This is a guest post by Ramu Narayanan
Living in a city or out in the suburbs one might not think too much about what it takes to produce the food we eat and why healthy agriculture is so important. But conventional farming is unsustainable: substantial amounts of topsoil are being lost by erosion. Arable land is being degraded and lost.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has protested that “we must stop soil erosion to save our future”. Conventional farming methods also cause significant emissions of greenhouse gases–which contributes to climate change. A 2016 OECD report estimates that 17% of global emissions come directly from agriculture, while an additional 7 to 14% of emissions are caused by land-use practices such as clearing forests for farming.
Agriculture is the single greatest contributor to biodiversity loss and the largest consumer of increasingly limited freshwater resources—consumption that will increase over the next few decades. Conventional farming methods have led to financial hardship for many farmers due to the costs of inputs such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Moreover, food production contributes significantly to diseases such as COVID 19. The future of agriculture lies in tackling these problems while at the same time increasing yields to feed a growing global population.
Enhance and regenerate
Regenerative agriculture (RA) is farming which goes beyond just doing no harm to the environment–like sustainable agriculture. It enhances and regenerates the natural environment. A good definition of RA from the consultancy Terra Genesis International is: “a system of farming principles and practices that increase biodiversity, enrich soils, restore watersheds, and enhance ecosystem services”, and which helps “reverse current global trends of atmospheric accumulation of carbon, offers increased yields, resilience to climate instability, and higher health and vitality for farming and ranching communities.”
RA typically includes one or more of the following practices. First, it is a no-till system–meaning no physical disruption of soil such as digging or overturning resulting in improved soil structure. Second, it eliminates bare soil by using cover crops to provide nutrients to the soil. Third, it fosters plant diversity using crop rotations to reduce insects, plant diseases, weeds, and harmful microorganisms. Fourth, it integrates crops and animals to improve the health of animals and farmland. Finally, only minimal amounts of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers are used in order to reduce environmental harm.
Examples of RA systems include Conservation Agriculture, which is a no-till system with cover crops; Multistrata Agroforestry, which is a plant diverse system that involves integrating trees with an understory of one or more layers of crops, and Organic Agriculture which involves a no-till, cover crop, plant diverse system with no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.
Studies have shown that RA practices can improve yields compared to conventional techniques. For example, research conducted done by the Rodale Institute in the USA, shows regenerative organic agriculture outperforming conventional agriculture in terms of both yields and profit while at the same time using less energy and contributing to halting climate change.
Feeding the soil
The purpose of regenerative agriculture is to continually improve and regenerate the health of the soil by restoring its carbon content, which in turn improves plant health, nutrition, and productivity. Improved soil structure and cover crops increase water retention and protect the soil from rain and wind. Erosion is substantially reduced.
Regenerative agriculture also encourages on-farm biodiversity both above ground and in the soil by rotating crops, minimising bare soil, and encouraging plant diversity. These practices reduce diseases in the soil and is a natural pest control. The Rodale Institute website describes this approach by saying that “a rich mix of microorganisms, plants, and animals on the farm creates healthy soil, strong crops, and resilient natural systems that don’t require chemical intervention to manage pests and diseases.” Finally, certain RA systems can reduce costs by making farmers less dependent on costly pesticide and fertilizer inputs, instead relying on natural methods to grow healthy soils and crops.
Protecting your health
The human health dangers of food production have been highlighted by the impacts of COVID 19 – which is believed to have originated in an animal food market in China. We need to make sure that food production practices do not contribute to harming human health.
I have previously written about how our current meat production practices (such as intensive livestock farming and the animal food markets associated with COVID 19) have resulted in human infectious disease. RA techniques can reduce problems related to agriculture’s impact on human health in different ways. First, RA generally has a reduced environmental impact in relation to conventional industrial agriculture resulting in fewer human health problems. For instance, RA can reverse or at least reduce climate change through healthy soils (meaning better human health through fewer natural disasters, reduced heat stress, and reduced infectious disease cases from diseases such as malaria, etc.).
The RA technique known as Silvopasture (which combines trees, livestock, and forage in an open environment for grazing of land by livestock) benefits livestock by providing space for animals to move around freely, which can improve the health of both animals and humans. Another example is Organic Agriculture which prohibits the use of pesticides and instead relies on natural forms of pest control. Research shows that certain pesticides disrupt the natural production of hormones in humans resulting in adverse effects on reproductive and sexual development. Pesticides have also been linked to a significant decline in bee populations, resulting in problems with human food production, and health hazards for farm workers. There is also research showing that fruit and vegetables are not as nutritious as they were in the past due to current farm soils not being as healthy as a result of conventional agricultural practices. Good soil health is key to the RA approach.
To find out more visit the Regeneration International website (regenerationinternational.org). Also, watch the award-winning movie The Biggest Little Farm, released in 2018, describing the experience of a couple who worked to build a farm using RA methods that is in harmony with nature.
Ramu Narayanan is based in Richmond Hill, Canada and is an active member of his local Blue Dot chapter. The Blue Dot movement is a Canadian grassroots campaign based on the idea that everyone in Canada deserves the right to a healthy environment, including clean air and water, and a say in decisions that affect our health and well-being. He has a master’s degree in Earth and Space Science. Visit his website covering sustainable development at: http://sdgsrevealed.org/
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