In this era of global crises, fundamental and rapid changes are required of major systems within societies, if we are to survive as a species. The world’s nations adopted a series of “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) in an effort to reverse growing inequality and its socially destabilizing impacts. And while modernity has produced comfort, relative food abundance, and cosmopolitanism, the extractivism required to sustain modern lifestyles for some has compromised or destroyed the quality and availability of water, soil health, biodiversity, and forests. These issues are exacerbated by human-caused global warming and the ensuing climate crisis.
Scientists have clearly stated that, to limit the impacts of climate breakdown, humankind will not only have to eliminate new emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) but also remove and sequester much of what has already been emitted to the atmosphere. At the same time, the human population may reach an estimated 11 billion by 2100. They must be fed, though climate breakdown will leave many food-growing regions less hospitable to agriculture and the drought and other severe weather events will also lead to crop failures.1 Addressing the climate emergency requires us to re-think the systems we have created that disregard the limits of our planet’s capacities.
The introduction of fossil energy to agriculture brought both mechanization and synthetic fertilizers, which provide an artificial boost to production in depleted or overworked soils. This innovation to food production has been around for about 150 years, and is referred to as “industrial” agriculture, for it mechanizes, prioritizes uniformity, treats food as a commodity, and applies factory-thinking to the food system.2 Increasingly, industrializing food systems are seen as necessary to raise standards of living, improve food security, and to meet the challenge of producing more food with less land.
During the post 1945 era, Canadians have become almost entirely dependent on industrial agriculture. Yet research over the past few decades connects industrial food systems to compromised human and broader ecosystem health through (1) chemical exposure; (2) reduced biodiversity in the diet and the landscape; and (3) an increase in consumption of ultra-processed denuded foods.3 Further, research has demonstrated that the industrial food system’s reliance on fossil energy, freshwater, and mined inputs is unsustainable, and that industrial food production contributes to climate breakdown.4 The broader climate movement has been slow, both to identify industrial agriculture as a cause of climate breakdown and then to recognize how Regenerative Agriculture (RA) is addressing it.
In Canada, agricultural policy has prioritized commodity export markets and a fossil energy-dependent industrial food system, a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
Sustainability concerns culminated in a movement in Canada in the 1970s called Fed UP! In which participants formed food-buying cooperatives, attracting people who were concerned about the rapid industrialization of our food system, the disappearing family farming in an era of consolidation, and the increasing reliance on chemical use in food production. This movement spawned Canada’s health food store sector, and lay the foundations for the rise of the organic certification in the 1990s as part of an emerging food system.
Canada’s ecological farmers have long argued for decoupling food systems from fossil energy through their collective efforts within the National Farmers’ Union, and through various other farmer-led institutions including the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario.
The fundamental shift between industrial and ecological farming is in the soil. Ecological farmers understand that soils are not just a substrate in which we stick a commodity crop “fed” by synthetic fertilizers. Ecological farmers prioritize creating biodiverse, healthy soils teeming with life. The term “organic farming” derives from the notion of building “Soil Organic Matter” (SOM) back into soils depleted from years of annual agriculture crops. Soils are formed by five factors: parent material (rocks or glacier dust); vegetation (which adds SOM); climate; topography; and time. It can take from 500 to 1000 years to form an inch of topsoil.
Industrial agriculture and deforestation are leading causes of soil degeneration, along with the sheer audacity of paving over agricultural class soils, as is the case for much of Canada’s urban sprawl since 1945. Not only does farming with soil health in mind build SOM—it also builds capacity to sequester Soil Organic Carbon. Conventional farmers are addressing other practices to slow the decline of soils, including cover cropping and introducing crop rotations. We require much more than simply an end to tillage and an increase in cover cropping to stop the current assault on soils by modern civilization.
While environmental NGOs have been focusing on transportation and pipelines in the battle to address GHG emissions, a subset of the broader climate justice movement has been drawing attention to the crucial role SOM-rich soils can play in sequestering GHGs. Soils have been identified by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as a ticking time-bomb issue. In 2015, the FAO sponsored the Year of Soils to point global attention toward humanity’s deep dependency on soils, and just how precious they are to civilization.
