The degradation of soil quality on a global scale represents a serious threat to our food production system: according to the FAO, no less than 30% of the world’s soil is moderately to highly degraded. Rethinking our farming practices has become a top priority, but the alternatives to conventional agriculture remain rare and little-known. This article presents a promising solution for a more sustainable future: regenerative agriculture.
Figure 1. World Map Showing Human-Induced Soil Degradation (International Soil Reference and Information Centre, 2017)
What is regenerative agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture is a way of farming that aims at revitalizing the soil and the environment to ensure the sustainability of our food production system. It encompasses a set of practices that:
Contribute to regenerating soils, building soil fertility and health
Improve water percolation, water retention, clean and safe water runoff
Increase biodiversity, ecosystem health, and resiliency
Invert the carbon emissions of our current agriculture, though significant carbon sequestration
In practice, regenerative farming includes no-till or minimum tillage (see our article Tillage: farming practices in Thailand and environmental consequences), well-managed grazing, cover cropping, composting, and others practices that contribute to soil fertility and biological ecosystem building such as polyculture or agroforestry.
How can regenerative agriculture reverse climate change?
The shift from conventional to sustainable agriculture is often seen as a transition from intensive patterns to a less harmful system, where the greenhouse gases emissions from agriculture are shortened. The remarkable asset of regenerative agriculture is that this system not only reduces emissions from food production but also draws down excess carbon from the atmosphere.
In fact, greenhouse gases (mainly CO2, but also CH4, N2O) have followed a natural cycle for millions of years: primarily stored into soil and water, the gases are released into the atmosphere by natural processes (respiration, swamps…). The plants then reverse the phenomenon and put the carbon back into the soil through photosynthesis. However, it is now common knowledge that human activities disturbed the cycle: according to the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, the world’s cultivated soils have lost between 50 and 70 percent of their original carbon stock.
How can we sequestrate the excess carbon, and what mechanisms are at stake? Two key players are essentials: vegetation of course, and soil microorganisms. Indeed, plants have the fascinating ability to draw CO2 out of the air, form carbon compounds and exude the remaining carbon in the soil through their roots. However, it is the microorganisms in the soil that use and store the carbon. These microorganisms are plentiful, there is a wide variety of creatures (bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa, nematodes...) and there are many: in a teaspoon of healthy soil, there are in fact more microbes than there are people on earth. Carbon is essential for these living organisms, it is the main component of the organic matter and gives the soil its fertility and structure. By nurturing this living soil, creating favorable conditions for agroecosystems development and global photosynthesis, regenerative agriculture fosters the sequestration of carbon and thus helps to reverse climate change.
How to achieve the transition from conventional to regenerative agriculture?
For decades, industrial agriculture promoted chemical solutions including insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, nematicides and artificial fertilizers. Hence, shifting from conventional to regenerative agriculture means to completely reset a farm’s model, learn entirely new practices and develop a new business model with several cultures instead of monocropping. For a farmer, such transition requires a lot of psychological, financial and technical effort. Fortunately, a growing number of successful initiatives pave the way for the global development of regenerative agriculture. Major agrifood players, international institutions, and investors are showing an increasing interest in regeneratively produced crops, and will hopefully support a transition at farm level.
Inspiring examples of regenerative farms
Last year, the documentary Kiss the Ground was released on Netflix, introducing regenerative agriculture to the general public and showcasing examples of farmers who shifted their farming practices. The conclusions are all similar: regenerative agriculture not only brings biodiversity back to the farms but also increases crop productivity and therefore farmer’s revenues. The scientific literature corroborates these findings: the case study of Leontino Balbo Jr, a sugarcane exploitant who implemented regenerative agriculture practices in his exploitation, is a remarkable example. By working in collaboration with nature, not against it, he was able to increase productivity by 20% and became Brazil’s biggest organic-sugar grower. However, large exploitations are far from having the monopoly on regenerative farming innovations: smallholder farmers are key to scaling regenerative agriculture. Dr. Roland Bunch, one of the most well-respected leaders in regenerative land management, spent years studying creative farming practices implemented all over the world. A remarkable compilation on case studies of regenerative agriculture can be found here, and presents astonishing results that only begs one question: What are we waiting for?