A new movement is building around the world and gaining momentum as a result of the climate crisis. Organic and sustainable agriculture are morphing into the new frontier of regenerative agriculture. While organic agriculture philosophically centres on healthy soil, organic certification focuses more on what is allowed or not allowed. A farm may be certified organic and not necessarily follow practices that fully optimize soil health. Sustainable means a system which can sustain itself over time. But sustainability is not enough, because the loss of healthy soil has gone so far that the only hope of long-term food security lies in regenerating ecosystems.
This new conversation about regenerative agriculture takes the focus off of the great divide between conventional and organic, and returns us to the basics—rebuilding healthy soils and the ecosystems interconnected with them.
In the past 150 years, half the world’s topsoil has been lost to erosion and what remains has been degraded by compaction, loss of soil structure and deterioration of microbial populations. Industrialized agricultural practices, deforestation and urban sprawl have accelerated soil erosion and degradation. The result is decreasing fertility and yields—with eventual desertification. Soil erosion leads to sedimentation and eutrophication of water bodies and the resulting loss of clean water supplies.
Regenerative agriculture practices are designed to reduce inputs of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, increase soil organic matter, enhance biodiversity and restore ecosystems, particularly optimizing the hydrological cycle. While the general public knows little about the crisis of soil loss, there is awareness and concern regarding the climate crisis. The two are connected and the recent surge of interest in regenerative agriculture has been stimulated by the hope of climate resilience and carbon sequestration offered by regenerative agriculture.
Climate change mitigation has focused mainly on cutting carbon emissions and replacing fossil fuels with renewable energies. But more recently, carbon sequestration has come into the spotlight. The potential for agricultural practices to draw down and absorb carbon in the soil has begun to receive more attention.
Atmospheric carbon remains in the atmosphere until it changes form. Nature’s mechanism for cycling carbon is photosynthesis. Plants take in carbon dioxide from the air and convert it to liquid carbon which is secreted through their roots. This liquid carbon feeds soil microorganisms, which in turn help to cycle nutrients from organic matter in the soil and build biomass through plant growth. In an industrial system, biomass is largely harvested and taken out of the cycle, so little stable soil carbon remains. But in a regenerative system, more long-lasting forms of carbon remain in the earth. Soil humus, for example, is a stable form of soil carbon which contributes to soil structure and fertility.
The interest building around regenerative agriculture has been precipitated by growing concerns about climate change and the potential for agriculture to play a substantial role in climate change mitigation instead of significantly contributing to the problem.
A Brief History of Regenerative Agriculture
While the particular methods of regenerative agriculture have been developing through different proponents of organic, sustainable or natural farming around the world since industrial agriculture began, the term regenerative agriculture was first used by the Rodale Institute in the 1980s. Lessons from organic farming, permaculture, biodynamic agriculture, composting, nature farming, the soil food web and soil microbiome research have all contributed to the development of the methodologies which have been adopted by the regenerative agriculture movement.
In 2014 the Rodale Institute published a paper entitled “Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change.” Its authors state, “We could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term ‘regenerative organic agriculture.’”
Around this time, other organizations began to spring up, advocating for agricultural solutions to climate change. Some of these include Regrarians, the Carbon Cycle Institute, La Via Campesina and Regeneration International, to name a few. The term carbon farming, coined by Eric Toensmeier, who wrote The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security, is another way of referring to regenerative agriculture.
During the COP21 Paris Climate Talks, a French initiative called 4 per 1000 ignited the talk of carbon farming with the idea that an annual increase of 4 parts per 1000 or 0.4% in soil carbon stocks would halt the increase of atmospheric carbon caused by human activities. Along with the energy and high profile resulting from the climate talks, the movement for regenerative agriculture and carbon farming as a significant response for mitigating climate change took off. It is now only fueled more and more by the obvious and increasing dramatic weather events that have occurred around the world in the last couple of years.
What are the Practices of Regenerative Agriculture?
When we put the focus on building soil carbon, a number of key principles are involved, all centred on rehabilitating soil microbial communities in order to re-establish the ecosystem function of carbon cycling. Any practice that kills significant populations of soil microbes and disrupts their healthy balance is contraindicated.
