Why we need better agriculture
Our agricultural system as currently constructed will not allow for the sustainable scaling of food production to match the demands of a rapidly growing population. With developing superpowers such as China, India and Brazil gaining wealth, food consumption per person also will start to increase, maximizing strain on our food production system.
The total emissions of agriculture when including the totality of the system (including transportation, livestock, farming techniques, pesticides, fertilizers, etc) is the single biggest contributor to global warming, with livestock alone contributing 18 to 20 percent of global annual carbon emissions (Hawken, et al. 2017).
These numbers and the unrelenting growth in demand call for a shift towards producing food in ways that enrich the surrounding ecosystem. This process, known as regenerative agriculture, aims to grow food using holistic land management techniques that suck up carbon from the atmosphere, increase health and biodiversity of the surrounding ecosystem, and increase the nutrient density of the food. Many different regenerative techniques for growing crops, raising livestock, and revitalizing land exist, and I will go into depth describing the implementation and benefits of some of these techniques later in this post. One of the key ways to spread the practice of regenerative agriculture is knowledge sharing.
Knowledge sharing provides a vital role in increasing the adoption of regenerative agriculture methods. Knowledge sharing is an activity through which knowledge is exchanged among individuals or groups of people. If more individuals are to take up regenerative agriculture techniques, the knowledge of best practices and guidelines for implementation must be spread throughout cultures, communities, and organizations.
The difficulties in spreading these best practices lie in the need for localization when implementing regenerative agriculture. Different geographies and climates require different agricultural techniques to best nurture the surrounding environment. In this post, I will explain some regenerative agriculture methods, the vast benefits of implementing these methods, and the role of knowledge sharing in the successful adoption of regenerative agriculture across a large region.
Importance of healthy soils
Regenerative agriculture results in benefits for the ecosystem and the economy. It increases resilience of crops to natural disasters such as severe storms, earthquakes, and drought, which in turn could lead to increased income security of farmers worldwide. It absorbs carbon from the atmosphere and stores it in the soil (a process known as carbon sequestration), leading to cleaner air and less of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. From this process of sequestration and with the help of manure, compost, or plant waste, the soil becomes a thriving ecosystem; and this micro ecosystem leads to more nutrient dense plants and therefore healthier consumers and surrounding ecosystem. Don’t understand that paragraph? Here’s a diagram to help you visual learners .
Since regenerative agriculture taps into natural energy and resource cycles, it contributes to the positive feedback loop from which it derives its appeal. To understand this self-enhancing existence, one must understand the ecology of soil and how it assists plant growth. Soil can be an unbelievable complex micro ecosystem, with one gram harboring up to 10 billion microorganisms of possibly thousands of different species (Torsvik, 2002). All of these microorganisms work together to provide plants with the nutrients they need to thrive. An example of this are the fiber-optic like fungi in forests that transfer nutrients and even danger signals between trees (Hawken, et. al, 2017). Countless other microorganisms in soil provide nutrient-processing capabilities and other unknown benefits to plants (Rhodes, 2012).
Healthy soils provide many more benefits than just preventing excess nitrogen from entering the ecosystem. It allows for plants to suck carbon out of the atmosphere and store it effectively in the soil. Currently, most agricultural soils that are dependent on chemical fertilizer don’t store carbon effectively and the tillage (disturbance) of these soils results in 4.6 gigatons of carbon being released into the atmosphere, a whole 10 percent of yearly emissions (Rodale Institute, 2015). Using sustainable agriculture, farmers can turn this current source of carbon emissions into a carbon sink, as the carbon sequestration capacity of soil is enhanced when the soil is healthy. According to Rodale Institute, if we managed all current crop and pasture land using regenerative agriculture methods, we would sequester more than 100% of our current emissions. While this isn’t feasible in the near future, it shows the extremely high potential for healthy soils through regenerative agriculture to heal the environment.