Today over one-third of the earth’s land is severely degraded. Each year, we lose 24 billion tonnes of soils through degradation and desertification. The threat is so severe that the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) was organized to minimize these losses and prevent soils-related violent conflicts.5
In the past two decades, breakthroughs in soils science and ecology have led to a new understanding of soils that validates the ecological farmers’ claim that soils are the secret to successful farming. Elaine Ingham has championed the concept of the Soil Food Web. Soils have long been treated as inanimate material for holding plants which are directly fed through synthetic inputs. Ingham challenges us to see the Living Soil. Soil organisms that are not primary producers get energy and carbon by eating or “consuming” plants, other organisms, and waste by-products. A few bacteria, called chemoautotrophs, get energy from nitrogen, sulfur, or iron compounds rather than carbon compounds or the sun. When these tiny soil organisms “eat” or decompose complex materials, or consume other organisms, nutrients are made available to plants and to other soil organisms. All plants—grass, trees, shrubs, agricultural crops—depend on the food web for their nutrition, and thus we as humans depend on the soil food web for our sustenance.6
Living soils retain nutrients so they do not leach or volatilise. These nutrients include nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and calcium. The reduction or complete removal of inorganic fertiliser applications is possible and highly desirable when a Healthy Soil food web is present. Living soils cycle nutrients into bioavailable forms. The right ratio of fungi to bacteria is needed for this to happen, as well as the correct volume and activity of biological predators such as protozoa and nematodes. In chemically-managed systems, these various life processes are compromised—if even simply by shifting the balance of life within the soils, thereby upsetting these ratios and volumes. Lastly, living soils build soil structure so that oxygen, water, and nutrients can easily move through the soil and into deep, well-structured root systems. Tillage destroys soil food web balances and disrupts formation of SOM. These issues are not lost on conventional agricultural researchers, farmers, or businesses, leading to the recent uptake in Canada of no-till agriculture to slow the erosion of Canada’s soils base. A drill or narrow groove is cut into the residue of previous crops, so that seeds and compost slurry can be inserted without disturbing the underground root system.
Yet chemical management practices are introducing a new range of issues regarding the degeneration of the soil food web and the water systems that eventually receive field runoff. Chemicals can do more damage than good. If they are not carefully deployed, agricultural chemicals lead to the release of nitrous oxide, a very potent greenhouse gas; pollution of groundwater; depletion of soil carbon by decomposer microbes; reduced diversity of soil organisms; and increased weed pressure. Most importantly, overuse of chemical fertilizer reduces the exudate exchange between plants and the microbes that feed on plant exudate. These “easier to get” nutrients make the plant “lazy,” for it no longer has to work hard to make exudate—breaking an important relationship that feeds other processes within the soil food web. And while Canada’s ecological farming sector has addressed this chemical assault, organic commodity producers have come largely to rely on tillage to control weeds rather than chemicals. Too much tillage affects the soil food web—in particular disrupting the intricate and complex funghal networks in the soil. This is where the notion of Regenerative Agriculture comes in.
“This new conversation about regenerative agriculture takes the focus off the great divide between conventional and organic, and returns us to the basics—rebuilding healthy soils and the ecosystems interconnected with them.” — Ananda Fitzsimmons, Farmer, President of Regeneration Canada
Regenerative Agriculture is characterized by systems-thinking. Soil is seen as central to food-producing ecosystems, teeming with life and capacity to store carbon, water, and nutrients. Regenerative Agriculture requires that we don’t just “conserve” soils, but that we rebuild and “regenerate” lost soils. In RA systems, fields and food forests offer annual and increasingly perennial polycultures with long rotation cycles on smaller diverse farms that rely on symbiotic relationships with the local ecosystem. Beyond regenerating soils, RA focuses on increasing landscape level biodiversity, preferring open pollinated, farmer- and community-saved seeds to promote diversity and resilience to changing climate at the farm level. Breeding programs within RA systems seek to increase the volume and the diversity of public seeds, prioritizing adaptation, nutrition, and suitability to the farm ecosystem over “grain yield” output.7
In the struggle to address climate breakdown, Regenerative Agriculture may be humanity’s best strategy. Removing carbon from the atmosphere and putting it into the soil restores degraded soil. Soil organic carbon (SOC) is one part in the much larger global carbon cycle that involves the cycling of carbon through the soil, vegetation, ocean, and the atmosphere. More carbon is stored in the first meter of soil than is contained in the atmosphere and plants combined.8
Carbon leaves soil as respiration gases from soil food web activity, and, to a lesser extent, leaching from the soil as dissolved organic carbon. Soil erosion also removes carbon from soils. Levels of SOC storage are mainly controlled by managing the amount and type of organic residues that enter the soil (i.e. the input of organic carbon to the soil system) and minimizing the soil carbon losses. Soil carbon levels have dropped by up to half of pre-agricultural levels in many areas because of activities within both conventional and organic agriculture, such as fallowing, cultivation, stubble burning or removal, and overgrazing. Increasing soil organic carbon has two benefits: as well as helping to mitigate climate change, it improves soil health and fertility. Many management practices that increase soil organic carbon also improve crop and pasture yields.
Regenerative agricultural strategies include cover-cropping, contouring and terracing, building swales, mulching, and composting. RA limits soil disturbances, encouraging no-till farming. RA systems also use biochar, a form of charcoal. Biochar use seeks to mimic the nutrient infusion natural fire systems made periodically when Indigenous peoples used prescribed burns to regenerate field and forest ecosystems. In making biochar, the unstable carbon in decomposing plant material is converted into a stable form of carbon that can then be sequestered in the earth. When biochar is applied to the soil, it stores the carbon securely for potentially hundreds to thousands of years. RA seeks to avoid soil compaction, as this limits the water and oxygen-carrying capacity of the soil, along with the capacity to store SOC. RA practitioners also work with compost teas, using various “weeds” on site to pull micronutrients and microbial activity from fermenting plant matter. When the tea is spread on soils it activates microbial activity—and the Soil Food Web does the work.
