Organic Farming Practices Could Boost Carbon Sequestration By Double-Digits, New Study Finds

While organic agriculture has long been hailed as key to building a sustainable food system, a new study pinpoints the critical role that it could play in combating climate change. In a meta-analysis of over 4,000 studies, researchers found that best management organic farming practices could lead to a significant double-digit increase in the amount of carbon captured in soil.

Organic farmers could be amplifying their positive climate impact by adopting the best agricultural practices to boost carbon sequestration. The study, undertaken by scientists at the University of Maryland in collaboration with Washington D.C.-based nonprofit research organisation The Organic Center and published in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, found that the amount of carbon captured in soil increased by 18%, while the amount of microbial biomass carbon storage went up by 30%.

Over 4,000 scientific articles were included in the meta-analysis led by Professor Kate Tully and Dr. Rob Crystal-Ornelas to identify the specific carbon-building techniques that farmers could implement.

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How Dirt Could Help Save the Planet

The American dust bowl of the 1930s demonstrated the ruinous consequences of soil degradation. Decades of farming practices had stripped the Great Plains of their fertile heritage, making them vulnerable to severe drought. Ravaging winds lifted plumes of soil from the land and left in their wake air choked with dust and a barren landscape. Thousands died of starvation or lung disease; others migrated west in search of food, jobs and clean air.

Today, we again face the potential for extreme soil erosion, but this time the threat is intensified by climate change. Together, they create an unprecedented dual threat to the food supply and the health of the planet—and farmers can be key partners in averting the catastrophic consequences. Both erosion and climate change can be mitigated by incorporating more carbon into soil. Photosynthetic carbon fixation removes carbon dioxide from the air, anchoring it in plant material that can be sequestered in soil.

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Ethical Meat Standards Need to Be about More than Just the Animals

Most discussions around the ethics of meat center on the animal—raising, processing, carbon footprints, and packaging—while so often neglecting the people behind that process. Even Whole Foods’ widely popular quality meat standards focus on everything but the farmer and the workers.

If we are to reimagine the way we eat meat, and do so in a way that’s truly humane, we must apply ethical standards to all aspects of food production and acknowledge what is required to meet them.

The People

As COVID-19 laid bare, inhumane conditions in large meatpacking plants extend to employees. Forced to stand elbow to elbow in a pandemic, line workers fell ill in record numbers. Sick workers without benefits had to choose between infecting their colleagues or forfeiting their already low pay. Plants shut down one after another, halting the food production that people relied on, while leaving both sick and healthy workers without the means to survive. Meanwhile, big meat companies looked to replace jobs with automation, rather than address animal and employee abuse.

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Pasture Cropping—The Innovative No-kill, No-till System Developed by Australian Farmers

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Regenerative agriculture is a global farming revolution with rapid uptake and interest around the world. Five years ago hardly anyone had heard about it. It is in the news nearly everyday now. This  agricultural revolution has been led by innovative farmers rather than scientists, researchers and governments. It is being applied to all agricultural sectors including cropping, grazing and perennial horticulture.

In previous articles we have described how regenerative agriculture maximizes the photosynthesis of plants to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to increase soil organic matter. Soil organic matter is a good proxy for soil health, as it is important for improving fertility and water capture in soils, thus improving productivity and profitability in farming.

Many regenerative farmers sow their fields with mixtures of plants just to capture carbon dioxide to improve the levels of soil organic matter. These are called cover crops and are distinct from the cash crop. The cover crop builds soil fertility. The cash crop earns an income. 

Pasture Cropping—the No-kill, No-till System

Australia has many innovative regenerative farmers. The two farmers below are pioneers of a cover cropping system called pasture cropping. This is where the cash crop is planted into a perennial pasture instead of into bare soil. There is no need to plough out the pasture species as weeds or kill them with herbicides before planting the cash crop. The perennial pasture becomes the cover crop.

This was first developed by Colin Seis in New South Wales. The principle is based on the sound ecological fact that annual plants grow in perennial systems. The key is to adapt this principle to the appropriate management system for the specific cash crops and climate.

The pasture is first grazed or slashed to ensure that it is very short. This adds organic matter in the form of manure, cut grass, and shed roots into the soil to build soil fertility and to reduce root competition from the pasture. The cash crop such as oats is directly planted into the pasture.

Image courtesy of Colin Seis

Heres Colin Seiss own description of pasture cropping:      

 A 20-hectare (50 acre) crop of echidna oats that was sown and harvested in 2003 . . . This crops yield was 4.3 tonnes/hectare (31 bushels/acre). This yield is at least equal to the district average, where full ground-disturbance cropping methods were used.” 

This profit does not include the value of the extra grazing. On Winona, Colin Seis’s farm, it is between $50–60/hectare because the pasture is grazed up to the point of sowing. When using traditional cropping practices where ground preparation and weed control methods are utilized for periods of up to four to six months before the crop is sown, no quality grazing can be achieved.” 

“It was also learnt that sowing a crop in this manner stimulated perennial grass seedlings to grow in numbers and diversity, giving considerably more tonnes/hectare of plant growth. This produces more stock feed after the crop is harvested and totally eliminates the need to re-sow pastures into the cropped areas. Cropping methods used in the past require that all vegetation is killed prior to sowing the crop and while the crop is growing.” 

Image courtesy of Colin Seis

“From a farm economic point of view, the potential for good profit is excellent because the cost of growing crops in this manner is a fraction of conventional cropping. The added benefit in a mixed farm situation is that up to six months extra grazing is achieved with this method compared with the loss of grazing due to ground preparation and weed control required in traditional cropping methods. As a general rule, an underlying principle of the success of this method is 100 percent ground cover 100 percent of the time.” 

 

Other benefits are more difficult to quantify. These are the vast improvement in perennial plant numbers and diversity of the pasture following the crop. This means that there is no need to re-sow pastures, which can cost in excess of $150 per hectare, and considerably more should contractors be used for pasture establishment.

