The agriculture sector is one of the biggest emitters of CO2, the greenhouse gas (GHG) most responsible for the changes we are seeing in our climate today. Together with forestry and other land use, agriculture is responsible for just under 25 percent of all human-created GHG emissions.
But it also has a vital role to play in helping us end this crisis, and 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.
What Is Regenerative Agriculture?
Regenerative Agriculture describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.
In addition to a long list of incredible benefits for farmers and their crops, regenerative agriculture practices help us fight the climate crisis by pulling carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering it in the ground.
This not only aids in increasing soil biota diversity and health, but increases biodiversity both above and below the soil surface, while increasing both water holding capacity and sequestering carbon at greater depths, thus drawing down climate-damaging levels of atmospheric CO2, and improving soil structure to reverse civilization-threatening human-caused soil loss.
Regenerative agricultural practices are:
- contribute to generating/building soils and soil fertility and health.
- increase water percolation, water retention, and clean and safe water runoff.
- increase biodiversity and ecosystem health and resiliency.
- invert the carbon emissions of our current agriculture to one of remarkably significant carbon sequestration thereby cleansing the atmosphere of legacy levels of CO2.
Why Regenerative Agriculture?
The loss of the world’s fertile soil and biodiversity, along with the loss of indigenous seeds and knowledge, pose a mortal threat to our future survival. According to soil scientists, at current rates of soil destruction within 50 years we will not only suffer serious damage to public health due to a qualitatively degraded food supply characterized by diminished nutrition and loss of important trace minerals, but we will literally no longer have enough arable topsoil to feed ourselves.
Without protecting and regenerating the soil on our 4 billion acres of cultivated farmland, 8 billion acres of pastureland, and 10 billion acres of forest land, it will be impossible to feed the world, keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, or halt the loss of biodiversity.
How It Works
The key to regenerative agriculture is that it not only “does no harm” to the land but actually improves it, using technologies that regenerate and revitalize the soil and the environment. Regenerative agriculture leads to healthy soil, capable of producing high quality, nutrient-dense food while simultaneously improving, rather than degrading land, and ultimately leading to productive farms and healthy communities and economies.
It is dynamic and holistic, incorporating permaculture and organic farming practices, including conservation tillage, cover crops, crop rotation, composting, mobile animal shelters, and pasture cropping, to increase food production, farmers’ income, and especially, topsoil.
In short, 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 attention also paid to water management, fertilizer use, and more. It is a method of farming that “improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them,” according to the Rodale Institute.
A great deal of emphasis is placed on looking holistically at the agro-ecosystem. Key techniques include:
Tillage breaks up (pulverizes) soil aggregation and fungal communities while adding excess O2 to the soil for increased respiration and CO2 emission. It can be one of the most degrading agricultural practices, greatly increasing soil erosion and carbon loss. A secondary effect is soil capping and slaking that can plug soil spaces for percolation creating much more water runoff and soil loss.
Conversely, no-till/minimum tillage, in conjunction with other regenerative practices, enhances soil aggregation, water infiltration and retention, and carbon sequestration. However, some soils benefit from interim ripping to break apart hardpans, which can increase root zones and yields and have the capacity to increase soil health and carbon sequestration. Certain low-level chiseling may have similar positive effects.
Plowing and tillage dramatically erode soil and release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. They also can result in the kind of bare or compacted soil that creates a hostile environment for important soil microbes. By adopting low- or no-till practices, farmers minimize 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.
Soil fertility is increased in regenerative systems biologically through the application of cover crops, crop rotations, compost, and animal manures, which restore the plant/soil microbiome to promote liberation, transfer, and cycling of essential soil nutrients. Artificial and synthetic fertilizers have created imbalances in the structure and function of microbial communities in soils, bypassing the natural biological acquisition of nutrients for the plants, creating a dependent agroecosystem and weaker, less resilient plants.
