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Regenerative Agriculture: A Better Way to Farm?

Twelve years ago, Ryan Boyd faced a wreck that changed the way he farms today.

“I had big plans,” said Boyd, who farms with his wife and parents north of Brandon, Man. “We had a nice crop coming, and then the weather went against us and the markets dropped.

“The long and short of it was we had a bad year, and I figured we needed to make some changes if I was going to carve a living out on the farm.”

Photo credit: Unsplash

For Boyd, that meant shifting some of the practices on their 2,000-acre mixed farm to be more sustainable.

“We’re trying to practise what we would call regenerative agriculture — trying to build a profitable, resilient system that’s maintaining a good level of production while reducing the amount of inputs we’re relying on,” Boyd said while hosting a group of visiting farm journalists last month.

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Creating a Carbon-based Local Economy

How can local economies value carbon farming practices in finished consumer goodsFibershed represents a 160-member producer community, spanning from the Oregon border to San Luis Obispo and from the Pacific Ocean to the Sierra foothills, that is managing working landscapes strategically to sequester carbon. Burgess gave this talk, transcribed and edited below, as part of the Bioneers Carbon Farming Series.

Photo credit: Pexels

How do basic human needs – food, fuel, flora, fiber – get met within an economically and ecologically strategic geography?

There are 25 million hectares of rangelands in California and a key question is whether we can manage them to help lower Earth’s temperature. Most rangeland systems have very low amounts of carbon. California has lost around 40% of its carbon in its rangelands due to the loss of perennials. These soils are in a massive carbon debt.

Fibershed is organizing place-based economies around carbon.

 

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The Chicken and the Egg: Stop Linear Farming and Embrace Circular Agriculture

Agronomist Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin wants to transform the food system from the ground up by introducing poultry-powered, planet-cooling, regenerative agriculture. Ashoka’s Simon Stumpf caught up with Haslett-Marroquin to hear more about his approach, what his Tree-Range™ system is all about, and what’s on the horizon for the smallholder farmers in his network.

Photo credit: Regeneration International

Simon Stumpf: You’re championing what you call a “non-linear” approach to farming. What do you mean by that?

Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin: As farmers we don’t produce anything. Nature does. We simply manage the process, a non-linear process, by which inedible energy is transformed into edible energy — from soil to carrots, from grain to eggs and chickens. When we understand this, a whole world of possibility opens up because we are no longer constrained by linear, input-and-output based methods that waste energy and pollute our soil, waterways and air.

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Organic Agriculture Can Feed the World

Organic agriculture practices are often blamed for being unsustainable and not able to feed the world. In fact, several high-profile advocates of conventional agricultural production have stated that the world would starve if we all converted to organic agriculture. They have written articles for science journals and other publications saying that organic agriculture is not sustainable and produces yields that are significantly lower than conventional agriculture.

Thus, the push for genetically modified organisms, growth hormones, animal- feed antibiotics, food irradiation and toxic synthetic chemicals is being justified, in part, by the rationale that without these products the world will not be able to feed itself.

Photo credit: Pexels

Ever since Thomas Malthus wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798 and first raised the specter of overpopulation, various experts have been predicting the end of human civilization because of mass starvation.

The theme was popularized again by Paul Ehrlich in his 1968 book, The Population Bomb. According to Ehrlich’s logic, we should all be starving now that the 21st century has arrived: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines; hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”

The only famines that have occurred since 1968 have been in African countries saddled with corrupt governments, political turmoil, civil wars and periodic droughts. The world had enough food for these people — it was political and logistical events that prevented them from producing adequate food or stopped aid from reaching them. Hundreds of millions of people did not starve to death.

The specter of mass starvation is being pushed again as the motive for justifying GMOs. In June 2003, President Bush stated at a biotechnology conference, “We should encourage the spread of safe, effective biotechnology to win the fight against global hunger.”

We must now ask ourselves: Is global hunger due to a shortage of food production?

In this first decade of the 21st century, many farmers around the world are facing a great economic crisis of low commodity prices. These low prices are due to oversupply.