Independent studies at Winona on pasture cropping by the Department of Land and Water have found that pasture cropping is 27 percent more profitable than conventional agriculture; this is coupled with great environment benefits that will improve the soil and regenerate our landscapes.  

Pasture cropping is one of the best ways to increase soil organic matter. The fields are covered with photosynthesizing leaves all year, capturing CO2, which are deposited deep into the soil by the roots of perennial cover crops. Dr. Christine Jones has conducted research at Colin Siess property showing that 168.5 tons of CO2 per hectare (170,000 pounds/acre) were sequestered over the course of ten years. The sequestration rate in 2009–2010 was 33 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year.

This huge addition of soil organic matter has stimulated the soil microbiome to release the minerals locked up in the parent material of the soil, dramatically increasing soil fertility. The following increases in soil mineral fertility have occurred in ten years with only the addition of a small amount of phosphorus:

A soil comparison between Colin Seis’s farm (Winona) and a nearby property shows significantly improved soil carbon levels in areas that have been pasture cropped. 10cm = 4 inches. Image courtesy of Dr. Christine Jones.

 

Calcium       277%

Magnesium 138%

Potassium   146%

Sulphur       157%

Phosphorus 151%

Zinc             186%

Iron              122%

Copper        202%

Boron          156%

Molybdenum   151%

Cobalt         179%

Selenium     117%

 

The Soil Kee System

An excellent example of the development of pasture cropping / no-till no-kill is the Soil Kee, which was designed by Neils Olsen.

First the ground cover/pasture is grazed or mulched to reduce root and light competition. Then the Soil Kee breaks up root mass, lifts and aerates the soil, top-dresses the ground cover/pasture in narrow strips, and plants seeds, all with minimal soil disturbance. The seeds of the cover/cash crops are planted and simultaneously fed an organic nutrient such as guano. The faster the seed germinates and grows, the greater the yield. It is critical to get the biology and nutrition to the seed at germination and to remove root competition.

 

 

A perennial pasture a few days after the Soil Kee was used to break up the root mass and plant the seeds of the cover crop.

Pasture cropping is excellent at increasing soil organic matter/soil carbon. Neils Olsen has been paid for sequestering 11 tonnes of CO2 per hectare (11,000 pounds/acre) per year, under the Australian governments Carbon Farming Scheme in 2019. In 2020, he was paid for 13 tonnes of CO2 per hectare (13,000 per acre) per year. He is the first farmer in the world to be paid for sequestering soil carbon under a government regulated system.

Niels Olsen with a multispecies cover crop of legumes, grasses, and grains for livestock. This mix grows strongly in mid-winter. Cereals, pulses, and other cash crops can be planted into the pasture to produce high-value cash crops.

Regenerative agricultural systems such as cover cropping and pasture cropping are radically changing the conventional approach to weed management. They have shown that the belief that any plant that is not our cash crop is a weed and needs to be destroyed is no longer correct. The fact is that plant diversity builds resilience and increases yields, not the other way around. The key  is developing management systems that change competition from other plants into mutualism and symbiosis that benefit the cash crop.

 Multispecies cover crops produce more biomass and nutrients than single-species monocultures. In the example of the Soil Kee system, the amount of stock feed is more than double the usual perennial or annual pastures in the district.

Variations of these systems are being developed all the time and are being used very successfully in horticulture, grazing and broadacre agriculture. To quote Colin Seis, “as a general rule, an underlying principle of the success of this method is 100 percent ground cover 100 percent of the time.”

 

Andre Leu is the International Director for Regeneration International. To sign up for RI’s email newsletter, click here.

Food Systems Responsible for ‘One Third’ of Human-caused Emissions

“Food systems” were responsible for 34% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions in 2015, according to new research.

The study, published in Nature Food, presents EDGAR-FOOD – the first database to break down emissions from each stage of the food chain for every year from 1990 to 2015. The database also unpacks emissions by sector, greenhouse gas and country.

According to the study, 71% of food emissions in 2015 came from agriculture and “associated land use and land-use change activities” (LULUC).The rest stemmed from retail, transport, consumption, fuel production, waste management, industrial processes and packaging.

The study finds that CO2 accounts for roughly half of food-related emissions, while methane (CH4) makes up 35% – mainly from livestock production, farming and waste treatment.

Emissions from the retail sector are rising, the study finds, and increased by 3-4 times in Europe and the US between 1990 and 2015.

The authors also find that “food miles” contribute less to food emissions than packaging. The authors add that 96% of the emissions from transporting food come from local or regional transport by road and rail, rather than international transport.

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Will Regenerative Agriculture Change How We Grocery Shop?

Look for the word “regenerative” at your local grocery store. Chances are, you’ll spot it on boxes of mac and cheese, cartons of milks, or even bags of chips. Regenerative agriculture, also called carbon farming, has become the latest darling of everyone from food companies to universities to politicians. But what is regenerative agriculture? How do products made with these practices differ from others, and can buying them help consumers fight the climate crisis? Here’s what you need to know about this farming philosophy.

What is regenerative agriculture?

Ask 10 different people to define regenerative agriculture, and you’ll get 10 different answers. There is no one single definition, although several organizations are currently working to establish formal guidelines.

“The idea with regenerative agriculture is to make the land better than it was,” says Dawn Pettinelli, associate cooperative extension educator at the University of Connecticut’s Institute of the Environment.

In essence, regenerative agriculture is farming done in a way that helps build soil health, increase organic matter, store water more effectively, and draw carbon out of the atmosphere.

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Big Banks Make a Dangerous Bet on the World’s Growing Demand for Food

As global banking giants and investment firms vow to divest from polluting energy companies, they’re continuing to bankroll another major driver of the climate crisis: food and farming corporations that are responsible, directly or indirectly, for cutting down vast carbon-storing forests and spewing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

These agricultural investments, largely unnoticed and unchecked, represent a potentially catastrophic blind spot.

