Protecting the environment — and our future — means we need to get our hands dirty. That’s where “regenerative agriculture” comes in.
The farming practice relies on using organic composting materials (green waste from the community and animal manure, for instance) to develop crops, creating a more nutrient-dense soil that pulls carbon from the atmosphere and stores it.
Methods vary by climate and soil type, but the basics — including crop rotation — have been around for centuries. What’s new is that modern farmers haven’t been trained to avoid the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, which contain no carbon and degrade the soil. And even ancient practices such as tilling can have a deleterious impact on the environment, eroding lands and reducing soil carbon content.
“The idea is to get seeds into the ground in a more precise way, almost like puncturing it with a needle,” says Deep Water author Jacques Leslie, who recently wrote an op-ed called “Soil Power!” in the New York Times about the regenerative agriculture movement. “It attempts to be more ‘natural,’ not use techniques that are destructive, even if they have a long historical precedence.”
So, What’s the Impact?
According to a paper published in November by Scientific Reports, we could store between 0.9 and 1.85 billion metric tons of carbon in the top layers of soils each year — the equivalent of carbon emissions from every vehicle on Earth. The Rodale Institute goes a step further, pointing to research that says we can sequester more than 100 percent of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to better land-management methods on a global scale, essentially “reversing the greenhouse effect.” That’s not to mention the improved food security issues that come with worldwide expansion of regenerative farming (which has been tried with successful results in Africa, Asia and the Middle East), plus relief for drought-stricken areas, since many types of soils treated with organic methods don’t just trap carbon, but retain water sixteen times better than conventional soil.
Chart via Scientific Reports 7, Article number 15554 (2017)
Even though many studies into the effects of regenerative agriculture are in their third decade of data, some scientists aren’t convinced that the impact would be as high as others estimate. Even proponents of the practices admit that more research needs to be done in the area. “We have shown that the concept is solid,” says Dr. Whendee Silver from the University of California, Berkeley, who is the lead scientist on the Marin Carbon Project. “What is needed next is research exploring the applicability to a broader range of ecosystems, and more research on the carbon and nutrient dynamics, especially the carbon longevity, in the soil.”
But the main issue may be money. “If regenerative agriculture catches on, I can imagine there will be a political battle over this, because chemical and fertilizer companies won’t go away quietly,” says Leslie. “And the question is whether the benefits will win out.” That battle over bucks seems to have already begun, as some landowners in Texas see carbon sequestration in soil as a private-property right for which they should get paid, possibly setting up an interesting alliance between green energy advocates and cattle ranchers.
No matter what, though, it’s clear the movement to increase the use of regenerative agriculture is gaining momentum across the world — and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
What Can You Do?
Give money. The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) is working on soil health restoration in India and Africa, where farmers don’t have much access to corrective inputs. Among their efforts is a bioreclamation project in the Sahel region that “aims at building the capacity of women’s groups to get additional incomes and nutrition from degraded lands,” says Jerome Bossuet, Co-Head of Communications and Partnerships for ICRISAT. Here is the full list of bilateral funders who directly invest in ICRISAT, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the McKnight Foundation and Care Inc. Contributing to any of those organizations can help the cause.
Give time. When it comes to regenerative agriculture techniques, says Dr. Silver, “I think support for additional research is a clear priority, especially as federal agencies step away from supporting science. Education for stakeholders and policymakers is also key.” If you are near a farming community or an agriculture college, coordinating a pilot project to look into the benefits of the methods could yield real impact. And start making calls. In 2017, there were at least six states across the U.S. whose legislatures introduced bills concerning carbon farming. Not all of the bills passed, but many will be introduced again in future legislative sessions. Pay attention. And get out the vote.
Give up your garbage. On a more micro level … don’t forget to compost. Putting your green waste in those little green bins does the planet good. And keeps us all grounded.
Original contribution by Gabe Guarente, Content Manager at Giving Compass
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