Regenerative Organic Agriculture: Going Beyond Sustainable
Regenerative agriculture (RA) is a an umbrella term for farming practices that build top soil, promote biodiversity, enhance ecosystem health, and return profits for farmers (2). In a degenerative model, resources, water and soil health are depleted, without being replaced. In comparison, sustainable agriculture is a system that can maintain itself in its current state– resources are neither lost, nor gained. However, maintaining the status-quo of our farm lands may not be realistic.
By 2050, we will need to produce 50% more food to support the estimated 9 billion people on earth (3). Productivity of farm lands must increase, and healthy soil is a key feature of this goal. Globally, we have lost 30% of our topsoil in the past 40 years, at a rate of 24 billion tonnes per year (4). Most degradation is due to erosion, climate change and intensive farming techniques. The loss of topsoil is concerning since this is the fertile area, where all the magic and life happens.
But it’s not just about food. The way we farm can have immensely positive or negative effects on our world.
Why Regenerative Organic Agriculture?
1. Reduces Erosion, Flooding and Drought
Exciting things happen around the roots of plants. Mycorhizzal fungal tubes, otherwise known as hyphae, extend out from plants roots acting as a transport highway between plants, soil and microbes. Nutrients and minerals are sent from the soil to the plants, and glucose is sent from the plants to soil bacteria. These microbes help create soil aggregates, or clumps of healthy soil that are glued together with microbe-derived polysaccharides.
Think about a plant that you would pull out of a dry field compared to one you pull out of a rich, moist garden bed. You can imagine that the latter would have a significantly more organic matter held together near the root. This is all thanks so soil aggregates, which create the type of soil that is stable and resists erosion (5).
Soil aggregates also contain air pockets. When it rains, water will be held in these pockets and able to sink deeply into the earth. In unhealthy soil, or dirt, rainwater is not well absorbed. It is as if an impermeable shield were covering the earth and the water simply flows across the top. Not only does this cause flooding during a rain event, but since no water can be stored in the soil, droughts often occur on these lands as well (6).
2. Provides Food Access in Rural, Developing Nations
Several case studies show how the adoption of regenerative agriculture practices can help the most impoverished, developing areas of the world. Non-government organizations and independent groups have used RA to improve food access in areas such as Senegal, Mali, Ethiopia, Rwanda, China, Puerto Rico, just to name a few (7, 8). These areas have a history of poverty and hunger partially due to drought and the inability to grow food.
The Loess Plateau of China, for example, was a dry, barren area of land that had been used for agriculture for thousands of years. Degenerative farming practices, such as deforestation and overgrazing, caused the soil to become unstable. This caused mudslides, drought, erosion and the inability to produce food.
The Research on Regenerative Agriculture
During 1990s-2000s the Chinese government funded a decade long rehabilitation project on the Loess Plateau, using several regenerative agriculture techniques (9). The land was redeveloped into a lush landscape and now produces an abundance of food for the inhabitants. Implementing terraced slopes, planting trees and shrubs in a specific manner, and controlling animal herds were some of the strategies used. The result of this was an abundance and variety of new produce in local markets. It also reduced erosion, increased and increased local’s income by 300%, and improved productivity of fields (10).
3. Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change
Photosynthesis is the biological process of a plant pulling CO2 out of the air, and converting it to glucose. This simple sugar feeds the billions of microbes near plant roots! This is why reforestation has been pegged as an effective carbon-sequestration solution. But, we can do this on the land we use to grow food too.
Plus, the soil LOVES carbon.
In fact, soil contains 2300 billion tonnes of carbon compared to 750 billion tonnes of carbon in the atmosphere (11). Soil with high carbon content is dark, rich and filled with aggregates and healthy microbes.
Not only due bacteria gobble up the carbon-rich glucose, but they help package it up into a microbial ‘super glue’ called glomalin. This sticky polysaccharide binds soil aggregates together. Glomalin is also the storage place for 30% of soil carbon! (12) But when we disturb the soil with intense tillage and over grazing, or if we kill off all the microbes that make the glomalin, the carbon within this substance is released back into the atmosphere (13).
4. Healthier Food
Did you know that fungi can mine for minerals?
It is true!
They form into long tube-like structures called mycorrhizal hyphae that break down small pebbles in the soil. Essential mineral are sent through these fungal tube and fed to plants (14). As you can imagine, this effects the density of trace minerals in our food as well. Minerals such as iron, zinc, manganese, iodine, selenium and copper come from the soil and have essential functions in the human body.
Essential Trace Minerals in our Soil
For example zine is an immune boosting mineral which heals wounds and affects memory and learning. Selenium is a powerful anti-oxidant mineral required for thousands of enzymatic reactions in the body. Iodine is needed to build thyroid hormones, and its absence in our diet can bring about thyroid related diseases. Though these are only required in small amounts, their importance should not be understated.
