What does the emergence of regenerative agriculture mean for the future of farming?

  • Regenerative agriculture could be a solution to climate change
  • Reduced tillage, cover cropping, and crop rotation are some of the major principles of regenerative agriculture
  • Upcoming certification schemes will provide farmers with tools to measure their impact

The agricultural industry is considered one of the world’s worst polluters. For instance, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, it’s responsible for 24 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. However, greenhouse gas emissions aren’t the only problem associated with agriculture. Our current farming practices are also one of the main causes of soil degradation, which may not receive the same press coverage some of these other issues do but could be just as important for our future. “Soils are the basis of life,” says Maria-Helena Semedo, the deputy director general of natural resources at the Food and Agriculture Organization. “Ninety five percent of our food comes from the soil.” Indeed, the UN warns that we could lose all of the world’s topsoil in less than 60 years if the current rate of degradation continues, and it’s obvious that we need to do something to address this problem before it’s too late. The answer might be innovative agricultural practices that regenerate the land.

Regenerative agriculture could be a solution to climate change

Regenerative agriculture has really picked up steam in recent years. It involves farming methods and technologies that sequester carbon, revitalise the soil, and improve the surrounding environment. Its proponents claim that it provides numerous benefits for both farmers and the environment. These include protecting topsoil from erosion and depletion, as well as actively improving its quality, sequestering the majority of human greenhouse gas emissions, providing nutrients with very little external input, producing high yields, fostering healthy crops that are weed- and pest-free, improving human health, and bringing farmers higher profits. “Regenerative organic agriculture has the ability to restore the health of our soils while growing food that is healthier for us and the planet,” says Jeff Moyer, the executive director at the Rodale Institute.

These are some very lofty claims but is there actually any truth to them?

Close-up of grassroots
Regenerative agriculture has really picked up steam in recent years

Reduced tillage, cover cropping, and crop rotation are some of the major principles of regenerative agriculture

Some of the major principles of regenerative agriculture include reduced tillage, cover cropping, crop rotation, managed grazing, composting, and fungal inoculation. Tillage is a common farming practice, in which farmers use machines like plows or discs to turn over and loosen the soil after harvest. The problem with tillage is that it destroys the fungal hyphae responsible for delivering nutrients to plants, as well as for absorbing carbon dioxide from the air and converting it into stable organic carbon compounds in the soil. That’s why regenerative agriculture calls for avoiding tillage whenever possible, with ample evidence to suggest that it reduces physical erosion. Another technique that helps prevent erosion is planting cover crops alongside cash crops. While these cover crops will compete with cash crops for water, light, and some nutrients, which may cause them to produce lower yields, they will also donate other nutrients like nitrogen, resulting in healthier soil. Regenerative agriculture also relies on crop rotation, or growing different crops in the same area in turn, which has been shown to protect plants from pests and disease.

Del Ficke of the Ficke Cattle Company adopted regenerative farming practices, going from thousands of acres of land and a couple of hundred head of cattle to less than 700 acres and between 70-100 animals. The result? Their profits went up 70 per cent. Furthermore, the organic matter in their fields increased from 2.6 per cent to 6.9 per cent, while their equipment costs fell to under $30 per acre. In comparison, the equipment costs for farmers who use conventional farming techniques can sometimes exceed $200 per acre. Although one successful example is not enough to prove conclusively that the concept works, it does sound promising.

Upcoming certification schemes will provide farmers with tools to measure their impact

There are several certification schemes in the works, too. Carbon Underground and Green America, two advocacy groups focusing on mitigating the impact of climate change, have joined forces with several major food and beverage manufacturers, including MegaFood, Unilever, Danone, and General Mills, to create a global verification standard for food grown regeneratively. “We’re really thinking about all different types of ways to make what we know is a solution to climate change—if not the solution—happen fast,” says Sara Newmark, the VP of social impact at MegaFood. “A standard is a key technique to create change. Hopefully this will give farmers tools so they can change or enhance their practices and give brands a way to evaluate a farm or talk to consumers.” According to Larry Kopald, the president and co-founder of Carbon Underground, “The goal of this new standard is not simply to restore soil, but to do it quickly.The windows for avoiding catastrophic climate change and complete topsoil loss are projected to close in decades, not centuries.”

Similarly, the Regenerative Organic Alliance, led by the Rogale Institute, has created the Regenerative Organic Certification that aims to bring together existing high-bar certifications, with USDA Organic certification as a baseline. The ROC will provide farmers with recommendations and guidelines that focus on improving soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness for farmers and workers. “Consumers are requesting change and looking for products that are addressing these concerns,” says Jessica Evans, the director of standards at NSF International. “Our role is to give consumers that confidence that these products are in line with their values.” The first food bearing the ROC label is expected to hit the stores in mid-2019.

It remains to be seen whether regenerative agriculture is the solution we’ve been looking for, but it’s certainly a promising concept that is set to grow in popularity over the coming years. Its proponents claim that it provides numerous benefits, including preventing soil erosion, sequestering human greenhouse gas emissions, producing higher yields and healthier crops, improving human health, and bringing farmers more profit. Even if only half of these claims turn out to be true, regenerative agriculture could be a big help in mitigating the effects of climate change.

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