Research has observed that the application of synthetic and artificial fertilizers contribute to climate change through
- the energy costs of production and transportation of the fertilizers
- chemical breakdown and migration into water resources and the atmosphere
- the distortion of soil microbial communities including the diminution of soil methanotrophs
- the accelerated decomposition of soil organic matter
Different plants release different carbohydrates (sugars) 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 rich, varied, and nutrient-dense soils that lead to more productive yields.
Building biological ecosystem diversity begins with inoculation of soils with composts or compost extracts to restore soil microbial community population, structure, and functionality restoring soil system energy (Compounds as exudates) through full-time planting of multiple crop intercrop plantings, multispecies cover crops, and borders planted for bee habitat and other beneficial insects. This can include the highly successful push-pull systems. It is critical to change synthetic nutrient-dependent monocultures, low-biodiversity, and soil degrading practices.
Rotation and Cover Crops
Left exposed to the elements, the 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 buildup 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 (and more diverse) soil organic matter, often while avoiding disease and pest problems naturally. Always remember, bare soil is bad soil.
Mess with it Less
In addition to minimizing physical disturbance, regenerative agriculture practitioners also often seek to be cautious about chemical or biological activities that also can damage long-term soil health. Misapplication of fertilizers and other soil amendments can disrupt the natural relationship between microorganisms and plant roots.
Well-managed grazing practices stimulate improved plant growth, increased soil carbon deposits, and overall pasture and grazing land productivity while greatly increasing soil fertility, insect and plant biodiversity, and soil carbon sequestration. These practices not only improve ecological health but also the health of the animal and human consumer through improved micro-nutrient availability and better dietary omega balances. Feed lots and confined animal feeding systems contribute dramatically to
- unhealthy monoculture production systems
- low nutrient density forage
- increased water pollution
- antibiotic usage and resistance
- CO2 and methane emissions, all of which together yield broken and ecosystem-degrading food-production systems
According to Kiss the Ground, a nonprofit organization devoted to sustainable farming practices that improve soil health, “If regenerative means: ‘renewal, restoration, and growth of cells, organisms, and ecosystems,’ or ‘renewal or restoration of a body, bodily part, or biological system (as in a forest) after injury or as a normal process,’ then regenerative agriculture is agriculture that is doing just that.”
The benefits of doing so are numerous: 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 beget strong yields and nutrient-rich crops. It also diminishes erosion and runoff, leading to improved water quality on and off the farm.
Importantly, regenerative agriculture practices also help us fight the climate crisis by pulling carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering it in the ground.
The Climate Connection
The health and vitality of soil everywhere, from the smallest backyard garden to the largest Midwestern farm, plays an integral role in food production – and it’s threatened by the climate crisis.
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 causes more frequent powerful rainfall events and more severe droughts. In many areas, rainfall has become either increasingly abundant or in desperately short supply, relative to longtime averages. It’s a classic case of feast or famine.
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.
Not only does adopting regenerative agriculture practices help farmers deal with current climate change impacts by making their farms more resilient and adaptive to what is happening around them now; it allows them to take action to fight it long-term by being part of a larger solution to the crisis, through carbon sequestration.
Potential Of Regenerative Agriculture To Mitigate Climate Change
The thinking behind regenerative practices as a climate mitigation strategy is to remove carbon dioxide out of the air by storing it as organic carbon in soils. While practices like adding manure can increase soil carbon, the feasibility of scaling such practices over large areas to substantially increase soil carbon and mitigate climate change is much less clear. Our own report analyzing mitigation options in the food and land sector concluded that the practical potential was at best modest due to several challenges, including:
There’s a limited scientific understanding of what keeps soil carbon sequestered, and, as a result, uncertainty about whether regenerative practices actually sequester additional carbon. For example, there is an active scientific debate about whether no-till, the primary practice relied upon by proponents of regenerative agriculture to generate climate benefits, actually increases soil carbon when properly measured.