Current economic theories hold that prices decrease when supply is greater than demand.

Most of our current production systems are price driven, with the need for economies of scale to reduce unit costs. The small profit margins of this economic environment favor enterprises working in terms of large volume, and as a result the family farm is declining. Many areas of the United States and Australia have fewer farmers now than 100 years ago, and the small rural centers they support are disappearing. Hundreds of thousands of farmers have had to leave their farms in Argentina due to higher production costs and lower commodity prices. The sugar industry in Australia is on the verge of collapse for the same reason. Australian dairy farmers continue to leave the industry since deregulation forced down the prices they receive. Most of the major industrial countries are subsidizing their farmers so that their agricultural sectors do not collapse.

Europe, North America, Australia and Brazil are in the process of converting a large percentage of their arable land from food production to biofuels such as ethanol in an effort to establish viable markets for their farmers. The latest push in GMO development is BioPharm, in which plants such as corn, sugarcane and tobacco are modified to produce new compounds such as hormones, vaccines, plastics, polymers and other nonfood compounds. All of these developments will mean that less food is grown on some of the world’s most productive farmland.

Grain farmers in India have protested about cheap imports that are sending them deeper into poverty. Countries such as India and China, once considered as overpopulated basket cases, export large quantities of food. In fact, India, one of the world’s most populated countries, is a net food exporter in most years.

South American rainforests are cleared for pasture that is grazed with beef destined for the hamburger chains of North America. Once the soil is depleted, new areas are cleared for pasture and old, degraded areas are abandoned to weeds. In Asia, most of the forests are cleared for timber that is exported to the developed industrial economies. One of the saddest things about this massive, wasteful destruction of biodiversity is that very little of the newly cleared land is used to feed the poor. Most of this production of timber and beef is exported to the world’s richest economies.

The reality is that the world produces more than enough food to feed everyone and has more than enough suitable agricultural land to do it. Unfortunately, due to inefficient, unfair distribution systems and poor farming methods, millions of people do not receive adequate nutrition.

Can Organic Agriculture Feed the World?

Organic agriculture needs to be able to answer two major questions:

  1. Can organic agriculture produce high yields?
  2. Can organic agriculture get the food to the people who need it?

An editorial in New Scientist for February 3, 2001, stated that low-tech, sustainable agriculture is increasing crop yields on poor farms across the world, often by 70 percent or more. This has been achieved by replacing synthetic chemicals with natural pest control and natural fertilizers.

Professor Jules Pretty, director of the Centre for Environment and Society at the University of Essex, wrote, “Recent evidence from 20 countries has found more than 2 million families farming sustainably on more than 4-5 million hectares. This is no longer marginal. It cannot be ignored. What is remarkable is not so much the numbers, but that most of this has happened in the past 5-10 years. Moreover, many of the improvements are occurring in remote and resource-poor areas that had been assumed to be incapable of producing food surpluses.”

An excellent example of this type of agricultural extension has been published in the January 2003 World Vision News. Working in conjunction AusAID, World Vision linked farmers from the impoverished Makuyu community in Kenya with the Kenya Institute of Organic Farming (KIOF).

They arranged workshops where KIOF members taught the principles of organic farming, including compost making, preparing safe organic pesticides, organic vegetable gardening and organic care of livestock.

Maize yields increased by four to nine times. The organically grown crops produced yields that were 60 percent higher than crops grown with expensive chemical fertilizers.

The wonderful thing is that many of these farmers now have a surplus of food to sell, whereas previously they did not even have enough to eat. They are organizing marketing co-ops to sell this surplus.

The profits are going back to the community. They have distributed dairy goats, rabbits, hives and poultry to community members and have planted 20,000 trees, including 2,000 mangos. Several of the organic farmers are training many other farmers in the district and helping them to apply organic farming techniques to their farms.

The mood of the community has changed. They are now confident and empowered with the knowledge that they can overcome the problems in their community. These types of simple, community based organic agricultural models are what is needed around the world to end rural poverty and starvation, not GMOs and expensive toxic chemicals.

