Regenerative agriculture: effective responses to climate change

The Synthesis Report of the UN ‘Millennium Ecosystem Assessment’ (2005) called agriculture “the largest threat to biodiversity and ecosystem function of any single human activity”. Everything we do is dependent on agriculture and many current agricultural practices are deeply unsustainable. In redesigning the way we ‘do’ agriculture, we can create the basis for the emergence of regenerative cultures everywhere.

The so called ‘green revolution’ of large scale industrial agriculture with its addiction to fossil resources and its systematic degradation of local farming communities and biocultural diversity in favour of predatory multinational corporations has been a failure with disastrous effects. Alternatives do exist. The Soil Association in the UK was started in 1946 and the Rodale Institute in the USA in 1947; both institutions promote and develop organic farming approaches. In 1972, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) was founded. It now has member organizations in 120 countries.

In April 2014, the Rodale Institute published a white paper that outlines how agricultural techniques available today could sequester sufficient amounts of atmospheric carbon to slow down climate change and reduce greenhouse gas concentrations in the long term by fixing carbon in agricultural soil. Regenerative agricultural practices can help to build fertile soils, to maintain and often increase agricultural yields, and to support ecological abundance by nurturing healthy ecosystem functioning:

“Simply put, recent data from farming systems and pasture trials around the globe show that we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term ‘regenerative organic agriculture’. These practices work to maximize carbon fixation while minimizing the loss of carbon once returned to the soil, reversing the greenhouse effect. [original italics].” — Rodale Institute (2014)

Robert Rodale coined the term ‘regenerative organic agriculture’ to indicate that these practices are more than simply ‘sustainable’, taking advantage of the natural tendencies of ecosystems to regenerate when disturbed. Regenerative organic agriculture is “a holistic systems approach to agriculture that encourages continual on-farm innovation for environmental, social, economic and spiritual wellbeing”. In general, “regenerative organic agriculture is marked by tendencies towards closed nutrient loops, greater diversity in the biological community, fewer annuals and more perennials, and greater reliance on internal rather than external resources” (Rodale Institute, 2014).

The techniques and methodologies used include the reduction or elimination of tillage in combination with planting cover crops on fallows in crop rotation cycles and maintaining the residue of these crops on the land (green mulch). Composting — the controlled aerobic decomposition of organic materials — and adding this nutrient and carbon-rich compost to the soil as fertilizer is a central practice of organic farming. It helps to accumulate carbon in the soil while increasing fertility and yields. The use of perennial plants, increased crop diversity including tree crops and maintaining a rich soil structure through plants with deep, bushy root systems, all support a healthy network of mycorrhizal fungi and encourage the long-term fixing of carbon in soils.

The World Bank has released a detailed report which reviews the different ‘abatement rates’ of different land management practices and how effective they are in different regions of the world. The report highlights that “in addition to storing soil carbon, sustainable land management technologies can be beneficial to farmers because they can increase yields and reduce production cost” (World Bank, 2012: xvi). One of the techniques that scores highest for its greenhouse gas abatement rate is the application of biochar (ibid: xxiii).

Biochar can be obtained on farms from the carbonization of biomass through pyrolysis or gasification. The International Biochar Initiative maintains that — applied correctly — “the carbon in biochar resists degradation and can hold carbon in soils for hundreds to thousands of years”. It needs to be applied in combination with organic nutrients (e.g. liquid compost) to have a positive effect on yields. “Biochar and bio-energy co-production can help combat global climate change by displacing fossil fuel used and by sequestering carbon in stable carbon pools” (Biochar International, 2015).

Regenerative agriculture and the wide range of land management methodologies associated with it have the potential to create multiple win-win-win solutions. In addition to offering a timely response to the spectre of run-away climate change, these techniques help to restore soils, revitalize rural communities, build food, water and energy sovereignty, and support the process of re-localizing production and consumption — thereby building systemic resilience as the basis of thriving regenerative cultures.