“Animal protein and even dairy is likely, and already has started to become, the new oil and gas,” said Bruno Sarda, the former North America president of CDP, a framework through which companies disclose their carbon emissions. “This is the biggest source of emissions that doesn’t have a target on its back.”

By pouring money into emissions-intensive agriculture, banks and investors are making a dangerous bet on the world’s growing demand for food, especially foods that are the greatest source of emissions in the food system: meat and dairy.

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Best Practices: How Regenerative & Organic Agriculture and Land Use Can Reverse Global Warming

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Summary 

  • The earth’s soils, along with trees and plants, are the largest sink or depository for carbon after the oceans.
  • Regenerative organic agricultural practices sequester CO2 and store it in the soil and above ground as organic matter. Perennial polycultures, agroforestry, and reforestation can sustain and increase both above ground and below ground carbon.
  • Scaling up a small percentage (5-10%) of best practice regenerative and organic systems will result in billions of tons (Gt) of CO2 per year being sequestered into the soil and into continuous, perennial above ground biomass. The identification, funding, and deployment of these best practices on 5-10% or more of the world’s total croplands (4 billion acres), rangelands (8 billion acres), and forestlands (10 billion acres) will be more than enough to draw down and cancel out all the current CO2 and greenhouse gases (43 Gt of CO2) that are currently being emitted, without putting any more CO2 into the atmosphere or the oceans.
  • Currently when carbon dioxide CO2 is released into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels or destructive agriculture or land use practices (currently 43 Gt of CO2 emissions per year), approximately 50% of these 43 Gt of CO2 emissions remain in the atmosphere (21.5 Gt of CO2 annually), while 25% is absorbed by land, plants, and trees (10.75 Gt CO2), and the remainder 25% (10.75 Gt CO2) is absorbed into the ocean. Therefore, we need to begin to draw down 32.25 Gt CO2 (and eventually more) of current total emissions (in conjunction with the conversion to alternative energy and energy conservation), in order to reach net zero emissions (eliminate or cancel out all the emissions going into the atmosphere and the oceans). We will need a net drawdown of 32.75 Gt as soon as possible since 10.75 Gt is already being sequestered by our soils and forests. Once we stop putting more CO2 into the oceans (and the atmosphere), while continuing down the path of alternative energy and regenerative agriculture and land use, the oceans, soils, and biota will be able to draw down evermore significant amounts of the legacy (excess) carbon in the atmosphere, which, in turn, will begin to steadily reduce global warming.
  • Regeneration International, a global regenerative and organic agriculture network, with 354 partner organizations in 69 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Oceania, North America and Europe has begun to help publicize global best practices and coordinate the deployment, funding, and scaling up of these systems.

 

Introduction

Hardly anyone had heard of regenerative agriculture before September 2014, when Regeneration International was founded by a small group of international leaders in the organic, agroecology, holistic management, environment, and natural health movements with the goal of changing the global conversation on climate, farming, and land use.  Now the topic of regenerative agriculture is in the news everyday all around the world.

The concept of a coordinated global regeneration movement was initially put forth at the massive Climate Change March in New York, September 22, 2014, at a press conference in the Rodale Institute headquarters. The press conference brought together a global network of like-minded farmers, ranchers, land managers, consumer, and climate activists.

RI’s first General Assembly was held in Costa Rica in 2015 with participants from every continent.  In five years Regeneration International has grown with 354 partner organizations in 69 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Oceania, North America and Europe. RI and our allies have been successful in promoting the concept of regenerative agriculture as a game-changing system for ecosystem restoration and sequestering carbon dioxide on a scale and timeline appropriate to our current Climate Emergency.

Why Regenerative Agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture is based on a range of farming, livestock management, and land use practices that utilize the photosynthesis of plants and trees to capture CO2 and store it in the soil and above ground. Regenerative agriculture is now being used as a generic term for the many farming systems that use techniques such as longer rotations, cover crops, green manures, legumes, compost, organic fertilizers, holistic livestock management, and agroforestry. However, Regeneration International believes that true regenerative agriculture must be both organic and regenerative.

Other terms describing regenerative agriculture Include: organic agriculture, agroforestry, agroecology, permaculture, holistic grazing, silvopasture, syntropic farming, pasture cropping and other agricultural systems that can increase soil organic matter/carbon. Soil organic matter is an important proxy for soil health—as soils with low levels are not healthy.

The soil holds almost three times the amount of carbon as the atmosphere and biomass (forests and plants) combined. Long term research shows that soil carbon can be stable for more than 100 years, while appropriate forestry and agroforestry practices can store carbon aboveground on a continuous basis.

Managing climate change is a major issue that we have to deal with now

Atmospheric CO2 levels have been increasing at 2 parts per million (ppm) per year. The level of CO2 reached a new record of 400 ppm in May 2016. However, despite all the commitments countries made in Paris in December 2015, the levels of CO2 increased by 3.3 ppm in 2016 creating a record. It increased by 3.3 ppm from 2018 to set a new record of 415.3 ppm in May 2019. Despite the global economic shut down as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, CO2 levels still set a new record of 417.2 ppm in May 2020. This is a massive increase in emissions per year since the Paris Agreement and shows the reality is that most countries are not even close to meeting their Paris reduction commitments.

Reversing Climate Change

417 ppm far exceeds the Paris objective of limiting the earth’s temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius.

In order to stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels, regenerative agricultural systems will have to drawdown the current increase of emissions of 3.3 ppm of CO2 per year. Using the accepted formula that 1 ppm CO2 = 7.76 Gt CO2 means that, at a minimum, 25.61 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 per year needs to be drawn down from the atmosphere. But in reality we need to drawdown 31.25 Gt of CO2 or more if we want to stop more CO2 from heating up our already overheated oceans and begin to drawdown the legacy 417 ppm CO2 lodged in the atmosphere.

