02/15/2017

3 Circular Principles for Healthy Agriculture

Author: Hunter Lovins | Published: February 11, 2017 

Proponents of the regenerative economy are realizing that it is dependent on the circular economy of soil. The soil is one of the key natural capitals on which we all depend. Its loss is our demise.

This chapter advocates three ways to move towards regenerative agriculture: return farming systems to harmony with nature’s cycles; make and use biochar; and implement holistic management across the world’s grasslands.

The challenge: climate destructive agriculture

Most of the climate crisis results from burning fossil fuels, but almost a quarter of the problem derives from agriculture. After 150 years of unsustainable practices, the earth’s soil has been depleted.

Modern agriculture worsens climate change. Unchecked, climate change will destroy our tenuous ability to feed ourselves. For every 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the norm, yields of wheat, rice and corn drop 10 percent. Given that more than a billion people in the world already suffer from malnutrition, this is serious.

Soil that has been de-carbonized (lost its organic matter) requires large amounts of fossil fuel-based fertilizer if it is to grow crops at industrial scale. Petrochemical use in fertilizer releases greenhouse gasses (GHGs), especially nitrous oxide, a gas 300 times more potent per ton in causing global warming than CO2.  Plowing and poor nutrient management release the nitrogen from soils in quantities. When out of place, both carbon and nitrogen, key building blocks of life in nature, are serious threats to the stability of the climate.

Regenerative agriculture: there is a better way

Critics of current agriculture call for a beyond-modern approach, combining the best of traditional agriculture with the finest science, to deliver abundant, sustainable food and high-quality life to all the world’s people. The Rodale Institute, the Soil Association of the U.K., the Agroecology Lab at U.C. Davis, and the Leopold Center at Iowa State University are a few of the early centers of scientific research into organic agriculture. They are building bio-diverse systems to reintegrate us into living systems agriculture. It takes a longer view of production, not maximizing yields in any one year, but ensuring yield over many years and decreasing chances of crop failure in bad ones.

Regenerative farming practices increase soil-held carbon or organic matter. Farms using crop rotations and animal manure deliver better biodiversity than fields farmed with industrial practices. Organic fields reduce nitrogen runoff and the release of nitrous oxide. Systems that integrate livestock with vegetable production, use perennial pastureland and organic production deliver higher profitability while creating the circular economy of the soil. These methods include long crop rotations, leguminous crops and cover crops and manure produced by livestock as fertilizer.

They take carbon from the air and sequester it in soil. These regenerative methods treat the farms as holistic systems. Farmers use only what is produced on site. Such practices restore soil structure, build healthy topsoil, nurture soil microbes and promote biological activity, all of which contributes to long-term productivity and nutritious crops. Water use is optimized and the best practices in irrigation are applied. Farm worker safety and investment in local dollars sustain farming communities.

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