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A Regenerative Movement in Agriculture

Written By: 2023 Communications Intern, Talia Sanchez

Interested in more content form Talia? Her professional Instagram account is @circularwellness


According to the Food and Agricultural Organization, the world population will grow to an estimated 8.6 billion by 2031 [3]. The current food system cannot support this growth without serious consequences. Our food systems, particularly in the U.S., are already failing us, destroying our land and natural systems, wreaking havoc on our health, and contributing to the climate crisis. Shockingly in 2021, as many as 828 million people were affected by hunger and this number is likely to increase [4].


The time is now to regenerate and reconstruct our systems. Can we imagine a new paradigm of living where humanity and the natural world have a symbiotic relationship, where we thrive within a healthy food system, where people and communities are empowered, and where animals and the ecosystem are protected and left to flourish?


There is a movement of farmers and scientists paving the way for a new wave of agriculture, a new way to grow as humanity grows, offering a glimmer of hope for our future.



What’s wrong with conventional agriculture?


Conventional agriculture perpetuates climate change, exploits natural ecosystems, and degrades land.


"Food systems account for an estimated 30 to 34% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with around 71% originating from agriculture and land-use related activities specifically [3]." Degenerative and unsustainable land management practices and livestock / livestock feeding operations are the leading agricultural factors contributing to the climate crisis.


The availability of viable farmland has significantly decreased; desertification is on the rise due to deforestation, overgrazing, and unsustainable agriculture practices. The use of large portions of land to grow feed leads to land degradation and loss of topsoil/organic matter [2]. "Drylands now cover 46% of the earth's surface, and 9% of that is facing desertification and water scarcity. In the last 40 years, we have lost about 1/3 of our viable farming land [1]." In addition, weather extremes caused by the climate crisis, such as flooding and droughts, have caused farmers to lose enormous amounts of topsoil essential to productive agriculture [1].


The issue comes full circle for farmers who are suffering from these effects while also feeling the pressure to yield the most crop for the most profit. They turn to new machine-driven, industrialized processes, genetically modified seeds, and heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides to produce on a large scale.


Using genetically modified seeds, chemically driven fertilizers, and pesticides has become second nature in our current agriculture practices, leaching into our soil, ecosystems, and, ultimately, our bodies.


So why are farmers turning to these chemicals, knowing first-hand the implications? They allow farmers to manage weeds, pests, and diseases in order to enhance crop yields and produce quickly. In the U.S., Roundup (glyphosate) is the most common pesticide used and is often coupled with resistant genetically modified crop seeds called Roundup Ready. These chemicals destroy the vital natural systems in the soil but they also cause farmers to rely on fertilizers to enhance their degraded soil, creating a hard-to-break cycle. Glyphosate has been found to disrupt the endocrine system/hormone regulation, impact neurological development in children, and disrupt our digestive systems, causing illnesses such as celiac disease and leaky gut syndrome. [2]



Introducing a new way of farming and a path to change


Regenerative agriculture prioritizes and protects essential natural ecosystems. The goal is to enhance and sustain soil health through a diverse microbiome. This type of agriculture goes beyond the principles of organic growing to include livestock and grazing practices.

Standard regenerative agriculture practices include crop rotation, cover cropping, composting, livestock grazing, and the elimination of pesticide use and tiling.

No tiling and minimal soil disturbance:

Tillage is a preparation of soil common in conventional farming to aerate and bring moisture to the soil for germination. Unfortunately, this technique destroys the structure and microbiome of the crop's soil. Contrary to its purpose, once tilling is reduced or eliminated, water retention will improve and there will be less erosion and carbon loss.


Incorporating organic matter/compost:

The use of compost will improve and maintain soil health and can be a great tool in carbon sequestration. Compost provides a breeding ground for microbes, which bind particles together to improve soil structure, help evade diseases, hold water, and support biodiversity. According to the Marine Carbon Project, studies showed that one application of compost led to an increase in overall productivity over three years, with another study showing a positive shift in carbon storage [8]. Compost creates healthy soil and crops which are more resistant to pests and diseases, and the more carbon is sequestered in the soil, ultimately resulting in higher yields and productivity.