The Potential of “Best Practices” of Regenerative Agriculture

There are numerous regenerative farming systems that can sequester CO2 from the atmosphere through enhanced plant photosynthesis and turn this CO2 into soil organic matter through the actions of the roots and soil biology – the soil microbiome. Others can increase above ground carbon storage through regenerative forest and agroforestry/silvopasture practices. We don’t have time to waste on farming or land use systems that only sequester small amounts of CO2. We need to concentrate on qualitatively scaling up and expanding systems that can achieve high levels of carbon sequestration and ecosystem restoration, systems that are appropriate and scalable for different countries, regions, cultures, and ecosystems.

The simple back of the envelope calculations used for the examples below are a good exercise to show the world-changing potential of these best practice regenerative systems to address the climate emergency and actually start to reverse global warming.

Agave Agroforestry System

The “Billion Agave Project” is a game-changing ecosystem regeneration strategy recently adopted by a growing number of innovative Mexican farms in the high-desert region of Guanajuato, now spreading across Mexico.

This agroforestry system combines the dense cultivation (800 per acre, 2,000 per hectare) of agave plants and nitrogen-fixing companion tree species (such as mesquite), with holistic rotational grazing of livestock. The result is a high-biomass, high forage-yielding system that works well even on degraded, semi-arid lands.

The system produces large amounts of agave leaf and root stem or piña. When chopped and fermented in closed containers, this plant material produces an excellent, inexpensive silage as animal fodder.

Having a large quantity of fermented animal forage on hand reduces the pressure to overgraze brittle rangelands and improves soil health, water retention, and animal health, while drawing down and storing massive amounts of atmospheric CO2 (270 tons of CO2 stored above ground per hectare on a continuous annual basis after 3-10 years.)

The agave agroforestry system can be scaled up across much of the arid and semi-arid regions of the world using native legume trees and grasses, to form highly productive biodiverse agro-forestry systems that are based on the native species of each region. The chopping and fermentation of the legume tree seed pods, such as mesquite (which fix nitrogen and nutrients into the soil), added to the fermented agave, produce a high protein animal fodder superior to alfalfa and at a fraction of the cost, all without the need for any irrigation or synthetic chemicals whatsoever.

Recent research by Hudson Carbon shows that this agave agroforestry system can sequester 270 tons of CO2 per hectare (109 tons per acre) above ground per year on a continuous basis, without counting below ground sequestration nor the amount of carbon sequestered by the (200 per acre) companion trees.

According to the United Nation Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) approximately 40 per cent of the world’s land (4 billion hectares, 10 billion acres) is composed of deserts and drylands, mainly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. These areas sustain over two billion people and supply about 60 per cent of the world’s food production. If the organic and regenerative agave agroforestry system was deployed globally on 10% (400 million hectares) of these 4 billion hectares of arid and semi-arid drylands, it would sequester 10.8 Gt of CO2 per year. This represents approximately 1/3 of the amount of CO2 that needs to be sequestered every year to reverse climate change.

BEAM

BEAM (Biologically Enhanced Agricultural Management), developed by Dr. David Johnson of New Mexico State University, produces organic compost with a high diversity of soil microorganisms, especially fungal material. Multiple crops grown with BEAM have achieved very high levels of sequestration and yields. Research published by Dr. Johnson and colleagues show: “… a 4.5-year agricultural field study promoted annual average capture and storage of 10.27 metric tons’ soil C ha-1 year -1 while increasing soil macro-, meso- and micro-nutrient availability offering a robust, cost effective carbon sequestration mechanism within a more productive and long-term sustainable agriculture management approach.” These results are currently being replicated in other trials.

These figures mean that BEAM can sequester 37,700 kilos (37.7 tons) of CO2 per hectare per year which is approximately 15.3 tons of CO2 per acre.

BEAM can be used in all soil based food production systems including annual crops, permanent crops and grazing systems, including arid and semi-arid regions. If BEAM was deployed globally on just 5 % of all (2.5 billion hectares or 12 billion acres) agricultural lands, it would sequester 9.18 Gt of CO2 per year.

Potential of “No Kill No Till” Bio-intensive Organic

Singing Frogs Farm, located just north of San Francisco, California, is a highly productive No Kill No Till richly biodiverse organic, agroecological horticulture farm on 3 acres. The key to their no till system is to cover the planting beds with mulch and compost instead of plowing them, or using herbicides, and planting directly into the compost, along with a high biodiversity of cash and cover crops that are continuously rotated to break weed, disease and pest cycles.

According to Chico State University they have increased the soil organic matter (SOM) levels by 400% in six years. The Kaisers, the owner/operators of Singing Frogs Farm, have increased their SOM from 2.4% to an optimal 7-8% with an average increase of about 3/4 of a percentage point per year. This farming system is applicable to more than 80% of farms around the world as the majority of farmers have less than 2 hectares (5 acres). If the Singing Frogs farm was extrapolated globally across 5% of arable and permanent crop lands it would sequester 8.9 Gt of CO2/yr.

Potential of Regenerative Grazing

There is now a considerable body of published science and evidence based practices showing that regenerative grazing systems can sequester more greenhouse gases than they emit, making them a major solution for reversing climate change.

As well as sequestering CO2, these systems regenerate degraded pasture and rangelands, improve productivity, water holding capacity and soil carbon levels.

Around 68% of the world’s agricultural lands are used for grazing. The published evidence shows that correctly managed pastures can build up soil carbon faster than many other agricultural systems and this is stored deeper in the soil.

