Agriculture is commonly understood as a positive thing, something that there isn’t enough of and something that could answer all our problems if only we’d let it. Well, not to say that agriculture isn’t important, because it is; crops are a major part of our diets, as are the livestock involved in farming, and the entire process of farming should help the earth. Yet, it doesn’t, and agriculture has caused some of the biggest problems facing society today.
In fact, agriculture is closely related to climate change. Agriculture directly contributes emissions of Carbon Dioxide, Methane, and Nitrous Oxide -- the three most abundant greenhouse gases. It is also responsible for almost 25% of human-created GHG emissions. Soil erosion, livestock, and nitrogen-based fertilizers are the main causes of the gases mentioned above, respectively. There are additional aspects of large scale farming that cause problems for the environment, which will be explored later. For now, it’s good to know that there is a solution that not only makes agriculture safer and more effective, but actually reverses climate change: regenerative agriculture.
Regenerative Agriculture is a set of farming and grazing practices that create special benefits due to their rebuilding of soil organic matter and restoration of degraded soil biodiversity. Some examples of the types of practices Regenerative Agriculture employs are low or no- tillage, crop rotation, crop diversity, and absolutely minimal or zero chemical fertilizer use. Together, these practices build up and restore soil health, cut carbon emissions, yield not only more crops but also higher quality crops, and improve the water cycle.
For example, low or no tillage farming is effective because of how it deals with carbon and soil health in comparison to heavy tilling. Plowing and tilling are harsh on the soil, breaking it up and stripping it of nutrients and hydration while also releasing carbon back into the air. By refraining, or only minimally tilling and plowing, the soil is not eroded but instead protected and allowed to create and keep the nutrients that it needs. It also is able to retain more water while causing less water runoff, and carbon is held into the ground, which is a prime example of the climate change reversal. Some soils benefit from the occasional breaking of soil, which is why low-tillage is sometimes not only acceptable but preferred.
This concept is perhaps the most important of regenerative agriculture. Healthy soil is well hydrated, and full of microbes, fungi, and other essential nutrients. These are all improved by the excess carbon - that is to say, the extra carbon not used in the photosynthesis process for the plant itself - being stored in the surrounding soil, which then feeds those microbes and fungi and allows the soil to retain more water. Therefore, this is a crucial cycle that can change the world. The carbon stored in the ground improves the soil and the plants, which produce higher yields of quality plants, where more plants will then help bring carbon into the soil. Meanwhile, this process helps remove the excessive carbon that exists in the air, a direct cause of climate change for many years, and actually reverses the damage.
Of course, this is a long and slow process, but the more abundant regenerative agriculture becomes, the more effective the entire system becomes.
The lessening of plowing and tilling does wonders for the soil microbiome and carbon in the atmosphere, however, there are still other practices that regenerative agriculture focuses on to restore and improve soil health and create positive environmental impacts.
Crop diversity and crop rotation are two ways to increase the amount of nutrients in the soil, creating healthier plants and more resilient soil. When the same plants are kept in the same area for long periods of time, the soil erodes and the nutrients become ineffective. By rotating crops, the soil stays “fresh” in a manner of speaking, and is able to hold a balanced variety of nutrients from many types of plants which increases soil organic matter and maintains healthy soil. This also proves that growing a diverse group of plants - which are then rotated - provide an array of benefits that creates rich and varied soil full of nutrients. In full circle, the healthier the soil and therefore the plants, the more carbon is stored into the ground, which in turn creates healthier soil and also helps reverse climate change.
An additional, if not obvious, component to this healthy and regenerative soil endeavor is the abstention of chemical fertilizers. When fertilizers - whether artificial or synthetic - are introduced, it creates an imbalance to the natural cycles and productions of microbes within the soil. It throws off the system not only because it inputs unnatural organisms and nutrients, but also because it creates a dependent system with weaker plants. Additionally, there are multiple ways that the use of fertilizers contribute to climate change: soil organic matter decomposes faster; the weakening of the soil causes less carbon sequestration; the chemicals break down and enter water sources and the atmosphere; and the energy and other emissions that are required to produce and transport the fertilizers.
If the sole purpose for regenerative agriculture is to reverse climate change, then an argument could be made that with other, more effective ways to do so, the practice could be abandoned. However, reducing climate change is not the sole benefit of regenerative agriculture, and even if it were, it is one of the most effective ways of doing so. Regenerative agriculture is also about the soil, and the crops. After all, these crops are a significant food supply for the population. As agriculture currently stands, the rates of soil destruction are so great that within 50 years, the food supply will have significantly fewer nutrients and minerals, and perhaps more importantly, there will not be enough arable topsoil to continue growing these - even if mostly useless at this point - crops. There are currently 4 billion acres of cultivated farmland, 8 billion acres of pastureland, and 10 billion acres of forest land, and with all of that, the world will not be fed. Plus, if agricultural practices don’t change, so that we get to this point of destroyed soil and measly crop production, that of course signifies nothing was done to slow or reverse climate change, and in 50 years, it would be at an even worse level.
Soil loss is a threat to humanity that needs to be taken seriously, just like climate change. Amazingly, regenerative agriculture addresses both, and leads to a healthier world - not only for the environment, but for people, too.