The most basic disruption is tillage, a cornerstone practice in both conventional and organic agriculture. A healthy, balanced soil contains a balance of bacteria and fungi. Tilling disrupts the fungal networks and natural processes that lead to a well-structured and layered soil, capable of absorbing and storing water deep into the layers. Tilling also contributes to erosion and compaction so that fertility is lost.
No-till methods permit organic matter to be returned to the soil to feed the fungal networks. The various methods of reducing or eliminating tillage all involve keeping the soil covered with organic matter. Non-organic farmers will control weeds with herbicide and then seed the next crop directly into standing crop residues, which slowly decompose over the growing cycle. Organic farmers have more challenges with weed control, but will restrict tillage to shallow depths and use cover crops between the rows and before and after their main crops. Sometimes they terminate the residues of a previous crop with a roller crimper to crush them and make mulch. Smaller-scale organic farmers can use methods such as killing vegetation with light-blocking barriers or organic mulches.
Organic soil fertility
Organic matter in soil is the basis of natural fertility. Regenerative agriculture, whether certified organic or not, requires returning organic matter to the soil. Whether that is through cover crops, mulches or compost—and ideally a combination of methods—a healthy soil cycles nutrients and can grow a robust crop through the action of soil microbes with little or no addition of chemical inputs.
The manufacturing of synthetic fertilizers has a high carbon footprint—and those fertilizers are high in salts that kill or inhibit soil microbes. Nitrogen fertilizers interact with soil microbes in a way that causes the release of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas far more potent than CO2.
Agroforestry, diversity and perennial crops
Perennial systems have deeper roots and more well-established microbial communities. Unlike annual systems, they don’t require much tillage. For this reason, regenerative agriculture tries to include a greater diversity of perennial crops, and works towards moving away from successions of a limited number of annual crops. Just as humans do better with a varied diet, soil does, too. A diversity of plants growing in proximity gives a greater variety of nutrients to the microbial communities in the soil, making it richer and more resilient. The interactions between different plants and their microbial communities create a complex ecosystem that develops over time, facilitating greater stability and fertility.
Tree roots penetrate deeper into the soil, which helps water to percolate deeper as well. Integrating trees into the system and combining tree crops with vegetable crops or with pastureland adds resilience to the system and makes both systems more productive.
When you drive through North American farmland, you see vast acreages of corn and soy. Most of these fields will feed animals, not humans directly. These are annual crops, usually requiring a great deal of tillage and fertilizer. Many say that the best thing we could do to reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture would be to stop eating meat.
Yet, ironically, grazing animals is one of the best ways to regenerate soil health. When ruminants are kept in a tight herd and moved through the landscape inside moveable fencing, they trample the grasses and stimulate their growth. The grassland has a chance to recover before it is grazed again. The animal manure and crushed grass composts on site, adding organic matter to the soil and increasing the root depth and productivity of the grasses.
In places where managed grazing has been implemented for many years, we have seen desertified land come back to life, dried up streams fill again with water and indigenous grasses begin to grow back. So, while eating less meat may be important to a more equitable distribution of our land resources, the ecosystem function of animals makes a healthy contribution when they are eating the diet nature intended.
A Regenerative Movement in Canada
Regeneration Canada was born following the Living Soils Symposium Montreal, which took place in October 2017. Representatives from international soil and climate initiatives gathered with farmers, researchers, students, consultants, entrepreneurs, and committed consumers—and left inspired to take action. The principle organizer, Gabrielle Bastien, decided to grow the movement beyond simply organizing this one annual event. Regeneration Canada was formed to rally the many pioneering individuals and organizations who are working for change in the land management sector into a network. Land management includes agriculture, urban areas, forestry and resource extraction, all of which could be managed with regenerative principles, protecting our climate and our natural resources for future generations.
We believe that within this complex ecosystem, we can only create significant change if we include all stakeholders in the conversation. From consumers to producers to businesses, nonprofit groups and policy makers, we hope to bring together a dynamic and resilient ecosystem, to raise awareness, create dialogue and foster innovation and collaboration. Our tools include an online platform for knowledge sharing and collaboration, a resource directory, as well as physical events and gatherings, including the Living Soils Symposium.
Through consultation with members across Canada, we are asking the question: What is needed to catalyze change in the agriculture and land management sectors? If you are interested in learning more or joining the network, we would love to engage in this conversation with you. You can find us at www.regenerationcanada.org