Learning from and mimicking healthy ecosystems
Because ecosystems components are interdependent, by degrading or improving one aspect of ecosystem health, the entire system can likewise be degraded or improved. Rebuilding soil organic matter pumps carbon dioxide into the soil in the form of soil carbon and creates an upward spiral of ecosystem health. Making soil health a central goal of agricultural policies worldwide will be essential for achieving global food and water security and mitigating climate change. — Center for Food Safety (2014: 19)
Since the very beginnings of large-scale industrial agriculture there have been wise voices of warning and dissent, along with innovators and pioneers seeking healthy alternatives. The petrochemical industry aggressively promoted the use of pesticides and large-scale monocultures farmed with heavy machinery after the Second World War. During the so-called ‘green revolution’ in the 1950s and ’60s a handful of multinational corporations effectively took over the majority of global grain production. Soil became nothing but a substrate for growing and the rapid degradation of the world’s farm and grasslands resulted.
There are hundreds of millions of farmers worldwide, many of them keen apprentices of the ecosystems and unique places they inhabit. Let’s have a look at some of the pioneering innovators who have developed and applied techniques that will support the transition to a regenerative agricultural system.
The plant biologist and farmer Wes Jackson co-founded The Land Institute in 1976 to work on the “problem of agriculture” and help to “develop an agricultural system with the ecological stability of the prairie and grain yields comparable to that from annual crops”. Wes Jackson has taken a biomimetic approach since the very beginning. [This article is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]
The Land Institute’s mission statement reads: “When people, land, and community are as one, all three members prosper; when they relate not as members but as competing interests, all three are exploited. By consulting Nature as the source and measure of that membership, The Land Institute seeks to develop an agriculture that will save soil from being lost or poisoned, while promoting a community life at once prosperous and enduring” (Land Institute, 2015a).
Over the last 39 years the Land Institute has developed a proposal for ‘Natural Systems Agriculture’ and has demonstrated its scientific feasibility. The institute’s extensive plant breeding programme has the long-term vision of creating “a domestic grain producing prairie with the four functional groups represented (warm season and cool-season grasses, legumes, sunflower family)” (Jackson, 2002: 7). Their efforts focus on both domesticating wild species and on turning domesticated annuals into perennials.
The development of perennial varieties based on traditional plant breeding takes generations. Wes Jackson loves to point out: “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough” (Land Institute, 2015b). A regenerative culture needs such long-term thinking! The Land Institute has already had its first successes; for example, creating a new perennial grain they named ‘Kernza’. Their long-term aim is to “design an agriculture that relies on proven ecological patterns and processes to achieve sustainability, changing agriculture from being extractive and damaging to restorative and nurturing” (Land Institute, 2014). Developing an agricultural system predominantly based on perennial grains is a ‘Horizon 3’ type long-range transformative innovation and we can learn a lot along the way.
At The Land Institute, ecologists are exploring ways to grow grains, oilseeds and legumes together so cropland can once again benefit from the advantages of diverse perennial vegetation. These new crop arrangements will be less dependent on nitrogen-based fertilizers and better-equipped to anchor soil, virtually eliminating erosion and chemical runoff, and promise a much smaller energy cost. They interact in complementary ways to manage pathogens and pests naturally, all while providing food for years without replanting. In many situations, the deep roots of perennial grains will better withstand the drought or deluge likely to accompany climate change. They sequester carbon, which helps reduce greenhouse gases, and they host microorganisms and invertebrates that contribute to soil health. — Land Institute (2014)
Regenerative agriculture pays close attention to improving soil quality. The diversity of microorganisms and fungal mycelia in the soil is the basis for a regenerative farming system. Plants need the microorganisms and fungi in the soil in order to take up nutrients effectively. So-called nitrogen fixing plants, used as green manure, are not fixing the nitrogen themselves but do so in symbiosis with bacteria (e.g. Rhizobium) living on their roots.
Modern industrial farming tends to reduce the diversity of nutrients that support healthy and resilient plants to only three main fertilizers (phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen). They can support fast growth and high yields (for a while), but used without a wide variety of complementary nutrients they leave the plants more vulnerable to disease and parasites.
Another common agricultural practice that is brought into question by regenerative agriculture is the ploughing and turning of the soil through the use of heavy (and therefore soil compacting) machinery. Leaving the soil bare and turning it leads to a massive die-off of beneficial microorganisms in the soil and can lead to top-soil loss either through wind (in dry conditions) or water. Compacting the soil destroys the soil’s water retention capacity and makes crops vulnerable to droughts.
The technique of key-line ploughing, developed by Percival Yeomans in the 1950s, is now applied with the plough developed by his son Allan. It involves ploughing just off the topographic contour lines with a very gradual slope (approximately 1 metre in 400 metres) in order to create a surface profile that slows water run-off and gives water time to sink into the soil. Most regenerative farming approaches do not turn the soil and only cut the soil using his innovative plough (Yeomansplow, 2015). The plough simply opens up the soil for water to sink in. The thin grooves can be cut to different depths and used to inoculate the soil with beneficial microorganisms and mycelia to help with the soil-building process. Biochar inoculated with liquid organic compost can be fed into the thin grooves for active carbon burial and soil building.
Maintaining a healthy bacterial and fungal flora and fauna in the soil increases the soil’s carbon content. The win-win-win solutions of restoring the world’s top-soils, actively sequestering atmospheric carbon and creating a more resilient and productive local agricultural system are practically begging us to engage local farmers everywhere in this process.
Increasing the organic carbon content of our top-soil also has the important role of increasing the soil’s water retention capacity (Rawls et al., 2003) and the crops grown on them are therefore more resilient to unstable weather patterns and droughts. Regenerative agriculture aims to optimize the local water cycle, including recharging underground aquifers and restoring healthy watersheds. “Spread it! Slow it! Sink it!” is the mantra of the director of the Water Institute, Brock Dolman, who is a passionate advocate and practitioner of regenerative watershed stewardship.
The practice of Holistic Management mentioned in the last chapter also helps to increase water retention in the soil and is an effective means of regenerating degraded dry lands and even deserts. Applied at the farm scale it is also an excellent strategy for creating resilient, regenerative and lucrative farm businesses.
Joel Salatin at Polyface Farm is a North American farmer who has built up a model farm attracting international attention. He created a highly productive and healthy agro-ecosystem by planting trees, digging ponds, building huge compost piles and raising grass-fed cows that he moves across the land with the help of portable electric fencing.
Mimicking the grazing patterns of ecosystems with diverse grazers, the cows are followed by chickens and pigs using innovative mobile animal shelters. Each species takes a specific role in fertilizing and enriching the diversity of the perennial prairie polyculture it feeds upon (Polyface, 2015a). The 500-acre farm employs 10 people and generates over US$1 million in sales through direct marketing to local families, restaurants and retail outlets. Joel Salatin describes his farming method as a “symbiotic, multi-speciated synergistic relationship-dense production model that yields far more per acre than industrial models” (Polyface, 2015b).
The Australian farmers Colin and Nicholas Seis have turned their 2,000-acre farm, Winona, in New South Wales into an internationally acclaimed example of a technique called ‘pasture cropping’. Cereal crops are sown directly into native perennial pastures, combining grazing and cropping into a single land-use method with synergistic economic and environmental benefits.
Colin Seis started to develop this technique in 1992 running a herd of 4,000 merino sheep and cropping oats, wheat and cereal rye on the same land. In recent years it has become increasingly popular, with more than 1,500 farmers in Australia converting to the method and farmers in the Northern hemisphere adopting the approach (Pasture Cropping, 2008).
Another important set of techniques needed for successful regenerative agriculture is the production of farm-made BioFertilizers, in order to avoid the economically and environmentally disastrous effects of energy-intensive and expensive artificial fertilizers. Among the techniques used are the composting of on-farm organic waste in combination with beneficial microorganisms, fungal mycelia and rock dust for re-mineralization.
Many new techniques for organic fertilizer production and soil fertility testing were developed by Latin-American scientists, among them are the Mexican Eugenio Gras, the Columbian Jairo Rivera and the Brazilian Sebastião Pinheiro. In recent years organizations like RegenAG, Agricultura Regenerativa Iberica, Regenerative Agriculture UK and MasHumus have started to promote and teach the diverse tools of regenerative agriculture internationally.
There are many complementary approaches to helping agriculture enable the transition towards regenerative cultures. Many people now promoting regenerative agriculture are experienced permaculture design practitioners and teachers. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren developed permaculture in the 1970s. This systematic, design-based method was originally aimed at creating a ‘permanent agriculture’ and has since been expanded into a multi-faceted approach to creating a ‘permanent culture’ (or regenerative culture), with applications in social dynamics, decision-making, community planning and economics.
Worldwide there are tens of thousands of people trained in permaculture and thousands of established permaculture farms. Bill Mollison’s Permaculture Design Principles and Ethics (2011) offers a useful set of guidelines for the creation of locally adapted cultures capable of regeneration. The Essence of Permaculture can be downloaded on Holmgren’s website in nine different languages (Holmgren, 2002).
‘Forest gardening’ is a prehistoric method of food production in many tropical areas. Robert Hart pioneered it in temperate climates and his work has been developed further by Patrick Whitefield and Martin Crawford, who runs the Agroforestry Research Trust. The related approach of ‘Analog Forestry’ uses “natural forests as guides to create ecologically stable and socio-economically productive landscapes”. This whole-systems approach to silviculture “minimizes external inputs, such as agrochemicals and fossil fuels, instead fostering ecological function for resilience and productivity”. Ranil Senanayake developed the ‘analog forestry’ approach in Sri Lanka in the early 1980s. It has since grown into a global practitioner network with a standard for certified ‘Forest Garden Products’ (IAFN, 2015).
Agroecology, as promoted by Miguel Altieri (1995) is also very much aligned with the shift towards a regenerative agriculture. Altieri has done important work on the preservation of indigenous agricultural knowledge and techniques while working for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (Koohafkan & Altieri, 2010). His work has supported an “agroecological revolution in Latin America” to help heal natural ecosystems, create food sovereignty and support peasants (Altieri & Toledo, 2011).
An important and still somewhat underdeveloped aspect of restoration and regenerative agriculture is the creation of mutually supportive plant-mushroom-soil relationships based on mycorrhizal symbiosis (see Smith & Read, 2008). Maintaining healthy soil ecosystems, in particular supporting the role of fungal mycelium in soil-root- plant nutrient exchanges, decomposition of organic matter, and soil remediation from pollutants is a central aspect of regenerative agriculture and ecosystems restoration.
Paul Stamets’s Mycelium Running — How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World (2005) is an invaluable resource for regenerative culture designers. From high quality tasty protein sources, broad spectrum medicinal use and water filtration, to applications in agriculture, forestry, soil remediation and ecosystems restoration. Stamets explores mycomimicry and how we can apply mycorestoration to benefit ecosystems and people.
I had the pleasure of taking various walks through the wooded corners of the Scottish Highlands with Paul. He believes that we have ignored or feared our fungal cousins for too long. Mushrooms are the molecular disassemblers of nature. Most cyclical and regenerative processes that take care of decomposition, nutrient cycles, soil fertility, soil water retention and soil health involve fungal mycelia.
Mushrooms have also learnt to defend themselves against bacterial infections and have been shown to not just have antibiotic but also anti-viral and anti-cancer properties. They practically ‘created the first internet’, networking entire forest ecosystems into a web of distributed collective intelligence and symbiosis. Paul likes to point out that “after every major extinction event it was mushrooms who inherited the Earth” and helped life to reboot.
Stamets has built his company, Fungi Perfecti, into a successful green business and has filed a long list of patents (to protect his innovations against what he calls “the vulture capitalists”). His work and collection of fungal mycelia will be a critical resource as ecosystems regeneration becomes a central activity for humanity in the 21st century.†
On land, all life springs from soil. Soil is ecological currency. If we overspend it or deplete it, the environment goes bankrupt. In either preventing or rebuilding after environmental catastrophe, mycologists can become environmental artists by designing landscapes for both human and natural benefit. — Paul Stamets (2005: 55)
There are so many committed practitioners of regenerative agricultural practices and ecosystems restoration worldwide. We can be very hopeful that co-creating regenerative human cultures is indeed a possibility of our choosing. Hopeful examples range from the reforestation of the Highlands based on the 500-year business plan of the Scottish Charity’s Trees for Life to bring back the Caledonian Forest, to Treepeople in Los Angeles working on urban watershed and urban community forest restoration, The Wild Foundation, and almost 30 years of the Society for Ecological Restoration.
People from all these organizations and many others like them have given us the know-how and experience to restore the world’s ecosystems and watersheds. In 2002, I took part in the Restore the Earth Conference, when over 200 people from forty countries and six continents officially declared the 21st century the Century of Earth Restoration. Let’s continue to work for this vision for the sake of future generations and our own.
The award-winning Chinese-American film-maker and senior research fellow at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) John D. Liu has documented a number of highly successful, large-scale regeneration projects in China (Loess Plateau), Ethiopia, Uganda and Latin America. Liu concludes: “From what I have seen, the determining factors for survival and sustainability on the Earth are biodiversity, biomass and accumulation of organic matter, the more the better”. He suggests that “the lessons of the Loess Plateau show that it is possible to restore large scale damaged ecosystems and that this mitigates climate impacts, makes land more resilient and increases productivity” (Liu, 2011, p.24). Following these simple insights from ecosystems restoration we can create the basis for regeneration.
Restoring the world’s ecosystems and increasing bioproductivity is a path towards a regenerative future. John Liu’s photographs of the large scale environmental restoration project on the Loess Plateau in China (below) demonstrate that as human beings we are not condemned to having a negative impact on the community of life. We can be a regenerative and restorative influence in ecosystems. We can design as nature and generate shared abundance.
Regenerative agriculture is a growing practice of ecological intensification based on integrated food production systems that mimic natural ecosystems and maintain diversity and resilience by weaving the raising of animals, the growing of grains, horticulture, orchards turned into forest gardens, aquaculture ponds, and mushroom cultivation into highly productive agro-ecosystems that not only feed humanity, but maintain the health and diversity of the biotic community of Earth.
In urban environments we are seeing the evolution of edible parks and sidewalks, green walls, vertical farming (Despommier, 2011), urban forestry (Clark et al., 1997) and urban community gardens among many other urban agriculture initiatives. Wild lands, cities and farmed ecosystems can be both repositories and sanctuaries for the world’s diversity of wild and domesticated flora and fauna.
Redesigning agriculture along the lines explored and demonstrated by the pioneers of regenerative organic agriculture offers us a timely way to avoid run-away climate change and work towards reducing carbon dioxide concentrations in atmosphere and oceans. Regenerative agriculture will also help to ensure food, water and energy sovereignty in a globally and locally equitable way. In the challenge to redesign our entire material culture and wean ourselves off our current dependencies on fossil fuels and resources from the Earth’s crust, regenerative agriculture will provide regenerative resource streams that will be the basis of vibrant circular bio-economies locally, regionally and globally.
By carefully mimicking nature we can create agro-ecosystems that provide food, water, energy and the feedstock for our new material culture based on distributed manufacturing within regional, circular and inter-connected economies at different scales. In a regenerative culture we will do this not simply to meet human needs equitably. By regenerating ecosystems functions at a local and a planetary scale we are aiming to co-evolve with life as our larger community — recognizing both the utilitarian and intrinsic value of all life. Humanity is coming of age and becoming a conscious and responsible member of the community of life. As life, we can create conditions conducive to life!
[This article is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]
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Daniel Christian Wahl — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development and bioregional regeneration.
Author of the internationally acclaimed book Designing Regenerative Cultures