The environmental harms of industrial farming have officially reached the mainstream, but how much do we understand about their processes and the possible solutions?
It’s really challenging to convince farmers—who have been working with large-scale methods for generations—to make extreme financial investments in order to benefit the environment. However, a “new” (but actually quite ancient and Indigenous) method known as "regenerative agriculture" says otherwise.
According to the Rodale Institute, "Regenerative organic agriculture improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them. It is a holistic, systems approach to agriculture that encourages continual on-farm innovation for environmental, social, economic and spiritual well-being."
Regenerative agriculture has the power to make significant changes to climate action, positively affect a population’s overall health and wellness, and bring financial stability to farmers.
What is monoculture?
When examining industrial farming practices, most operations participate in “monoculture” methods—growing a single crop in a field at a time.
The farmer becomes reliant on that crop to be successful and this vulnerability encourages them to use pesticides, fertilizers and tilling (turning over and breaking up the soil, usually with large tractors) to ensure a bountiful crop.
Monoculture farming is financially successful in the short-term, but like many unsustainable large-scale practices, financial productivity and crop output decline year after year.
The longer monoculture farming persists, the more depleted the soil's valuable humus becomes. Tilling introduces too much air, burning up the humus, meaning plants receive fewer and fewer nutrients each year, resulting in poor crop yield.
What's more, tilling kills worms, which are natural soil aerators and fertilizers. Worms also release weed seeds from deep within the ground and without that action, farmers need to use sprays—further perpetuating the looped chain reaction.
Benefits of regenerative agriculture
According to the film The Need to Grow, human populations are currently riding the decline of good soil. It suggests that without a course correction, the planet has about 60 years (maximum) of arable soil left.
Alley L. Biniarz
Soil is the most important thing on Earth, which is why it’s the backbone of regenerative agriculture.
Regenerative agriculture rehabilitates soil by eliminating the practices that deteriorate those happy populations of microbes and fungal networks which contribute to well-structured and layered soil.
It’s actually amazing because the longer you leave soil untouched, the more it builds up. Between roots and dying vegetation with nowhere to go, this matter automatically decomposes and enriches the existing soil.
Another cool trick is that plants withdraw carbon from the air and store it deep down in the soil. When it’s stirred up through industrial-age tilling, oxygen travels downward, bonds with the stored carbon and release—you guessed it—CO2. With regenerative practices, the carbon remains trapped in the soil and feeds plant life.
What do regenerative agriculture practices look like?
Alley L. Biniarz
Just like humans, soil benefits from a mixed diet. Unlike monoculture practices, regenerative agriculture plants diversified crops. This means that the same soil receives a variety of beneficial nutrients by planting radishes one season, beets the next season, and so on. This creates a more complex ecosystem that encourages stability and fertility in the soil, boosting crop yield with little-to-no chemical additives and “maximizes that ecosystem for maximum profitability while improving the quality of land.”
There isn’t one way to farm “regeneratively,” but the key factors include: minimizing soil disturbance, crop diversity (which improves nutrient cycling), keeping the soil covered, implementing living roots (like corn, soybean and winter wheat), and integrating livestock when possible.
Having something in the soil at all times ("living roots") reduces the opportunities for weeds to grow in the early spring. It also ensures there are roots to absorb water during wet spells and to hold in water during dry spells.
Alley L. Biniarz
In order to transition into regenerative agriculture, farmers need to plant a variety of crops so that if one is plagued by pests, they aren’t financially devastated. Bugs may seem like a nuisance but as my late grandfather always said, “If a worm doesn’t want the apple, neither do I.”
Implementing even one of these methods will make a significant difference in reducing chemical use, rebuilding soil and bringing more nutrient-dense food to our plates.
How you can make a difference
As consumers, our role is to support local sustainable farmers' regenerative agriculture efforts through purchasing farm shares, buying produce at farmers' markets or subscribing to seasonally-delivered produce boxes. It's more nutritious produce for both people and planet.
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