Organic agriculture is no passing phase, it seems. We can now buy organic fruit and vegetables from the major supermarkets, as well as the local farmer’s market. There is now a new trend in environmentally conscious farming doing the rounds, and promising big things for farmers, consumers and even climate change.
The organic farming movement started in the first half of the 20th century, and generally refers to farming practices which avoid the use of man-made chemicals (pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers). In recent years, the trend of organic farming has increased exponentially, as both consumers and producers become more environmentally aware, and as innovations in organic practices advance. Simply growing fruit and vegetables organically however, is not enough to mitigate the effects of diminishing soil biodiversity.
Why does soil biodiversity matter?
The benefits of soil biodiversity are hard to overstate. Healthy and diverse soils, which retain a range of living organisms and natural compounds can help to prevent erosion, effectively store and distribute water, assist in preventing climate change and even produce beneficial antibiotics. Bio-diverse soils are critical for producing crops, and supporting animals including both wild species and cattle. The reduction of diversity which is occurring in many soils around the world, due to over-processing, the use of chemical treatments and grazing are effectively limiting our ability to provide a food source for our growing global population. Alarmingly, soil biodiversity also has a direct impact on the advance of climate change.
What is regenerative agriculture?
Decarbonisation (a reduction of naturally occurring carbon in soil), desertification (where previously fertile land becomes desert) and erosion are all effects of loss of biodiversity in soil. Losing valuable and virtually irreplaceable topsoil is a major hurdle faced by farmers and environmental scientists. Regenerative agriculture is focused on repairing damage to soils. According to Regeneration International:
“Regenerative Agriculture” describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.”
It is predicted that within the next 50 years, if we do not make serious advances in repairing our soils, we will lose countless species of insects, plants and animals, and will no longer be able to produce enough food to feed the planet.
Furthermore, without significant regeneration of soils, we will be unable to limit climate change.
“Without protecting and regenerating the soil on our four billion acres of cultivated farmland, 14 billion acres of pasture and rangeland, and 10 billion acres of forest land, it will be impossible to feed the world, keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, or halt the loss of biodiversity.”
How does regenerative agriculture work?
Regenerative agriculture can not only prevent damage to soils from farming practices, but can actually improve its quality. There are a number of practices which farmers can employ to regenerate their soils, and most of these can be implemented simultaneously.
Organic farming, which avoids the use of synthetic chemicals in application to farming land can help to regenerate soils by avoiding damage to beneficial soil organisms. It also avoids harmful runoff into surrounding water sources, and reduces erosion.
Tilling of soil can lead to dehydration, erosion and loss of essential nutrients from soil. Innovation in zero-tillage and direct drilling methods ensures that moisture levels are more easily maintained in soils, and also aids in retaining organic matter in soils. This, in turn, makes soils more nutrient-rich and resilient, and thus, better for farming.
Planting cover crops between harvest and replanting can help to avoid evaporation from soils, and once cut, can return nutrients to the soil. This process means that soils are nutrient-rich and high in moisture, which will benefit future crops and result in more productive crops.
Rotating crops between seasons can help to increase the diversity of soils, and can also act as a disease break by switching out affected crops with varieties which are resistant to certain diseases. Furthermore, because each crop relies of different nutrients, soils can replenish certain nutrients between each planting, further increasing nutrient diversity and concentration.
Pasture cropping involves planting alternate-season crop between previous crops, while in their dormant phase. This process allows for perennial agriculture, and avoids exposing bare earth to the elements. This preserves moisture and nutrients in the soil, and is also beneficial for farmers, due to the increased productivity of a perennial crop.