Regenerative agriculture is a system of agricultural practices and principles that support biodiversity, enrich soils, improve watersheds, and increase the capacity of the soil to capture carbon, contributing to the reversal of global warming.
Farmers who incorporate regenerative practices and principles into the management of their land can improve their livelihoods through reduced input costs, improved profitability and increased income, while reducing their exposure to harmful agricultural chemicals.
Regenerative agriculture can help ensure a climate-resilient and food-secure future.
There is a ripe opportunity for health care to lend its respected voice and purchasing power to support the growth of regenerative agriculture systems, creating a food system that has profound benefits for both human and environmental health.
Believe it or not, a solution to climate change may lie beneath our feet. The buzz around regenerative agriculture is growing – not only as a climate solution but also as a tool for drought protection, a way to improve farmer incomes, and to ensure our food security into the future. Regenerative agriculture addresses climate change by sequestering carbon in the soil.
Many are familiar with the idea of planting trees or preserving forests to combat climate change for their role in “breathing” carbon dioxide, one of the primary gases that is responsible for climate change. Regenerative agriculture works on the same principle, ensuring that our vast agricultural lands work to inhale carbon and store it in soils where it belongs. Currently, food production accounts for nearly a quarter of global GHG emissions due, in part, to practices that inhibit the ability of soils to store carbon. Regenerative agricultural practices can reverse these effects and turn agricultural lands into a carbon sink.
Regenerative agriculture takes us back to elementary science class with the concept of photosynthesis;
Plants intake carbon from the atmosphere, convert it into sugars
Pump some of the sugars through their roots to feed microorganisms that use the carbon to build soil.
Similar to the human gut, healthy soil is marked by a thriving microbiome – communities of bacteria, fungi and other microbes that give soil structure and make nutrients available to plants by breaking them down. The result of this process is soil that grows healthier, pest-resistant plants, has greater water-holding capacity and drought tolerance, and stores carbon deep in the ground. Some examples of agricultural practices that apply regenerative agriculture principles include:
No till or low till - Minimizing disruption to the soil ecosystem keeps plant roots connected to unique communities of microorganisms that are key in the processes to build healthy soil and store carbon.
Cover crops - Keeping the ground covered with plants has many benefits: It allows for water and carbon to be absorbed by the soil which keeps the soil alive, helps eliminate soil erosion by preventing the soil from blowing or washing away, and prevents desertification.
Diversified production systems - Multiple crops rotated in fields, perhaps with integration of livestock, mimics natural ecosystems and enhances biodiversity which contributes to healthy soil.
Reduction or elimination of synthetic chemicals - Utilizing synthetic chemical fertilizers discourages the plant to seek nutrients deeper in the soil and work with microbes for its nutrition, which results in less carbon sequestration. Utilizing chemical pesticides further disrupts the soil microbial community and has other negative impacts on biodiversity, and contributes to land and water pollution. And pesticide exposure through the food we eat, air we breath, and water we drink has been linked to health impacts that range from birth defects to cancers and neurological disorders.
Planned grazing - Planned or rotational grazing of grasses mimics the patterns of animal herds which ensures land is not overgrazed, and manure fertilizes the soil and contributes to carbon sequestration. Animals in pastured systems tend to be healthier and not need antibiotics to treat disease.
Additional benefits of adopting regenerative agriculture practices include:
Water and soil health - Healthy soil and healthy waterways are inextricably linked. Healthy soil is like a sponge, holding 20 times its weight in water, which decreases runoff and provides resistance to drought. Additionally, healthy soil reduces the need for pesticides and chemical fertilizers which contaminate our watersheds and endanger farm workers and farming communities.
Increased farmer income - Healthy soil results in healthy, disease-resistant and pest-tolerant plants, decreasing the need for expensive fertilizers and pesticides. Farmers may also be able to sell regeneratively produced foods at a premium and get a financial return on the ecosystem services they provide.
Secure food future - Ultimately, regenerative practices that build healthy soil, reduce our dependence on agricultural chemicals, create crop resilience against inclement weather, and bolster plant’s disease resistance which will be essential for sustaining high levels of food production and ensuring greater community food security into the future.
Why Regenerative Agriculture?
For over 10,000 years, agriculture has been causing degradation to land in most parts of the world. Meaning, over time, in production, the land’s ecosystem function and carrying capacity for life is diminished. While there are exceptions, such as where certain indigenous cultures cultivated the land in ways that actually increased the abundance of life and biomass, most records indicate that farming has degenerated land. Now, 75% of the land on earth is deemed “degraded.” Each year, an area of farmable land nearly the size of England (30 million acres), is lost to soil degeneration. We are turning our world into a desert.
How can Regenerative Agriculture Change this?
No matter what scale of farming, we can begin to use principles and practices that actually bring the land back to life, allowing it to function at its highest capacity again. Based on ancient knowledge, pioneering holistic planning, and cutting-edge science, regenerative agriculture is proving that humanity has a serious solution to climate change and desertification. The great news for us is that the problem of too much carbon (in CO2) in the atmosphere is also the solution - it is what we use to rebuild the soil!