Research by published Machmuller et al. 2015: “In a region of extensive soil degradation in the southeastern United States, we evaluated soil C accumulation for 3 years across a 7-year chronosequence of three farms converted to management-intensive grazing. Here we show that these farms accumulated C at 8.0 Mg ha−1 yr−1, increasing cation exchange and water holding capacity by 95% and 34%, respectively.”

The means that they have sequestered 29,360 kilos of CO2 per hectare per year. This is approximately 29,000 pounds of CO2 per acre. If these regenerative grazing practices were implemented on 10 % the world’s grazing lands they would sequester 9.86 Gt of CO2 per year.

Pasture Cropping

Pasture cropping is where the cash crop is planted into a perennial pasture instead of into bare soil. There is no need to plough out the pasture species as weeds or kill them with herbicides before planting the cash crop. The perennial pasture becomes the cover crop.

This was first developed by Colin Seis in New South Wales. The principle is based on the sound ecological fact that annual plants grow in perennial systems. The key is to adapt this principle to the appropriate management system for the specific cash crops and climate.

An excellent example of the development of pasture cropping / no-till no-kill is the Soil Kee, which was designed by Neils Olsen.

First the ground cover/pasture is grazed or mulched to reduce root and light competition. Then the Soil Kee breaks up root mass, lifts and aerates the soil, top-dresses the ground cover/pasture in narrow strips, and plants seeds, all with minimal soil disturbance. The seeds of the cover/cash crops are planted and simultaneously fed an organic nutrient such as guano. The faster the seed germinates and grows, the greater the yield. It is critical to get the biology and nutrition to the seed at germination and to remove root competition.

Pasture cropping is excellent at increasing soil organic matter/soil carbon. Neils Olsen has been paid for sequestering 11 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year, under the Australian government’s Carbon Farming Scheme in 2019. He was paid for 13 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year in 2020. He is the first farmer in the world to be paid for sequestering soil carbon under a government regulated system.

If this system were deployed on 10% of all agricultural lands it would sequester 6.38 Gt of CO2 per year.

Global Reforestation

In addition to re-carbonizing and regenerating agricultural lands, a major part of regenerating the Earth and reversing climate change will be to preserve, restore, and expand the world’s 10 billion acres of forests and wetlands.  This reforestation and afforestation will include planting up to a trillion tress in deforested areas, as well as several hundred billion trees and perennials back into the world’s four billion acres of cropland (agroforestry) and eight billion acres of pasturelands or rangeland (silvopasture).

The global tree population, which covers 30% of the Earth’s land area, is estimated to be three trillion trees, with 15 billion trees cut down every year. Since humans began farming, 10,000 years ago, approximately half of the trees on Earth have been cut down and not replanted. The Earth’s forests and wetlands now sequester over 700 billion tons of carbon, and currently draw down, even with massive deforestation and forest fires taken into account, an additional “net sink” of 1.2 gigatons of carbon. (White, Biosequestration and Biological Diversity, p.101) The net sink or carbon sequestration power of today’s forests amounts to approximately 12% of all current human emissions.

If “net deforestation” (more tress being cut down, clear-cut, or burned than the amount of healthy and new tree growth) could be halted in forested areas, especially in tropical areas where the trees grow faster and store the most carbon, and forests worldwide could be managed to increase photosynthesis and biomass through massive reforestation (and by thinning out crowded forest areas with thousands of trees per acre to hundreds of the healthiest and largest trees per acre), the world’s forests could net sequester four billion tons or more of atmospheric carbon a year, a full 40% of all current human emissions.  Along with renewable energy and carbon farming, If we stop deforestation and reforest the Earth with an a trillion, species-appropriate trees, and then maintain these trees, we can literally reverse global warming. 

The United Nations Environmental Project (UNEP) has now announced a new goal for global reforestation and carbon sequestration called the “Trillion Tree Campaign.” The UN points out that there is enough deforested or empty space in rural and urban areas to plant a trillion trees on the planet of which 600 billion mature trees can be expected to survive. And this trillion tree planting campaign does not include the additional 100 billion-plus trees that could and should be planted on the Earth’s 12 billion acres of croplands and pastures utilizing the tried-and-proven carbon sequestering, livestock friendly, fertility-enhancing techniques of agroforestry and silvopasture. UNEP warns however that there are “170 billion trees in imminent risk of destruction,” that must be protected for crucial carbon storage and biodiversity protection.

According to UNEP, “Global reforestation could capture 25 percent of global annual carbon emissions and create wealth in the global south.” More than 13.6 billion trees have already been planted as part of the Trillion Tree Campaign, which analyzes and projects, not only where trees have been planted, but also the vast areas where forests could be restored.

The UN’s Trillion Tree Campaign is inspired in part by a recent study by Dr. Thomas Crowther and others, integrating data from ground-based surveys and satellites, that found that replanting the world’s forests (an additional 1.2 trillion trees) on a massive scale in the empty spaces in forests, deforested areas, and degraded and abandoned land across the planet would draw down 100 billion tons of excess carbon from the atmosphere.

According to Crowther: “There’s 400 gigatons now, in the 3 trillion trees, and if you were to scale that up by another trillion trees that’s in the order of hundreds of gigatons captured from the atmosphere – at least 10 years of anthropogenic emissions completely wiped out… [trees are] our most powerful weapon in the fight against climate change,” he said.

And Crowther’s projections (10 years or 450 Gt of CO2 emissions that can be sequestered via global reforestation) do not include the massive amount of carbon drawdown and sequestration we can achieve through agroforestry and silvopasture practices, planting trees, if only a few trees per acre, on the US and the world’s often deforested 4 billion acres of croplands and 8 billion acres of pasturelands, rangelands, and pastures.

Ending the Climate Emergency- Scaling Up

Regeneration International has 354 partner organizations in 69 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Oceania, North America and Europe. This gives us the ability work with our partner organizations on every arable continent to develop and scale up appropriate regenerative agricultural solutions for multiple countries and regions.