Starting in the 1960s, the wildlife biologist Allan Savory developed one particularly promising methodology of regenerative agriculture that could be a game-changer for climate change mitigation. Holistic management and its associated technique of ‘holistic planned grazing’ are based on a systems thinking approach that mimics nature. Savory’s ‘Holistic Management’ is “a Whole Farm/Ranch Planning System that helps farmers, ranchers, and land stewards better manage agricultural resources in order to reap sustainable environmental, economic and social benefits”.

The four cornerstones of this practice are Holistic Financial Planning to “make a healthy profit”; Holistic Grazing Planning to manage the effects of resting the land combined with periodic disruption by grazers to improve “land health and animal health”; Holistic Land Planning to help “design the ideal property plan”; and Holistic Biological Monitoring using simple techniques for feedback on land health and productivity (Holistic Management International, 2015).

“Holistic Management teaches people about the relationship between large herds of wild herbivores and the grasslands and then helps people to develop strategies for managing herds of domestic livestock to mimic those wild herds to heal the land. […] Holistic Management embraces and honours the complexity of nature, and uses nature’s model to bring practical approaches to land management and restoration.” — The Savory Institute (2015)

In the last 40 years more than 10,000 people have received training in ‘Holistic Management’ and globally there are now over 40 million acres managed using this system (Savory Institute, 2014). With long-term field trials on four continents, some of them running since the 1970s, the effectiveness of holistic management is well established.

In a 2013 white paper the institute suggested that holistic planned grazing could be applied to approximately 5 billion hectares of the world’s degraded grassland soils in order to restore them to optimal health and thereby sequester more than 10 gigatons of atmospheric carbon annually into the soil’s organic matter, “thereby lowering greenhouse gas concentrations to pre-industrial levels in a matter of decades. It also offers a path towards restoring agricultural productivity, providing jobs for thousands of people in rural communities, supplying high quality protein for millions, and enhancing wildlife habitat and water resources” (2013: 3). There is still some scientific debate about these claims and they are now being evaluated through research and field trials.

I regard holistic management as an excellent example of biomimicry at the ecosystems level. Its practice is adapted to the uniqueness of place and based on both scientific principles and local knowledge. Practitioners intervene in the dynamics of degraded grassland ecosystems by substituting absent natural grazers (whose absence is often attributable to past farming practices) with domesticated grazers like cattle, sheep, goats or bison, rotating them over the landscape in patterns that mimic the natural disturbance and fertilization caused by roaming herds of herbivores.

Figure 22: Holistic and conventional land management compared

Holistic Management influences natural ecosystem processes to support the conversion of solar energy by plants (efficient energy flow), improve the interception and retention of precipitation by the soil (effective water cycle), optimize the nutrient cycles (effective mineral cycle), and promote “ecosystem biodiversity with more complex mixtures and combinations of desirable plant species, otherwise known as community dynamics” (2013: 9).

We are starting to (re)learn how to act as a responsible keystone species and participate appropriately in the emergence of increased health, bioproductivity and vibrant diversity in the ecosystems we inhabit. Figure 22 illustrates some of the multiple synergistic benefits of holistic land management and holistic planned grazing.

Regeneration means promoting diversity and resilience above and below ground, restoring watersheds and replenishing aquifers. Regenerative agriculture nurtures symbiotic inter- and intra-species relationships to support systemic health. It is an example of salutogenic (health-generating) design. The dynamics of healthy ecosystems are the measure, model and mentor of regenerative agriculture, which promises to feed humanity while restoring ecosystems, regulating climate and growing the resource base of regional bio-economies.

[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]

Activate The Future

Insights and stories about the future qualities and shape of business: regenerative business, self-sufficiency, self-management, creativity, purpose and innovation

Daniel Christian Wahl

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Catalysing transformative innovation, cultural co-creation, whole systems design, and bioregional regeneration. Author of Designing Regenerative Cultures

Activate The Future

Insights and stories about the future qualities and shape of business: regenerative business, self-sufficiency, self-management, creativity, purpose and innovation

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