Beyond Sustainability: Regenerative Agriculture Takes Aim at Climate Change
Aug 16, 2019 12:12AM
By Yvette C. Hammett
Most people have never heard of regenerative agriculture, but there’s plenty of talk about it in the scientific and farming communities, along with a growing consensus that regeneration is a desirable step beyond sustainability.
Those that are laser-focused on clean food and a better environment believe regenerative agriculture will not only result in healthier food, but could become a significant factor in reversing the dangerous effects of manmade climate change. This centers on the idea that healthy soils anchor a healthy planet: They contain more carbon than all above-ground vegetation and regulate emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
“We have taken soils for granted for a long time. Nevertheless, soils are the foundation of food production and food security, supplying plants with nutrients, water and support for their roots,” according to the study “Status of the World’s Soil Resources,” by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. Most of the world’s soil resources, which also function as the planet’s largest water filter, are in fair, poor or very poor condition, the report states.
Tilling, erosion and chemicals all play significant roles in soil degradation. Regenerative agriculture seeks to reverse that trend by focusing on inexpensive organic methods that minimize soil disturbance and feed its microbial diversity with the application of compost and compost teas. Cover crops, crop and livestock rotation and multistory agroforestry are all part of a whole-farm design that’s intended to rebuild the quantity and quality of topsoil, as well as increase biodiversity and watershed function.
In the U.S., we are depleting our topsoil 10 times faster than we are replenishing it. We only have 60 years of farmable topsoil remaining.
“True regenerative organic agriculture can improve the environment, the communities, the economy, even the human spirit,” says Diana Martin, director of communications for the Rodale Institute, in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. Rodale, a leader in the organic movement, has been carrying the global torch for regenerative agriculture since the 1970s, when Bob Rodale, son of the institute’s founder, first began talking about it. “He said sustainability isn’t good enough. In the U.S., we are depleting our topsoil 10 times faster than we are replenishing it. We only have 60 years of farmable topsoil remaining,” says Martin.
The institute is working with corporate brands in conducting a pilot project on farms around the world to certify food as regenerative organic. It has three pillars that were created with the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program: soil health; animal welfare; and social justice, the latter because people want to know that workers are being treated fairly, Martin says.
“In some ways, we felt the organic program could do more, so we introduced the regenerative organic certification. It is a new, high-bar label that is very holistic,” says Jeff Moyer, an expert in organic agriculture and the executive director at the Rodale Institute. The pilot phase involves 21 farms with connections to big brands like Patagonia, Lotus Foods and Dr. Bronner’s. “We needed relationships with brands to make this a reality,” Moyer says. Product should be rolling out by this fall.“There’s kind of a broad umbrella of things going on,” says Bruce Branham, a crop sciences professor with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “No-till farming certainly is a small step toward regenerative ag, because every time we till the soil, we essentially expose a lot of the carbon dioxide, which burns off carbon.”
Cover crops can be planted right after harvesting a cash crop to help regenerate the soil, adding nitrogen and organic matter, he says. “It is a long-term benefit, so a lot of farmers are hesitant. It takes a while to improve soil fertility through cover crop use.” It doesn’t cost much, but for a corn or soybean farmer making almost no money right now, every expense matters. “The real things we are working on are more toward different cropping systems,” he says, in which farmers are growing perennial tree crops that produce nuts and fruits, absorb carbon and don’t require replanting or tilling.
There’s considerable interest in regenerative organic agriculture in Idaho, as many farmers there have already adopted no-till practices, says Sanford Eigenbrode, a professor at the University of Idaho, who specializes in entomology, plant pathology and nematology. Farmers want to try to improve retention of soil carbon to both stabilize soils and improve long-term productivity, he says. “There are economic and environmental advantages.”
Yvette C. Hammett is an environmental writer based in Valrico, Florida. She can be contacted at [email protected]
This article appears in the August 2019 issue of Natural Awakenings.