Crop rotation:

This technique consists of planting different crops after the other on the same land, which in turn can improve soil function. Nutrient variety is essential for a healthy micobiome within the soil. Planting the same crop year after year means that the same nutrients are drawn from the soil without the opportunity for them to be replenished. In turn, crops are more susceptible to pests and diseases and farmers become reliant on chemicals.


Cover cropping:

Cover cropping keeps land covered with vegetation or mulch; cover crops provide nitrogen fixation and can draw down carbon, improving soil function. This technique also helps to prevent erosion and subsequent nutrient loss.


Livestock grazing, silvopasture, agroforestry:

Within a regenerative grazing system, animals are sectioned into smaller spaces called paddocked pastures for a short period. Their feeding and waste cycles support the regeneration and soil biology cycle, continually returning nutrients to the topsoil. Once complete, farmers do not return the animals to that land for some time, allowing it to rest for the next cycle. Similar techniques such as silvopasture and agroforestry integrate trees, further improving nutrient cycling.


No pesticides or fertilizers required:

Regenerative agriculture is void of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, allowing soil ecology to remain fully functional and fertile.



Let's reap the benefits


Techniques listed above can improve soil water absorption and retention, nutrient cycling, nutrient density as well as crop success, productivity, and strength. All of which can significantly improve farmers' profits while mitigating climate change. [1]


The amount of carbon in the air has increased by 30% over the past century. As soil is 75% of the carbon pool on land, it can play a crucial role in maintaining a global carbon cycle. Understanding that regenerative agriculture can reduce greenhouse emissions at the source and even reverse them by sequestering carbon from the atmosphere through absorption into properly managed soil provides a source of optimism. [7]



 


An individual's guide to supporting the regenerative agriculture movement


The easiest way to support this movement is by knowing where your food comes from and shopping locally as much as possible. Take it a step further by donating to farms directly or to those aiding farmers in making the switch to regenerative farming, including non-profits and research organizations; Farmer’s Footprint is a great resource. You can also support companies that advocate for regenerative agriculture. [2]


Check out this list of regenerative farms in Illinois-


Consider shifting to organic cotton clothing (even better, cotton grown through regenerative agriculture!) Cotton is the most widespread non-food crop, and half of textiles contain cotton. Conventional cotton cultivation severely degrades soil quality and requires heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides, leading to contamination while requiring a substantial water supply. Organic cotton production is more sustainable regarding water usage and soil quality [6].


Shopping for organic, sustainably made, and regenerative items overall (beauty, household etc.) will hold brands accountable and strengthen the movement.


Consume less or no meat OR look for labels like free-range, grass-fed, hormone-free, antibiotic-free. See if there is a regenerative rancher in your area, and when eating fish, choose wild-caught when possible.


Switch to regenerative lawn care. Improve soil health by steering clear of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides while also keeping those chemicals out of our water systems. [9]


Introduce native plants to your garden. Native plants are adapted to the local climate and soil conditions of their region. They then require less water, pesticides, and fertilizers. Native grasses in particular are great at sequestering carbon from the air. [10] Prioritizing native species is a great way to improve biodiversity as well.


Educating yourself and understanding the issues at hand is the first step to empowering yourself to bring change to your area and eventually, the agricultural industry.



 


Sources:

  1. Kiss the Ground, Resources

  2. Farmer's Footprint, Resources

  3. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2022-2031 Pg. 28, 34. Food systems account for more than one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, article.

  4. World Health Organization (WHO), UN Report: Global hunger numbers rose to as many as 828 million in 2021, article

  5. Regenorganic, Why Regenerative Organic

  6. World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Cotton

  7. Ecological Society of America, Carbon Sequestration

  8. Marine Carbon Project: Impacts of organic matter amendments on carbon and nitrogen dynamics in grassland soils, article. Effects of organic matter amendments on net primary productivity and greenhouse gas emissions in annual grasslands, article.

  9. Turf Magazine, Landscape Trends: Introducing Regenerative Lawn Care, article.

  10. 10. United States Department of Agriculture, Native Gardening, article.



As research for this blog Talia visited a local regenerative farm -

Terra Vitae Farms is a multigenerational regenerative farm that not only finds meaning in raising its animals by providing the best life for them as they regenerate their 80 acres of land. They offer pasture-raised pork, beef, and chicken and can be found at various community farmers markets.


“You are what your food eats. They eat good here.”



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