Regenerative Agriculture Can Save the Planet
A diverse group of farmers, food companies, scientists, non-profit and advocacy groups from more than 100 countries have joined together to support a definition for "regenerative agriculture," as a way to rebuild soils, produce nutritious food and address the growing threat of climate change.
World's Topsoil Could Be Gone in 60 Years
"Regenerative agriculture keeps the natural cycles healthy—like water and carbon—so that land can keep growing food and keep carbon and the climate in balance," said Tim LaSalle, Ph.D., co-director of the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative at California State University Chico, who helped develop the definition.
Regenerative agriculture aims to rebuild the planet's topsoil, which has seen massive losses due to poor soil management, chemical intensive agriculture and erosion. A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that, with the current rate of soil degradation, all of the world's topsoil could be gone in 60 years—and with it farming.
"Forget climate change for a moment, do you believe in food? We need to regenerate the fertile field from which food is grown. Regenerative agriculture creates new topsoil, reversing the last century's trend of destroying it," said Tom Newmark, co-founder of The Carbon Underground, who is also an organizer of the initiative.
According to LaSalle, the word "regenerative" was chosen because "sustainable" has been rendered meaningless.
"It's became watered down and was adopted by Monsanto," he said.
Also, being "sustainable" is not enough to mitigate threats posed by climate change and soil loss.
"'Sustainability doesn't have meaning because we overshot the Earth's capacity at the rate we are pulling resources out and polluting," LaSalle said. "The climate is still going to heat, and we're still going to lose soil. What's sustainable?"
Creating a definition for "regenerative" also makes it more difficult for the term to be co-opted.
"I wanted to put a stake in the ground with the definition," LaSalle said.
Some of the companies that signed on to the definition include General Mills' subsidiaries Annie's Homegrown and Cascadian Farms, Ben & Jerry's, Dr. Bronner's, Organic India and Nutiva, among others. Non-profits include Organic Consumers Association, International Federation of Organic Farming Movements, Rodale Institute and others.
"Reducing emissions alone cannot solve climate change. We must draw down hundreds of billions of tons (of carbon) to succeed, and restoring our soil is the only known path to do this," said International Federation of Organic Farming Movements President Andre Leu.
Organic farming cooperative Organic Valley didn't sign on to the definition but supports the effort, said Jonathan Reinbold, Organic Valley's sustainability, research and grant manager.
"I think the definition is pretty solid, and the intention behind it is essential," he said. "We need to do everything we can to mitigate and reverse climate change and building healthy soil in doing that is a win-win."
Definition Focuses on Building Soil Health
Regenerative agriculture is defined as "a holistic land management practice that leverages the power of photosynthesis in plants to close the carbon cycle, and build soil health, crop resilience and nutrient density."
Regenerative practices focus primarily on building soils. These include no or minimum tilling, which can cause soil erosion; use of cover crops, diverse crop rotations, compost and manure to increase soil fertility; building biological ecosystem diversity and soil biology; and well-managed animal grazing practices to improve plant growth, soil fertility, insect and plant diversity and soil carbon sequestration.
"Regenerative agriculture mimics nature. It's how nature would farm," said Appachanda Thimmaiah, Ph.D., a regenerative agriculture expert at Maharishi University of Management and a signatory to the definition. "It's about how our actions can bring incremental improvements in soil health, water conservation, biodiversity, locally appropriate systems and nutrient density.
LaSalle said the definition is an evolving document. "We don't want it to be static. We can change it based upon what science reveals to us. We want it to be a living document."
Newmark emphasizes that regenerative agriculture is not a new technology. "This is the way a prairie or forest produces food. There are regenerative systems around the world that are building an inch of topsoil each year."
Organic and Regenerative
How does regenerative agriculture relate to organic? That is a tricky question. Many of the companies and organizations that signed on to the definition are in the organic industry. But, according to LaSalle, some organic industry members say that organic certification should be the basis for regenerative agriculture.
Newmark disagreed. "I don't want to restrict participation in the regenerative movement with a requirement for organic certification. For us to be successful in the threat of climate change, we have to enlist food producers from all over the world."
LaSalle agreed. "If organic was the baseline, only one percent of land is organic. We need to include all agriculture and grazing. Our time frame is terribly short."
While acknowledging that many organic farmers use regenerative practices, LaSalle also said that organic is not necessarily regenerative. Tillage or plowing is an acceptable practice in organic farming that can lead to soil erosion and release carbon dioxide from the soil into the air.
"You can grow organic and lose carbon (through tillage)," he said.
John Roulac, president of Nutiva, said regenerative could be a path to organic for conventional farmers. "If we can get 20 percent of farmers to stop using chemicals, plant cover crops and more rotations, then it will be easier to take them to organic regenerative a few years later."
Could there be a certification program for regenerative agriculture? LaSalle said it's possible. He envisions a tiered system with bronze, silver, gold and platinum levels, similar to LEED certification for buildings.
"If you're planting cover crops, you're at the bronze level. If you're following organic and regenerative practices, you're at the platinum level," he said.
An oft-cited example of an ideal regenerative farm is Brown's Ranch, a 5,000-acre diversified livestock, grain and vegetable farm in North Dakota. Owners Gabe Brown and his son, Paul, focus on soil health; they don't till the soil or use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or genetically modified crops. They grow as many as 19 different cover crops in a year. In 20 years, the Browns have added a foot of topsoil to their land.
