Regenerative Agriculture: A Sustainable Form of Farming
Industrial farming practices have a devastating impact on the environment. In 2016, agriculture and forestry accounted for nearly 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Much of this output stems from the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers and nutrients. At this rate, climate change will continue to cause catastrophic weather events at increasing frequencies. The air we breathe and the food we eat will also continue to decline in quality. Fortunately, the very industry that is poisoning our planet can provide the antidote with regenerative agriculture.
The Rodale Institute suggests regenerative agriculture as an alternative to unsustainable farming practices. Regenerative agriculture is not just a sustainable method of farming. It can improve our planet by capturing carbon emissions within our planet’s soil. Regenerative agriculture has the potential to completely reverse climate change and provide people with healthy, organic food. With wide scale adoption of regenerative agriculture, biodiversity will increase and soils will be enriched. Now I’ll admit, some of this sounds too good to be true. Let’s start by exploring the four principles of regenerative agriculture. Each principle is full of comically buzzy words, so bear with me. We’ll then talk through some of the individual farming practices. Lastly, we’ll wrap up with some of the obstacles regenerative agriculture will encounter and how we can overcome them.
The 4 Principles of Regenerative Agriculture
Principle #1: Progressively improve whole agroecosystems
An agroecosystem is the ecosystem in which food is produced. Today, agroecosystems are maintained with pesticides, chemicals, and other toxins. Moreover, the practice of plowing soil has created a dependency on fertilizers, since plowing causes the health of soils to degrade. By convincing farmers to abandon these unhealthy practices, agroecosystems can improve.
Principle #2: Create context-specific designs and make holistic decisions that express the essence of each farm
Not all farms are the same, so they should not be worked in the same way. With the current practices of using fertilizers and pesticides, farms lose what makes them unique. Farmers should implement practices that are beneficial to the crops they are growing in the region they’re located. Furthermore, considerations should be made around feeding the local population. Diets, cultural practices, and food availability should factor into consideration and inform what is grown on farms.
Principle #3: Ensure and develop just and reciprocal relationships amongst all stakeholders
The stakeholders involved in farming are not limited to just farmers and consumers. Plants, animals, soils, and microbes must all be considered as well. Pesticides, while protecting plants from bugs in the short term, hurt ecosystems in the long term. Alternative practices need to be implemented to ensure that farmers, consumers, plants, animals, soils, and microbes all have reciprocal relationships. These relationships will ensure the sustainability of agroecosystems.
Principle #4: Continually grow and evolve individuals, farms, and communities to express their innate potential
By working to consistently improve farming practices, communities and the individuals that comprise them can improve. Regenerative agriculture involves community participation and encompasses more stakeholders than industrial farming. This inclusive way of farming helps to achieve greater progress on a wider scale.
5 Regenerative Agricultural Practices
1. No-till farming
No-till farming is a method of growing crops without plowing. Plowing, as stated above under Principle #1, erodes soils over time. During the agricultural revolution, tilling appeared more efficient, as it enabled farmers blend manure, weeds, and crop residues into the soil. However, tilling leaves soil bare of any plant matter. This exposes it to wind and water erosion. By contrast, soils that are not plowed have a larger and more diverse population of organisms, which improves their fertility.
“Undisturbed soil resembles a sponge, held together by an intricate structure of different soil particles and channels created by roots and soil organisms.” Regeneration International
By leaving the soil largely undisturbed, carbon dioxide is not released into the atmosphere at the same rates as plowed soil. In fact, the soil can draw down greenhouse gases. This leaves carbon in the ground, which is both good for crops and the atmosphere. Lastly, no-till farming can be done organically by utilizing farming methods developed before the use of herbicides and pesticides.
Compost is decomposed organic matter. Composting is a natural way in which organic material is recycled and re-purposed as a soil amendment. Farmers can purchase compost or make it themselves. Typical components of compost include fruit and vegetable rinds and remains, old plants, grass trimmings, and other organic matter. Composting enriches soil, enables healthier and more resilient plant growth, and cuts down on food waste.