The success of this system depends on increasing root depth. Current concepts of plant root systems as being predominately present in the surface layers of the soil are the result of recent agricultural and urban practices and subsequent compaction levels in soils. Roots in natural systems extend into the soil for at least several to tens and perhaps hundreds of metres, but the soil compaction layers that human activity has created have led to toxic anaerobic materials being produced. This compaction and toxicity prevents deep and robust root penetration—affecting water and carbon cycles. The deeper the root systems, the more stable the carbon sequestration function.
Perhaps one of the most fundamental aspects of RA is the recycling of nutrients from animals—a practice ecological farmers in Canada have kept alive. RA farms are typically mixed farms that include animals in the landscape. Cattle, sheep, and goats aerate topsoil, leave fertilizer, disperse seeds, and promote diversity. Grazing animals are important to maintain grasslands, and must mimic migration to balance grazing and recovery cycles.9 Working within nested systems reduces the “work” monocultures create for farmers. For example, grazing cattle are followed on the land by free range chickens, who eat the grubs and nits from the cow manure—reducing the presence of pests on farm.10 Nutrient mining from animal manure and urine is so central to regenerative systems that researchers are looking for ways to use humanure and pee-cycling as strategies to improve nutrient cycling and reduce water pollution.
Regenerative agriculture can become a central strategy in achieving Canada’s climate commitments globally, and has largely been ignored as a technological solution. Much of the critique of industrial agriculture has focused on the destruction of ecosystems’ health and biodiversity, with less attention to date on the climate change effects of industrial food.11 The literature is consistent in seeing social and ecological health as interdependent concepts, laid out beautifully in the 1992 Declaration of Interdependence.
But Canada’s agricultural export policies are affected by external factors. Simultaneously, these export policies affect other policies, such as domestic and international commitments for food security, climate change targets, and health outcomes goals. Recently Canada added the recognition of Indigenous Rights to the various UN Declarations the federal government has previously signed, including International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1976); Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) (1981); and the Convention on Biodiversity (1993). These agreements—alongside the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Right to Water, and the Right to Food—provide socio-ecological indicators against which to measure the value of industrial (chemical) and agro-ecological (organic) production. Canada can turn to RA to achieve fulfill these agreements.
Such adoption requires a normative shift. Currently, efficiency is appraised with “yield per acre” figures. The concept of “health per acre” offers a new way to assess the efficiency of our production systems. This indicator proves that biodiverse organic farming and ecological intensification increases the output (nutrition) while reducing input costs. When agriculture output is measured in terms of “Health per Acre” and “Nutrition per Acre” instead of “Yield per Acre,” bio-diverse ecological systems have a much higher output. This should be the strategy for protecting the livelihoods of farmers as well the right to food and right to health of all our people.”12 We learn a lot when we explore what we don’t normally measure in the economy, and we can build a more just society when we measure what is in our own interests to measure.
When properly measured, efficiency takes account of the externalities and free-rides inherent in extractivist capitalism. For example, extracting usable petroleum products from tar Sands bitumen takes nearly thirty cubic meters of gas to produce one barrel of oil.13 This oil feeds agriculture production in myriad ways, from the manufacture of fertilizers or pesticides to transportation of inputs or food to markets, from creation of plastics for processing and packaging to the fuel for garbage trucks to haul the remnants away. The energy return on investment (eROI) or what farmer Tony McQuail calls “the calories in/ calories out consideration” is not a line-item in conventional economics, nor is it considered when assessing the “efficiency” of agricultural systems. Thus, shifting how we characterize and count all aspects of the enterprise allows us to make informed choices that demand transformative and not merely reformative efforts for food systems on a global scale.
Fundamental shifts in the economy of food are necessary to achieve fundamental shifts in production choices. Regenerative Agriculture is not simply about new techniques within an old economic construct that is in of itself destructive. In a truly regenerative system, agronomic choices reflect the priorities of society in providing for current and future generations. Reformative efforts are necessary: increasing the availability of organic food, supporting consumer choice, localizing food systems, building alternative food networks, and increasing public support for organic initiatives. We have a short window to shift our food policies to support RA practices as a climate change mitigation and adaptation strategy. Supporting he transition to regenerative agriculture can immediate begin drawing down GHGs in our atmosphere.
Jodi Koberinski is a graduate student at the University of Waterloo.
1 IPES-Food 2016.
2 UNCTAD 2013.
3 IPES-Food (2016); IAASTD (2009).
4 UNCTAD (2013); Weis (2010)
5 FAO (2015)
6 Ingham (2010)
7 Shepard (2013)
8 FAO (2015)
9 Shepard (2013); Gliessman (2006)
10 Gliessman (2006)
11 GRAIN (2016)
12 Singh and Shiva (2011: 5)
13 Homer-Dixon, (2006: 99-100)
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