In addition to these environmental benefits, the effective sequestering of carbon from the atmosphere into the soil creates a stable economic situation for the farmers. As the soil is built up using sustainable techniques, the top layers used for growing become deeper, allowing plants to grow stronger root systems. This behavior creates resilient farmland and crops that can bounce back quickly from disasters such as earthquakes, drought, fires, and hurricanes. The deep roots of the plants prevent them from being uprooted in the event of high-speed winds. The deep topsoil layer retains moisture through longer stretches of drought. Given these benefits, regenerative agriculture seems perfect for the sustenance farmers that have traditionally been marginalized with the rise of industrial agriculture.
Creating healthy soils with regenerative agriculture methods
Now that we know why robust soil ecosystems are important to growing healthy and resilient crops sustainably, let’s explore some methods that keep the soil healthy.
A practice called “no-till” agriculture — in which farmers leave dead plant matter to decompose in the soil after harvesting — cultivates this soil ecosystem by feeding it with plant matter. This in turn creates a healthier foundation for the next generation of plants and thicker layers of topsoil — increasing resilience in circumstances of drought. It also reduces the amount of fertilizer that needs to be applied. While no-till sounds like a great solution, there are some downsides that must be considered. Firstly, the equipment used for maintaining a no-till agriculture operation can be prohibitively expensive, with no-till drills costing around $100,000. Weeds are more of a problem in no-till farming since you’re not disturbing them with a plow, so farmers have to use more herbicide. Even the thriving soil ecosystem created by this method slices both ways, as increased moisture can cultivate harmful fungal diseases. It also takes many years to reap the rewards of greater crop yields from the enhanced soil. Most farmers aren’t that patient, especially with the short-term financial pressures many farmers live under today.
A great solution for creating healthy soils by way of livestock farming is planned rotational grazing. This is where livestock like cows or sheep are contained into paddocks in a large pasture. They feast on a certain patch of grass, then are moved to an adjacent patch after a certain period of time. This method of livestock management mimics the movement of wild herd animals when faced with predators in nature. It has a myriad of benefits, starting with healthier soils and lush grasses . The movement of the livestock spreads their feces across the grazing area, ensuring thorough fertilization. If the grazing periods are timed correctly (something that takes much practice and experimentation), grasses can be left to regrow at the optimal time after being grazed, improving growth rates by 200 percent! The intermittent grazing across the pasture also means grasses that usually can’t grow because of constant grazing can thrive. This improves the diets of the cows with increased variety of nutrients. The biggest disadvantage of planned grazing is increased labor intensity for the farmer. Setting up the paddock and timing the rotations perfectly takes a lot of effort and expertise to get right. Considering what it would take to effectively spread the practice of planned grazing, knowledge sharing plays a central role. This method derives it’s execution mainly from knowledge about the grasses, livestock, and the patterns of the land, with the paddocks representing the only equipment used.
Organic fertilization techniques
When creating healthy soils quickly, using fertilizers is a must. It’s nice to imagine using no-till methods and letting the plants fertilize themselves, but that’s just not how it works for production farming. The soils need to be infused with nutrients to stimulate enough crop yield to support the farmer. Luckily, there are sustainable ways to do this!
Organic fertilizers can be created by all different types of household waste and miscellaneous ingredients(my dad likes to use coffee grounds as one of his main ingredients). They are great for the long-term health of your plants, as they contain micronutrients that integrate deeply with the soil ecosystem to fortify the nutrients a plant gets over a long period of time. They work by “extended-release”, where the nutrients from the fertilizer spread naturally throughout the soil over a long period of time. This means plants can absorb the nutrients at a optimal rate. Contrast this to to synthetic fertilizer where all the nutrients must be absorbed in a short amount of time or there will be run off or an excess of nutrients in the soil, which can disrupt the soil ecosystem by killing off the microorganisms that comprise it’s lifeblood.
