Regenerative Agriculture Association of Southern Africa
You, your food and ecosystem services
There are a number of major food and fibre production issues facing you right now. Many of these problems emanate from how Industrial Agriculture views soil a medium for supporting plants rather than a living entity that provides us with multiple, life giving, ecosystem services. Ecosystem services like oxygen, clean water and of course food that are crucial to our being able to live on the Blue Planet.
Aside form producing food the Soil-Plant Ecosystem is what drives the carbon cycle, the water cycle and the nutrient cycle, to mention but three. The fact that we are so easily able to disrupt the Soil-Plant Ecosystem enables us to create significant unintended consequences. Disturb the soil and we destabilise the planet.
Worldwide the production of food, fibre and industrial products under industrial production methods, erodes our soils, damages the environment and is responsible for 24% of greenhouse gas emissions. The combination of ploughs, chemicals and fertilisers applied by farmers for the past 75 years has depleted our soils to where they fail to deliver the other ecosystem service we require and produce nutrient poor food.
The solution to many of these problems is simple. If we transition the world's farmers to become stewards of the Soil-Plant Ecosystem, and reward them accordingly, we can rapidly bring back healthy soils and the associated ecosystem services.
At the centre of much of this is carbon. The big problem with carbon is that we have displaced it from the soil where it is needed for healthy ecosystem function into the atmosphere where it has become a problem. Thanks to what they hear on a daily basis our children can be forgiven for thinking that carbon, the building block of life, is evil. Not only is it not evil it lies at the centre of the Soil-Plant Ecosystem, it is the currency that drives that system.
The Green Revolution - aka Industrial Agriculture - has been everything but green. In the quest for yields and profits our soils have been destroyed, our crops and vegetables are grown in a chemical soup, our cattle and sheep eat grains rather than grazing grass as they evolved to, ecosystem function has been broken, rural economies ruined and the whole system is powered by fossil fuels rather than by the sun.
The remarkable thing in all of this gloom is the forgiving nature of our soils and soil biology and how quickly they can return to health once we stop assailing them with our production methods. By practicing regenerative soil health principles our soils heal themselves and in the process they heal a wide range of environmental issues - soil loss, desertification, the carbon cycle, the water cycle and many other cycles and ecosystem services.
The solution lies in 1.) building pathways for farmers to move towards regenerative systems and 2.) pathways for capital to invest in and reward farmers for transitioning to regenerative systems. Only 3% of global GDP is in primary agriculture and primary agriculture is up to its eyeballs in debt. If the remaining 97% don't invest in and incentivise primary agriculture we cannot bring about the change we require.
"What's good for the earth is good for us." - Professor David Montgomery
"There can be no life without soil and no soil without life, they have evolved together." - Charles E Kellogg, USDA 1938
Source: Barenbrug, South Africa
The United States is the world leader in conventional /industrial agriculture, they are also the world leader in per capita health expenditure and yet they are repeatedly ranked below 25th in the world in terms of health statistics. The average person in the US is now spending twice as much on health care as on food and children being born in the US today have a lower life expectancy than their parents. This is what happens when the system rewards scientists and farmers for yields and profit rather than nutrition and health. This is what happens when you kill your soil biology and deplete your soils.
"The biological component of the soil unlocks the mineral component, no body taught me that in soil science." - Professor David Montgomery
Regenerative Agriculture goes back to working with rather than against natural systems; grazing animals in ways that mimic plains game on grasslands, using old methods of crop farming, from before the time of chemicals, when the sun was the only source of energy, monoculture didn't exist and the carbon and water cycles were still intact. But Regenerative Agriculture is not backward or backward looking, in fact soil microbiology is the latest, cutting edge science in agrciutlure. Regenerative Agriculture is about farm management that works with nature rather than against nature, forming carbon loops rather than a series of carbon emissions that take carbon from the soil into the sky. This rebuilds the soil, stimulating the microbiology and fixing the water cycle. All of which maximises the photosynthetic potential of that soil capturing more carbon and cooling the planet. Agriculture has the greatest potential for cooling the planet as photosynthesis both draws down carbon and is nature's air-conditioner cooling the environment via transpiration.
Fortunately in parts of the world alternative systems still remain for us to study and mavericks who transitioned to regenerative agriculture before knowing what Regenerative Agriculture was have already discovered that we can re-build topsoil at much faster rates than we ever imagined and given the opportunity, even though so badly damaged, nature can fix the carbon and water cycles. The upside of this is the cost of production falls as demand for costly inputs is reduced.
"The key person to restoration/ regeneration at scale is the farmer." - Prof James Blignaut
Video: What is Regenerative Agriculture (4mins)
"A massive campaign and policy agenda to transform agriculture and restore ecosystems globally is needed right now." - Professor Jem Bendell, Stanford University
Industrial Agriculture argues that we need chemicals and fossil fuels to feed the world's burgeoning population but these giant companies, that poison the world while producing nutrient poor foods, feed less than 40% of its population. Small farmers, using only 20% of the land feed more than 50%. More US industrial corn is used to feed cars than people. India, Africa and South America don't need chemical dependant monocultures they need their farmers and consumers to be protected from Industrial Agriculture.
"Not 1 hectare of Industrial Agriculture is being used to feed the 1 billion hungry people of the world who live off less that $1 per day." - Miguel Altieri, Professor of Agroecology at the University of California, Berkeley
The choice is yours, do you choose healthy soil or do you choose dust?
Video: Regenerative Agriculture in South Africa
Video: Regenerative Agriculture, An Introduction
Regenerative farmers are already producing yields that compete favourably with their Industrial neighbours, as Dr Kris Nichols says "... we have the capacity to feed 14 billion people nutrient dense food ..."
Climate change is a massively daunting issue but here is a simple, significant contribution each of us can make. Join the movement to reduce the carbon footprint of the food that we eat. Farm regeneratively, shop regeneratively, eat regeneratively and improve our planet.
"Agriculture has a critical role to play, both in dramatically reducing emissions and by providing a sink to draw down carbon from the atmosphere." - Christiana Figueres, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
Regenerative Agriculture what is it?
In short Regenerative Agriculture is farming with nature rather than against nature. There are really only two types of agriculture, destructive and regenerative, all agriculture that does not build soil biology and reinstate natural mineral and water cycles is destructive. Regenerative Agriculture blends the latest learnings on soil biology, the soil microbiome, with enduring technologies from the era before Industrial Agriculture. Given the dire condition of our soils across the planet sustainable agriculture can no longer be our goal, we can't merely sustain we have to regenerate.
"We can't sustain C minus / D soils ... if we start with the soils and regenerate the soils everything else follows." - Dr. Kris Nichols
In rebuilding soil Regenerative Agriculture heals the environment, rebuilds human health, decrease input costs and rebuilds farming communities. Regenerative Agriculture is a win, win, it enables us to have our cake and eat it, we can regenerate our soils, heal the environment and feed the world's population.
Things than destroy soil
- Continuous grazing
- Indiscriminate burning - grass and crop residue
Things that help build soils
- Cover crops
- Organic matter
- Stimulation of soil micro-biology
- Reintroducing animals into crop rotations
- Regenerative grazing
What good soils do?
- Hold carbon
- Infiltrate water
- Hold water - Its not how much water you get its how much you hold onto
- Support microbiology
- Need no synthetic inputs
- Produce nutrient dense plants
Video: Gabe Brown - How to save money on fertilisers // Learning from Nature
"We need to have programmes that absorb the risk for family farms when they want to transition to regenerative agriculture." - John Ikerd, professor emeritus of Agricultural Economics at the University of Missouri