The Makuyu community in Kenya is not an isolated example. Professor Pretty gives other examples from around the world of increases in yield when farmers have replaced synthetic chemicals and shifted to sustainable/organic methods:

  • 223,000 farmers in southern Brazil using green manures and cover crops of legumes and livestock integration have doubled yields of maize and wheat to 4-5 tons/hectare.
  • 45,000 farmers in Guatemala and Honduras used regenerative technologies to triple maize yields to 2-2.5 tons/ha and diversify their upland farms, which has led to local economic growth that has in turn encouraged remigration back from the cities.
  • 200,000 farmers across Kenya as part of sustainable agriculture programs have more than doubled their maize yields to about 2.5 to 3.3 tons/ha and substantially improved vegetable production through the dry seasons.
  • 100,000 small coffee farmers in Mexico have adopted fully organic production methods and increased yields by half.
  • A million wetland rice farmers in Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam have shifted to sustainable agriculture, where group-based farmer field schools have enabled farmers to learn alternatives to pesticides and increase their yields by about 10 percent.

Nicolas Parrott of Cardiff University, U.K., authored a report entitled The Real Green Revolution. He gives case studies that confirm the success of organic and agroecological farming techniques in the developing world:

  • In Madhya Pradesh, India, average cotton yields on farms participating in the Maikaal Bio-Cotton Project are 20 percent higher than on neighboring conventional farms.
  • In Madagascar, SRI (System of Rice Intensification) has increased yields from the usual 2-3 tons per hectare to yields of 6, 8 or 10 tons per hectare.
  • In Tigray, Ethiopia, a move away from intensive agrochemical usage in favor of composting has produced an increase in yields and in the range of crops it is possible to grow.
  • In the highlands of Bolivia, the use of bonemeal and phosphate rock and intercropping with nitrogen-fixing lupin species have significantly contributed to increases in potato yields.

One of the most important aspects of the teaching farmers in these regions to increase yields with sustainable/organic methods is that the food and fiber is produced close to where it is needed and in many cases by the people who need it. It is not produced halfway around the world, transported, and then sold to them.

Another important aspect is the low input costs. Growers do not need to buy expensive imported fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. The increase in yields also comes with lower production costs, allowing a greater profit to these farmers.

Third, the substitution of more labor intensive activities such as cultural weeding, composting and intercropping for expensive imported chemical inputs provides more employment for local and regional communities. This employment allows landless laborers to pay for their food and other needs.

As in the example of the Makuyu community in Kenya, these benefits lead to a positive change in the wealth and the mood of the community. These communities are revitalized, proactive and empowered to improve their future.

Can Organic Agriculture Achieve High Yields in Developed Nations?

Since 1946, the advent of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, improved crop varieties and industrial paradigms are credited with producing the high yields of the “green revolution.” Because organic agriculture avoids many of these new inputs, it is assumed that it always results in lower yields.

Organic carrots.

The assumption that greater inputs of synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides are required to increase food yields is not accurate. In a study published in The Living Land, Professor Pretty looked at projects in seven industrialized countries of Europe and North America. He reported, “Farmers are finding that they can cut their inputs of costly pesticides and fertilizers substantially, varying from 20 to 80 percent, and be financially better off. Yields do fall to begin with (by 10 to 15 percent, typically), but there is compelling evidence that they soon rise and go on increasing. In the USA, for example, the top quarter of sustainable agriculture farmers now have higher yields than conventional farmers, as well as a much lower negative impact on the environment.”

Professor George Monbiot, in an article in the Guardian (August 24, 2000), wrote that wheat grown with manure has produced consistently higher yields for the past 150 years than wheat grown with chemical nutrients, in U.K. trials.

A study of apple production conducted by Washington State University compared the economic and environmental sustainability of conventional, organic and integrated growing systems in apple production. The organic system had equivalent yields to the other systems. The study also showed that the break-even point was nine years after planting for the organic system and 15 and 16 years, respectively, for conventional and integrated farming systems.

