Only 60 Harvests Left? How Can Regenerative Help?
You may have heard the statistic that we only have around 60 harvests left before the soil is too degraded to use, a statistic quoted by a senior UN official for World Soil Day. You may have also heard of something called Regenerative Agriculture, which promises to both help with the topsoil crisis and help fight global warming. So what’s going on, why is this happening, and what can we do to help support the solutions?
A huge but under discussed factor in our global climate crisis is soil degradation. The idea is to try and measure the health of our global topsoil through its fertility, availability, chemical structure, salinity, frequency of drought in the area and other such measures, and when you combine regional data from around the world you ultimately end up with a bleak picture for the future of farmland. Due to the enormous variability in farmland it is difficult to point to one specific practice as the culprit for the problem, but overall the issue is centered around unsustainable industrial farm practices. Massive monocrop farms can deplete the soil of specific nutrients. Farms designed in neat rows that make machine harvesting easier can also make the land more susceptible to topsoil erosion. Deforestation by fire, like what was just happening in the Amazon, clears the land for poor quality farming areas while removing the tree roots that kept the topsoil from running off in the rain, creating a feedback loop of constantly needing more land to clear. Hooves rip up the topsoil, so our overuse of animal agriculture is causing desertification. Overuse of pesticides, exasperated by GMOs designed to be resistant to those pesticides, make the soil toxic. Some areas are drying out from overuse of groundwater and droughts, while others are flooding out from global warming.
As you can imagine, the solution to this crisis needs to be just as multifaceted as the problem. This is where the idea of regenerative agriculture comes in. Regenerative agriculture is a movement around designing and implementing agriculture solutions that improve the long term health of the soil that are tailor made to the locality that the farmland is in. The other big goal of this process is to put more carbon into the soil than is used by the farming, meaning that your food and clothing in the future could be entirely carbon negative. Arguably the most efficient carbon capture technology ever made is a plant, and so turning our agriculture into something that helps the soil can also be a way of cooling the earth. Regenerative Agriculture practices include minimal tilling to keep the soil from eroding, cover crops and crop rotation that restore nutrients to the soil, using natural fertilizers over synthetic ones that imbalance the soil, carefully planned farm ecosystems that provide natural homes for pollinators and other important wildlife, livestock management so the hooves, grazing and waste of the animals can actually improve the land rather than restore it, and other such practices.
So what can we do to support regenerative agriculture? The first and one of the easiest steps is to hit up your local farmers market, as eating local and in season is always going to be better for the environment than something more mass marketed. But luckily there are also plenty of other brands you can easily find online and in stores that are committed to regenerative agriculture. Prana Snacks, Alter Eco, Numi Organic Tea, and Annie’s Homegrown are three brands committed to making food products using only regenerative agriculture. Annie’s in particular is interesting because it is now a part of General Mills, and General Mills has committed themselves to creating 1 million acres of regenerative agriculture by 2030, and so supporting that subset of General Mills will help show them that’s the direction people want them to go. Outside of the food world, New Chapter VItamins and Dr. Bronner soaps are both easy to find brands working towards regenerative agriculture. For fashion brands, the cashmere brand Naadam is big on producing cashmere while reversing the desertification of Mongolia. Patagonia also tops the list of regenerative agriculture brands, to no one’s great surprise considering their incredible track record for sustainability. Check out the newly developed Regenerative Organic Certification for a long list of other brands similarly committed to making sure farming improves the land rather than degrades it.