With my ‘regenerative farming’ hat on, I have been researching and writing about the relationship between agriculture and climate, and it has stirred much within me and given cause to hope.
I have long felt confounded by the enormity of the problems of climate change and biodiversity loss. There have been times in my life when I have sunk into dark depths of grief, wondering if I would find my way out again; and only doing so by deepening into a devotional relationship with the natural world, opening to mythic realms and finding purpose by learning to cultivate a soul-led life.
In recent research I have discovered that climate change and biodiversity loss are not actually two separate issues. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, the solution to both, are one and the same. This has brought relief, and allowed light into the dark recesses of my grief.
The more I think about this realisation the more important I believe it to be. Seen separately, climate change is almost exclusively about too much carbon in the atmosphere, and we feel powerless to do anything about it; and biodiversity loss is the inevitable consequence of progress, necessary to feed everyone (at least in agriculture). Both these perspectives are highly disempowering to global citizens, and carry an inherent load of guilt – everything being our fault. Regenerative Agriculture however offers real, concrete hope.
Regenerative Agriculture works with the natural principle that a healthy, intact ecosystem is far more productive than any other system humans have ever come up with.
Intensive agricultural attempts to control natural variables, so instead of relying on natural fertility, soluble inputs are used to feed plants. These inputs, along with herbicides and pesticides kill life. But in a natural system, soil life is what creates fertility.
Perhaps humans are reaching the point where we have enough humility to realise that nature is far wiser than we’ll ever be, and see her as our teacher once more. This shift in mindset is central to regenerative agriculture. The core enquiry always being, how do we increase diversity?
Meat isn’t so bad for the environment after all…
Herbivores are designed to eat living plants, but almost all livestock production uses some concentrated feeds like soya, especially to fatten animals before slaughter. However there is a growing movement of regenerative, 100% pasture-fed meats, where production systems look very different. Costly inputs become a thing of the past, because there is no need for tractors or feed, and because a healthy ecosystem supports healthy animals, medicines are rarely required.
Central to regenerative production are healthy, living soils. The old equation of grass = animals feed, becomes animals = an agent of creating healthy living soils and ecosystems. A healthy, living soil is rich in microorganisms, fungi, etc, which cycle carbon into the soil matrix, turning dusty-dirt, into a spongy, delicious smelling, teaming with life, food factory for plants, which is able to hold huge amounts of water.
Farming healthy living soils is the best solution to climate change, because this process, where life cycles carbon into the soil, is inexhaustible. Soil therefore, is the best long term carbon sink available to us.
But herbivores of late have been demonised for contributing to climate change, due to the methane they produce through their burps and farts. But while intensive production of meat is deeply problematic, as is cutting down rainforest to grow beef, this demonisation ignores the fact that vast areas of the world are naturally grassland, prairies and savannahs. These ecosystems are synonymous with the grazing animals that inhabit them. In these ecosystems herbivores are the great mobile bio-digesters, essential for cycling carbon into the soil.
In wild grassland systems, predators keep herds of grazers bunched together, and moving regularly. This results in the grasses being eaten, trampled, peed and poohed on, and then left to rest. Without this animal impact, especially in dry climates, grasses stay standing up, only able to biodegrade through slow oxidation, which results in areas of bare ground appearing under the plants – the start of desertification.
So while desertification is often caused by mis-management of grazing animals. These same animals are the best tool available to reverse desertification. All that is required is an understanding of herbivores as a tool to rebuild soil carbon, and restore living soils. There are some wonderful examples of people doing this work around the world. The following video from ‘Kiss the Ground’ is a great, brief exploration of this kind of work.
Coming back to climate, hopefully so far this article and the video have helped in the understanding that the soil carbon-sponge is the best way for us to draw-down carbon and restore biodiversity (because a healthy living soil is the foundation of the ecosystem). An abundance of life under-ground = an abundance above ground. Farmers converting to Regen-Ag are astounded by the rapid return of insects and birds to their farms.
Drylands and Reversing Desertification
One of the most important and least talked about effects of land-use on climate, is the travesty of bare-soil. When land is left bare, exposed to the sun, it kills the life in the soil. To keep soils regenerating, plant cover is essential. In cropping systems this is done with the use of cover crops; in livestock systems, this is done by using animal impact, and rest, as tools to take care of land, by mimicking the way predators would move animals in nature.
Bare ground under hot sun acts like a radiator, heating up and re-radiating heat back into the atmosphere. Ground covered with plants will not heat up above 20 degrees centigrade, bare ground, on the other hand, will heat to 60 degrees plus. Re-radiation is exponential in its effect, and an aspect of climate change that should be much higher on the global agenda.
The reason plants keep the soil cool isn’t just because they create shade, but also because they transfer heat back out into space through evapotranspiration. Bacteria from plants, go up with that transpired water, and seed clouds to create rain. There are in fact only 3 things that can naturally aggregate atmospheric moisture into clouds and rain. These are: Ice crystals (formed at high altitudes), salt crystals (water from oceans) and bacteria from plants and trees.
Natural ecosystems therefore create their own rain. This healthy cycling of water between planet and atmosphere is an essential part of how the planet is cooled. So addressing desertification using animal impact as a tool, is to my mind the most crucial action that needs to be taken across the world to address the dual monsters of climate change and biodiversity loss. And this is not just in the dry tropics, in climates like Britain too, the best way to sequester carbon into the soil is through well managed grassland.
If land is left bare, dust ends up in the atmosphere. Along with air pollution, these ‘aerosols’ aggregate moisture creating heat hazes. But these aerosols can’t aggregate water sufficiently to create rain, so heat hazes sit over land, heating the climate further. This is the water cycle stuck in motion, and yet another reason land management is essential to address. A stuck water cycle can only heat, not cool the planet.
Finally, I will leave you with a video of Allan Savory, (a man I flew halfway across the world to meet 20+ years ago, because I was so excited by his ideas), talking about the extraordinary work he has been doing reversing desertification, and restoring natural habitats as well as people’s livelihoods in Southern Africa.
Further resources for those interesting:
The work of Walter Jehne, soil microbiologist and expert and explaining this more holistic picture of climate-land dynamics. He has a bunch of videos on youtube.
Wilding by Isabella Tree is a truly inspiring read/listen about the rewilding of the Knepp Estate in West Sussex, UK.