Thursday, July 25, 2024

Top 5 This Week

The Power of Regenerative Agriculture

Globally, the agriculture, forestry, and other land uses (AFOLU) sector accounted for 22% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2019.[1] Despite accounting for almost a quarter of global GHG emissions, agriculture is uniquely positioned to be part of the solution to climate change. That is because carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions from the agriculture sector can not only be reduced or neutralized by certain practices, but also sequestered through the power of regenerative agriculture.

Practiced for thousands of years and rooted in the traditions of indigenous communities and communities of color,[2] regenerative agriculture is a sustainable land management practice focused on ecological functions that “leverages the power of photosynthesis in plants to close the carbon cycle, and build soil health, crop resilience and nutrient density” (Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems – Chico State, n.d.). Various organizations are developing sets of metrics to help measure progress towards regenerative agriculture, emphasizing either practices or outcomes, or a combination of both.

Despite the lack of a single definition or a common set of metrics for regenerative agriculture, the focus on soil health is widely accepted. If maintained properly, soil is a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans by combining mineral particles with plants, fungi, microbes, and other species (Natural Resources Conservation Service, 2024). In a healthy state, soil provides a range of ecosystem services, including water retention, nutrient cycling, plant growth promotion, biodiversity support, and carbon sequestration. The latter is increasingly important in the face of climate change, as carbon sequestration maximizes the CO₂ pulled from the atmosphere by plant growth and minimizes its loss once it is stored in the soil (Rodale Institute, 2015).

Because regenerative agriculture is highly dependent on local conditions, rather than a prescriptive process to regenerative agriculture, there are broadly agreed upon fundamental principles that can be leveraged to achieve regeneration: 1) Minimization of soil disturbance, 2) Protection of the soil surface, 3) Expansion of plant diversity, 4) Living plants/roots in the soil, and 5) Integration of livestock (Guerena & Dufour, 2019).

The first soil health principle is the minimization of soil disturbance. Biological (e.g., overgrazing), physical (e.g., tillage), and chemical disturbances (e.g., application of fertilizers and pesticides) can disrupt the combination of organic matter and the community of organisms that decompose it in the soil, also known as the soil food web. The minimization of soil disturbance is an essential step to improve both soil function and structure, while also improving soil productivity.

The second soil health principle is the protection of the soil surface. Plant cover minimizes bare soil and builds soil organic matter, which is essential for improving soil health. Among the benefits of soil surface protection through plant cover are the control of wind and water erosion, reduction of evaporation rates, control of soil temperature, suppression of weed growth, and biodiversity habitat (Fuhrer, 2021).

The third soil health principle is expansion of plant diversity. Original landscapes in which soils were built over time consisted of a wide variety of plant diversity, which has been largely replaced by monocultures. Nonetheless, a diverse aboveground plant community provides for a diverse microbial community in the soil, which is key to soil health (Fuhrer, 2021). Diverse crop rotations in annual crops and rotation of cover crops for perennial crops provide plant diversity over time, ensuring a healthy soil ecology and preventing the accumulation of soil pathogens.

The fourth soil health principle is the maintenance of living plants/roots in the soil. Current cropland systems typically grow crops with an extended crop-free period of bare soil before planting or after harvest. However, bare soils do not receive any root exudates, which starves the soil microbial communities. Cover crops may fill in this crop-free period, providing cover to the soil and root exudates to the soil’s community of organisms (Guerena & Dufour, 2019).

The fifth and last principle of soil health is the integration of livestock. Animals, plants, and soil play a synergistic role since livestock can convert high-carbon annual crop residue to organic materials through manure, which is beneficial to soil health. Integrating animals into farming operations can contribute to soil health by adding biology to the soil.

These principles are encapsulated by the underlying fact that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to regenerative agriculture. Not every regenerative practice is suitable to every farming system and local geography, climate, soil type, and other variables. Thus, each farm’s context need to be understood before regenerative agriculture can be successfully implemented.

The complexity of regenerative agriculture has important implications that require dedicated technical assistance and financial support to farmers. In order to implement regenerative agriculture, technical assistance is needed to support the tailored implementation of practices based on each farm’s system, context, and objectives. In addition, financial support to farmers is essential to support the transition to regenerative agriculture. Research has indicated that there is a transition period of 3 to 5 years or more in which farmers, who already operate on thin margins, will likely face a decline in profits due to lower-than-expected yields and upfront investment costs required for the transition to regenerative agriculture (Petry et al., 2023).

Farmers do much more than produce food. They also manage natural resources and provide long-term ecosystem services that benefit communities and society as a whole. When we recognize, support, and reward these long-term results, we can enable true regeneration.

References

Carlisle, L. (2022). Healing grounds: climate, justice, and the deep roots of regenerative farming. Island Press.

Fuhrer, J. (2021). Soil Health: Principle 2 of 5 – minimizing soil disturbance. Natural Resources Conservation Service. https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/sites/default/files/2022-09/Soil_Health_Principle_2_of_5_-_Final.pdf

Guerena, M., Dufour, R. (2019). Managing Soils for Water: How five principles of soil health support water infiltration and storage. ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture.

IPCC, 2023: Sections. In: Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, H. Lee and J. Romero (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, pp. 35-115, doi: 10.59327/IPCC/AR6-9789291691647w

Petry, D. P., Avanzini, S. A., Vidal, A. V., Bellino, F. B., Bugas, J. B., Conant, H. C., Hoo, S. H., Unnikrishnan, S. U., & Westerlund, M. W. (2023). Cultivating farmer prosperity: Investing in Regenerative Agriculture. Wbcsd. https://www.wbcsd.org/contentwbc/download/16321/233420/1

Rodale Institute. (2015). (rep.). Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming. Kutztown, PA.

Soil Health. Natural Resources Conservation Service. (2024, May 9). https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/conservation-basics/natural-resource-concerns/soils/soil-health

What is regenerative agriculture? – Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems. – Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems – Chico State. (n.d.).

[1] IPCC, 2023: Sections. In: Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, H. Lee and J. Romero (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, pp. 35-115, doi: 10.59327/IPCC/AR6-9789291691647w

[2] Carlisle, L. (2022). Healing grounds: climate, justice, and the deep roots of regenerative farming. Island Press.