In 2014, the Rodale Institute[i], an organic agriculture research center based in Pennsylvania, heralded[ii] a revolutionary technology with potential to store more than 100% of global annual CO2 emissions:
The cost is minimal and is adaptable to local contexts the world over. It can be rolled out tomorrow providing multiple benefits beyond climate stabilization. The solution is farming.
Not just any farming, however — especially not the conventional type that has dominated agriculture for the last 200 years. By introducing chemical and mineral fertilizers and pesticides, overtilling, and excess irrigation, conventional farming has released over 80 billion tons[iii] of CO2 from the soil into the atmosphere over that time — at least 50% of the carbon once stored in the Earth.
Regenerative agriculture[iv], in contrast, is a holistic approach to farming that focuses on regenerating soil health, thereby recreating a massive carbon sink. Some researchers estimate that switching as little as 10% of agricultural land[v] from conventional agriculture — which represents nearly 15%[vi] of annual global greenhouse gas emissions — to regenerative can sequester enough CO2 to reverse climate change. At the very least, switching to regenerative agriculture can reduce or even eliminate conventional farming’s detrimental; soil erosion and water depletion alone cost the U.S. $37 billion annually and $400 billion worldwide[vii]. In short, “conventional industrial agriculture produces food cheaply by not paying the cost of the damages it causes.”[viii]
The minimal cost and maximal potential of regenerative agriculture not only to store carbon but also to produce more resilient, nutritious, and frequent crops is why the Drawdown Organization has ranked regenerative agriculture #11 in its list of the top 100 ways[ix] of mitigating climate change.
Breaking Down the Basics of Regenerative Agriculture (Building Up the Soil)
Regenerative agriculture refers to a variety of methods that can be used to increase the health, resilience, and carbon capacity of a farm’s soil. Regeneration International[x] and The Carbon Underground[xi] list the following criteria[xii] for a method to qualify as regenerative agriculture:
(i) increase soil health and fertility
(ii) increase water retention and prevent runoff
(iii) increase biodiversity and ecosystem health and resiliency
(iv) increase carbon sequestration by removing atmospheric CO2
The core practices[xiii] that exemplify these criteria are:
1. Crop rotation and cover cropping with diverse crops and perennials:
Cover crops[xiv]— defined as those planted between main cash crops, such as perennial mulches — heighten carbon sequestration, limit soil and water erosion, prevent weeds from rooting, and increase soil fertility. Some regenerative farms use as many as 10-25 different types of cover crops, thereby adding a whole wealth of different nutrients to the soil.
Rodale Institute defines composting[xv] as “the controlled aerobic decomposition of organic materials such as plants, animals or manure,” thereby increasing soil fertility and biodiversity while reducing the need for water and fertilizer. A 10-year study[xvi] comparing rotated crops composted with dairy manure to conventionally farmed fields found that the composted crops sequestered more than two metric tons of carbon (MgC) per hectare, while the conventional fields lost carbon.
The BEAM (Biologically Enhanced Agricultural Management) methods developed by New Mexico State’s Dr. David Johnson,[xvii] which use a composted soil with particularly high microorganism content, have proven to be particularly fruitful for high carbon sequestration; researchers estimate that BEAM could sequester 184 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 per year — almost five times the 2017 global CO2 emissions of 38 Gt[xviii].
3. Zero-to-low tillage:
Tillage breaks up the soil, destroying crucial fungi that otherwise holds the soil together and releasing CO2 in the process. When no-till organic practices are used, they can increase organic carbon in the soil by 9% after 2 years and 21% after six years[xix] . The organic part is crucial, since N2O from nitrogen fertilization eventually offsets the benefit of carbon sequestration[xx]. In addition, planting perennials and using other agroecological approaches[xxi] to create pest-resilient food systems results in less pest damage that conventional insecticide-treated crops[xxii].
4. Managed grazing:
Almost 70% of agricultural lands are used for grazing, and pastures managed with regenerative practices like those above[xxiii] — as well as silvopastoral agriculture, #9 on the Drawdown list[xxiv]— can increase carbon in the soil and store it much deeper than conventional systems.
How You Can Support Regenerative Agriculture
The benefits of regenerative agriculture are not as prominent as they could be because of conventional agriculture’s wealth and lobbying power. A 2017 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, however, predicted that the world’s topsoil layer could disappear completely in 60 years[xxv]. Regenerative farming may thus be one of the most crucial climate mitigation strategies not only for saving our planet but feeding its people.
The good news: even if you don’t work in the agricultural sector, you can support the many organizations working to increase knowledge and practice of regenerative agriculture.
Food Tank highlights 17 global organizations that promote regenerative agriculture, from Aranya Agricultural Initiatives[xxvi] and the Timbaktu Collective[xxvii] in India — which loses forty times as much soil each year as the U.S.[xxviii] — to the Traditional Native American Farmers Association[xxix] and Kiss the Ground[xxx] in the U.S.
Similarly, various companies have pledged various levels of commitment[xxxi] to regenerative agriculture, from contracting with regenerative farms (Annie’s Homegrown[xxxii]) to collaborating on a standard certification process[xxxiii] (Dr. Bronner’s[xxxiv] , Patagonia[xxxv] ). You can show your appreciation through your buying power, word-of-mouth to friends and family, and social media.
Related LEED® v4 Credits:
- LEED BD+C, LTc Sensitive Land Protection (1 pt)
[iii] Drawdown, 55.
[vii] Drawdown, 55.
[viii] Drawdown, 54.
[ix] Drawdown, 54.
[xiv] Drawdown, 55.
[xxviii] Drawdown, 55.