In an article published in the peer review scientific journal Nature, Laurie Drinkwater and colleagues from the Rodale Institute showed that organic farming had better environmental outcomes as well as similar yields of both products and profits when compared to conventional, intensive agriculture.

Gary Zimmer, one of the American pioneers of biological farming, runs an organic dairy farm with his son in Wisconsin. In 2000 one of his remineralized alfalfa (lucerne) fields produced a yield four times greater than the average for the district. He has increased the nutrient value of pasture by 300 percent and currently calves 150 cows every year without a single health problem.

Dick Thompson, a founding member of the Progressive Farmers of Iowa, engages in organic farm research in conjunction with the University of Iowa, the Rodale Institute and the Wallace Institute. He obtains some of the highest yields in his district using composts, ridge-tilling and crop rotations.

The innovative system of rotationally grazing several species of animals developed by Joel and Theresa Salatin of Polyface Farm in Virginia is one of the best examples of a high-yield organic system. They use 100 acres of dryland pasture to cell-graze cattle, sheep, pigs, meat chickens, laying hens, turkeys, pheasants and rabbits.

Their system is based on native pastures, without cultivation or new, “improved” pasture species. The only input has been the feed for the poultry.

This multi-species rotational grazing system builds one inch of soil a year and returns the family 15 times the income per acre than is received by neighboring farms using a set stocking of cattle.

Steve Bartolo, president of the Australian Organic Sugar Producers Association, produced similar yields of commercial sugar per hectare from his organic Q124 cane and his conventional cane in 2002. The average yield of sugar for his best organic cane “achieved higher tonnes per hectare compared to the average of all conventionally grown Q124.”

Greg Paynter, an organic farmer who works for the Queensland Department of Primary Industries, conducted the organic section of grain comparison trials at Dalby Agricultural College in 2002. The organic wheat produced 3.23 tonnes to the hectare compared to the conventional wheat yield of 2.22 tonnes. This trial was conducted during one of the worst droughts on record.

Graham McNally of Kialla Farms, one of Australia’s significant organic pioneers, consistently achieves yields comparable to those of the conventional farms in his region.

Dr. Rick Welsh of the Henry A. Wallace Institute reviewed numerous academic publications comparing organic and conventional production systems in the United States. The data showed that the organic systems were more profitable. This profit was not always due to premiums, but was instead a result of lower production and input costs as well as more consistent yields. Dr. Welsh’s study also showed that organic agriculture produces better yields than conventional agriculture in adverse weather events, such as droughts or higher-than-average rainfall.

Will GMOs Feed the World?

Argentina is a good example of what happens when a country pursues the policies of market deregulation and GMO crops. It is the third-largest producer of GMO crops, with 28 percent of the world’s production. By the 1999-2000 season, more than 80 percent of the total soybean acreage, or 6.6 million hectares, had been converted to GMOs. These are some of the results according to a study published by Lehmann and Pengue in theBiotechnology and Development Monitor:

  • Declining profit margins — prices for soybeans declined 28 percent between 1993 and 1999.
  • Farmers’ profit margins fell by half between 1992 and 1999, making it difficult for many to pay off bank loans for machinery, chemical inputs and seeds.
  • A 32 percent decrease in producers — between 1992 and 1997, the number of producers dropped from 170,000 to 116,000, meaning 54,000 farmers were forced to leave the industry.
  • At least 50 percent of the acreage is now managed by corporate agriculture.
  • There is an increasing role of transnational companies in the agricultural sector.
  • Industrialization of grain and soybean production has boosted dependence on foreign agricultural inputs and increased foreign debt.
  • Removal of import tariffs led to the bankruptcy of domestic farm machinery manufacturers and a loss of employment.
  • The commercial seed sector has become increasingly controlled by subsidiaries of transnational corporations.

Since the above data was published, the Argentinean economy collapsed, causing riots and the resignations of several governments. The country is now currently in deep debt, with its economy under the control of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Its standard of living has declined, and thousands more farmers have been forced off their farms. Rural and urban poverty and hunger has increased.