3. Organic Annual Cropping
Organic agricultural practices forgo the use of toxic herbicides and pesticides. Annual organic cropping will eliminate the 3 million cases of yearly pesticide poisonings. 220,000 of these poisonings result in death. Additionally, CO2 emissions per hectare of organic agricultural systems are 48% to 66% lower than conventional systems.
4. Animal Integration
There are a number of problems that stem from raising animals, specifically livestock, in cages. First, cow waste is not used as manure on a farm. It instead seeps into the groundwater and ultimately pollutes our water supply. Second, livestock that don’t range freely require more antibiotics than those raised on pastures. Consumption of beef and milk produced by cows treated with antibiotics creates an antibiotic resistant population. This could ultimately lead to the spread of superbugs. By reintegrating livestock with plants, levels of waste would decline, soils would grow resilient, and milk and beef quality would improve.
5. Ecological Aquaculture
While most of us think of farming as limited to land, much of the world’s seafood is also farmed. China, in fact, produces roughly two thirds of the world’s seafood. Many populations have a large appetite for fish. The demand exceeds the natural supply, which led to industrial scale fish farming, or aquaculture. While there are many benefits to aquaculture, large scale operations have led to water pollution and waste. Ecological aquaculture is the solution to these issues. Ecological aquaculture emphasizes the sustainability of the marine ecosystem. Managed properly, society can receive the volume of seafood it demands without having to contend with the negative effects of irresponsible farming practices.
How to Overcome the Obstacles Regenerative Agriculture Faces
Obstacle #1: Entrenched Systems
One of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of any change is the entrenched systems. This proposed change is no different. Individuals and companies that benefit from the status quo will make efforts to curb progress. As an example, the big 6 pesticide companies contributed funds to oppose a measure that would mandate nutrition labels state whether food has been genetically engineered. Ultimately, the measure failed. There are, however, countermeasures we can take to promote change. Beyond Pesticides contains a wealth of information about ways in which we can involve our communities in the fight against entrenched systems. Education, community movements, and legislation will be key to shifting to regenerative agriculture.
Obstacle #2: Feeding Populations
The most common argument made against organic farming is that organic farm crop yields would not be able to feed the world’s population. These claims have been made in the absence of good data. It is true that in the short term, yields will decline. However, a long term shift will result in yields roughly the same size as, if not more than, farms that use pesticides. If this shift is complemented by declines in food waste, large scale adoption of regenerative agricultural practices are more likely. By moving to regenerative agriculture, farms will be better suited for sustainable crop growth and negative environmental effects will decline.
Obstacle #3: Cost
Unfortunately, it will take time for regenerative agriculture to become cost competitive. The above mentioned entrenched systems operate with economies of scale, well-oiled supply chains, and speed. Educating farmers on regenerative agricultural practices will require a large expense. Additionally, regenerative agriculture avoids shortcuts. Genetic modification and inorganic fertilizers promote fast crop growth. With a shift away from these shortcuts, more laborers and sustainable innovations will be required. To realize the benefits of regenerative agriculture, short term government subsidies will be necessary. Greater awareness of the negative effects of current farming practices may push the government to act. That said, I again think that communities will need to apply pressure to their legislators to regulate the shift. As the movement grows, economies of scale will be attained, robust supply chains will be built, and the speed with which crops are grown will increase. Long term commitments are required for the costs of regenerative agriculture to decrease.
Can Regenerative Agriculture Reverse Climate Change?
With the wide scale adoption of regenerative agriculture, carbon emissions can be sequestered within our soil. The health of our ecosystems will improve, our food will be of better quality, and our world will be less polluted. Fortunately, we’re beginning to see some companies professing the benefits of regenerative agriculture emerge. Cooks Venture, as an example, is selling pasture raised chickens. These chickens are raised in an sustainable way, better for us, and tastier too. I hope to see other companies join Cooks Venture in battling against climate change.
What do you think of regenerative agriculture? Leave a comment below or contact me directly.