If you've scrolled through Netflix sometime in the past year, you may have seen this doc floating in your Recommended:
Kiss the Ground was a game-changing documentary which took a close look at the role that soil health plays in the overall climate crisis. While both entertaining and illuminating, the documentary (narrated by Woody Harrelson) also stands as an indication of a looming industry and media trend: regenerative agriculture.
What is regenerative agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices which protect and regenerate the land's resources, rather than exploiting and depleting them. The most important element of regenerative agriculture is soil health.
Why is soil health so important?
Healthy soil (which contains bacteria and surface plant matter) absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere, as carbon dioxide is required to generate energy for plants and for the microorganisms living beneath the soil.
What's the problem with "regular" farming?
Conventional farming is responsible for just short of 25% of all human-generated greenhouse gas emissions.
- Tilling bare fields erodes the soil and releases massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere
- Tilling and working fields with huge machines compacts the soil, making it inhospitable to microorganisms
- Because microorganisms cannot thrive in eroding and compacted earth, conventional farmland is less able to support plant growth - which means that farmers have to spray synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides in order to meet demand (which further exacerbates the soil health problem)
- Animal feedlots are not only inhumane, but they are absolutely disastrous for the environment
- feedlots create dead zones in coastal areas where nitrogen-rich animal waste leaches into nearby waterways
- animals, particularly cows and pigs, consume a huge amount of food and water resources for the calories that they offer as a protein source, which means that more and more land is being turned to (conventional) corn and soy production in order to feed these animals for less and less caloric return
Conventional agriculture is a complex and important topic which deserves its own blog post; the above is only a quick look into why conventional farming is one of the most pressing threats to the environment.
How does regenerative agriculture actually work?
Regenerative agriculture uses a few techniques to maintain the health of the soil and the entire farm ecosystem:
As we've seen, tilling the earth is detrimental to the health of the soil which undermines the entire purpose of tillage: to grow bigger and better crops. Some regenerative farmers use a low- or no-till method of planting seeds.
This method essentially means that farmers plant seeds with a machine which does not rip up the soil and expose it to the air. No-till farming also usually leaves behind the plant residue from last season's crop (old stalks and leaves, etc). This method allows the soil to retain its structural integrity, mitigating erosion from rain and wind.
Regenerative farming rejects the concept of "putting all your eggs in one basket." A healthy ecosystem is a diverse one, with complex interrelationships between its acting parts. If one aspect or income stream fails, that should not mean the failure of the entire farm (or ecosystem).
One example of this diversity is the use of companion planting, crop rotation or cover crops, on which we'll expand in the next section. Another example of farm diversification is the intermingling of livestock and crops.
Raising animals alongside crops may seem like a no-brainer - but this style of diversified, holistic farming is no longer the norm. Monoculture (a single crop or crops grown year after year) has become the agricultural industry standard, with 59% of US cropland devoted to single-plant crops - almost always either corn and soybean.
Study finds 1 percent of farms own 70 percent of world’s farmland
Because monoculture does not behave like a natural system, with organic checks and balances to regulate growth, pests and disease - these single-plant crops require massive amounts of nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.
Regenerative agriculture provides a holistic answer to the crop-growers problems with pest and disease, by leaning on the farm ecosystem's natural processes. Here's an example of such a system:
Gabe Brown - featured in Kiss the Ground - grazes his cattle in a continuous rotation across his 5000 acre property. This rotation allows the fields to a) benefit from the natural fertilizer (manure) and b) recover from the pressure of the animal's hooves by allowing a full year to pass before the herd returns to the same field.
- This benefits Mr. Brown's fields by allowing the soil to be fertilized, turned, aerated and grazed down (mitigating weeds), while giving the field 365 days to recuperate
- This also benefits the cattle, as cows are natural ruminants: historically, the animals from which modern cows are descended would traverse huge tracts of land, fertilizing and "trimming" the grasses as they went. Happy animals = quality meat, meaning more profit for the farmer and a superior product for consumers.
Cover Crops, Rotation and Companion Planting
If you read our previous post, you'll know that companion, cover and rotation planting are methods of planting certain crops to benefit nearby and successive crops.
Using Mr. Brown's farm as an example, crops are planted (using the no-till method) so that each plant species benefits its neighbours and/or the next crop which will be planted in its place.
- planting alfalfa or clover (legumes) prior to growing corn so that the legumes can fix the nitrogen in the soil for the corn to access the following year
- planting thyme between rows of cabbage and/or strawberry can mitigate cabbage beetles while adding flavour to strawberries
Diversifying his crops has actually increased Gabe Brown's revenue per acre by 100% and reduced crop losses by 100%.
Kiss the Ground documentary
The key takeaway for this section is that cover crops, rotation and companion planting all ensure that the soil is never left bare. By keeping croplands covered with plant matter at all times, farmers can maintain and build the health of their soil (increasing their return-on-investment) and ensures that CO2 is pulled down from the atmosphere, rather than emitted by the same croplands.
Circular Waste Streams
In regenerative agriculture, waste is not wasted. What does this mean?
Farms in the US alone produce 20 billion lbs of food waste - this does not include animal feed loss or manure (which is, of course, a waste material). On conventional farms, the majority of food waste is sent to landfill, while animal waste is left to stagnate in large manure piles or pits.