According to Caritas Argentina, the social services agency of the Catholic Church in that country, over 40 percent of all Argentinean children are now undernourished: “World Health Organization standards for daily caloric intake are unmet for nearly 40 percent of Argentinean children under 18, and for up to half in the poorer northeast region of the country. Even in the comparatively wealthy capital city Buenos Aires, at least 19 children have died of malnutrition in recent months.”

If GMOs cannot feed the children in the country that is the world’s third largest producer of GMO crops, how will they feed the rest of the world?

Conclusion: Organic Agriculture Can Feed the World

The data thus shows that it is possible to obtain very good yields using organic systems. This is not uniform at the moment, with many organic growers not yet producing at the levels that are achievable.

Education on the best practices in organic agriculture is a cost-effective and simple method of ensuring high levels of economically, environmentally and socially sustainable production where it is needed.

Organic agriculture is a viable solution to preventing global hunger because:

  • It can achieve high yields.
  • It can achieve these yields in the areas where it is needed most.
  • It has low inputs.
  • It is cost-effective and affordable.
  • It provides more employment so that the impoverished can purchase their own needs.
  • It does not require any expensive technical investment.

It costs tens of millions of dollars and takes many years to develop one genetically modified plant variety. This money would be spent far more productively on organic agricultural education, research and extension in the areas where we need to overcome hunger and poverty.

Organic agriculture is the quickest, most efficient, most cost-effective and fairest way to feed the world.

André Leu is international director of Regeneration International. He is a longtime farmer in Australia and past president of the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements. He is the author of The Myths of Safe Pesticides and Poisoning Our Children, published by Acres U.S.A.

Reposted with permission from Eco-Farming Daily

Here’s What Agriculture of the Future Looks Like: The Multiple Benefits of Regenerative Agriculture Quantified

At the Union of Concerned Scientists, we have long advocated agricultural systems that are productive and better for the environment, the economy, farmers, farmworkers and eaters than the dominant industrial system. We refer to such a system as our Healthy Farm vision. Based on comprehensive science, we have specified that healthy farm systems must be multifunctional, biodiverse, interconnected and regenerative.

The scientific case for agricultural systems that renew rather than diminish resources is comprehensive, and research demonstrates the productivity and agronomic feasibility of such systems. Yet, economically viable real-world examples are necessary to spur acceptance and adoption of such schemes. Further, we need to overcome the limitations of economic thinking and measures that were developed in the 19th century—when it seemed that the Earth’s resources and its capacity to absorb waste were inexhaustible—and improve them to create more modern assessments, appropriate for the 21st century and beyond. A new report from our colleagues at Farmland LPDelta Institute and Earth Economics will make a major contribution toward this end.

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As Climate Changes, Himalayan Farmers Return to Traditional Crops

Climate change is making food production harder for communities in the Indian Himalayas. Over the past few decades, there have been significant changes including higher temperatures, lower rainfall and more extreme and unpredictable weather.

Making sure communities have the food they need is key. Not just in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals’ target of zero hunger, but to make sure the Himalayas can withstand the challenges created by climate change. This requires agricultural systems that sustain natural resources, biodiversity and traditional crop varieties that give options for adaptation.

The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and its partners, Lok Chetna Manch in Ranikhet, Uttarakhand, and the Centre for Mountain Dynamics in Kalimpong, West Bengal, have been conducting participatory action-research  with a number of traditional farming villages.

These villages lie in the central Himalayas’ Almora district, and Lepcha and Limbu villages near Kalimpong in the eastern Himalayas. The research is part of an EU-funded project, Smallholder Innovation for Resilience (SIFOR), which is designed to understand and strengthen the role of traditional biodiverse farming in food security and climate adaptation.

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Restoring Land Means Restoring Communities

Author: Alaina Spencer | Published: July 2018

Wood Turner, Senior Vice President of Agriculture Capital, believes we are at a pivotal time in food production: “We’re at a point where we are trying to produce so much food for so many people, that it’s absolutely critical that large producers and managers of large acreage move aggressively into responsible farming. By responsible, I mean I’m articulating a broad view that ranges anywhere from organic to sustainable to regenerative farming.”