Studies on grazing land found that the effects of grazing on soil carbon are complex, site-specific, and hard to predict, although grazing practices that increase the amount of grass growing generally sequester some carbon. Even putting aside these uncertainties, maintaining enhanced soil carbon levels is practically challenging. For example, in the United States, the vast majority of farmers who practice no-till also plow up their soils at least every few years, reversing most, if not all, of any short-term carbon storage benefit.
Faulty Carbon Accounting
Carbon must be added to soils to increase soil carbon, and this carbon must ultimately come from plants that absorb carbon from the air. But if the direct sources of carbon would have otherwise been stored or used elsewhere, it simply moves carbon from one place to another, achieving no additional reduction in emissions. Calculations of carbon benefits from soil carbon sequestration on a specific farm often omit off-farm effects that produce emissions elsewhere, as illustrated in the graphic. For example, manure is filled with the carbon and nutrients absorbed originally by plants and eaten by animals.
For that reason, adding manure to a field increases soil carbon where it is applied. But because there is a limited supply of manure in the world, using it in one place almost always means taking it from elsewhere, so no additional carbon is added to the world’s soils overall. The global supply of crop residues is also limited. If residues used as animal feed (which is common in Africa) are used to increase soil carbon on a farm, farmers may need to expand cropland into forests or grasslands to replace the animal feed, releasing carbon stored in these natural ecosystems’ soils and plants.
Converting cropland to grazing can build soil carbon, and might be advisable where cropping is marginal. But if the crops replaced by grazing are ultimately grown elsewhere by cutting down forests or grasslands, it can result in a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions. This same need to replace food elsewhere exists if regenerative practices reduce the amount of livestock or crops produced on a given land area (and studies of many practices so far have shown mixed yield effects). The failure to count these off-farm effects especially matters if soil carbon benefits are claimed as carbon offsets.
Need for Large Quantities of Nitrogen
Another limitation on storing soil carbon is the need for nitrogen, which usually comes in the form of fertilizer. For carbon to remain in soils for more than a short time, scientists generally agree that it must be converted into microbial organic matter. This requires around one ton of nitrogen for every 12 tons of carbon sequestered (in addition to the nitrogen used and removed by the growth). Applying more nitrogen to agricultural lands to increase soil carbon would be problematic, whether added through fertilizer or nitrogen-fixing legumes.
Only some of the added nitrogen would likely be captured and turned into soil carbon; much would escape into waterways, where it would fuel algal growth and water pollution. Some would be converted by soils into nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas. It’s true that in many parts of the world, farmers already apply more nitrogen than the crop actually uses, but they do so to compensate for the fact that some of the applied nitrogen escapes into the air and water.
To use more of this nitrogen to build soil carbon, farmers must find ways to prevent that nitrogen from escaping. Planting cover crops is one way since their roots capture nitrogen that would otherwise leach out, creating some potential to build stable soil carbon. Yet overall, the need for nitrogen poses a major but often overlooked limitation to soil carbon gains.
Scaling Across Millions of Acres
According to a recent study, the use of cover crops across 85% of annually planted U.S. cropland could sequester around 100 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. Such an unprecedented achievement would offset about 18% of U.S. agricultural production emissions and 1.5% of total U.S. emissions.
However, while the use of cover crops has been expanding in the United States, they still occupy less than 4% of U.S. cropland and face barriers to wider adoption, such as costs and limited time to establish them before winter begins. Cover crops should be actively promoted given their potential to improve soil health, reduce nitrogen pollution and create climate benefits, but their real potential for soil carbon gains is uncertain at this time.
Fortunately, there are many other ways to rein in agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. WRI identified 22 solutions organized into a five-course menu:
- reduce growth in demand for food and other agricultural products
- increase food production without expanding agricultural land
- protect and restore natural ecosystems
- sustainably increase fish supply
- reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production
Read More: Scottish Agricultural Revolution
Farms Are Making The Switch
Regenerative agriculture allows farmers to play an active role in mitigating an existential threat to their livelihoods.