On regenerative agriculture farms, however, waste items are incorporated into a continuous recycling stream: compost.
Many agricultural practices are site-specific, but composting is one fundamental element of organic and regenerative agriculture that can be adopted by anyone growing and/or eating food.
Composting breaks down organic wastes by allowing the natural decomposition process to proceed in a controlled, aerobic environment. This hugely benefits farms in various ways:
- adding organic matter to crops reduces the need for irrigation/watering by building soil absorbency
- composted organic material builds soil structure, allowing increased aeration to plant roots and soil microbes, while mitigating erosion
- compost offers plants greater resistance to pests and plant diseases, reducing the need for inputs (synthetic herbicides and pesticides)
- compost feeds and therefore increases the amount of microorganisms in the soil, subsequently increasing the crops' ability to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere
- compost is a natural fertilizer, lowering (if not eliminating) the need for intensive petrochemical fertilizers
- composting or recycling organics reduces waste volume and weight by up to 90%!
How does regenerative agriculture benefit us?
Regenerative agriculture is not just about sustainability.
Sustainability, while key for building a better future, is not enough to tackle our current and growing climate crisis. What is needed is a way to eliminate existing emissions - or our legacy load of carbon - while building better practices for the future so that successive agriculture and industry will not continue to produce such substantial emissions.
This is what regenerative agriculture has to offer: the eradication of a legacy load of CO2 and a future without agriculture-derived emissions.
Limits agricultural CO2 emissions
Modern conventional agriculture contributes massive amounts of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere.
[...] agricultural production provides the lion’s share of greenhouse-gas emissions from the food system, releasing up to 12,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent a year — up to 86% of all food-related anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions.
Soil that is tilled (ie. ripped up by tillers) emits the CO2 that it should be storing for the use of plant roots and microorganisms, into the atmosphere.
Because regenerative agriculture does not use tillage, but rather no- or low-till methods of planting crops, the carbon held beneath the soil stays put and is not released above ground.
Draws down "legacy load" of CO2
We've mentioned "legacy load" before, but we didn't really explain its significance.
Carbon dioxide is a long-lived pollutant: CO2 can remain in the atmosphere for centuries once released. This means that even if every single corporation, country and continent managed to completely pause all CO2 emissions, the globe would still be affected by emissions-related climate change from the existing CO2 in the atmosphere.
What is required now is not just "sustainability" efforts for the future, but a way to manage and deplete the billions of tonnes of CO2 already stored in the atmosphere.
So: how does regenerative agriculture help with this legacy load of CO2?
Not only does plant-covered earth not emit CO2, but it actually absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere. Plants consume CO2 during photosynthesis to produce sugar molecules (for energy) and oxygen. Carbon is then stored in the soil, mediated by the plant root system below the soil surface. The carbon is then made available to the microorganisms living in the pockets around those plant roots, allowing these microorganisms to consume the carbon passed along by plant roots as energy.
By increasing the carbon able to be sequestered by the soil by just 0.4%, we would pull all CO2 emissions generated in a year.
Increases farm revenue
As evidenced by Gabe Brown's farm - and many others like his - regenerative agriculture can be extremely lucrative.
When cooperating with natural processes, farms can lower their costs by reducing the amount of expensive petrochemical inputs applied to their fields.
Allowing livestock to graze naturally means that farmers can save costs on animal feed, spend less time and money erecting permanent enclosures and can reap the financial returns of "pasture-raised" beef or milk.
By diversifying their crops and planting year-round, farmers benefit from additional income streams and lengthen the growing season. By increasing soil fertility through no-till methods, farmers benefit from fewer losses, increased yield and better quality product.
Reduces soil erosion
Soil topped by plants has improved structure due to the complex web of root systems beneath the surface of the soil. This structure functions as a sort of net that keeps the soil from eroding away from wind and rain.
Reduces water use & improves drainage
Using intelligent waste recycling systems, regenerative agriculture incorporates its wasted organic matter into the soil. Organic matter improves soil absorbency and drainage: in dry years, organic matter can help soil retain whatever water does fall; during rainy years, it can reduce flooding and over-saturation.
Because organic matter acts as a giant land sponge, farmers do not have to use nearly as much water to hydrate their crops. This preserves local water supply - a resource disastrously affected by conventional agriculture.
Regenerative agriculture re-incorporates waste into its production cycle: rather than leaving waste to generate CO2e in cesspools or local landfills, regenerative farmers make use of this raw material to support the natural processes at work on the farm.
For every 1% increase of organic matter in an acre of soil, an additional ten tonnes per acre of CO2 can be sequestered from the atmosphere
Kiss the Ground documentary
Recycling or composting their waste allows farmers to reduce their organic losses by up to 90%!
Conventional farming has long run on the assumption that the earth is an infinitely renewable resource. We now know: it is not.
Regenerative agriculture is a food-production method which acknowledges the land as being finite, capable of being used up. The farming principles and practices of regenerative agriculture give back to the land and soil as much - or even more - than it takes.
Using modern innovation in combination with the eggs-in-many-baskets mentality of an older breed of farming, regenerative agriculture might just be able to heal the environmental wounds of the past while planning for a cleaner, greener future.