Regenerative Agriculture: A Hopeful Outlook

Intensive farming on a large scale can eventually degrade soil quality. Regenerative agriculture seeks to reverse this.
Intensive farming on a large scale can eventually degrade soil quality. Regenerative agriculture seeks to reverse this.

Livestock farming is both essential for the survival of our species, and yet also detrimental to the planet we live on. Raising animals for meat and dairy produces around 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Crop and animal monocultures damage biodiversity. Primary forest is cleared every day for grazing land and for more crops. Climate change and environmental degradation paint a bleak picture of our future.

But what if there was a way that we could satisfy the rising demand for animal products, help mitigate climate change and reduce the damage we’re causing to our environments? It may sound like a tall order, but huge amounts of effort and research are going into finding solutions. The magnitude of the problem is likely to require many solutions working together. Regenerative agriculture is one of these proposed solutions. With Earth Day just around the corner and this year’s theme of Restore Our Earth, let’s take a brief look at how it works.

What is regenerative agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture is a relatively modern approach to food systems and farming. It uses conservation principles to benefit not just the livestock, but the farm land itself. It focuses on diverse aspects of soil health, carbon sequestration, biodiversity and water cycle maintenance in a more holistic style than conventional agriculture. While there are many benefits to these systems, an important one is increased carbon sequestration.

Carbon sequestration, sinks, and sources

Renewable energy produces far less carbon dioxide than burning fossil fuels like coal.
Renewable energy produces far less carbon dioxide than burning fossil fuels like coal.

These days the vast majority of people have heard of carbon dioxide (CO2) and how increased CO2 causes climate change. While the issue is actually a lot more complicated than that, in brief, anything involving carbon – for example, industries, forests, oceans, etc. – can either be a carbon sink, a carbon source, or carbon neutral. Rainforests and peat lands for example, are carbon sinks. This means they take CO2 out of the atmosphere and store it, reducing overall CO2 levels. Carbon sources, like burning fossil fuels and running engines, do the opposite.

Carbon sequestration is the process of taking atmospheric CO2 and turning it into a form that can’t be released. In the case of rainforests, trees do this by converting CO2 to carbohydrates, releasing oxygen as a by-product. When the trees die, the majority of the carbon stays in the soil.

Over-grazing and soil degradation

Repeated over-use of farmlands and pastures eventually degrades the soil quality. Not only does this mean that the land becomes vulnerable to soil erosion and requires heavier inputs of fertilisers to grow anything, but the amount of carbon sequestered in the soil decreases. Livestock on degraded pastures need extra feed and economic investments to produce the same amount of meat as before. Eventually, the land becomes so degraded that it cannot support any livestock. Once that happens, farmers must find new pastures for their animals.

This is already happening in South America. Deforestation of the Amazon and over-grazing have led to over 100 million hectares of land being degraded. To put that into perspective, that’s an area unbelievably more than 4 times the size of the UK! Eventually these degraded areas can turn into deserts where nothing will grow and the land will be useless.

How can regenerative agriculture change that?

By increasing diversity of pastures and reducing or eliminating tillage and ploughing, regenerative agriculture helps to increase soil health. Healthy grasslands with more native plants tend to have deeper root systems. This keeps more carbon stored in the ground and helps the land to be more resistant to damage. This might be from floods, extreme rainfall, or drought.

Native species of plants are a key aspect of regenerative agriculture.
Native species of plants are a key aspect of regenerative agriculture.

It might seem counter-intuitive to put livestock out to graze on a pasture you want to keep healthy. But when done properly, it can be of great benefit. The hooves of grazing animals help to aerate the soil and provide oxygen to the plants. The manure they produce helps to fertilise the land. Traditionally, introduced livestock maintain hay meadows. This is usually after hay has been harvested and helps to keep grass down and allow flowers to grow. This gives the added benefit of encouraging native pollinators, plant species and birds to colonise the area and increases biodiversity.

Of crucial importance is making sure that animals do not over-graze an area. Rotating flocks and herds between pastures gives the plants time to recover provides the animals with variety and fresh feed.

Small changes lead to large effects

The principles of regenerative agriculture are much more easily applied to small-scale farming operations than the large, intensive operations that often dominate markets. Even so, small changes can have big impacts. Already, around 79 million hectares of the 3.3 billion hectares of global grazing pasture is managed in this way. It’s not much yet, but Project Drawdown, one the world’s leading innovators of climate solutions, has predicted that if this style of grazing was adopted all over the world, it could sequester 16 billion tons of carbon by 2050.

People all over the world are making changes to the way they do things and taking care of the planet in doing so. Public consciousness of environmental issues is rising all the time. More and more consumers are demanding sustainable and environmentally friendly products. Over 700 cities in 53 different countries have pledged to reach net-zero carbon by 2050. Some countries are already miles ahead of the game. Bhutan has been a net carbon sink – produces less carbon than it takes in – since 2017. Even the US and China have come to an agreement over environmental cooperation.