Often, climate activists are quick to blame farmers for poor environmental conditions, such as soil infertility, rising greenhouse gas emissions, and nutrient pollution. They point fingers and make accusations, but what many don’t realize is that farmers want to reduce their environmental footprint. In fact, many farmers want regenerative agriculture and are pushing to implement more sustainable practices on their land. But it’s not easy.
What is Regenerative Agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture is the practice of restoring natural resources through agricultural practices. Its goals often include supporting healthy soil, reversing the effects of climate change, limiting waste water and pollution, and increasing biodiversity.
We know that conventional farming practices harm the environment. While the ag sector only accounts for nine percent of greenhouse gas emissions, its practices affect the environment in many other ways.
Farmers utilize various chemicals that are harmful for both the environment and living things. Pesticides and fertilizers are doused onto fields, affecting pollinator populations; reducing soil quality; and polluting water resources. When farmers overuse fertilizers, nitrogen is either carried away by rainwater toward rivers and streams or is consumed by soil microbes and released into the air as nitrous oxide (a greenhouse gas). Unfortunately, this is a much larger issue than it should be. Farmers often equate more fertilizer with more crops, but because plants only absorb a specific amount of nitrogen, the rest is wasted.
Farmers also employ monoculture, a practice in which farmers plant one crop year-round (or during the off-season, leave the ground bare). This degrades soil quality in two ways. By continuously planting one crop, farmers don’t allow the soil to regenerate. Leaving soil bare subjects it to harsh weather conditions, which can cause erosion.
By practicing regenerative agriculture, farmers can restore the natural resources they have polluted over the years. They do this in four ways:
Minimum or No Tillage
Tillage entails digging, overturning, and stirring soil to prepare it for new crops. While this seems logical, it’s actually detrimental. Tilling the soil:
- Destroys fungal and microbial communities, which are important for plant life.
- Ruins earthworm burrows, which lowers soil quality in various ways.
- Adds excess oxygen to the soil.
- Increases soil erosion.
- Releases carbon, which is stored in the soil.
- Increases water runoff and soil loss.
Regenerative farmers who practice minimum or no tillage practices have healthier, better draining soil. These practices reduce flooding and erosion while helping soil retain nutrients and store carbon.
Farmers can increase biodiversity in two ways: by eliminating pesticide use and providing shelter for pollinators and other life.
Pesticides can kill more than their intended target, so eliminating pesticide use is imperative for increasing or sustaining pollinator populations. Pollinators–which include birds, bats, bees, and other insects–help pollinate 87 percent of plants. Farmers need them to help pollinate their crops.
Farmers can plant trees, shrubs, and other plants where pollinators (and other beneficial wildlife) can live. They can also build homes for pollinators out of bricks and other materials and leave plots of safe land open.
Say Hello to Livestock
Many farms now implement CAFOS (confined animal feeding operations) instead of letting livestock graze on land. CAFOS are incredibly detrimental because the manure they produce often ends up polluting rivers, streams, and groundwater. In order to eliminate this source of pollution and help the soil, farmers should let livestock (especially cows) graze on their land.
The presence of livestock actually improves soil health by stimulating plant growth, increasing soil carbon deposits and soil fertility, supporting insect and plant diversity, and increasing soil carbon sequestration. Not only does this help the environment, but it also helps the livestock. Livestock that graze on farms need fewer antibiotics than those in CAFOS.
Another way farmers (and the community) can be more sustainable is by feeding livestock food waste. According to Dr. Zhengxia Dou, Professor of Agricultural Systems at UPenn, this circular agro-food system model provides consumers with a healthy diet while reducing issues associated with livestock production. Feeding livestock leftover food waste ensures that they are being fed nutritious food while keeping the waste out of landfills. Read more on this sustainable farming method here.
Supporting Soil Fertility
The most important aspect of regenerative agriculture is supporting and restoring the soil. Luckily, there are many ways farmers can do this.
We’ve already discussed monoculture and its negative impact on the environment. Let’s put it into context. The Midwest agriculture sector produces two main crops: soy and corn. Over the years, farmers have only planted these two crops on their land, which has led to infertile soil; flooding; erosion; and rising pests.
By implementing cover crops and crop rotations, farmers can restore the soil. According to research, multi-year and multi-crop rotations result in higher yields for each crop. In addition, implementing these techniques reduces pests and weeds. Pests adapt to host crops, so when farmers use cover crops or multiple crops, pest populations plummet. And by using cover crops rich in nitrogen (such as legumes), farmers can replenish the soil with vital nutrients.
So now you know–regenerative agriculture is really great. But then why don’t farmers practice it?
Farmers Want Regenerative Agriculture
They really do.
The spring of 2019 brought torrential floods that engulfed millions of acres of U.S. farmland. Farmers were devastated by crop losses. Yet, miraculously, some farmland recovered from this disaster quite quickly.
According to William Salas, interim CEO of Dagan, Inc., land on which farmers employed regenerate agriculture practices recovered faster than land on which farmers employed conventional agriculture practices. By analyzing satellite images taken after the floods, Salas concluded that fields with intensive conservation had higher success rates for planting. This means they recovered better than fields that had not been conserved with regenerative practices.
This data is significant because it not only demonstrates that regenerative agriculture practices work, but it also provides an incentive for farmers to be more sustainable. Farmers who employ regenerative and sustainable practices will have better crop yields, healthier soil, and overall more profit. With these incentives, why wouldn’t farmers want regenerative agriculture?
It’s clear that replacing conventional farming practices with regenerative ones will help the environment, increase food security, and support farmers–so why aren’t more farmers employing them? What’s stopping farmers from practicing regenerative agriculture?
What’s Stopping Farmers?
Okay, so whats stopping farmers from practicing regenerative agriculture?
In short, legislation.
Regenerative agriculture advocates for the restoration of natural resources as well as the reversal of climate change. Due to its connection to the climate crisis, it’s been ignored by legislators. Many have tried passing legislation that would help the farming sector and the environment, but with so many climate-deniers, it’s difficult.
In 2009, legislators introduced the Waxman-Markey Bill, which delineated a carbon-emissions trading system. According to the bill, greenhouse gas-emitting farmers could voluntarily purchase credits from regenerative farms that stored carbon. While passed in the House, the bill was rejected in the Senate.
There are some programs that offer farmers incentives for sustainability. Carbon-sequestering farming practices are rewarded by government conservation programs; however, these programs are underfunded, so they do little.
Luckily, the tides are turning. Legislation, like the Green New Deal; the effects of this year’s weather on farmland and crop yields; and the potential to make a profit from carbon markets are all swaying legislators to move toward sustainability. Two new pieces of legislation will boost farmers’ incentives to improve soil quality and (if passed) give farmers’ tax credits for storing carbon in their soil.
Unfortunately, less environmental pollution is not enough of an incentive for farmers to switch to regenerative practices. (And in some cases, neither is increased crop yields.) Farmers don’t have it easy. Many lose their crops to weather, freak storms, pests, and a lack of available workers to pick fields. Investing in regenerative practices takes time and money, so monetary incentives will likely help them shift to regenerative practices. With better legislation, more ecofriendly products, and the community’s help, the ag sector can reduce its environmental footprint. With these tools, this year will mark a shift to regenerative practices.