"Gabe Brown is an extraordinary practitioner of regenerative agriculture," Newmark said.
Education programs in regenerative agriculture are starting to emerge. At California State University Chico, the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative will focus on research, education, creating demonstration sites and collaborating with other universities. A certificate program in Regenerative Organic Agriculture was launched in January at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. The 10-month course aims to provide students with knowledge and hands-on field experience in regenerative agriculture practices.
LaSalle emphasized that time is critical to regenerate agriculture for the planet and its people.
"We have 10 years, probably five-to-seven years before climate and greenhouse gasses reach the point of no return. Unless we drawdown (carbon), which agriculture can do at an amazing rate, we have no positive outlook of what climate or civilization will look like in the future. There is absolutely no reason to wait and every reason to move forward."
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As ocean waters warm and acidify, corals across the globe are disappearing. Desperate to prevent the demise of these vital ecosystems, researchers have developed ways to "garden" corals, buying the oceans some much-needed time. University of Miami Rosenstiel School marine biologist Diego Lirman sat down with Josh Chamot of Nexus Media to describe the process and explain what's at stake. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is killing coral?
I wish we had an easy, straightforward answer for what's killing corals. We know there are many, many different factors influencing coral abundance, diversity, distribution and health these days, but I think the specific answer varies based on where you are.
Temperatures play a major role at global scales, and then you have all of these other, more local factors like disease, physical impacts of storms, or ship groundings.
Researcher Stephanie Schopmeyer prepares to out-plant Staghorn coral onto a Miami reef. Rescue-A-Reef, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
We had the dredging of the Port of Miami channel a couple of years ago and that caused a lot of localized mortality due to sediment burial and sediment stress. You also have land-based sources of pollution that can damage by location and nutrient influence that causes algal overgrowth of corals.
Local factors are superimposed on regional factors directly related to global climate change. Changes in temperature, more temperature extremes, acidification of the water, changes in storm frequency and sea level rise— all are at different scales — but they all combine to cause coral mortality.
Factors vary both spatially and temporally, but the outcomes are all the same. Regardless of where you are, we've lost a tremendous amount of coral.
Nursery-raised Staghorn coral out-planted onto a reef by a citizen scientist.
In the face of all those threats, can restoration work?
Historically, restoration was developed and used for acute disturbances. A ship runs aground, and so then there's a recovery, and funds are allocated to recovering the reef structure at a given location, and then corals are planted on top of that. But as global conditions decline for coral reefs, there's now a need to scale up. So, we're not just dealing with the localized impact—we're looking at species declining throughout their range.
We need other tools at larger scales, and that's where coral reef gardening has come into play, because it works at larger scales compared to just dumping cement and rebuilding reef structures, costly endeavors that recover just a very small footprint. We're growing and planting these organisms.
Do you worry about planted coral dominating the reefs?
Initially, these techniques were developed for fast-growing corals. The genus that we're focusing on, Acropora, is threatened, so these are very important reef-building species.
When abundant, they monopolize shallow environments. They form thickets, extensive areas of high-density colonies. That's the way they used to grow, until about three to four decades ago when they got wiped out by disease and other factors. The branching corals that we're working with grow between 10 and 15 cm per branch per year, so that's very fast growth.
Through recent advances in coral aquaculture, we're now also able to grow massive species, the ones that grow very slowly. Mote Marine Lab has developed microfragmentation techniques where they can cut coral colonies very, very small and make them grow very, very fast. Although we focused on branching corals initially, now most of the programs, especially here in Florida, are expanding onto other threatened species.
Citizen scientists plant coral. Rescue-A-Reef, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
Can these efforts solve the problem, or are they a placeholder until climate stabilizes?
You hit the nail on the head. One of the early criticisms of reef restoration was the scale issue and spending a lot of resources working on a very small footprint.
We've dealt with that now, over the past 10 years we've expanded to the point where we're growing thousands and thousands of corals—we're planting thousands and thousands of corals—so that issue of scale is no longer a valid criticism.
The other major criticism is that, even though we're planting a lot of corals, we're planting them onto environments where the same stressors that caused their initial mortality are in place. Now there is ocean acidification and increased temperatures, so things have gotten, in some cases, progressively worse.
Staghorn corals create a sustainable source of corals for use in restoration. Rescue-A-Reef, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
That is a valid concern if we were just planting corals, but we're not just doing that. We're still concentrating on all of the other aspects of reef restoration, setting up marine protected areas to protect fish stocks and coral impacts, working to curb land-based sources of pollution, and setting up sedimentation and nutrient controls. And then, on a much larger scale, we're all trying to curb carbon emissions, trying to limit the greenhouse impacts and acidification impacts. All these tools just help us buy time.
We're also doing a lot of genomics work to see how corals can increase their resilience. A colleague of mine here at the Rosenstiel School at University of Miami, Andrew Baker, is stress-hardening corals. He works on coral symbiosis, and he found that by applying a little bit of non-lethal stress, he can make corals shuffle their Zooxanthellae, which are the endosymbiotic microalgae that provide energy to the corals. In that process, they're able to uptake Zooxanthellae that are more thermally tolerant. So, through the forced shuffling of symbionts, you may be able to buy these corals one or two degrees of tolerance, so that they become more tolerant to bleaching in future years. That is cutting-edge science.
We're trying to actually find out what makes corals survive, and trying to beef up their defenses and their resilience over time. And that's because we have access to all these coral genotypes through the active propagation from coral gardening.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
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