Beyond organic and sustainable
“Regenerative” farming can feed the world – and maybe even reverse effects of climate change.
My friend, I have some wonderful news for you. This is news of a new paradigm, of a cultural shift. For too long, the environmental movement has been focused on harm reduction. While anyone paying attention has been painfully aware that this cacophony of consumerism has been devastating to global ecology, the best advice we are often given is to switch to methods that do less harm, or perhaps at the very best to achieve equilibrium with the planet to become sustainable.
However, sustainability at best only sets the bar to let us continue what we are currently doing, ad nauseum, forever. But let’s be honest, my friends: Doing what we are currently doing now, forever, is not sustainable.
As promised, compadres, this story has a happy ending. Thousands of visionaries among us are moving beyond sustainable. Thousands of us are moving beyond organic, for while organic methods allow us to produce food and fiber in a manner that is less harmful to people and planet, that is simply not good enough. Indeed, it is time we focus on stewarding our resources in a manner that actually improves and increases both the quantity and quality of them.
It’s happening, and
it’s happening now
Permaculture, agroforestry, carbon farming, mob grazing—numerous strategies spanning many disciplines form a multi-pronged approach to regenerative agriculture.They all have one thing in common: Each aims to repair and restore indigenous ecosystems, increase biodiversity, and continually increase the quality of these resources and thus the biological carrying capacity of the land upon which they steward.
This is not only possible, this is happening. This is not a new concept, indeed it is often a return to historical land uses and ancient techniques of indigenous peoples. This is almost always based on taking the time to reflect on how nature would prefer to operate, then getting out of her way.
Very often this approach results in more profit and less work over time for the farmer, which then serves to increase the health and vitality of local communities and culture. This approach is not relegated to small farms and micro enterprise; this technique is being flexed on landscapes of massive acreage. This is possible, and it’s happening, right now, all over the world.
Accentuate the positive
While many other “sustainability” strategies focus on harm reduction, regenerative design is focused on the promotion of the positive. A cascading symphony of biological benefits awaits every proficient practitioner of regenerative agriculture. At the root of this strategy is the return of carbon from the atmosphere to the soil where it belongs.
This approach may look like intensive rotational grazing, where mobs of ruminant animals are grazed in high concentrations on a diverse grassland ecosystem, then moved after only a single day to another area. This dense concentration of continually moving animals accurately reflects how these animals and perennial grassland ecosystems co-evolved. The grazing of the herd stimulates the grasses, who send roots ever deeper in response, then the animals are moved on before they over graze and damage the growth centers of their food source. The plants are given weeks or months to recover, and the results of this technique are nothing short of miraculous. As the saying goes, “The herb and the herbivore need each other.”
Hundreds of ranches across the country have demonstrated an increase in pasture health, animal health, biological diversity and resistance to drought (or in the arid west, a decreased need for irrigation). These benefits continue to cascade into higher profits for the farmers, incredible amounts of CO2 sequestered from the atmosphere, and a nutritionally superior product for the consumer. (For our vegetarian and vegan friends: We don’t need to eat the animals. We do, however, absolutely need to keep them grazing.)
Perhaps most importantly, the water that enters these types of ranches is cleaned, purified and contained in the soil, rather than leaving as a toxic pollutant (and often taking the top soil with it), as is the case with feedlots and overgrazed pastures.
The regenerative agriculture strategy may look like a no-till organic farm that rotates through a diverse cover-cropping regimen. By keeping their fields perpetually protected by living cover, these farms continually increase the depths of their topsoil. No sunlight energy is wasted as this perpetual living cover pulls CO2 from the air during photosynthesis, turning it into leaves, shoots, roots and other plant material. The excess carbon is then released through the roots and into the soil to nurse and feed an extensive community of microbial allies. Once this carbon is fed into the soil, and particularly utilized by soil fungi as they grow their mycelial networks, it is among the most stable way that carbon can be sequestered.
Soil will save us
The soil increases in both topsoil mass and fertility over time as increasing populations of nitrogen fixing bacteria acquire nitrogen from the atmosphere and store it for later use by plants in root nodules. This perpetual cover also eliminates the need for herbicides, and the diverse cover crops host beneficial insect populations that eliminate the need for insecticides.