Transitioning a small proportion (10%) of global agricultural production to these evidence based, best-practice, regenerative systems will sequester enough CO2 to reverse climate change and restore the global climate, especially in conjunction with an aggressive global reforestation program such as the Trillion Tree Campaign.

If the RI-sponsored organic and regenerative agave agroforestry system is deployed globally on 10% (400 million hectares) of arid and semi-arid drylands, it will sequester 10.8 Gt of CO2 per year.

Five percent of global agricultural lands regenerated by the BEAM organic compost system can sequester 9.18 Gt of CO2 per year.

Five percent of small holder farms across arable and permanent crop lands using Singing Frogs Farm’s biointensive organic No Kill No Till systems could sequester 8.9 Gt of CO2/yr.

Ten percent of grasslands under regenerative grazing could sequester 9.86 Gt of CO2 per year.

10% of agricultural lands using pasture cropping could sequester 6.38 Gt of CO2 per year.

The deployment of all of these regenerative and organic best practices across the world on 5-10% of all agricultural lands (including arid and semi-arid lands where raising crops and grazing animals are increasingly problematic) would result in 45.12  Gt of CO2 per year being sequestered into the soil, and stored aboveground on a continuous basis, which is 50% more than the amount of sequestration needed to drawdown the 31.25 Gt of CO2 that is currently being released into the atmosphere and the oceans. And this does not include the massive CO2 sequestration that is possible under the Trillion Tree Campaign.

These back of the envelope calculations are designed to show the considerable potential of scaling up proven high performing regenerative systems. The examples are ‘shovel ready’ solutions as they are based on existing practices. There is no need to invest in expensive, potentially dangerous and unproven technologies such as carbon capture and storage or geo-engineering.

Aiming to achieve 5-10% adoption rates for these regenerative and organic practices across the globe is realistic and achievable. The critical priorities are to educate consumers and build market demand, identify and promote regenerative best practices in all the countries and regions of the world, change public policies wherever possible (from the local to the international level) and then fund (through private and public money), expand, and scale up these regenerative and organic systems to restore ecosystems, sequester carbon, regenerate public health and eliminate rural poverty.

It is time to get on with restoring global ecosystems and drawing down excess CO2  by scaling up the existing “best practices” regenerative agriculture, livestock management, forest practices, and land use. All of this is very doable and achievable. It will require substantial investment in natural capital from existing private and public funders and national and international institutions, but it is obviously “worth the cost” compared to the business as usual of our current “suicide economy.” It will require training organizations and relevant NGOs to run courses and workshops from Main Street to the Middle East and beyond, scaled up through grassroots-powered farmer to farmer training systems, and supported by urban consumers across the world. The hour is late. But there is still time to turn things around.

The widespread adoption of best practice regenerative and organic practices should be the highest priority for farmers, ranchers, governments, international organizations, elected representatives, industry, training organizations, educational institutions and climate change organizations. We owe this to future generations and to all the rich biodiversity on our precious living planet.

 

References/sources:

         Johnson D, Ellington J and Eaton W, (2015)  Development of soil microbial communities for promoting sustainability in agriculture and a global carbon fix, PeerJ PrePrints | http://dx.doi.org/10.7287/peerj.preprints.789v1 | CC-BY 4.0 Open Access | rec: 13 Jan 2015, publ: 13 Jan 2015

Jones C, (2009) Adapting farming to climate variability, Amazing Carbon, www.amazingcarbon.com

Lal R (2008). Sequestration of atmospheric CO2 in global carbon pools. Energy and Environmental Science, 1: 86–100.

Kulp SA & Strauss BH (2019), New elevation data triple estimates of global vulnerability to sea-level rise and coastal flooding, Nature Communications, (2019)10:4844,  https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-12808-z, www.nature.com/naturecommunications

McCosker, T. (2000). “Cell Grazing – The First 10 Years in Australia,” Tropical Grasslands. 34:  207-218.

Machmuller MB, Kramer MG, Cyle TK, Hill N, Hancock D & Thompson A (2014). Emerging land use practices rapidly increase soil organic matter, Nature Communications 6, Article number: 6995 doi:10.1038/ncomms7995, Received 21 June 2014 Accepted 20 March 2015 Published 30 April 2015

NOAS (2017). National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (US)

https://www.climate.gov/news-features/climate-qa/how-much-will-earth-warm-if-carbon-dioxide-doubles-pre-industrial-levels, Accessed Jan 30 2017

Rohling EJ, K. Grant, M. Bolshaw, A. P. Roberts, M. Siddall, Ch. Hemleben and M. Kucera (2009) Antarctic temperature and global sea level closely coupled over the past five glacial cycles, Nature Geoscience, advance online publication,  www.nature.com/naturegeoscience

Spratt D and Dunlop I, 2019, Existential climate-related security risk: A scenario approach, Breakthrough – National Centre for Climate Restoration, Melbourne, Australia

www.breakthroughonline.org.au, May 2019 Updated 11 June 2019

https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/148cb0_90dc2a2637f348edae45943a88da04d4.pdf

Tong W, Teague W R, Park C S and Bevers S, 2015, GHG Mitigation Potential of Different Grazing Strategies in the United States Southern Great Plains, Sustainability 2015, 7, 13500-13521; doi:10.3390/su71013500, ISSN 2071-1050, www.mdpi.com/journal/sustainability

UNCCD, 2017, The Global Land Outlook 2017, Secretariat of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification Platz der Vereinten Nationen 153113 Bonn, Germany

https://knowledge.unccd.int/sites/default/files/2018-06/GLO%20English_Full_Report_rev1.pdf

Global Agricultural Land Figures

United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO),  FAOSTAT data on land use, retrieved December 4, 2015

The total amount of land used to produce food is 4,911,622,700 Hectares (18,963,881 square miles).

