The solution to climate change is in our soil

Regenerative agriculture has the potential to change the world and I can't stop talking about it

In order to solve the climate crisis we need to go from this:

Back to this: 

I’ve spent the last 5 months reading literally everything I can get my hands about how to solve climate change and I’ve found the answer. The answer is “regenerative agriculture”. Now this is a term that -  much like “organic” -  is starting to become co-opted by those that aren’t actually practicing this form of agriculture. In this post I’ll unpack: 1) why regenerative agriculture is the solution to climate change, water shortages and global health. And 2) how we got to where we are today: industrial agriculture based on chemicals that has destroyed the quality of our soil and is making us sick. In a future post I’ll also explore how we can implement this solution quickly and turn this planet back to the ecological paradise it used to be, and how in doing so we can create a world with more prosperous people and communities.  

The connection between CO2 and rising temperatures

As a recap from my first post in February see the graph above. What this shows is that the current concentration of CO2 in earth’s atmosphere is 417 parts per million (ppm), and as you can see, that level which was historically around 280ppm skyrocketed over the past 70 years as a direct result of increasing CO2 emissions which today average 40 billion tons per year. In order to stop climate change we need not only to stop emitting CO2 (reach “net zero”), but we also need to remove the excess CO2 from the atmosphere. You can see below the correlation between CO2 concentrations and temperature rise. 

If you’d like to check out the science on how increases in atmospheric carbon concentrations cause climate change and temperature rise please watch this short video which my friends in the Learning For Climate Action class put together. 

How can “regenerative agriculture” reverse climate change?

It may surprise you to learn that today an astounding 55% of land (1 billion acres) in the United States is used for the sole purpose of producing food. The below images illustrate just how disproportionate to all other land uses that is.

And while many people tout the importance of planting trees to reversing climate change - the world still needs to eat. The good news, however, is that it is possible to continue to use that land to produce food while also storing carbon in the soil. Case Studies like that of Brown’s Ranch in North Dakota and those in Australia show that soils repaired via regenerative agriculture have the potential to store an additional 66-81 tons of carbon per acre today versus the average of 10-30 tons per acre that most conventional farms are storing. In the US alone that would translate to 66-81 billion tons of additional carbon stored, or two times the current annual carbon output of the world. In fact since the onset of agriculture 8,000 years ago, soils across the world have lost ~500 billion tons of CO2. 

Christian, I’ve seen studies suggesting that your figures are vastly overstated?

Why is it that folks like the World Resources Institute (WRI) have articles titled “Regenerative Agriculture: Good for Soil Health, but Limited Potential to Mitigate Climate Change.”? Simply put: flawed measurement methods. Welcome to my soil organic carbon (“SOC”) rabbit hole. Well intentioned articles like the one published by the WRI are based on traditional methods of carbon measurement which only measure the top 10 to 30 centimeters of soil for carbon. Take a look at the below photo to see why it matters that we measure at depths greater than 10-30 centimeters…

So what is regenerative agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture refers to a method of farming which utilizes a set of holistic land management processes to work with nature to rebuild the overall health of the natural ecosystem. These practices have been well highlighted by great documentaries such as Kiss the Ground and The Biggest Little Farm. Here is a summary of the five principles of regenerative agriculture as covered exhaustively by North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown in his book Dirt to Soil. A key feature of this type of farming is that all of these principles must be done together or the benefits will not be realized:

  1. Limit mechanical, chemical, and physical disturbance of soil: Tillage destroys soil structure and leads to erosion.

  2. Keep soil covered at all times: protects soil from wind and water erosion, provides food and habitat for macro- and microorganisms, prevents moisture evaporation and germination of weed seeds.

  3. Diversity: variety of plants, not mono-culture; mimics natural prairie; diversity enhances ecosystem function.

  4. Living roots: Those living roots are feeding soil biology by providing its basic food source: carbon. This biology, in turn, fuels the nutrient cycle that feeds plants.

  5. Integrated Animals: grazing of plants stimulates the plants to pump more carbon into the soil. This drives nutrient cycling by feeding biology. If you want a healthy, functioning ecosystem on your farm or ranch, you must provide a home and habitat for not only farm animals but also pollinators, predator insects, earthworms, and all of the microbiology that drive ecosystem function.

How does this differ from “conventional” or “industrial” agriculture?

