Giugno 14, 2020

Why regenerative agriculture is the future of farming

Is there a direct connection between the Covid pandemic and conventional agriculture, livestock farming and natural ecosystem destruction? The answer is an undeniable yes. The use of artificial fertilizer and pesticides as well deforestation, has led to a sharp decline in biodiversity, rendering ecosystems more vulnerable and unable to control virus outbreaks. This makes the Covid pandemic not only the cause of a crisis, but also the symptom of multiple underlying crises that are slowly unfolding: the climate, human health, biodiversity, and soil crises.

If these crises are not addressed, it is just a matter of time before a next pandemic will hit us. If we are serious about recovering our economy and health, we need to prioritise the health of natural ecosystems. Not only to increase farmer’s productivity and livelihoods, but also to contribute to a greater resilience of ecosystems and the economy. A fragile natural ecosystem leads to a fragile economic system. Our lives depend directly on nature, it’s as simple as that. Fortunately, there is much we can do about this.

Returning to the roots: our soils

We are losing topsoil at an alarming rate: last year, the UN has warned that with the current level of topsoil depletion, we only have 60 harvests left. There already is an estimated 0.4 billion hectares of deserted degraded farmland around the world: farmers have left these lands because it was ‘farmed out’. The danger of losing topsoil cannot be underestimated: it threatens food production, increases vulnerability to droughts and wildfires, and further accelerates climate change as depleted soils release carbon into the atmosphere. How will we feed 10 billion people in 2050 if we continue on this path?

The good news is that this can be turned around. With nature’s incredible capacity to renew itself, ecosystem restoration and particularly regenerative agriculture may be the greatest and most common-sensical opportunity to simultaneously address all the crises we are facing. The purpose of regenerative agriculture is to rebuild soil health by restoring the carbon content in the soil, which positively impacts plant health, nutrition and farm productivity. Regenerative farmers simply work with nature rather than against it.

Why is regenerative agriculture so beneficial?

A healthy soil absorbs more CO2 than it emits, mitigating climate change. In addition, as soil health improves, its water drainage ability improves as well, allowing underground water aquifers to replenish. This means protection against flooding during heavy rainfall and improved resilience against droughts.

Ultimately, adopting regenerative methods improves farmer’s livelihoods. On the one hand there are less costs, as cutting back on agro-chemicals and diesel-powered equipment allow expenses to go down significantly. No more tilling saves much time as well. Moreover, by growing a diverse variety of crops, the farm income will diversify and grow in resilience. There are considerable health benefits too: a healthy soil biology will feed more nutrients to the plants, making the crops more nutritious, further improving the health of the humans and animals who eat the plants. A healthy soil biology also protects the roots and the plants itself: in that sense, practicing regenerative agriculture addresses all the usual concerns regarding weeds, pests, droughts, fertility and yield.

The impacts are significant. Project Drawdown estimates that regenerative agricultural practices could be practiced on up to 332 million hectares by 2050 (from 11.84 million hectares today), which would result in a reduction of up to 22.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide, with an enormous return of financial investments. What’s more, converting 298 million hectares of the abandoned degraded farmland globally to regenerative farming or its native vegetation such as forests could lead to the absorption of up to 20.3 gigatons of CO2, with another gigantic financial return of investment and increased food production.

You may wonder: can the world really be fed without chemicals and synthetic fertilizers, which has been the conventional wisdom for so long? Well, evidence is pointing to exactly the opposite: the world cannot be fed unless the soil is fed.

How does it work?

There is no mandatory set of standards that need to be met, rather there are several principles to follow. The renowned regenerative farmer Gabe Brown recommends these five main principles:

1. Minimise mechanical or chemical disturbance of the soil. Many regenerative farmers have adopted the ‘no till’ approach where they avoid disturbing the topsoil by no longer ploughing their fields. Minimizing chemical disturbance means reducing the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, etcetera as those negatively impact soil health.

2. Cover the soil. Soil left bare is completely unnatural. Where in the natural world would we find a bare soil (except in the desert or in sand dunes)? Bare soil is extremely vulnerable to wind and water erosion and temperature rise which dries out the soil, and as a result life within the soil dies and carbon is released into the atmosphere. To protect the soil ecosystem, the soil needs a ‘skin’ of residue of crops or plants.

3. Promote biodiversity. Monocultures are another good example of a completely unnatural and manmade phenomenon which destroys soil health, as soil biology is fed by diverse crops and plants. Growing diverse crops also diversifies a farmer’s income and increases the resilience of the farm.

4. Leave living roots in the soil. To keep the soil biology healthy, the soil needs to be fed throughout the year through the roots of plants and crops. In conventional agriculture, monoculture crops are only growing for a very short period of time before they are harvested, after which there is no longer anything growing and feeding the soil.

5. Use animals as nature intended. Animals need to be out roaming the fields, grazing the grasslands so that they proliferate the land, rather than being locked up in confined areas.

How do we get there?

There are promising signs that our society is starting to accept common goals around ecosystem restoration and the transition towards a more sustainable farming system. We are at the beginning of the UN Decade of ecosystem restoration and are seeing a change in policy landscapes around the world, as illustrated by the new EU Green Deal with a ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy.

Nonetheless, we are not there yet. It is crucial that global policies will provide the needed incentives and support to farmers to make the transition. The EU Common Agricultural Policy and other policies all over the world need to phase out subsidies for farming practices that decrease soil health: all incentives need to go towards improving the health of the soil.

Policies such as the EU Green Deal will need to adopt formal financing schemes to provide farmers the capital that they need. A lack of educational support is also a serious barrier. In addition to organising education and awareness campaigns, farmers need to get guidance and mentoring on how to implement regenerative practices.

Ultimately, we need an overall system change towards a regenerative economy and a regenerative society. As individuals, we can act. We can choose to develop a regenerative mindset where we replenish what we use, on all levels, and start thinking long-term rather than short-term.

To conclude, it is in our self-interest to restore and protect the soil and life on Earth. Enhancing nature’s self-recovering ability, regenerative agriculture it is one of the greatest opportunities that we have. In the post-Covid world, we see an increased awareness and demand for local products and a new appreciation of the importance of strong local communities. By prioritising the restoration of our soils and ecosystems, we can heal our economy and build a truly resilient and thriving society.

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About Louise Tideman

Louise Tideman

Louise Tideman has broad experience in mission-driven work. She holds an LLM degree in international environmental law from the university of Edinburgh and an undergraduate degree in international and European law from the university of Groningen. She worked on European climate policies for several years at the European Climate Foundation in Brussels and is currently working at the international forest restoration organisation WeForest. Her interests include climate change, health and well-being, nature based solutions and everything regenerative. Her views are her own

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