This is divided into:

Arable/Crop land: 1,396,374,300 Hectares (5,391,431 square miles)

Permanent pastures: 3,358,567,600 Hectares (12,967,502 square miles)

Permanent crops: 153,733,800 Hectares (593,570 square miles)

The Billion Agave Project Calculations

According to the UNCCD The Global Land Outlook 2017, almost 45 per cent of the world’s agricultural land is located on drylands, mainly in Africa and Asia.

45% of croplands (4,911,622,700 ha x 45%) = 2.2 billion Hectares

2.2 x 270 tons of CO2 per ha = 594 Gt of CO2 per year

BEAM Calculations

A basic calculation shows the potential of scaling up this simple technology across the global agricultural lands. Soil Organic Carbon x 3.67 = CO2 which means that 10.27 metric tons soil carbon = 37.7 metric tons of CO2 per hectare per year (t CO2/ha/yr). This means BEAM can sequester 37.7 tons of CO2 per hectare which is approximately 38,000 pounds of CO2 per acre.

If BEAM was extrapolated globally across agricultural lands it would sequester 185 Gt of CO2/yr. (37.7 t CO2/ha/yr X 4,911,622,700 ha = 185,168,175,790t CO2/ha/yr)

Singing Frogs Farm Calculations

The Kaisers have managed to increase their soil organic matter from 2.4% to an optimal 7-8% in just six years, an average increase of about 3/4 of a percentage point per year (Elizabeth Kaiser Pers. Com. 2018 and Chico State University https://www.csuchico.edu/regenerativeagriculture/demos/singing-frogs.shtml

“An increase of 1% in the level of soil carbon in the 0-30cm soil profile equates to sequestration of 154 tCO2/ha if an average bulk density of 1.4 g/cm3” (Jones C. 2009)

3/4 % OM = 115.5 metric tons of CO2 per hectare (115,500 pounds an acre per year)

This system can be used on arable and permanent crop lands. Arable/Crop land: 1,396,374,300 Hectares plus Permanent crops: 153,733,800 Hectares = 1,550,108,100 Hectares

Extrapolated globally across arable and permanent crop lands it would sequester 179 Gt of CO2/yr (1,550,108,100 Hectares x 115.5 metric tons of CO2 per hectare = 179,037,485,550 metric tons)

Regenerative Grazing Calculations

To explain the significance of Machmuller’s figures: 8.0 Mg ha−1 yr−1 = 8,000 kgs of carbon being stored in the soil per hectare per year. Soil Organic Carbon x 3.67 = CO2, which means that these grazing systems have sequestered 29,360 kgs (29.36 metric tons) of CO2/ha/yr. This is approximately 30,000 pounds of CO2 per acre.

If these regenerative grazing practices were implemented on the world’s grazing lands they would sequester 98.6 Gt CO2/yr.

(29.36t CO2/ha/yr X 3,358,567,600 ha = 98,607,544,736t CO2/ha/yr)

Pasture Cropping Calculations

Agricultural lands 4,911,622,700 ha x 13t CO2/ha/yr = 63.8 Gt of CO2 per year

Global Reforestation Calculations

The Trillion Tree Project

 

Andre Leu is the International Director for Regeneration International. To sign up for RI’s email newsletter, click here.

Ronnie Cummins is co-founder of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and Regeneration International. To keep up with RI’s news and alerts, sign up here.

Farm Policy Agenda for Regenerative Farming

Regenerative agriculture has become the new “buzzword” among critics of today’s large-scale, industrial agricultural operations. Its advocates claim that regenerative agriculture could sequester sufficient carbon in soil organic matter to mitigate and potentially reverse global climate change. They point to research and on-farm experience to support their claims. Farm policies proposing to pay farmers to sequester carbon have heightened interest in regenerative farming among farmers as well as agribusinesses. Claims that regenerative agriculture can increase productivity and profitability obviously add to the enthusiasm of farmers.

However, regenerative agriculture is not without its critics. Some soil scientists challenge claims that regenerative farming can capture or retain enough carbon in the soil to mitigate climate change. Others claim the focus should be on selecting, promoting, and perhaps genetic engineering specific crops to sequester carbon, rather than promoting some vaguely defined farming system. The “industrial agricultural establishment” seems to have bought into the concept of “agricultural intensification. They claim that producing more while using less land with fewer polluting inputs is the most effective means of meeting the ecological and food security challenges of the 21st century.

Regenerative agriculture is also being challenged with defensive tactics similar to those faced earlier by organic and sustainable agriculture. The “Real Organic Project” was established in defiance of compromises made by USDA to accommodate industrial production methods in certification of organic production. The concept of sustainable agriculture has been co-opted, redefined, and misused to the extent that some early advocates believe it has become useless. The term regenerative is already being used to promote specific carbon sequestering crops and production practices that can be accommodated without significant changes in industrial farming operations.

Like organic and sustainable farming, regenerative farming does not have a single, precise definition. Carbon Underground defines regenerative agriculture as “an integrated set of land management practices that utilizes plant photosynthesis to sequester carbon, restore soil health, increase crop resilience, and restore the nutrient density of foods.” Lists of regenerative practices typically include reduced reliance on tillage and use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, increased adoption of cover crops, crop rotation and diversification, and management intensive grazing systems.

Internationally, regenerative farming is more likely to be defined as a system of production guided by common principles rather than practices. Rather than focusing on single objectives, such as carbon sequestration, regenerative agriculture has multiple social, economic, and ecological objectives. For example, Terra Genesis International defines regenerative agriculture as “a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services. . .  Regenerative Agriculture aims to reverse global climate change. At the same time, it offers increased yields, resilience to climate instability, and higher health and vitality for farming communities.”