Agriculture Capital is trying to expand responsible food production methods by investing in farmland and food processing to “build consumer driven, vertically integrated, appropriately scaled and regenerative businesses that support the planet and communities.” In his role, Turner focuses his time integrating and bringing to life the company’s various sustainability strategies to help find solutions to large-scale environmental problems through responsible and regenerative agriculture. Agriculture Capital will release their 2018 Impact Report later this summer to inspire “conversation around the regenerative management of land in permanent crop agriculture.”

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Soil Farmers: How A Renewed Focus On The Land Is Building More Resilient Farms

Author: Brian Kaufenberg | Published: June 26, 2018

Peter Allen wants to bury a fence.

Tucked within the rolling landscape of the driftless region, on a farm outside of Viola, Wisconsin, a barbed wire fence runs along the spine of a ridge separating a strip of pasture from the valley below. The noticeable three-foot drop between the fence and the field is the result of years of soil washing away while the field was being used as conventional cropland.

“When we got here, this soil was in really bad shape; it hardly grew anything and there was no topsoil left, it was all just sand subsoil,” Peter Allen recalls in a January 2018 episode of the television show “Outdoor Wisconsin.” “So we immediately brought the animals in, […] planted about 30 different species of native prairie grasses and flowers and then a bunch of trees in rows, and then we ran chickens here behind them. And now, just two years later, this is some of the best forage we have on the farm, right where we ran the chickens through.”

As Allen’s animals—cattle, hogs, sheep, and chickens—graze the forage, they return nutrients and organic matter to the land, slowly rebuilding what’s been lost—adding between a quarter of an inch to an inch of soil per year, he says, and slowly restoring the savannah ecosystem once native to the area, a mix of trees and prairie. The livestock are key to this process, providing the cornerstone to a farming system that now yields perennial fruits and nuts, annual crops like corn, and pastured beef, pork, and chicken.

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Seeds: Farming Forever

Author: Kerry Hoffschneider | Published: June 19, 2018

It has been 100 years since Jacob and Alma Gonnerman purchased their farm in York County, Neb. on August 2, 1918. Raymond and Evelyn Gonnerman bought the same farm on February 4, 1947. Since 2004, Raymond’s grandson Scott and his wife Barb have been owners and stewards of the Gonnerman homestead.

Recently, more than 40 farmers and ranchers from across the Midwest – Iowa, Indiana to Kansas, traveled to this century farm to learn about the regenerative practices Scott and Barb have implemented to ensure their land carries on for the next 100 years and more. They also journeyed there to listen to two presenters – Christine Jones, PhD, who is an internationally-renowned soil ecologist from Australia and founder of Amazing Carbon, www.amazingcarbon.com and Jay Fuhrer – a Soil Health Specialist from Bismarck, N.D. who represented the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Menoken Farm, a demonstration farm implementing cover crops and other regenerative practices located outside Menoken, N.D. – www.menokenfarm.com.

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Ever Wonder How Rainfall Affects Your Peanut Butter Sandwich Habit?

Climate change will impact agriculture and food supplies. That’s why this digital classroom is teaching food literacy.

Author: Angela Fichter | Published: June 5, 2018

Almost 800 million people are currently facing chronic hunger, and we waste one-third of all the food we produce. Americans are eating nearly a quarter more than they did in 1970, but we’re not just eating more than we used to—we’re eating way more than we need to. While our consumption is up, we’re misinformed and less connected to what we’re putting in our mouths.

Many people don’t know where their food comes from—where their vegetables or the grains in their bread are grown, or the farming methods used to harvest them, or how they arrive in the store from which they were purchased. According to a 2017 survey by the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy, 7 percent of American adults believe chocolate milk comes from brown cows. This reflects a broad social trend—we generally don’t learn about farm-to-fork food systems in school. But the Center for Ecoliteracy is trying to change that.

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