It’s no secret we’re facing a climate crisis. While the world is already facing climate change’s effects on weather patterns and natural disasters, from record-breaking wildfires and heatwaves to intense hurricanes and devastating floods, far worse impacts are anticipated if we aren’t able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit warming to under 1.5 degrees Celsius.
But what’s not as widely known is that we’re also facing a soil crisis.
As of 2014, about 1/3 of the world’s soils have been degraded due to “chemical-heavy farming techniques, deforestation, and global warming” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The world’s topsoil could be gone within 60 years at the current degradation rates a top UN official has warned.
And a Cornell University study found that The U.S. is losing soil 10 times faster than that soil can be replenished and worse yet, China and India are losing soil 30 to 40 times faster than the natural soil replenishment rate.
Not to mention, we are facing a water and air pollution crisis.
Sounds scary, but there is good news — these issues are interconnected and therefore, there are solutions that can address them all.
Regenerative agriculture, or carbon farming, is essentially Indigenous and traditional farming. While the concept has been increasing in awareness in recent years, regenerative agricultural practices are not new — Indigenous peoples have been using these practices for centuries.
Indigenous practices focus on geographically appropriate practices to enhance the local ecosystems. These practices in turn restore soils, create healthier ecosystems, and support climate change mitigation by sequestering carbon.
Carbon farming (practices that support the sequestration of carbon) include, but are not limited to:
- No till or minimum tillage
- Cover crops, crop rotations, compost, and animal manures
- Well-managed grazing practices
- Nonpesticide management (including the introduction of predators or trap crops)
According to regenerative agriculture pioneer Rodale Institute, “regenerative organic agriculture refers to working with nature to utilize photosynthesis and healthy soil microbiology to draw down greenhouse gases.
With the use of cover crops, compost, crop rotation and reduced tillage, we can actually sequester more carbon than is currently emitted, tipping the needle past 100% to reverse climate change.”
In addition to helping combat global warming, regenerative farming also improves the soil’s ability to hold water, increases the fertility of the soil, and increases the nutritional value of food, according to Project Grounded.
Amazing, right? It almost sounds too good to be true — that we could replenish our soils and reverse climate change just by paying attention to the soil beneath our feet.
But the reality is that when we work with Mother Earth as Indigenous peoples have for centuries, instead of using her to extract “resources” as our colonized economy has taught us to do, we can finally recognize the planet’s regenerative, restorative, abundant capacities.
If we want a livable future, we cannot keep the current extractive, profit-hungry agricultural industry that focuses on maximum short-term yield at minimum short-term costs. We need a healthier, more holistic system — we need reindigenized farming practices that center Native ways of knowledge and the stewardship of Indigenous peoples.
When there are so many proposed carbon sequestration strategies and solutions being proposed, why would we focus on soil?
1) Soil can hold a LOT of carbon. In fact, soil can store 2,500 billion tons of carbon. To put that number in perspective, the atmosphere can store 780 billion tons and plants above the soil 560 billion tons. So, soil can store more carbon than atmosphere and plants combined!
2) Carbon is good for the soil. Yup, it’s true. Carbon has quite a bad reputation in sustainability circles but the reality is that carbon as an element itself is not bad. In fact, carbon is the building block of life on earth! Every single living thing on this planet contains carbon in some form.
The problem is that the Carbon Cycle is out of balance — in other words, the carbon is in the wrong place. We have too much carbon in the atmosphere and not enough in our soils. In fact, our soils have actually lost 50-70% of their original carbon content. And regenerative agricluture can restore this balance by sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and drawing it down into the soils where it belongs.
The Importance of Regeneration
It’s time to move beyond sustainability. Sustainble practices simply keep the status quo, but there is so much damage that has been done that we need to regenerate, restore, and replenish.
The reality is that at this point, reducing emissions is not enough. Even if we reached zero emissions tomorrow, there’s still a legacy load of carbon still in our atmosphere.
As James McSweeney said on Green Dreamer Podcast “Quite frankly, in order to battle climate change, the carbon needs to go somewhere. The oceans have been sucking it up — they may not do that much longer.
Even if we can get to net zero [carbon emissions], we’d still have 150 petagrams of CO2 that need to find a home. The soil is a very logical place to put it, because there’s so much capacity there, and carbon is actually good for the soil.”
More Benefits of Regenerative Agriculture
According to Regeneration International, in addition to sequestering carbon and removing legacy CO2, regenerative agriculture practices:
- Contribute to building soils
- Improve soil fertility and health
- Increase water percolation (the filtering of liquids through porous materials) and water retention
- Ensure clean and safe water runoff
- Increase biodiversity and improve ecosystem health and resiliency
Thinking Beyond Soil
Regenerative practices must go so beyond just soil and carbon sequestration, though. A truly regenerative system must center equity. Some additional considerations of regenerative farming should include the following:
- Addressing land access and inequity
- Decentralizing, diversifying, and democratizing how resources are grown and used
- Implementing place-based solutions based on local geography and climate rather than universal practices that attempt “one-size fits all” solutions
- Reestablishing the connection between people and the the rest of the natural world
How to Get Involved with Regenerative Agriculture
After learning about the amazing potential of regenerative agriculture, now it’s time to talk about how we can participate in the regenerative movement!
1. Learn from and support regenerative agriculture organizations and leaders including Regenerative Agriculture Alliance, Farmer Rishi, Savory Institute, Kiss the Ground (they have quite a few courses you can take too), Regeneration International, Rodale Institute, and Farmers Footprint.
2. Advocate for governmental support for regenerative agriculture. There is growing support at the state and federal levels for regenerative farming, including the Agriculture Resilience Act, introduced by Congresswoman and organic farmer Chellie Pingree, and Congressman’s Joe Neguse’s Study on Improving Our Lands (SOIL) act.
3. Engage with your local farmers through CSAs and farmers markets and ask about their practices. Maybe they’re already using regenerative practices which means a major win! If not, bring up the topic!
4. Shop regenerative. Look for the new Regenerative Organic Certification for food and drinks. Patagonia Provisions has a Regenerative Organic collection with Regenerative Organic certified food products, which will continue to grow! Fashion-wise, check out this post for a briefer on regenerative fashion and a list of pioneering brands. For more brands and information, take a look at Fibershed and explore the Fibershed Marketplace.
5. Watch Regenerative Agriculture with Fibershed through Slow Factory’s Open Education Initiative. For a documentary-style resource, check out Gather, available on iTunes, Vimeo, and more. Rate, review, and share these movies with friends & family to increase the reach of this important film.
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