The amount of these nutrients in our food supply has dropped significantly, due to dimineralization and acidification of our soils. Disruptions of natural cycles, killing off precious microbes and using an abundance of chemicals severely effects nutrient availability to plants. Returning our soil to regular mineral levels and pH can significantly impact the health of our populus.
Regenerative Agriculture Practices
Regenerative agriculture practices are numerous and there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It must be adapted to different farms depending on climate, location, natural resources, types of crops grown, state of the soil and more. However, most regenerative farms include the following basic practices:
Using no-till techniques keeps the topsoil, fungal hyphae and glomalin intact. The synergistic processes around plant-roots is delicate and as you have read, very important. Conserving these systems is crucial for healthy soil and is key to reducing erosion (14). In some cases, it may be necessary to break up compacted soil to create a more hospitable environment for growing plants. Conventional techniques and the use of large machinery to deeply plow into the earth should be avoided.
Between harvests, some farms may let their fields rest or go fallow. This means nothing is growing and the land is just bare dirt. The soil, exposed to the elements like rain, wind and sun, becomes dead with no biologic process occurring. This kills off healthy microbes and releases greenhouse gases from the earth into the atmosphere. When cover crops are used, such as alfalfa, pulses or grasses, the soil remain protected and all processes between plants and soil can proceed (15).
Different crops use different nutrients from the soil, while some crops can replace nutrients into the soil. For example, corn fields will deplete nitrogen from the soil and conventional farms may use chemical fertilizer to replace this vital mineral. However, planting legumes, like lentils or beans, can replace nitrogen by fixing it from the air. Farms may plant legumes after a corn harvest to replace the nitrogen, with-out the negative implications of chemical inputs. Crop rotations can reduce the need for chemical fertilizers by up to 90% (15).
Monocrop agriculture (think of the endless corn fields in the Midwest) is more vulnerable to pest problems. Growing the same crops over the same fields year after year will strengthen pest populations. Farms which use a chemical-intensive model of pest management experience a ten-fold increase in pests, as compared to those farms using polycropping and crop rotation as pest-management methods (16).
Plant Species Impact Pest Species
Plant families attract different types of pests, but certain plants may deter pests of others. Furthermore, some plants can be used to ‘trap’ pests, such as Napier grass and Sudan grass used in maize fields in Kenya. In fact, when polycrop techniques were used in Kenya and Uganda, crop yields increased by more than 50% (15).
Applying synthetic nitrogen to plants causes them to grow quickly and strongly, sort of like plant steroids. However, it also depletes soil organic matter, releases nitrogen oxide (one of the most potent greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere and leaches into surrounding streams causing pollution.
No Synthetic Chemical Inputs
Synthetic pesticides are also not allowed in regenerative agriculture. These chemical-based products are designed to kill lifeforms, including those beneficial fungi and bacteria that live around plant roots.
Additionally, chemical input are costly! So costly in fact that in one peer-reviewed article from the Journal of Life and Environmental Sciences found that although regenerative fields had 29% lower grain production due to lack of nitrogen. They also experienced 78% higher profits compared to traditional corn production systems (16). This is primarily due to lower costs of chemical inputs!
Instead, regenerative agriculture uses natural fertilizers, such as manure, chicken droppings and compost.
Grazing can be a beneficial way to stimulate plant growth and keep soil healthy. However, when animals are allowed to graze indefinitely on the same land, grasslands become barren. Historically, this type of overgrazing has led to the downfall of agricultural communities. Mismanaged cattle can destroy landscapes, leading to serious erosion, compacted soil and slower regrowth (17).
Rotational grazing, on the contrary, allows livestock to graze just enough to mow the grass and inoculate soil with manure. Then, they are moved to a different section of the pasture. Research shows that this method improves plant root health, reduces erosion and increases soil fertility. Ideally, farmers do not need separate lands to grow livestock feed. Instead, they simply use the natural grasses and prairies to feed animals.
From official UN reports to staggering statistics and outcomes, it is no question that soil management must come into full focus if we are to secure a healthy and abundant food supply. Many conventional farming methods focus on monocrop agriculture and chemical-intensive methods whose goal is to produce more food, faster. While productivity of farm lands is an important consideration for feeding a growing population, it is imperative to think long-term.
A Hopeful Future
By adopting regenerative practices and cultivating farming habits that renew resources, we can ensure food security for generations to come. Furthermore, regenerative agriculture can be used to empower poverty-struck nations by building solid agricultural foundations that can be a source of income, and a source of food. You can do your part by supporting regenerative farmers, buying from reputable food brands and raising awareness about this new and exciting topic.
If you are looking for a simple way to increase
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