By Noelle Phillips
Is it possible to farm in a way that is not only fully sustainable, but regenerative?
Regenerative agriculture is an emerging trend in this era of human-caused climate change. This more holistic method of farming replicates the regenerative properties of natural ecosystems and creates an opportunity to fight climate change by altering the way we cultivate produce.
So what exactly is “regenerative agriculture” and how does it play a role in combating climate change?
The goal of regenerative agriculture is to capture carbon found within the soil and biomass to counter the impacts of pollution. In essence, regenerative agriculture is a process of farming that mimics an ecosystem's diversity.
This method revitalizes an ecosystem by increasing biodiversity, meliorating soil, and enhancing watersheds. All the players (nature, animals, and humans) work together to revitalize the land through holistic practices rather than degrade it—eventually allowing the ecosystem to regenerate itself over generations. It accounts for the fair treatment of not only the soil, but the overall wellbeing of all creatures involved.
According to the Rodale Institute—an organization dedicated to growing the organic movement—regenerative agriculture is a type of farming that “goes beyond sustainable” and is inclusive of healthy soil, animal, and human welfare.
Ideally, in order to promote biodiversity, soil should be made up of organic matter, have no genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and include a crop rotation system. Animals should have the freedom to live normally (exist without discomfort, fear, hunger, pain, injury, or disease), should be raised within organic pastures, have appropriate space/shelter, and not be subject to concentrated animal feeding operations. People working in agriculture should enjoy the right of capacity building, fair/living wages, safe working conditions, freedom of association, and the benefits of transparency and accountability from their employer.
Regenerative agriculture differs from our current mode of farming as it does not use industrialized processes, monocropping, or synthetic chemicals such as pesticides or fertilizers. Rather, the regenerative model of farming operates using natural methods such as composting, biodiversity, and permaculture as ways to produce organic, sustainable food.
Due to humanity’s treatment of the planet over the past 250 years, we’ve seen a drastic increase of one trillion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere, which makes conscientious, systemic change an incredibly urgent task at hand. Our current food system produces 44 to 57 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, and if we’re to curb the onset of climate change, we have to change the way we produce the food we consume.
Regenerating our soil is one simple solution with incredible impacts.
“Many NGOs view carbon and agriculture as the ‘enemy,’” Tom Newark, co-founder of the Carbon Underground Project, told EcoWatch News. “The regenerative movement sees carbon as our friend, and agriculture as our natural ally to help our friend carbon return to the land.”
Regenerative agriculture helps to sequester carbon in large amounts. Carbon sequestration describes the process in which carbon dioxide is captured by soil, then stored for an extended period of time. Through this process, the soil removes carbon from the atmosphere and uses it as an essential nutrient. Carbon, in the regenerative model, is a friend because carbon-rich soil provides better growing conditions for plants, and it absorbs and reserves water, which makes farmland more resilient over time.
Paul Kernaleguen, a farmer in Saskatchewan, Canada, found that making his farm regenerative actually saved it. In the traditional model, he noticed that his crops weren’t as fruitful over time. If the trend continued, he knew his animals would suffer. When he transformed his farm using more sustainable methods, his crops and animals flourished—and so did bees. Biodiversity increased and the soil regained organic matter. The healthier environment improved the overall quality of the farm, even bettering the milk in his cows.
Similar stories about regenerative agriculture continue to make headlines—even the big screen. A recent box office success, Biggest Little Farm, depicts the highs and lows of the creation of a regenerative farm in California. The documentary follows a family trying to make their farm 100 percent organic and sustainable in the midst of worsening drought and wildfire conditions in Los Angeles County.
“There’s multiple generations of disconnect between the value of nutrient density and deep flavor and how that informs the health of the overall ecosystem,'' said John Chester, the farmer featured in The Biggest Little Farm.
Regenerative agriculture advocates that people be a part of the solution and be conscious in their own areas by investing in local farmers. When you support them, you support not just your own community, but the planet as a whole.
Education is also an essential part of the future of conservation and activism. While many of us cannot practice regenerative agriculture ourselves, we can learn about it, support those who do, and promote it as a sustainable solution that encourages a dialogue and a rethinking about the way we grow food. By promoting this method on different scales, from local to corporate, we can strengthen the climate action of the food sector. That may seem like a big challenge, so doing what you can on a smaller scale may be a more approachable way to take action. You can compost, purchase from local farmers, and advocate for a regenerative ecosystem in whatever way you see fit. As a collective, we need to demand a healthier tomorrow, and that can begin in the soil beneath our feet.