Renew. Repair. Reinvigorate. Restore. Revive. Each of these verbs helps us to understand what regenerative agriculture practices mean. By building organic matter into soils, regenerative agriculture produces stronger yields and nutrient-rich crops. It leads to resiliency — diminishing erosion and runoff, improving water quality on and off the farm, and helping to better withstand climate change impacts like flooding and drought.
Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that seeks to rehabilitate and enhance the entire ecosystem of the farm by placing a heavy premium on soil health, with attention also paid to water management and fertilizer use. Importantly, regenerative agriculture practices help us fight the climate crisis by pulling carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering it in the ground.
In regenerative agriculture, a great deal of emphasis is placed on looking holistically at the agro-ecosystem. Key techniques as outlined at the Climate Reality Project include:
- Conservation tillage: Because plowing and tillage erode soil and release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it’s vital for farmers to adopt low- or no-till practices. Farmers minimize physical disturbance of the soil. Over time, soil organic matter increases, creating healthier, more resilient environments for plants to thrive, as well as keeping more and more carbon where it belongs.
- Diversity: Different plants release different carbohydrates, or sugars, through their roots. Various microbes feed on these carbs, returning nutrients back to the plant and the soil. By increasing the plant diversity of their fields, farmers help create the rich, varied, and nutrient-dense soils that lead to more productive yields.
- Rotation and cover crops: Planting the same plants in the same location can lead to a buildup of some nutrients and a lack of others. Rotating crops and deploying cover crops strategically, farms and gardens can infuse soils with more and diverse soil organic matter, often while avoiding disease and pest problems naturally.
- Mess with it less: In addition to minimizing physical disturbance, regenerative agriculture practitioners also often seek to be cautious about chemical or biological activities that also can damage long-term soil health. Misapplication of fertilizers and other soil amendments can disrupt the natural relationship between microorganisms and plant roots.
Regenerative Agriculture & Biodiversity Protection
Crop and livestock production are among the main causes of global biodiversity loss. Yet removing large proportion of land currently dedicated to agriculture would likely result in conflicts and could potentially impact global food production and local livelihoods. With 25% of species are currently at risk of extinction — mostly because of our current unsustainable way of life — the parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity have set goals to slow down and then revert current biodiversity trends through a comprehensive set of 20 targets designed to address the drivers of biodiversity loss in both land and water systems.
What makes implementing such targets difficult is the fact that allocating areas for conservation cannot be done without accounting for aspects of rural development and the increasing demand for farmland products. Yet it is clear that agriculture is the main driver of biodiversity loss through habitat loss, degradation, and pollution.
How can successful food production and biodiversity conservation co-exist?
The authors of a November, 2021 study published in the journal One Earth argue that, when these targets are pursued in tandem, only then can biodiversity conservation objectives be achieved at no expense to the livelihoods of farmland communities. Integrated planning, in which regenerative agriculture activities and biodiversity conservation exist within a single planning process, could achieve biodiversity benefits at 25%–40% of the opportunity cost for food production, or 400%–600% of the biodiversity benefit for similar opportunity costs, as opposed to planning for each objective separately.
The True Cost & Price of Food
On November 7, 2021, food systems experts gathered at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow to discuss using investment and true cost accounting (TCA) as levers for food systems change. Those discussions were the offspring of an earlier UN Food Systems Summit white paper that discussed how one of the central problems of current food systems is that many of the costs of harmful foods are externalized — they’re not reflected in actual daily market prices. Also, the researchers remarked, healthful foods versus those with non-nutritive calories don’t receive any preferential treatment. Due to externalities, sustainable and healthy food is often less affordable to consumers, yet unsustainable and unhealthy food gets optimal focus due to its profitability for businesses.
A series of steps was outlined to demonstrate how to correct for these hidden costs.
- Redefine the value of food through TCA to address externalities and other market failures. TCA unveils the true value of food by making the benefits of affordable and healthy food visible and revealing the costs of damage to the environment and human health.
- True pricing incorporates externalities in prices to align market incentives with social values. Appropriate safety nets to boost consumer purchasing power and the enforcement of rights and regulations should also be part of true pricing to ensure that affordable and healthy food is accessible to all.
Such actions have the potential to conserve the environment, meet fundamental universal human rights, and accelerate progress towards achieving development goals.
While more leaders and organizations are working on TCA-driven solutions, there isn’t yet a universal framework to follow. “If governments, banks, and big food companies are going to get involved, we need a more harmonized global framework for measuring the sustainability impacts, and then we can monetize them and give government the chance to redirect subsidies,” Patrick Holden, Sustainable Food Trust Founder, told Food Tank. “As a farmer, I can say that if you are farming intensively, right now it actually pays better to farm and produce food in ways that are damaging to the environment and public health.” Holden, however, chooses to farm regeneratively and sustainably.
Climate scientists are increasingly focused on to how to use soil to sequester carbon because the industrial food system emits approximately half of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Traditional tilling exposes organic matter in the soil to oxygen, which aids decomposition, releasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Regenerative farming methods help to retain soil carbon, which improves water uptake and buildup of better organic matter and biodiversity. This also preserves soil quality, boosting crop growth and yield as well as plant health and food nutrition.
Bruno Basso, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Michigan State University’s College of Natural Science, and Kristofer Covey, an assistant professor of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Skidmore College, co-founded My Soil Organic Carbon (MySOC). It’s a nonprofit that aims to create a database of soil carbon for farmland across the US. It could provide farmers with low-cost tools to collect and analyze their soil samples for crop production and carbon sequestration farming, while modeling prospects for more profitability. They have already designed a prototype that farmers can use to collect soil samples, with plans for a mobile app to speed the process and give open access to all the data.
MySOC is also an inaugural member of the Morgan Stanley Institute for Sustainable Investing’s Sustainable Solutions Collaborative, an initiative that helps scale sustainability innovations that can benefit from partnerships across private and public industries. Covey saw an opportunity to create a way for farmers to easily and cheaply collect samples to analyze how much carbon their soil can sequester. “We shouldn’t expect carbon farming practices to be widely adopted,” Covey told Morgan Stanley’s Institute for Sustainable Investing, “until we can give information to farmers about what practices result in a certain amount of carbon capture.”
Covey and Basso want to bring MySOC to more farmers and have committed to maintaining a nonprofit model to ensure that nationwide soil-carbon data remains public and published by a trusted, independent provider. “Fully adopting carbon sequestration farming requires a better understanding of its value,” Basso explains. “The market will require showing certification and verification of sequestration practices,” which MySOC aims to facilitate through its standardized data.
Featured image retrieved from NASA/open source
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