Agriculture changed the world. In more ways than one, but primarily, it allowed human beings to become the dominant species on the planet. (Depending on your definition of dominant…)
When we figured out we didn’t have to hope we find vegetation, we could just learn the secrets of the soil and grow it ourselves wherever we wanted to, we built societies, civilizations, governments, townships, municipalities…
But there are some problems with that model.
One, we’ve talked about pretty extensively – we’re not ruminants. We don’t have the teeth or the digestive systems to process grasses (wheat, barley, oats, rye, corn, sugar cane) like ruminants can.
That doesn’t mean you have to stop eating those things – it’s just that they don’t contribute to our systems running optimally. But a lot of what we’re growing are grasses, and so that’s what we’re eating.
More importantly, however, agriculture led to the hubris of monoculture and cash crops, which is how soil depletion even entered into our vocabulary.
And it’s causing major problems.
This is what happens when the nutrients and components in soil that make it fertile and allow for healthy, consistent crops is used and not replaced. When that happens, crop yields are lower and less robust. Excessive cultivation, monoculture, and less-than-attentive soil management are at the root cause of soil depletion.
This isn’t a new concept – even during the early days of plantation farming in the United States, farms frequently went bankrupt or changed locations because of the constant tobacco farming and growing trade demands.
Practices that affect soil fertility can be:
- Allowing herd animals to graze freely, which can lead to soil compaction (reduction of pore space in soil) and close-cropping
- Not using manure to feed nutrients back to the soil
- Industrial logging on a large scale
- Slash-and-burn agriculture
- And more.
The problem we’re facing is two-fold: our soil isn’t healthy and so isn’t producing healthy crops, and the soil is eroding, which is not great for climate change.
Because when soil erodes, it takes the carbon that was trapped inside of it along with it, and that carbon gets released back into the atmosphere.
When you combine the carbon-releasing effects of soil erosion with the carbon-releasing effects of our current agricultural and land use practices, the EPA estimates that around 24% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. come from the agricultural sector.
That’s where regenerative agriculture can help.
Repairing the Carbon Sink Beneath Our Feet
According the Rodale Institute’s latest white paper, Regenerative Agriculture and the Soil Carbon Solution, we can use regenerative agriculture as a means to “sequester carbon, improve soil health, and feed the world.”
That’s a tall order.
Let’s start with what exactly regenerative agriculture is…
You can think of it as the opposite of our current system. Rather than resulting in soil depletion, regenerative agriculture assigns equal focus to restoring nutrients to the soil as it does to drawing them out of the soil to bring into crops.
And because soil isn’t being damaged during high-yield crop harvests and monoculture, it stops eroding and continues to store carbon.
Farming practices that are considered regenerative include:
- Cover cropping and green manure use
- Seasonal crop rotations
- Integrated livestock practices (like having ruminants strategically graze pastures in order to build up soil)
- Less tilling of the soil (which releases carbon)
- Complete absence of chemical fertilizers (which kills microbes, bacteria, and fungi in the soil that help to trap carbon)
By turning to these practices, we accomplish a few goals.
We lock more and more carbon into the soil. You see, when plants pull sugar from the carbon in the atmosphere during photosynthesis, they do it to feed the microbes in the soil surrounding their roots. The microbes eat the carbon, and convert it to more easily storable materials.
We also increase the nutritional value of the food we’re eating (which has been declining, as some studies have found), and by diversifying the crops planted in our massive fields, we reintroduce some of the original ecosystem to the land.
And, as is an increasing concern in the age of extreme weather events and climate change, regenerative agriculture strengthens the soil and prevents it from eroding, which preserves habitats, ecosystems, carbon sequestration, and helps to protect against powerful storms.
If you’re attempting to vote with your dollar here, look for these labels:
- REGENERATIVE ORGANIC CERTIFIED
- REAL ORGANIC PROJECT
- USDA CERTIFIED ORGANIC
- LAND TO MARKET
- SOIL CARBON INITIATIVE
These labels account for various initiatives – the second two focus less on the “organic” outcome of the harvest, and more on the practices used in animal, soil, and water infiltration care. The first three focus on both regenerative practices and organic outcome, with the first certification being considered the gold standard of regenerative farming.
In so many words, regenerative farming is the practice of spiritually concerning yourself with the land. It’s common sense – do not take without giving, do not be careless, do not poison.
And it’s probably our best hope for transforming our industrial agriculture system.