“We don’t have to wait for technological wizardry: regenerative organic agriculture can substantially mitigate climate change now,”
Rodale Institute writes.
When plants photosynthesize, 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.
Carbon can remain stored in soils for thousands of years – or it can be quickly released back into the atmosphere through farm practices like plowing and tillage, where the soil is prepared for planting by mechanical agitation methods such as digging, stirring, and overturning.
For farmers, regenerative agriculture is thus a win-win – it’s an approach that leads to better, more resilient crops grown using sustainable methods that at the same time fight a crisis that presents a threat to all agriculture.
And that’s why some of the biggest brands in the world are going all in.
General Mills, makers of some of your favorite cereals, granola bars, and other foods, is taking a multipronged approach to its support of regenerative agriculture.
They’ve partnered with other organizations to develop resources and training to help farmers work toward the widespread adoption of soil health practices, including plans for “2 and 3-day soil health academies where farmers will receive education from leading technical experts” and a verified regenerative sourcing program for some of its brands that will “allow consumers to easily identify food that has been sourced from farms verified to increase water, soil, and climate health.”
A Global Shift To Regenerative Agriculture Can
- Feed the world: Small farmers already feed the world with less than a quarter of all farmland.
- Decrease GHG emissions: A new food system could be a key driver of solutions to climate change. The current industrial food system is responsible for 44 to 57% of all global greenhouse gas emissions.
- Reverse climate change: Emissions reduction alone is simply inadequate. Luckily, science says that we can actually reverse climate change by increasing soil carbon stocks.
- Improve yields: In cases of extreme weather and climate change, yields on organic farms are significantly higher than conventional farms.
- Create drought-resistant soil: The addition of organic matter to the soil increases the water holding capacity of the soil. Regenerative organic agriculture builds soil organic matter.
- Revitalize local economies: Family farming represents an opportunity to boost local economies.
- Preserve traditional knowledge: Understanding indigenous farming systems reveals important ecological clues for the development of regenerative organic agricultural systems.
- Nurture biodiversity: Biodiversity is fundamental to agricultural production and food security, as well as a valuable ingredient of environmental conservation.
- Restore grasslands: One-third of the earth’s surface is grasslands, 70% of which have been degraded. We can restore them using holistic planned grazing.
- Improve nutrition: Nutritionists now increasingly insist on the need for a more diverse agroecosystems, in order to ensure a more diversified nutrient output of the farming systems.
Regenerative Agriculture Focuses On Outcomes
Regenerative agriculture is about principles, not practices. It focuses on outcomes — actual improvements to soil health and the overall quality and health of the land (the soil, water, plants, animals, and humans).
Regenerative agriculture is an adaptive management approach that is supported by soil health principles. There is no recipe or prescription because each farm or ranch differs based on unique natural resources, climate variability, and animal and ecological dynamics. Producers apply those principles for their particular region, operation, and personal situation.
This freedom for producers to make decisions on their land is important. The reality is that working with nature is complex. There are good practices that if applied at the wrong time or under the wrong conditions can hurt, not help the land.
Noble recognizes that prescribed practices are no substitute for producer-led problem-solving and critical thinking to manage a complex environment.
Instead, Noble seeks to empower all producers to understand how their land functions and give them tools to make the best possible management decisions that improve land health. These decisions may differ from producer to producer, depending on their unique set of natural resources, their climate, and their skills and goals.
Marketing programs like organic may work for some producers, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution. It’s important to preserve choices for both producers and consumers. At the same time, it is important to consider the future health of the land.
Noble’s hope is that regenerative agriculture will become a mindset that all farmers and ranchers will pursue because it focuses on improving the very thing that all people depend upon: the soil.
- Regeneration International
- Climate Reality Project
- World Resources Institute
- The Counter