How our food is grown is crucial to everything we do. Good food contributes to good health, soil health and economic activity. And at the same time, the way food is produced can make us susceptible to disease, degrade soil fertility and increase environmental harms.
The realization that agriculture has a unique win-win opportunity to tackle global challenges like human health, carbon sequestration, and economic challenges is driving farmers and supply chains to adopt “regenerative agriculture” – a continuous improvement process of pragmatic farming practices that build soil health and resilience.
Regenerative agriculture incorporates cover cropping, diverse crop planting, reduced tillage, watershed protection and integrated livestock grazing. These are practices familiar to most North American farmers.
What makes regenerative agriculture unique is that it integrates these practices into a comprehensive cropland management operating system. Continual improvement results in improved yields, healthier crops, and higher profitability.
Regenerative agriculture shares many characteristics with energy management
Both operating systems have a comprehensive, proactive approach. Executives that adopt holistic energy management practices in their companies harvest rewards similar to regenerative farmers – cost savings, improved productivity and higher profitability.
It’s easy to overlook the importance of what lies underneath our feet. North Americans take abundant food choices for granted. Yet, soil not only grows food, it filters and purifies water, reduces flooding, is the source of many medicines and stores vast amounts of carbon. As one of the earth’s most biodiverse habitats, soil is truly our planet's "living skin."
That living skin however, is being stressed and marred. Ninety per cent of conventionally farmed topsoil worldwide is being depleted. It can take nature up to 1,000 years to create three centimetres of topsoil. If we continue to lose soil 50- to 100-times faster than it can be replaced, we will also lose the ability, within our lifetime, to feed a growing human population.
In Canada, agriculture is responsible for 10 per cent of Canada’s climate warming carbon dioxide emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that agriculture, forestry and other land use, accounts for 23 per cent of total net anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
Yet, soil stores an extraordinary quantity of carbon and is one of the largest natural carbon sinks. The world’s soils hold three times the amount of carbon found in the atmosphere and twice the carbon contained in all plants and trees. The photosynthesis process of removing carbon from the air and transferring it into the ground can make the way we grow our food a critical climate solution.
Companies are paying attention to regenerative agriculture, too. Over 70 per cent of agri-business Scope 3 carbon emissions come from farming activities, and climate-related events in recent years have disrupted their global supply chains.
Maple Leaf Foods is an industry leader that has made ambitious regenerative agriculture commitments to strengthen their climate positive supply chain, amongst a growing peer network of agrifood businesses establishing similar goals.
Regenerative agriculture has true triple bottom line benefits:
Nutritious food is highly linked to positive health outcomes. Yet nutrients in our topsoil have been depleted to the point that we are literally, “dirt poor.” Crops grown decades ago were richer in vitamins and minerals than the varieties most of us get today. Regenerative agriculture can help reverse that troubling trend.
Soils host a great reservoir of biodiversity. Twenty-five per cent of animal species on Earth live underground. Healthy soil habitats support thousands of species of fungi, bacteria and invertebrates, which work collaboratively, out of sight, in support of global carbon, nitrogen and water cycles.
Soil is one of the world’s biggest natural carbon sinks. Regenerative agriculture in the United States has the potential to sequester about 650 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year, offsetting up to 11 per cent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions annually.
The cost of farm inputs and equipment has skyrocketed, putting intense pressure on farmers’ livelihoods. Regenerative agriculture can improve the profitability of farms by more than 50 per cent.
Farmers report that contending with fewer weeds and pests, combined with natural nutrient cycling, result in lower synthetic inputs. Crop yields are more likely to be sustained, even in periods of drought or heavy rainfall. There are also carbon offset markets that can provide supplementary incomes for participating farmers.
Regenerative agriculture is making both consumers and producers much more aware of the importance of soil and soil health. Soil is connected to almost everything that humans do. How well we farm is foundational to our wellbeing.
Restoring the fertility and diversity of the Earth’s soils must succeed. We can no longer take for granted the foundation of our wellbeing – the soils that lie beneath our feet, and the people that work those soils to provide us with the nutritious food we eat.
To learn more about regenerative agriculture, please tune into the 360 Energy podcast episode #88 with special guest Dipesh Mistry, COO of Vayda. The episode explores the market for climate-friendly agriculture, uncovering the economic and environmental incentives for farmers to embrace sustainable practices.