Potential to make organic fertilizers cheaper and more accessible
A really cool thing my Dad does at home is make compost by throwing all the biodegradable waste we produce into a compost tumbler, along with a steady stream of coffee grounds from a local coffee shop. He then spins the tumbler around to mix everything together. It takes a little while for everything to degrade but in time a nutrient-rich mixture is created that he uses to fertilize his many gardens. Although this seems like a simple process, you have to figure out how much time the mixture needs to decompose and how much of each element (leaves, coffee grounds, fruit waste, etc) to put in. Even with this hidden complexity, I believe you could scale it out to provide less expensive and more accessible organic fertilizer. Imagine how much food waste ends up in a landfill, where the decomposition releases greenhouse gases. What if we could systematically capture it, analyze the nutrients in the waste, mix it to optimize the nutrient balance, and distribute it to farmers in a region? Granted, not all food waste could be harnessed to produce organic fertilizer, but a large amount could. I think policies shaped around this idea would do a great deal more to help the environment and agricultural community than subsidies for growing corn. If we can turn ears of corn into high-fructose corn syrup on an industrial scale, we can certainly turn food waste into organic fertilizer.
Why go on a tangent about organic fertilizers? The detriments of synthetic fertilizer are hugely impactful and of a wide variety. They cause the existing microbes in the soil to release nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas (GHG) with 300 times more warming power than carbon dioxide. The production of these fertilizers also releases greenhouse gases, as it involves burning fossil fuels to put gases under enormous heat and pressure in order to extract nitrogen. Overall, the agricultural use of nitrogen fertilizers accounts for 73 percent of total nitrous oxide emissions in 2009 (which totaled the greenhouse effect equivalent to 219.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide). This doesn’t even account for the emissions that were released during the manufacturing process of the fertilizers. Synthetic fertilizers also run off into the surrounding ecosystem, which causes “dead zones” in aquatic ecosystems where the lack of oxygen prevents the occurrence of life.
Another more insidious and overlooked consequence is the short-term effectiveness of synthetic fertilizers, because it can cause farmer dependency. Since the frequent use of synthetics cause soil degradation, farmers get stuck in situations where they have to buy more and more fertilizer from industrial agriculture corporations to supply their rapidly weakening soil with synthetic nutrients. This decreases their economic leverage and destabilizes their entire agricultural operation by making them reliant on products manufactured in far-away places.
Increasing diversity through regenerative agriculture
Another byproduct of using regenerative agriculture methods is the cultivation of a large variety of plants and animals. An example of a regenerative agriculture method that results in ecological diversity is multistrata agroforestry — where farmers blend large trees (like macadamia or coconut) with an under-layer of crops (like corn and peas). This diversity in production helps the farmers hedge their bets when the food market fluctuates. If the corn price plummets, the farmer still has peas and macadamia nuts to sustain him while the market recovers. Mixing crop varieties is a staple of regenerative agriculture, and it allows plants to benefit ecologically and farmers financially from greater biodiversity.
Role of Knowledge Sharing in Spreading Regenerative Agriculture
Now that the diverse and extremely impactful potential benefits of regenerative agriculture are realized, it’s worth delving into ways to spread its influence. Knowledge sharing — defined above as an activity through which knowledge is exchanged among individuals or groups of people — has a significant role to play in spreading these agricultural methods. One reason is that the knowledge of how to grow plants uninfluenced by chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and monocultures has existed in different forms across cultures, indigenous people, and institutions. The existence of this knowledge means the proliferation and adoption of this knowledge by diverse demographics is the limiting factor in implementing regenerative agriculture on a large scale. The knowledge pertaining to regenerative agriculture spans beyond the implementation techniques. It includes the awareness of resulting economic, social, and environmental benefits and their significance. A host of studies have shown that productive agricultural innovation has come not through new inputs (fertilizers, tractors, pesticides, etc) but more knowledgeable and therefore efficient use of existing inputs (Abdon & Raab, 2005). Knowledge of information unrelated to agriculture such as business and marketing skills is also crucial for a farmers’ success (Abdon & Raab, 2005). The wide breadth of knowledge needed by farmers to succeed sustainably in the current food system illustrates the central role knowledge sharing has in spreading regenerative agriculture, and agriculture in general.
