by Jes Walton, Food Campaigns Specialist
Regenerative agriculture, while not a new concept, is gaining traction amidst increasing concerns around climate change and a lack of tangible, workable solutions that address the severity and timeliness of the problem. To keep global warming to two degrees Celsius or less, we not only need to radically reduce the amount of carbon dioxide being put into the atmosphere, we also need to start sequestering the carbon that’s already there.
Regenerative, restorative agriculture is the single best way to do so.
The idea behind regenerative agriculture is relatively straightforward: excess carbon in the atmosphere is bad because of its role in climate change, and carbon in the soil is good because of its role as a fertilizer. Regenerative agriculture is the mechanism, a set of tools and practices, that pulls carbon from the air and transfers it underground—storing carbon and re(storing) agricultural soils.
It’s all about balance.
Our soils used to be rich in carbon. Decades of industrial agriculture—and the associated use of synthetic chemicals, monocultures, and heavy tilling practices—have left soils degraded and low in the carbon and organic matter needed to grow healthy and nutritious crops. To compensate, farmers must apply fertilizers that require huge amounts of energy to produce, leach into surrounding waters, and release nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide into the air as powerful greenhouse gases.
Under industrial agricultural methods, farmers are locked into this costly cycle of degradation and pollution. Regenerative agriculture reminds us that farmers are not the enemy, rather stewards of incredibly important and complex systems that we depend upon as a species.
So, how do we re(store) this balance? What does regenerative agriculture look like in practice?
There are many ways to re(store) farmlands. Similar to the overall concept of regenerative agriculture, many of these farming and grazing practices are not new. All of them focus on protecting and enriching the soil, and the delicate web of life found within the fields:
1. Crop Rotation and Cover Cropping
3. Zero to Low Tillage and Mulching
4. Planting Perennials and Diverse Crops
5. Managed Grazing
Regenerative agriculture recognizes many local and on-farm benefits that go beyond carbon sequestration to support healthy communities, vibrant ecosystems, and productive farms.
The environment benefits from increased biodiversity, while pollution is reduced. Consumers benefit from more nutritious crops, increased food diversity, and local food security. The farm and farmer benefit from less exposure to harmful chemicals and a decreased need for expensive inputs; regenerative agriculture even has the potential to help our food growers adapt to climatic changes with increased water holding capacity in soils and the creation of microclimates on the farm.
With so much to gain, regenerative agriculture is likely to have many supporters as we forge our way into uncertain futures that require us to address increasingly intertwined issues that affect people and planet. Whereas technological advances were once considered the solutions to all problems, climate change advocates and farmers alike recognize the need for a biological solution to the twin issues of climate change and our failing food system.
20th Century farming relied heavily on chemistry, and our lands, water, and people are paying the price. For the 21st Century, we need to put biology, climate science, and ecology at the forefront of farming. We can create a real “green” revolution this time, one that goes beyond increasing short-term yields, to ensuring healthy agriculture and a hospitable planet for generations to come.