Regenerative Agriculture: More Important Now Than Ever

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Last week’s news that Monsanto and Bayer would merge to form the world’s largest agribusiness company sent shockwaves throughout the food industry. Will our food system continue to unify under a few conglomerates?  Or can alternatives, like regenerative agriculture, shift the balance back into the hands of both people and the environment?

The desire is there. At SOCAP16, it was standing-room-only at a packed panel titled “Regenerative Agriculture: Buzzword or Last Hope for Reversing Climate Change.” The event showcased the need for not only new ideas, but an entirely new system for both producing food and empowering local farmers and food producers. The recent news that the world’s oceans are no longer sucking up CO2 gave added impetus to the potential for the earth – which, until we began pumping it out, stored immense carbon stocks – to, perhaps, pick up the slack again.

Soil-based carbon sequestration can, in fact, be incredibly effective, said Ariel Greenwood of Holistic Ag.

“Agriculture is the missing piece to solving global climate,” Greenwood said during the panel.

In fact, for generations, agriculture lived in balance with nature, and there is strong evidence that farmers in the Amazon purposely sequestered carbon to make soil more rich and fertile. It is only with the advent of industrial agriculture that we shifted away from such systems.

The current system, championed by large agribusiness firms, focuses not on soil quality or empowering local farmers, but on only one thing: producing huge quantities of cheap, mono-culture crops on the same piece of land. While this kind of thinking resulted in a massive growth in yields for crops like corn and soy, the cost has been huge. Massive amounts of fossil fuel-based fertilizers and chemicals are needed, resulting in elevated greenhouse gas emissions. And overuse of chemicals pollutes water. Just look at the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, which is about the size of Connecticut.

Though Monsanto, Syngenta and other companies love to tout their efforts at sustainability in their marketing, the agriculture system they built is one few would characterize as sustainable. And with agriculture accounting for nearly a quarter of carbon emissions around the world – and that’s not even taking into account the massive energy costs of transporting food – it is clear that something has to change.

“Agriculture is the greatest force for good – or detriment – on the planet,” Greenwood said.

Regenerative agriculture can work. We already know that organic food, if scaled up, can feed the world. Regenerative agriculture would have huge side benefits: It would heal our soil and increase its water storage capacity and, most importantly, be a source of income and economic empowerment for communities across the world.

The challenge is one that is common among those of us working in social change – scaling up to combat giants. The new Monsanto-Bayer giant will be worth more than $66 billion. Though regenerative agriculture is growing, it is far from being able to challenge the food giants of the world.

“What the American diet will be like 10-plus years from now will be based on the decisions that are made today,” said Jesse Smith, a regenerative agriculture consultant at Casitas Valley Farm.

What we ultimately need is also a better food policy – one that recognizes the benefits of sustainable, local agriculture, and provides subsidies and assistance to allow such systems to grow. Right now, we heavily subsidize unsustainable, fossil-fuel intensive, big-corporate agriculture.

Hopefully, what we saw at SOCAP was the seeds of a new system, where social capital flows and helps sprout a new, better, greener system that can help us tackle the greatest challenge of our generation.

Image credit: Peter Blanchard via Flickr.

Food & Agriculture

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Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.