An Example of Knowledge Sharing and Regenerative Agriculture
Having gone over the concepts knowledge sharing and regenerative agriculture in relative isolation of each other, I want to illustrate the potential of combining them into a powerful force for environmental and economic change. It is a story of a man named Yacouba Sawadogo, a proud sustenance farmer living in Burkina Faso. In the 1980’s, droughts ravaged his family farm, causing the rest of his family to abandon the land. The water tables of the area were decreasing by a meter per year. These droughts starved millions and forced the scrambling farmers in the region to come up with new solutions. Yacouba, a man who prides himself on being an innovator, came through. His solution was modifying a traditional African agricultural technique called Zai by putting manure and compost into small holes that housed his plants. This manure contained tree seeds, which started sprouting among his crops. As in touch with the land as he was, Sawadogo noticed that the arrival of trees to his farm coincided with increased crop growth and soil health (this is a practice called agro-forestry). The water tables even started to rise! The land was regenerating resources even while the population relying on them grew. Since the knowledge was discovered and adopted by the locals, it was easily communicated. The technique spread between farmers and villages like wildfire, and has accounted for the rehabilitation of 12.5 million acres of land in Niger in the span of roughly 30 years (Hawken et. al, 2017). The technique was cultivated and spread by the native population. The results stated above speak to it’s effectiveness.
How to optimize knowledge sharing
When the local inhabitants of a region own the knowledge or technology they’re using, they can adopt the knowledge to their own environmental intricacies. Contrast this with the technological assistance sometimes given to other countries through foreign aid — standardized, mechanized solutions that are far too complex for poorer countries to use effectively. A good example of this is the one laptop per child initiative by MIT. An inspiring and uplifting effort, no doubt. But to truly uplift people to better use their available resources they need to play the largest part in the aiding themselves.
The exploration of regenerative agriculture, knowledge sharing, and the combination of the concepts exposes a world of potential for environmental regrowth, sustenance farmer empowerment, and economic stability in a tumultuous and polluting agricultural industry. New internet technologies show promise to spread knowledge faster than ever before. Further research needs to be conducted on fostering grassroots innovation, the implementation of regenerative agriculture, and the spread of knowledge to effectively combine these techniques. We owe it to all the farmers who’ve struggled because of the false promises of the Green Revolution, the land we’ve farmed dry, and the ecosystems we’ve destroyed in the name of increasing food production. The knowledge exists and the need exists, but replicable techniques to implement and spread regenerative agriculture among communities and cultures are something to still be discovered.
Buenafe R. Abdon & Robert T. Raab (2005) Knowledge Sharing and Distance Learning for Sustainable Agriculture in the Asia-Pacific Region: the Role of the Internet, Plant Production Science, 8:3, 298–307, DOI: 10.1626/pps.8.298
Rhodes, C. J. (2012). Feeding and healing the world: Through regenerative agriculture and permaculture. Science Progress,95(4), 345–446. doi:10.3184/003685012x13504990668392
Hawken, P. (2017). Drawdown the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming. London: Penguin.
Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change (2014). Retrieved April 12, 2018, from https://rodaleinstitute.org/assets/WhitePaper.pdf
Monica Samuel Chipungahelo, (2015) “Knowledge sharing strategies on traditional vegetables for supporting food security in Kilosa District, Tanzania”, Library Review, Vol. 64 Issue: 3, pp.229–247, https://doi.org/10.1108/LR-10-2014-0105
Torsvik, V., & Øvreås, L. (2002). Microbial diversity and function in soil: From genes to ecosystems. Current Opinion in Microbiology, 5(3), 240–245. doi:10.1016/s1369–5274(02)00324–7