Regenerative-farming techniques could reverse climate change through enhancing the soil.
By Eli Wallace
When scientists and environmentalists talk climate change, doom and gloom is often the main topic. Scientific American reported last spring that the earth was essentially at or close to the “point of no return,” in terms of carbon emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated in 2009 that unless drastic action was taken between 2015 and 2020, it would be too late to save the ice caps, let alone polar bears, coastal infrastructure and the temperate, predictable weather patterns we know and love.
So it’s not every day you hear an environmentalist declare we can actually reverse global warming.
Steven Hoffman, managing director of the Boulder-based environmental marketing group Compass Natural and an avid environmentalist with ties to Regeneration International, visited the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21 Global Climate Summit) in Paris this year, where the reversal of global warming through soil regeneration was a major focus.
“People keep talking about reducing carbon emissions and getting to carbon neutral, but that’s not enough anymore,” Hoffman says. “We’re already heating, so we need to take the excess from the atmosphere. A lot of people want to make new technology that can help solve our previous technology problems.”
Hoffman says the conversation around carbon emissions usually centers on personal consumption and oil use, even though 50 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions comes from agriculture.
“Yes, we need to increase renewable energy, but that’s only half the equation. All of the carbon in the air used to be in the ground, and industrial-scale agriculture is responsible. If you ignore that, you’re missing the practical, easily applied solution that we can address immediately.”
That solution, regenerative farming, focuses on increasing organic matter in the soil, which would up the amount of carbon in the soil. “We could sequester more than 100 percent of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic-management practices,” reported the white paper “Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change,” published by Rodale Institute, a nonprofit agricultural research group.
“Organic farming nurtures the living soil,” Hoffman explains. “Plants draw carbon from the air to their roots, where it’s sequestered in soil and used by microbes, worms and other organisms.”
Regenerative-farming practices are a focused, stricter subset of organic farming. They include conservation tillage, maintaining biodiversity, composting, mulching, planting cover crops, rotating crops, and no tolerance for synthetic pesticides and fertilizers that disturb soil life.
To reach the goal of 100-percent sequestration of current carbon emissions, a drastic overhaul of agricultural management practices is required. However, “Even if modest assumptions about soil’s carbon-sequestration potential are made, regenerative agriculture can easily keep annual emissions to within the desirable range necessary… [and we would have] a good chance of limiting warming to 1.5° C by 2020,” the Rodale Institute argued.
“Big agriculture drains the soil, so the industry has to add a bunch of amendments—pesticides and chemical fertilizers—to get anything to grow. They’ll tell you that’s how they’re going to feed the world,” Hoffman says.
But he contends organic practices can produce yields comparable to conventional agriculture. The Rodale Institute agrees, pointing out that “yields under organic systems are likely to be more resilient to the extreme weather accompanying climate change,” and noting that “in drought years, yields were consistently higher in the organic systems” tested in its Rodale Institute Farming System Trial, which lasted 30 years.
The institute went on to say, “the continued use of the trope that ‘we will soon need to feed nine billion people’ as justification for seeking ever-greater yields is duplicitous. Hunger and food access are not yield issues. They are economic and social issues, which, in large part, are the result of inappropriate agricultural and development policies that have created, and continue to reinforce, rural hunger.”
Hoffman attended the Paris summit on behalf of Regeneration International and calls the “4 per 1000” initiative decided there “historic.” “The initiative is to increase soil carbon matter .04 percent per year over time to stop the increase in carbon in the atmosphere. It’s the first time in the history of climate change that international governments are discussing the role of soil,” Hoffman says.
Another part to the soil solution is reversing desertification and soil erosion.
“Holistic planned grazing” can reverse both, says the Boulder-based Savory Institute. In 2013, founder Allan Savory put forth the theory that grasslands evolved to depend upon wild herds to break down organic material. Essentially, holistic planned grazing uses livestock to mimic the wild herds of yesteryear, like the great bison herds that roamed America before the 1800s.
With the buffalo herds gone, we now use controlled burning for the same effect, but that releases large amounts of carbon and accelerates desertification by leaving soil uncovered. Savory has had remarkable results employing holistic planned grazing. In one South Dakota study, the technique resulted in total stoppage of soil erosion, a 77-percent decrease in bare ground, and a 40-percent decrease in the space between plants.
“If we [use holistic planned grazing], we can take enough carbon out of the atmosphere and safely store it in the grassland soils for thousands of years,” Savory said in a 2013 TED Talk. “If we do that on about half the world’s grasslands, we can take us back to pre-industrial [carbon] levels while feeding people.”
Hoffman says spreading awareness of regenerative farming and supporting organic farms and food products are simple steps everyone can take. In your own yard, he suggests you avoid the monoculture of a grassy lawn as well as chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers that damage topsoil (along with beneficial pollinators and soil organisms). If you have children, teach them sustainable gardening so the next generation of gardeners is familiar with organic practices and values organic food.
“You have to work it from every angle,” Hoffman says. “Never believe individual actions don’t make a difference. The organic industry grew because of individuals, one consumer at a time. We have a responsibility to vote with our dollars.”