Regenerative agriculture is one of the Earth’s natural carbon solutions. Soil stores more carbon than all terrestrial vegetation and the atmosphere combined; when agriculture accounts for 9% of the US greenhouse gas emissions, the potential for regenerative farming practices is one of the greatest of all human systems to address the climate crisis. Leveraging the power of nature is a major part of carbon capture and sequestration needed by 2030 to help cool our atmosphere, and yet, few industries are embracing regenerative practices.
First, what does “regenerative” mean? A regenerative society is one that, through all the systems of living, optimizes our human activity to support a livable planet. In order to do this, we need to halt human-caused emissions into the atmosphere and draw down and store the excess atmospheric carbon through carbon sinks, which include natural ecosystems like the oceans, grasslands, forests, and soils. When more than 37% of the land on Earth is used for agriculture, there is an enormous opportunity to enhance the power of soil as a carbon draw down solution.
The benefits are multi-faceted. Regenerative practices increase carbon storage, and enhance the health and effectiveness of the soil itself. At Grounded Summit, Calla Rose Ostrander of the Marin Carbon Project explained, “While more carbon in the atmosphere is bad for us and is a key player in climate change, more carbon in the soil is very good for us.
Water is the most prevalent greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. We don’t think about that often because it’s not a pollutant, but more water vapor in the atmosphere contributes to the extreme weather we have been experiencing. When there is more heat and carbon in the atmosphere, that heat pulls in more water, which leads to big dumps of rain and super storms.
Likewise, when we have more carbon in soil, it holds more water. When it rains, the water soaks in better, stays for longer, and is more available to plants. These are all really wonderful things, things that create healthy soil and fertile growth.”
Regenerative agriculture allows us to meet our needs for food and fiber in ways that leave the planet better off. ⅔ of the continental United States is a farm, ranch, or forest. There is ample opportunity for conserving biodiversity and building beneficial practices throughout the farmlands in our country. David Festa, of the Environmental Defense Fund, shared, “As a society have come to see the 5% of land, like tropical rainforests, that we are putting in nature preserves as sexier and cooler than the ⅔ of the land that is home to a community of people intimately connected to the natural world.
“If we get the public to see regenerative agriculture as the foundation of not just a healthy food system, but biodiversity, climate protection, forest and fire management, and more, our political system is going to be that much more able to move quickly to divest and redirect resources to support this.” We need to acknowledge and value farms for the climate change and environmental benefits that they are, and invest and reward regenerative practices.
So what does regenerative farming look like? When you think about a farm, you probably imagine one that has rows of a singular, flourishing crop, but no other plants, no other animals; where the roads are straight and demarcate the linear boundaries, the irrigation ditches are equally clean and devoid of plants, much like a polished and systematic machine.
But that’s actually not the best way for supporting the soil and biodiversity. Regenerative farming is a little aesthetically messier than the traditional vision, but it’s exponentially better for our planet. The regenerative vision for agriculture is more complex, and also more profitable economically and ecologically. This shift in farming practices is not only better for our planet, but proven to be more productive for the bottom line too.
This economic and systemic shift is possible, as seen in California. The secretary of the Department of Food and Agriculture, Karen Ross, has helped create a climate smart farming program that recycles revenue to offer grants and technical assistance, partnerships with local community colleges, and more resources to help farmers take the economic and cultural risk out of trying these new, yet powerful and necessary, practices. When we educate, reward, and empower the stewards of the land, there is great potential for a paradigm shift in our country as a whole. And it’s important. “History shows us that agriculture created the conditions that allowed civilization to arrive,” David Festa continued at Grounded Summit, “And now, agriculture, particularly the generative mindset, will determine whether civilization can thrive in a climate changing world.”
In order to bend our carbon trajectory, we need to get at least 40% of the land absorbing carbon, Calla Rose Ostrander explained. Assuming that we will still have annual massive fires, as we have in the last few years, we are going to need 50-60%. Agriculture, and regenerative practices, are the only way to do this. We must assess the ways we all support agriculture through our food choices, our supply change and our governments so we can make the necessary shifts in our system. The good news is that soil responds quickly, and there are many synergistic benefits.
We have just 10 years to make systemic shifts to ensure a habitable planet. There's a huge opportunity by starting these practices now. Utilizing our soil is an incredibly powerful tool in this goal, and it requires a collaborative, multi-tiered solution. Organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund are identifying ways to encourage systemic changes and ways to structure our economy that reward regenerative practices. Governments need to adjust policy and invest in a regenerative culture. Organizations like the Marin Carbon Project are educating communities and farmers to show the power of carbon farming - and the ease! We must reframe what we think of farming, and when we do, we have the ability to store massive amounts of carbon and truly shift the trajectory of our climate.