“Conventional” or “industrial” agriculture refers to a reductionist science approach to growing food and raising livestock. It is an approach that works very well for producing widgets or computers in a controlled environment, however nature, where crops are grown is far from a controlled environment. Thus, in order to attempt to control the environment industrial agriculture employs a range of practices that are incredibly destructive to soil and biological health. Those processes are summarized in this slide below and include 1) growing only one crop at a time, 2) tilling the soil which destroys root structures and leaves it vulnerable to erosion, 3) poisoning and killing all bacteria present in the soil or on plants with herbicides, fungicides and pesticides, 4) pumping the soil full with artificial fertilizers because the soil has been harmed to the point where it cannot fertilize itself, and 5) separating animal production from crop production.

Still not sold on the flaws of the conventional approach to agriculture?

Well don’t take it from me, take it from FDR, who in a letter to state governors in 1937 concerning his Uniform Soil Conservation Law as a response to the dust bowl said:

That is a bold statement indeed, but one well documented in history as chronicled in David Montgomery’s Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations which shows how the neglect of soil health led to the decline of the empires of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome and led to Europe’s need for colonialism to offset its declining soil productivity. 

What are the benefits of regenerative agriculture?

  1. The aforementioned increase in soil carbon absorption 

  2. Higher profits for farmers:

    • While it is true that researchers from the Ecdysis Foundation found that moving to regenerative agriculture reduced crop yields by an average of 29%, those same farms were 78% more profitable than their conventional peers; this is due in large part to 2 factors: 1) as a regenerative farmer you no longer have to pay for expensive fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides, and 2) food products from regenerative farms fetch a premium in the marketplace. It’s true that if the availability of perceived ‘clean’ food increases, the price may drop. But it’s unlikely to do so to the extent that it will materially impact profit. And in fact as the price comes down and becomes more affordable it will create a virtuous cycle which grows the overall demand for this food. 

  3. Combats water shortages and drought via higher water infiltration rates:

    • Agriculture accounts for 70% of worldwide water use; The World Health Organization estimates that in less than four years, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas.

    • Regenerative agriculture dramatically enhances the soil’s ability to absorb water; on the Brown’s Ranch in North Dakota the water infiltration rate increased 16x once the transition to regenerative farming practices was complete.

  4. Produces more nutrient dense food which improves population health

    • Over 65% of major US crops still use the herbicide glyphosate (“roundup”) to kill weeds despite the $2.4 billion paid out to tens of thousands of claimants for glyphosate’s known link to cancer. 

    • Regenerative agriculture removes the need for pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers because it creates a vibrant ecosystem where good bugs thrive and as a result can prey on the bad bugs to keep them out, all the while providing valuable pollination to the plants. As bacterial life returns to soil, the ultimate return of fungal dominant soils is a sign of a well managed perennial polyculture

    • As a result, researchers in the CIRES lab at the University of Colorado have found a connection between healthy soil microbiology and human gut microbiomes; not to mention the positive health benefits that result from not consuming food which has been chemically altered

Is there hope for regenerative agriculture to proliferate?

I could not be more optimistic about the potential for regenerative agriculture and sincerely believe that we are on the cusp of a dramatic transformation of conventional agriculture to a more sustainable form of farming. In the long arc of time I believe that the most economic and sustainable solutions ultimately win out. The same automakers who once scoffed at electric cars are now racing to outdo each other in audacious EV production forecasts. The same will hold true for regenerative agriculture. You need look no further than the success of farms like Gabe Brown’s in North Dakota, the hundreds of others he has inspired to do the same, or the 1 million acre regenerative farming commitment from General Mills to see that this form of farming is soon to become mainstream. 

Does regenerative farming work only on small farms?

No. In fact one of the major lessons of traditional agriculture: economies of scale applies equally to regenerative agriculture. Regenerative practices are proven to result in a higher profit per acre, and thus work on any farm. Regenerative agriculture entails growing a variety of crops and raising a variety of livestock. Like all businesses any specialized area requires fixed investments in labor and capital which are more economical if spread across a larger base. Thus if you must simultaneously manage: a herd of cattle, a flock of chickens, a summer cash crop, a summer cover crop, a winter cover crop, vegetable production and a bee farm the larger your operation the more profitable it will be. On the Brown’s Ranch in North Dakota they manage 13 different enterprises across 1,761 acres in a highly profitable manner. And the profits have only increased as the scale of the operation has grown. 

So what can be done to accelerate this transition?

In two weeks I will share my thoughts on how to empower more farmers to transition to regenerative agriculture; until then I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can speed this process up!