Using this more comprehensive definition, regenerative agriculture must be economically viable as well as ecologically regenerative and socially responsible. However, markets will never provide adequate economic incentives to create sustainable regenerative systems of farming. The upfront economic costs of establishing regenerative farming operations are too high relative to the long-run economic payoff. Markets place heavy discounts on long-run future values relative to upfront present costs. Thus, a transition from industrial to regenerative agriculture will require fundamental changes in farm policies to make it economically feasible for existing, and beginning, farmers to justify the upfront costs of transitioning to, or establishing, regenerative farming systems.

The 2020 presidential campaigns provided compelling evidence of growing political support for such fundamental changes in farm policy. Virtually all of the Democratic candidates promised to address the challenge of climate change and other environmental problems associated with today’s industrial agriculture through farm policies framed in the language of the Green New Deal–a 2019 congressional resolution.  As with the more inclusive definition of regenerative farming, the Green New Deal recognizes that environmental problems are inseparable from the social and economic problems associated with industrial agriculture.

In addition to presidential candidates, various nonprofit organizations and think-tanks have developed political agendas around the principles in the Green New Deal. One such think-tank is Data for Progress, which has developed a Green New Deal Policy Series, that includes Regenerative Farming and the Green New Deal that we co-authored. The following is a brief outline of the farm policies included in this proposal.

1. Reform and eventually phase out current government subsidies of crop and livestock insurance for yields, prices, or gross revenues from specific crops and livestock species.

a. Limit producers’ eligibility for government subsidized crop insurance to commodities produced using approved practices to limit soil erosion, sequester soil carbon, and control pollution of air and water from agricultural chemical or biological wastes.

b. Place limits of total acreage and insurance coverage of all insured crops eligible for government subsidized crop insurance at $250,000 gross farm income or $50,000 net farm revenue per insured farm or insured farm family.

c. Over time, phase out government subsidized crop insurance programs for single crops and all other commodity-based programs, unless accompanied by supply management programs that eliminate incentives for production in excess of needs for domestic food security.

2. Replace current crop and livestock insurance programs with a Whole-Farm Net Revenue Insurance program, implemented through a special tax credit that shares the risks of transitioning from industrial agriculture to regenerative farming systems.

a. The new whole-farm net revenue protection program would reestablish the original concept of “parity” by ensuring a level of net farm revenue sufficient to guarantee farm family incomes on par or at parity with medium non-farm family income in the geographic area of the farm. The current USDA Whole-Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP) program only ensures a percentage of anticipated “gross” farm revenue based on historic farm tax records for insured farms. Insuring a percentage of historic gross farm revenue would not ensure that a farm family could survive a transition to regenerative farming.

b. The new net revenue protection program might be called the Family Farm Transition Program (FFTP) and could be financed through guaranteed “tax credits,” similar to those in current “Earned Income Tax Credits” for low-income taxpayers. If a farm family’s total income falls below the insured level, farmers would get a tax credit from the government to make up the shortfall.

c. The objective of the FFTP would be to ensure long-run domestic food security by absorbing the risks inherent in establishing regenerative family farming operations or transitioning from unsustainable commercial farming operations to sustainable, regenerative full-time family farms. To apply for FFTP protection, farmers would be required to submit a whole-farm plan for establishing or transitioning to sustainable, regenerative whole-farm systems.

d. The primary role of the USDA and state Cooperative Research and Extension Service programs would be to conduct appropriate applied research and to facilitate the development and implementation of regenerative whole-farm plans needed by farmers to qualify for the program.

e. Farm plans would include farming practices similar to the current USDA Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), but all farming practices would be integrated into an approved regenerative whole-farm plan capable of sequestering carbon, rebuilding soil organic, restoring natural productivity and evolving to long-run economic viability. Families would be guaranteed a reasonable time to make the transition and would be assisted by other government programs.

3. Redirect USDA farm programs that currently incentivize and support industrial agriculture to incentivize, support, and prepare current farmers to transition from industrial farming practices to regenerative farming systems.

a. Reward farmers for undertaking practices that enhance ecological functions through government programs such as the Conservation Stewardship Program.

b. Pay farmers to transition marginal croplands to pastures and retire marginal pastures to native prairie, particularly in historic prairie areas.

c. Incentivize pasture intercropping/rotational pasture crop systems in areas of lower yields croplands to reinvigorate them and add income streams.

d. Transition USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Cooperative Research and Extension programs from supporting industrial farming practices to facilitating the development of regenerative whole-farm systems.

e. Increase funding to the USDA Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and redirect these programs to incentivize and support the transition from industrial agriculture to regenerative farming systems.

f. Establish a joint incentive and education program through the USDA Agricultural Research Center (ARS) and NRCS for the agricultural production and use of compost, biochar, mulch and other organic amendments that improve soil health.

g. Grow the USDA research and development budget for carbon sequestration, soil health, and other regenerative practices as components of regenerative whole-farm systems.

 

The success or failure of the current regenerative agriculture movement will depend on whether U.S. farm policies are transformed from supporting industrial agriculture to making it economically possible for thoughtful, caring farmers to create and sustain regenerative farming systems. It’s important for consumers to vote with their dollars but it’s essential for citizens to vote and become involved in the processes of governance. The farm and food policies that currently support industrial agriculture can, and eventually must, be shifted to support and sustain regenerative agriculture. Here are a couple of action items we will leave you with so you can make a change:

 

Plant-based Meat Doesn’t Stack up as a Planet Saver, Scientists Warn

The environmental credentials of alternative proteins and plant-based foods are increasingly being scrutinised by scientists and academics and the report card is far from rosy.

Some experts are now warning the spin doctoring employed by promoters of fake beef is distracting from real climate solutions and the big polluters.

Ultra-processed plant foods do not stack up as a climate-friendly alternative to natural red meat, they say.

In the wake of a United Nations opinion poll which found switching to plant-based diets was not a favoured solution for addressing climate change in any one of the 50 countries surveyed, the focus has been on what livestock’s real impact on the climate is.