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Regenerative Farming: an Agricultural Solution to World Problems

Posted on January 22, 2020 at 3:00 PM

There’s a plethora of documentaries, news stories and news reports on the world problems that affect the US and most of the world. Many of these problems are partially attributed to the overuse of chemicals and pesticides as well as antibiotics. In response, many have turned to eating organic foods and doctors are told to not distribute antibiotics for any non-bacterial sickness. There are massive climate change protests to enact more rules and taxes on fossil fuel emitters as well as a great push to go mostly vegetarian or vegan to save the environment.1

Besides making significant federal policy changes to put a high price on carbon in an attempt to become carbon-free by 2050, changes to electricity usage and industry are inevitable and estimated to cost the US trillions of dollars.2 Many are stirred up into a fury on the subject and believe in an apocalyptic end if the above changes don’t happen soon. One of the immediate changes would deal with agriculture as it leads to food insecurity amongst the emissions problem. Agriculture, forestry and land-use change contributed around 20% to 25% of global annual emissions in 2010.3 Electricity and heat production have already been reduced by an increase of windmills and solar panels with a reduction in fossil fuel use. A decrease in industry use would also mostly come from less fossil fuel consumption and less of certain chemical emissions. The impact of climate change is also attributed to current US agricultural emissions mostly blamed on meat and poultry farms. In response, some mainstream farms have improved varieties, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and irrigation systems to counteract that impact.

In response to industrial/mainstream farming standards where synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides were the norm, the organic movement began in the early 1900’s. Organic farming allows no chemical fertilizers, chemical pesticides, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to grow the food. In 1972, small groups of organic farmer associations joined to form the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). In recent years, environmental awareness has driven farmers to convert to organic farming. While not in the US, some governments, including the European Union, support organic farming through agricultural subsidy reform.4

Established by Congress in 2001, the National Organic Program is a federal regulatory program through the US Department of Agriculture that emerged via The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 to develop and enforce uniform national standards for organically-produced agricultural products sold in the United States. The organic label as set by the USDA can be tricky for the American consumer. There are four levels of organic labels as defined by the USDA: 1) Certified organic – produce that comes from an organically certified USDA-approved certifier. The produce may use the words, “certified organic” or have a USDA organic seal. 2) 100% organic – all ingredients have to be certified organic, all processing aids have to also be organic and the label needs to states the name of the certifying agent in the information panel. The produce may use the words, “100% organic” and may carry the USDA organic seal. 3) Organic - items bearing the organic label must contain only certified organic agricultural items. Five percent of the ingredients may be non-organic, but they must be on the National List of allowed items. These labels must include the name of the certifying agent in the information panel. These labels can bear the word “organic” and may use the USDA organic seal. 4) Made with Organic - produce products carrying the “made with” label must be made with at least 70% certified organic ingredients. The remaining ingredients cannot use production methods excluded by the USDA. Non-agricultural products must be on the National List of allowed items, and product labels need to include the name of the certifying agent in the information panel. These labels can carry the words “made with organic” (up to three ingredients or ingredient categories), but they cannot carry the USDA organic seal. The label can also not carry the words, “made with organic ingredients.”5

Overall, these farms still make up a small share of US farmland even with the dramatic growth in certified organic farms. There were 5 million certified organic acres of farmland in 2016, representing less than 1% of the 911 million acres of total farmland nationwide.6 The demand for organic foods is on the rise as consumers seek out a diversity of fruits and vegetables grown in this way. It is currently one of the fastest growing sectors of U.S. agriculture. According to the Organic Trade Association’s latest industry survey, US organic food sales topped at $52.5 billion in 2018. In addition, that same year’s statistics show that organic food represents 5.7% of all food sales in the country and is steadily rising.7 Consumer demand for organic food is growing steadily but the percentage of organic farmland in the US is only inching up. Farmers must learn to manage soil nutrients without fertilizer and tackle weeds and insects without herbicides and insecticides. In addition, many US farmers do not find enough buyers to justify a full-farm effort. The choice to go organic in the US is generally considered risky and complicated. It presents a barrier for the average farmer to switch to organic farming methods.

In the US, organic certification requires that organic soil methods to be practiced for three years before any crop can be sold as organic food. Also, organic producers must use a longer crop rotation than conventional counterparts. Also, the same row crop cannot be produced in consecutive years on the same field. Land coming out of the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) needs to meet the 3-year requirement of treating the soil with no prohibitive substances, but it is possible to harvest an organic crop the first year coming out of CRP if synthetic chemicals have not been applied during that period.8 Farmers can use a biological or botanical substance or even a substance included on the national list of synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production if all other methods fail to control pests, weeds or disease.

Unfortunately, many of these organic farmers still have to keep the chemistry of the soil at a certain standard using “natural” inputs. Ecological solutions cannot be patented or easily sold but for the farmer, these solutions are turning out to be almost always more effective and inexpensive. Any fertilizers, synthetic or natural, can be replaced by the free soil food web that builds soil and gets better over time. Beneficial organisms like birds and insects as well as plant diversity would eliminate the need for pesticides. This type of farming that goes beyond organic is called Regenerative Agriculture.

Growing concern about the global climate crisis is driving interest in regenerative agriculture, since soils store more carbon than the atmosphere and vegetation combined. Regenerative practices could extend that capacity, helping limit or even eliminate the agricultural sector’s significant greenhouse gas emissions.

Using regenerative farming practices reduces tillage, uses cover crops and diversifies crop rotations. Now there’s greater recognition that those practices benefit the climate too. Regenerative agriculture practices increase soil biodiversity and organic matter, leading to more resilient soils that can better withstand climate change impacts like flooding and drought. Healthy soils beget strong yields and nutrient-rich crops. It also diminishes erosion and runoff, leading to improved water quality on and off the farm. Importantly, regenerative agriculture practices also help us fight the climate crisis by pulling carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering it in the ground.

Through photosynthesis, plants capture sunlight. They turn it into carbon-based energy, which they store in their roots, and oxygen, which they release into the air. When plants die, their roots form a stable carbon skeletal structure underground that has many bonding sites for water and nutrients. These roots attract bacteria and fungi to the soil that breathe in oxygen and out carbon dioxide, just like you and me, and store carbon as they eat up plant matter. The carbon they’ve ingested eventually becomes part of the soil when they die.

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Copyright © 2019 by Kimberly Schwender

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