Sustainability trends | How can we regenerate agriculture?
In addition to the many benefits for farmers and their crops, regenerative agriculture helps us to fight the climate crisis by pulling carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering it in the ground. The agriculture sector is one of the biggest emitters of CO2, the greenhouse gas responsible for some of the changes we are seeing in our climate today. When plants photosynthesise, they take carbon dioxide from the air and - using the sun’s energy, water, and nutrients from the soil - transform it into carbon the plant uses to grow leaves, stems, and roots. The excess carbon created through this process is transported down the plant and is stored in the surrounding soil, sequestering the carbon in the ground. This carbon in the soil is known as soil organic carbon and it feeds microbes and fungi, which in turn provide nutrients for the plant. Soil organic carbon is the main component of soil organic matter, providing more structure to the soil and allowing it to store more water.
Together with forestry and other land use, agriculture is responsible for nearly 25 per cent of all human-created greenhouse gas emissions. Regenerative agriculture has a vital role to play in helping us create a safe, sustainable future without carbon pollution. One where we can provide our booming world population with fresh, healthy food grown in a sustainable soil ecosystem. Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that seeks to rehabilitate and enhance the entire ecosystem of the farm by placing a heavy premium on soil health, with special attention given to water management and fertiliser use. It is a method of farming that improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them and includes a number of techniques
- Ploughing dramatically erodes soil and releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It can result in the kind of bare or compacted soil that creates a hostile environment for important soil microbes. By adopting low- or no-plough practices, farmers minimise physical disturbance of the soil, and over time increase levels of soil organic matter, creating healthier, more resilient environments for plants to thrive, as well as keeping more and more carbon where it belongs.
- Different plants release different carbohydrates through their roots, and various microbes feed on these carbs and return all sorts of different nutrients back to the plant and the soil. By increasing the plant diversity of their fields, farmers help create the rich, varied, and nutrient-dense soils that lead to more productive yields. Left exposed to the elements, soil will erode and the nutrients necessary for successful plant growth will either dry out or quite literally wash away.
- At the same time, planting the same plants in the same location can lead to a build-up of some nutrients and a lack of others. But by rotating crops and deploying cover crops strategically, farms and gardens can infuse soils with more and more organic matter, often while avoiding disease and pest problems naturally.
Regenerative agriculture practices increase soil biodiversity and organic matter, leading to more resilient soils that can better withstand climate change impacts like flooding and drought. Healthy soils result in strong yields and nutrient-rich crops. They also diminish erosion and runoff, leading to improved water quality, both on and off the farm. In addition to rising temperatures that are themselves changing where and how things can be grown, the climate crisis has fundamentally altered the water cycle around the world. The result is shifting precipitation patterns and increased evaporation, that cause more frequent and more powerful rainfall events and more severe droughts. Extreme downpours can lead to polluted runoff and erosion because the ground simply isn’t able to absorb the precipitation at the rate it’s falling. And at a certain point of inundation, plants can drown. On the other end of the spectrum, less stable precipitation together with increased heat is causing more and more drought, and in extreme circumstances near-desertification, leading to a complete loss of farm production in some areas. So, when it comes to agriculture, climate change is doing what it does best: exacerbating existing problems to the point of crisis. But if a farmer is using regenerative methods and not disturbing the soil, he or she is instead mitigating climate change effects by building organic matter. And the more organic matter you have in the soil, the more water-holding capacity you have. And that’s why some of the world’s biggest food brands, like General Mills - makers of your favourite cereal products, is taking a smart approach to its support of regenerative agriculture. They’ve partnered with other research organisations to develop resources and training to help farmers work toward the widespread adoption of soil health practices.