In Canada, roughly 12% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from light-duty vehicles, meaning cars, pickup trucks, SUVs, and small vans. Reducing emissions from these vehicles has been pushed to the forefront of the climate change movement, with the rapid shift to electric vehicles.
Even despite concerns regarding whether or not electric vehicles are actually solving the issue (due to the GHGs emitted from producing the electricity that charges them), they don’t actually reduce as much of our annual GHG emissions as you might have expected. The largest contributor to GHG emissions by far, accounting for nearly half of annual emissions, is the oil and gas industry — no surprise there. However the third largest contributor, accounting for 8% of emissions in Canada and 10% in the US, is often overlooked and not as talked about in the media. That is, the agriculture industry. However, this industry may be key to not only reducing our emissions, but also sequestering existing CO2 in the atmosphere, reducing dessertification, and increasing our capacity to feed earth’s growing population!
I know what you’re thinking — how the heck is agriculture going to do all that? The answer lies in regenerative agriculture. In very simple terms, regenerative agriculture is a system of farming practices that places a lot of importance on soil health to rehabilitate the entire ecosystem of a farm. To understand these practices and how they make an impact, it’s important to understand the way modern farming works and why it isn’t working.
Modern Farming is Hurting our Planet
Pesticides and Herbicides
Pesticides and herbicides are essentially chemicals that farmers spray on their crops to prevent insects, disease, and weeds from destroying them. Since they began to be implemented on a widespread scale in the 1960s, the production of major crops has tripled and the annual yield of crops has greatly improved, allowing for more people to be fed around the world. However, pesticides and herbicides are terrible for the environment, and are even harmful to human health.
In the past three decades, 75% of insect species have gone extinct due to heavy use of pesticides and herbicides. These include many bacteria and insects that live in the soil which are actually vital to the health of the crops. Consequently, the land loses it’s humus — the dark, organic, fertile soil that plants thrive in — and we have to use chemical fertilizer which releases nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas 300 times worse than CO2. Not only that, but producing, transporting, and applying this inorganic fertilizer also releases a lot of CO2.
Pesticides and herbicides are also harmful to human health if exposure is ongoing. They have been shown to cause cancer, brain and nervous system damage, birth defects, infertility and other reproductive problems, as well as damage to body organs including the liver, kidneys, and lungs. The most common way humans are exposed to pesticides is obviously through the food we eat that has been sprayed with pesticides, but there are other, less obvious ways. For example, harmful chemicals from pesticides and herbicides can leak through the soil into groundwater, which then becomes toxic. Humans may also be exposed to pesticide drift, which is what happens when large tractors or planes mass spray the pesticide chemicals over large fields of crops. Research estimates that upwards of 95% of sprayed pesticides miss their target and reach nearby wildlife, water sources, air, soil, and parks.
Another practice of modern farming that is harming our planet is heavy tilling. This is the process of using large plows to break up soil 8–12 inches underground to prepare the land for the planting of crops. This process disrupts the structure of the soil, leads to soil erosion, and releases tons of CO2 that would otherwise be stored in the soil. Tilling also disrupts the environments in which beneficial microbes reside, which compounds the reduction of the humus layer in the soil.
Another issue with tilling is that it changes how water interacts with the soil, so that it either runs through the soil too fast and the land dries up, or it gets caught at a hardpan layer created by the tilling and oversaturates the soil for some time and then easily evaporates, which also ends up drying the land. This has in part lead to a phenomenon known as desertification, which is the degradation of drylands into deserts that cannot sustain crops. Around a third of the world’s topsoil has alread been desertified, and the UN estimates that it will all be desertified within the next 60 years if current agricultural practicies continue. Furthermore, it is estimated that 2 billion people live on land that is threatened by desertification, which could displace 50 million people by 2030. Not only is this phenomenon a threat to the environment, but it is also a threat to billions of lives and will lead to a humanitarian crisis if nothing is done to prevent it.
Another huge cause of desertification is how livestock are managed. In the wild, huge herds of cattle are constantly on the move. This allows the plants they eat to restore themselves, and the biological waste that these animals leave behind gets trampled into the ground by their hooves and acts a natural fertilizer which replenishes and enhances both the plant life and microbial life in the soil. However, on modern farms cattle are kept in one large piece of land so all the vegetation on that land gets eaten with no chance to restore itself, and due to lack of movement the excrement that the cattle leave does not get trampled and therefore does not fertilize the soil as it should. What this leaves behind is barren and unfertilized/uncovered land, which makes it easy for water to evaporate and the land dries out, or desertifies.
Regenerative Agriculture Could be the Answer
So, now that we better understand the main issues with modern farming, it is much easier to grasp the concept of regenerative agriculture. In short, regenerative agriculture is not using modern farming practices. It varies a lot based on the specific needs of the land, the climate, and the crops being grown, but in general it involves the following practices:
Reduce the Use of Pesticides and Artificial Fertilizer
Pesticides are incredibly harmful to the plethora of beneficial microscopic organisms living in the soil, as well as the soil itself, which consequently harms the crops. Not to mention, they are also harmful to human health. Artificial fertilizer also disrupts the ecosystem of the soil, and releases nitrous oxide (N2O) into the atmosphere, which greatly contributes to global warming. Reducing the use of these products, or using them more efficiently, will allow for much more sustainable farming and greatly reduce desertification.
Instead of using machines that disrupt the balanced ecosystem of healthy soil and dry out the land, no-till drills mechanically insert seeds into the soil. Not only is this better for the crops themselves, but it also prevents CO2 that is stored in the soil from being released into the atmosphere, and after multiple seasons the soil even begins to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere. So, not only can regenerative agriculture reduce GHG emission, it can also remove GHGs that are already there — meaning it could potentially have a net negative carbon footprint.
By keeping cattle in a tightly packed herd and strategically moving them around pastures, plants on the land will have time to regrow while they move and their excrement will properly fertilize the soil. This process is not only better for current farmland, but has been shown to reverse desertification!
By increasing the biodiversity of the crops we grow, more microbes will be able to live and flourish and the soil will become much more nutrient-rich, leading to better crop yield and reducing desertification.
This video also does a great job of explaining the general practices of regenerative agriculture. All of these practices work to restore farmland to it’s diverse and interconnected eco-system, and in doing so, we can potentially reverse the effects of climate change while also avoiding famine and the loss of billions of lives.
Now that you know what regenerative agriculture and generally how it works, what can you do about it? Here are a few ideas:
Do your own research!
The more informed you are on regenerative agriculture, the more you will be able to contribute to the global shift to a more sustainable future.
Support regenerative agriculture farms
Look into where your food is coming from, and try to support regenerative farms as best you can. If you can’t find any in your area…
Talk to your local farmers!
Talk to your local farmers about how they might shift to regenerative agriculture practices, and support them! You can also help them learn about it by explaining the main practices and why it is so important (you could maybe even direct them to this very article!). Alternatively, check out the Kiss the Ground initiative — they are an organization that created a documentary which does a great job of educating people on regenerative agriculture in an engaging way. They can help you host a screening for farmers — or anyone who is interested — to come together and learn about regenerative agriculture.
Spread the word
Regenerative agriculture isn’t exactly a hot topic among most people, so by simply talking about it and spreading the word you can help others become aware of it and accelerate the global shift towards more sustainable agriculture practices.
These are just a few simple ways you can make an impact, but the sky is the limit! Regenerative agriculture has a lot of potential, and the more minds that are working to implement it on a global scale, the faster we can revolutionize the agriculture industry and start rehabilitating our planet and the beautiful life that it fosters.