Humanity, and the planet that we have the privilege to call home, is facing no shortage of problems. Climate change. Biodiversity loss. Peak Oil. Food insecurity. Chances are you’re probably familiar with at least a few of these. Any one of these issues alone threatens life as we know it on our planet. Unfortunately, much like buses, they have come along all at once.
Our best minds have been hard at work engineering solutions for these problems, which read like a playbook straight out of Orwell's mind. From pumping our skies full of sulphur, to flooding our fields with poisons (what could possibly go wrong...?), every technofix you can imagine, plus many more you cannot begin to, has been proposed. But humans, as we are so adept at doing, have missed a trick.
“Every problem has a solution. Sometimes it just takes a long time to find the solution- even if it's right in front of your nose”
- Lemony Snicket
And there is already a solution to all of these problems, one which relies upon already perfectly honed feats of engineering. But this engineering is not the work of humans, and it doesn’t involve us looking up into the sky- instead, we must look down at what lies beneath our feet.
There is one thing that lies at the crossroads of all of our problems; agriculture. The way we grow our food affects everything: our health, the health of our ecosystems, waters and wildlife, our atmosphere, our access to safe, nutritious food and thriving of our communities.
The way we choose to practise agriculture therefore has a huge impact on our world. Whether this impact is immensely positive or negative is our choice.
With our fondness for vast monocultures of crops, the use of tonnes of synthetic chemical inputs and the routine deep tilling of our soil, we are clearly currently on the negative side of things. So much so, in fact, that is has led the WWF to conclude that unsustainable agricultural practices present the greatest immediate threat to species and ecosystems around the world.
By treating our soils like dirt, we are making our food system - the one we depend upon every day to provide us vital sustenance - incredibly precarious. It has been predicted that with current rates of soil degradation and topsoil loss, there are only a meagre 60 harvests left. Furthermore, agriculture as it’s currently practised is completely dependent on a rapidly dwindling resource; fossil fuels, used for everything from transport to pesticides. This, combined with it’s appetite for deforestation, makes agriculture the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the energy sector.
But what if that impact doesn’t have to be negative? What if instead we could harness the power of agriculture to be a regenerative force instead of a degenerative one? What if there was a way to turn the problem into the solution?
FARMING FOR THE FUTURE
Regenerative Agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that cultures more than just crops, but cultures also soil, biodiversity, a safer environment and a better world.
But, more than that, regenerative agriculture is a big picture, i.e. ‘holistic’, approach to farming which brings together new and old ideas to encourage environmental, social and economic innovation. Each of these three pillars are vital to create a truly sustainable food system able to stand the test of time.
Regenerative agriculture harnesses the intelligence of nature to satisfy our own for our own needs whilst respectfully cohabiting with the life around us. It does this by mimicking nature’s patterns, working with her rather than against. Regenerative agriculture understands that everything in nature has a function in the system and uses this knowledge to design our farms. This means, for example, including a diversity of crops instead of only one, or ensuring the soil is always covered, like in a forest ecosystem. In this way, our food systems can work independently without the need for costly inputs (including not only chemical and physical inputs, but also time and energy - for more information about that, check out our recent blog post on the efficiency of regenerative agriculture), much like a forest manages itself without any human help. In this sense, regenerative farmers become system managers rather than combatants.
In this way, regenerative agriculture works to fix the common underlying theme of many of our problems- the disconnect between humans and nature and the way she works. Instead fighting the way nature has evolved over millennia to manage itself, it puts us on the same team and allows us to go with nature’s flow. The problem is, nature is powerful - much more powerful than we humans like to think- and, regardless of the continual new and innovative repertoire of weapons at our disposal, this is a fight we will ultimately never win.
Regenerative agriculture goes beyond both organic and ‘sustainable’ practices by working to improve our resource base we use and depend upon, instead of merely maintaining it in its current state. In doing so, it stores carbon in our trees and soils, protects our soils from erosion whilst actively building soil, provides much needed sanctuaries for depleted wildlife such as birds and insects and keeps our waterways and air clean. Regenerative agriculture works to make ecosystems healthy because when they thrive, we thrive.
SO WHAT DOES THIS LOOK LIKE IN PRACTICE?
There are many different ways that regenerative techniques are being applied to create productive systems capable of sustaining our populations both now and in the future. For example, it’s harnessing the power of livestock - the much maligned environmental enemy- for good, asserting animals’ place in the ecosystem as mobile composters through the intelligent use of grazing, championed by the likes of Allan Savory and Joel Salatin.
Instead of looking to complex carbon sequestering techniques, regenerative agriculture is incorporating fruit and nut bearing trees (i.e. ‘agroforestry’) to act as carbon sponges whilst nourishing both our ecosystems and humans, such as with the farms of Mark Shepherd and Ernst Gostch. It’s focusing on soil building techniques to help water retention in even the driest regions of the world, like at the Singing Frogs Farm in California. It’s using diverse enterprises and borrowing expertise from other sectors to make small farms streamlined and profitable, with the work of farmers like Ben Hartman and Richard Perkins. It’s transforming the idea of what market gardening can be, with the techniques perfected by Jean-Martin Fortier. It’s emphasising the power of microbiology in farming, with the work of Elaine Ingham. Finally, it’s helping to reconnect communities by pulling people from all walks of life, from musicians to professional surfers, back into the agricultural fold, regenerating rural communities such as at Moy Hill Farm and through associations such as the reNature foundation.
So here’s hoping we learn from the lessons of the past, and stop making the same mistakes time and time ‘a-grain’!
Thanks for reading,