back with the second part of our show.

Transcribed by Alexis Ellis 12/20/2017, D Fisher 11/10/2017

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *