How regenerative agriculture is the answer, and how I’m finding my place in it
The stream of reports and articles issuing dire environmental warnings has been relentless. From the IPCC report last October warning that “urgent and unprecedented” changes are needed to stay within 2 degrees of warming, to the more recent UN report warning that over a million species face extinction. However, despite this I feel more optimistic now than I have in years.
Why? Because the world is finally waking up. The school climate strikes keep growing in size, reach and ambition, with a global strike planned for 20th-27th September. And over 1000 people were arrested in London in April as part of the Extinction Rebellion’s tactics to cause mass disruption. Ordinary people are taking action. And governments are listening, with the UK, France, Canada, Argentina and local governments all over the world declaring a climate emergency. The UK is set to become the first major economy to commit to reaching net zero emissions by 2050. Media outlets are reassessing the language they use to report on environmental issues to reflect the scale and urgency of the challenge ahead. Exciting, albeit terrifying, times.
It seems clear to me that change is just around the corner. Change which will permeate every country, every neighbourhood, every individual.
Agriculture: ripe for change
Responsible for a quarter of the world’s emissions and a large proportion of the catastrophic biodiversity loss, the agricultural sector is in the spotlight. The challenge is huge: there will be around 10 billion people on the planet, an increase of around 2.5 billion from today. Yet over 25% of Earth’s soil is estimated to be acutely degraded and fertile soil is being lost at a rate of 24bn tonnes per year. The big question is how we can feed our growing population without further depleting the world’s finite resources?
In fact, we can do even better than that. Regenerative agriculture is the term used for farming practices which restore the surrounding natural ecosystem. In other words, by growing our food in a certain way, we can undo some of the harm we’ve already done. It is an agricultural system which understands that it is part of a wider, complex system (of insects, microbes, and water resources, for example), and which uses the latest scientific understanding to improve all parts of the system for the good of the whole. Working in total harmony with nature: its a breath of fresh air compared to conventional agriculture’s destructive ways.
“Regenerative Agriculture” describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.’Working Definition from Regenerative Agriculture Initiative and The Carbon Undergound (source)
An idea whose time has come
Many different practices fall under the umbrella of regenerative agriculture, including no-till/minimum tillage, use of cover crops, crop rotations, compost and animal manure to improve soil fertility and well-managed grazing. Although many of the techniques have been practiced in some communities for thousands of years, its a fairly recent concept for the industrialise, western world. Its already gaining a lot of interest. The government of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh is planning to scale up the number of farmers in the state practising zero budget natural farming (ZBNF) from around 160,000 today to 6 million by 2024. ZBNF was developed in the 1990s by agriculturist Subhash Palekar, who wanted to improve the lives of his fellow Indian farmers by improving soil and making better use of water. Applying the principles of ZBNF has typically improved yield by 40% or more (source).
Large farms such as Ernst Götsch’s 2,300 hectare farm in Argentina have demonstrated that regenerative agriculture can work at scale. He has used the concept of agroforestry (planting trees alongside lower-level crops) and developed Syntropic farming. He defines his work as “a way to create a positive energy balance in the world by means of unconditional love and cooperation.” His results are impressive – with no inputs he achieves substantially higher than average yields and without pests. His farm in Bahia produces such high quality cacao beans that they sell for four times the market price to Italian Amedei (source). If you have 15 minutes to spare I’d highly recommend watching this inspirational film on his work
Businesses across the world are also recognising the huge potential benefits of this way of farming. General Mills, Danone and Patagonia are just some of the companies making large investments into researching and developing regenerative approaches in their supply chains.
I strongly believe that reforming our agricultural system is one of the most important challenges facing humanity today. Regenerative agriculture is already possible, we just need to find a way to transition. I am 100% committed to being part of this solution. I have left my life in London to volunteer on farms in Europe which are also committed to regenerative approaches. My aim is to learn more about the general principles of regenerative farming, as well as the specific approaches for different locations and the levers and barriers to change. I’m over 5 months into this quest and am having a wonderful time living closer to harmony with nature than I ever have.
I am not sure at this point exactly what my place in this movement will be – for now I just want to learn as much as I possibly can and connect with as many others doing similar things as possible. If anyone reading this knows of any farms or projects anywhere in Europe doing great things in this area, ideally ones which accept volunteers, then I’d love to hear from you!