Regenerative Agriculture

Road to Resilience


Few of us are not aware of the dire statistics of our present world.  The amount of carbon we release into the atmosphere continues to increase even though we’ve made some progress in limiting some sources.  Extreme weather events, climate refugees, and species extinctions herald the arrival of climate change while exploding population growth and resource depletion exacerbate the situation.  Now, we know that we have eleven years to turn it around before we are beset with irreversible climate chaos.  Before you go out behind the house and shoot yourself, remember that we got ourselves into this mess and we certainly have the knowledge and wherewithal to get ourselves out of it.

We are told that every ton of carbon we put in the atmosphere will be there for ten thousand years or more.  I don’t think that needs to be so.  It is important to limit carbon buildup in the atmosphere, but we need to remember that we can take it out of the atmosphere as well.  Besides the atmosphere, our main carbon sinks are (duh!) the oceans and the land.  (I was thinking about the warehouses in Kent as well, but I believe they are already full.)  Anyway, the oceans are acidifying because of an excess of carbon, so that leaves us with the land.

There are high tech solutions that involve very expensive scrubbers and extractors of carbon, which is then pumped a mile or more underground where it hopefully will not leak out.
Mostly that is intercepting carbon pollution that has not yet entered the atmosphere so it isn’t removing carbon per se.  The more practical method is storing carbon in the biomass of forests.  The trouble there is that we are probably cutting down our forests faster than we are planting them, and it takes a long time to grow significant woody biomass.  There is one other medium that stores more carbon than forests:  soil.

The very exciting thing about carbon sequestration in soil is that it entails many upsides and few downsides.  In fact, carbon sequestration is just a side benefit of regenerative agriculture, which is all about building and maintaining healthy soil. Farmers and ranchers are turning to regenerative agriculture because it lowers costs and increases productivity.  A farmer can grow a good crop without tilling, or using pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers.  A healthy, living soil is more fertile, absorbs water readily, is resistant to disease, actually grows in quantity, and is resistant to erosion in the presence of wind and rain.  The fact that it absorbs and fixes carbon is merely a side benefit.

For ranchers, there is the same benefit through the use of Holistic Planned Grazing.  The theory is that herbivores, plains, and predators coevolved and need to interact if there is to be healthy grasslands.  It’s been noted that land that is grazed in a way that mimics the behavior of wild herds is more fertile and retains water.  Think of the Great Plains of North America that were stable and fertile for tens of thousands of years despite the pressure of millions of bison, woolly mammoths, horses, camels, antelopes — over 40 megafauna species in all.  Improper grazing or no grazing at all both lead to poor soils and eventual desertification in dry areas.  Ever since the invention of agriculture, we have been steadily desertifying the grasslands of the planet.  Look at the Middle East and the Central Asian Steppes where we have a long history to see what we have done.

We can revive desertifying grasslands, graze more animals, and relieve the pressure to cut forests to create more grazing land.  We have a triple win without even taking into account carbon sequestration and climate mitigation.
Without getting into the argument about whether or not to eat animals, we have to understand that those herbivores have a vital role to play in keeping grassland healthy.  In a later column, I want to get into Holistic Planned Grazing and that whole conundrum of our relationship to animals.

As with renewable energy, regenerative agriculture does not work well in the large capital-intensive industrial context.  Industrial agriculture accounts for as much as one third of our carbon emissions while destroying our soil and toxifying our food and water.  The multiple benefits of regenerative agriculture will bankrupt the industrial ag barons and return farms to families while sequestering carbon and limiting climate change.  No need to depend on government regulations, fines, and prohibitions.

Of course, it won’t be as easy as I make it sound.  Nobody gives up power without a fight.  But having economics, science, and philosophy on your side is a big plus.

What we can do personally is mind our own piece of land.  If we use pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers, we are killing the soil, which then becomes a carbon emitter rather than a carbon sequesterer.  All those chemicals end up in Puget Sound where Salmon, Orcas, and everything else are ingesting them and dying.  If you don’t have heavy, hooved animals grazing your lawn, you will need to mow your lawn occasionally, fertilize it with compost, and aerate it.  Without aeration, our lawns form a dense mat that excludes water and starves our soil microbiota of oxygen.  Better yet, get some sheep to do it all for you.  It’s their job.