This cascading stream of benefits now also sees our farmer producing a superior product grown in healthier soil while decreasing her overhead, time and the fuel needed to till, disc and harrow the field. Less tractor time means fewer emissions and imported energy, and far more carbon is retained in the soil than emitted in the process. This farm, too, now cleans rather than pollutes water, and is more resilient and resistant to drought. We call this approach “Carbon Farming.”
The regenerative agriculture strategy may look like these farmers now pushing the envelope to maximize diversity by planting hedgerows of trees and shrubs. Increased habitat for avian predators brings rodents into balance, while providing yet another marketable product in the form of nuts, fruits and berries. These plants also act as windbreaks and create even more nuanced microclimates from which even more biodiversity emerges. This strategy in known as agroforestry, and the crown jewel benefit, once again, lies underground. These mass plantings of trees and shrubs increase exponentially the conditions for beneficial fungi to thrive, and nothing sequesters carbon from the atmosphere more quickly or more permanently than the symbiotic relationship between these two friends with benefits.
Once more, here’s what happens: Carbon from the atmosphere, returning to the soil via the plant, helps to effectively combat climate change, while also increasing topsoil mass and soil fertility, cleaning and filtering water as it passes through.
Nature is my co-pilot
The regenerative agriculture strategy may look like a farm that adopts the design strategies of permaculture and moves from producing food from annual plants to production based on a diverse interplanting of perennial food sources. Multiple species of trees, shrubs, vines and other plants mingle and support one another in guilds, groupings of plants that symbiotically serve one another. While some members of the guild produce fruit, berries, nuts or herbs, others host beneficial insects and pollinators, accumulate deep soil nutrients to contribute as they also provide mulch, or repel pests.
These perennial food production systems also eliminate the high labor demand of a yearly replanting as does our typical reliance on annual food crops. These systems are renown for requiring the least amount of labor and inputs per unit of output. Acre for acre, they not only keep pace with the caloric output of conventional agriculture, they often exceed it. And this brings us to an important question.
Can regenerative agriculture feed the world?
Well, first we must ask another question: Can modern conventional industrial agriculture feed the world?
No, it cannot. At least, not for long. Modern industrial agriculture’s claims that it can feed the world is realistic only if you are very, very bad at math.
Our modern conventional approach to growing food has unflinchingly demonstrated over the last 70 years that it requires ever-increasing amounts of fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and water to produce each calorie it puts out. Despite the promises of genetic engineering and the chemical companies who champion it, we consistently see an increase in the amount of chemicals, petroleum and irrigation required to produce their products. During this process, topsoil, mass fertility and biodiversity diminish at an alarming rate. The nutritional and healing power of food is eroding away.
Industrial agriculture is the leading cause of water pollution the world over. 93% of Americans tested positive for glyphosate in their urine, the active chemical in Roundup, the world’s most-used herbicide. Coincidentally, genetically modified “Roundup-ready” soybeans comprise 93% of the soybean crop grown in the U.S.
Year after year, with more chemical inputs and more petroleum consumed, we see more carbon emitted both from machinery and dying soils, less yield, less nutrition, less profit for the farmer, less biodiversity, and an increase in global water pollution. This strategy won’t feed the world for long. Ever more inputs for and ever-diminishing output—this is the strategy of a compulsive gambler about to lose his house. Feel free to check my math.
Can regenerative agriculture feed the world? Absolutely. Indeed, it may be the only strategy that can. Soil is the foundation of civilization, and every culture that has neglected that fact is no longer around to tell the tale.
Producing the food we need in a way that actually reduces the need for inputs over time, including the farmer’s time—that’s a boss move.
Producing the food we need while increasing biodiversity, cleaning and filtering water, and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere to reverse the effects of climate change—that’s a boss move.
Continuously building an increasing mass of healthy topsoil which relates to a direct increase of the nutritional profile and healing properties of the food we eat, that’s a boss move.
Regenerative agriculture may just be the rightest strategy there ever was.
James Loomis is a fulltime farmer and president of the OchO Society, a nonprofit secret society focused on ecological stewardship and education.