Going Beyond Sustainability: What is Regenerative Organic Agriculture?Catherine Webb
Preparing to Provide
Our current agricultural system is stuck in a vicious cycle in which practices of land degradation and clearing simultaneously drive climate change and ensure a less resilient food system in the face of climate change.
This system, contributing 24% of all anthropogenic emissions, is already experiencing the effects of climate change in increased warming, changing precipitation patterns, and greater frequencies of extreme events. To ensure food security, climate change mitigation must be addressed by wide-reaching transitions in all sectors. However, agriculture has the unique opportunity to reverse its status as both a driver and a victim of climate change, to a mitigator and thriving system for future generations.
What is Regenerative Organic Agriculture?
“Regenerative Agriculture” describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, help mitigate climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle. — Regeneration International
Regenerative agriculture goes beyond other forms of sustainable agriculture in the way that it addresses, by definition, the intention to fix, or “regenerate,” currently designated agricultural land by increasing carbon-rich soil organic matter. Practices that restore carbon content to the soil increase productivity while dually sequestering carbon, creating a win-win situation.
Furthermore, regenerating current agricultural lands, which claim close to 40% of the world’s total arable land, halts the process of deforestation, which composes the majority of net CO2 emissions (5.2 ± 2.6 GtCO2 yr-1) released from agricultural processes. Essentially, improving food production on existing farmland through regenerative organic “carbon farming” practices reduces the demand for new agricultural land and safeguards against activities that further unbalance our already unbalanced carbon cycle.
Regenerative Organic Farming Practices
- Reduced/no-tillage: improves soil quality and reduces soil erosion by employing a drill or alternative equipment to grow crops without breaking the ground before planting
- Diverse cover crops: discourages wind and water erosion, increases water retention, improves soil structure and water infiltration, reduces weed pressure, and increases soil carbon by planting temporary crops or perennial mulches in between main crops
- Compost: a soil amendment created from the controlled aerobic decomposition of organic matter which increases soil biodiversity, microbial biomass, nutrient cycling, and disease suppression
- Multiple crop rotations: polyculture with no fallow time increases soil microbial biomass carbon by ensuring available energy and root hosts for bacteria and fungi
- No pesticides or synthetic fertilizers: instead, uses IPM (Integrated Pest Management) and the
previously mentioned practices to improve soil quality and biodiversity which reduces the need for pesticides and synthetic fertilizers
When used in combination with each other, the use of these five management practices which increase water retention and infiltration, soil and crop biodiversity, microbe proliferation, and more result in increased carbon-rich soil organic matter. Ultimately, this carbon sequestration supports climate change mitigation and improves crop productivity. According to Project Drawdown, over ten or more years farms are increasing soil carbon content from a baseline of 1-2% to up to 5-8%, which can add up to 25-60 tons of carbon per acre.
Based on the rapid growth of organic agriculture, and the unprecedented increase in sales of certified organic produce, the adoption of Regenerative Organic Agriculture has considerable potential to increase on a similar trajectory. For example, between 2011 and 2016, certified organic farms increased by 56% and sold more than twice the amount of organic goods. If Regenerative Organic Agriculture increased to the estimated 221-322 million hectares by 2050, this system could provide a $2.3-3.5 trillion lifetime operational cost savings and lifetime net profit gain of $135-206 billion on an investment of $79-116 billion, according to Project Drawdown.
Successful implementation of this agricultural-based climate change response depends on specific agro-
ecological conditions and socio-economic conditions. Regenerative Organic Agriculture must fit the
regional climate and must have the means to finance the transition.
The climate change potential of Regenerative Organic Agriculture could result in a reduction of 14.5-22.3
gigatons of carbon dioxide, both from sequestration and reduced emissions. However, it is significant to
note that soils have unique carbon saturation points, and therefore is not an indispensable carbon sink.
Beyond the wide implementation of Regenerative Organic Agriculture, other land-based climate solutions
including reforestation, afforestation, and bioenergy are required to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C.
As per capita income and consumption growth trends continue, and as climate change continues to expose
the flaws of our current agricultural system, new solutions for ensuring food security are on the horizon.
Regenerative Organic Agriculture works with Earth’s natural laws to address the stress of climate change
twofold in carbon sequestration and feeding a growing population. There is no time like the present when
investing in the future.