Can Regenerative Agriculture Save the Planet?

The farming practices have been linked to a reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Credit: NowThis
Credit: NowThis

What's the connection between land management and a ratty pair of underwear?

Believe it or not, the answer is a healthier planet.

It might seem weird, but burying a pair of 100% cotton underwear and digging it up 60 days later can help determine how healthy the soil is in that area. If the tighty whities are in rags and decomposed, it probably means the soil is healthy. Cotton is an organic material, meaning it should decompose under the right conditions, such as when there are plenty of soil microbes present. If the underwear is intact, it could mean that the soil is microbially deficient

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Healthy soil is linked to higher crop yields, cleaner air, and better water quality. It helps reduce erosion, flooding, and stormwater runoff into local streams. Healthy soil can also help sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

But how do you fix unhealthy soil? Many have turned to regenerative agriculture.

Regenerative agriculture can be broadly understood as a set of farming practices that could help restore biodiversity, fight the climate crisis, and spark economic development.

Some of those practices include no-till planting (helps to not disturb the soil), cover cropping (planting temporary crops not intended for harvest helps to keep the soil fertile), animal integration (moving cattle around for grazing techniques or using their manure to fertilize the soil), and diversity crop rotations (avoids monocultures and limits pesticide use).

For farmers like Jim Harbach at the Schrack Farms in Pennsylvania, regenerative agriculture can help soil reach its peak condition. Harbach’s family has been no-tilling for nearly 50 years and cover cropping for nearly 20 years. According to Harbach, his yields have increased and the farm hasn’t had to use insecticides over the past two decades.

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Since seeing the benefits, Harbach’s tried to help other farmers see the connection between sustainable practices and the planet.

“Usually the biggest challenge is the mindset change,” Harbach told NowThis. “A lot of farmers have been doing it the same way for a lot of years, which is how my father did it, my grandfather. And they're not really willing to change, but once they, once they start to see the benefits from it, they can't ignore them … I haven't met a farmer yet that didn't want to be environmentally responsible.”

In 2020, agriculture accounted for 11% of the U.S.’ greenhouse gas emissions. But as much as it’s impacting our climate, agriculture could also be our solution in the fight against the climate crisis. And some climate advocates are pointing to regenerative farming specifically as a priority in the fight.

One estimate projects that an expansion of regenerative farming could result in a global net reduction of 15-23 gigatons of CO2 by 2050. In the U.S., it’s projected that regenerative practices across 85% of cropland could sequester approximately 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. But these are just projections; they depend on farmers not disturbing the soil with tilling or cutting down forest or grassland to make room for more crops and livestock grazing.

Scalability could also be an issue. Farmers could run into a combination of obstacles, whether it’s financial difficulties in implementation, climate implications like heat waves and droughts, or simply a lack of time.

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So, can regenerative agriculture save the planet? It seems too nuanced to be deemed a viable solution on its own. But all of the practices are great for the environment and should be implemented where possible.

There are case studies in which these practices have worked. Everything from farmers’ crop yields being 20-25% higher than the average to land retaining enough water to survive a dry summer.

Yields and food security are also a concern. The world is expected to hit a population of nearly 10 billion by 2050. Food security could become an issue in the process of transitioning how we produce, manage, and harvest our crops.

Organizations like the World Resources Institute have highlighted alternate solutions to implement if we want a sustainable food future, such as reducing the demand for agricultural products, increasing food production without expanding agricultural land, and protecting and restoring natural ecosystems.

But as Harbach said, for most of us, it all has to begin with a change of mindset.