Climate change is real. Unfortunately, we are past the stage where we can prevent it. The only thing we can do now is to limit its impact by preventing further increase in CO2 emissions by adopting practices that reduce “carbon pumps” and enhance carbon sequestration via “carbon sinks”. Regenerative organic agriculture is one such technology and this article summarizes findings of a study on impact of Regenerative Organic Agriculture (ROA) on climate change by researchers of Rodale Institute.
Need for Regenerative Organic Agriculture
Modern agriculture practices such as use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, mono-cropping, tillage using machines, etc. have led to increased levels of N2O and CO2 in the atmosphere, polluted our soil, water and air. Soil analysis has shown that globally, soils have lost 30% – 75 % of their original organic matter. Further, it has been estimated that modern agriculture and overall food system is responsible for more than 30% of global carbon emissions.
In contrast, regenerative organic agriculture emphasizes a holistic approach that does not deplete or deteriorate natural resources, and encourages improved resource usage to promote environmental, social, economic and spiritual well-being. Thus, it offers a compelling alternative that, if adopted readily and rapidly, has the potential to positively impact the fight against climate change.
Data showing capability of regenerative organic agriculture to reverse carbon emission
- Croplands in Egypt and Iran, transition towards a regenerative organic model could sequester 40% carbon emissions. And, if we consider the global pasture lands shifting to a regenerative organic model, in the same time can sequester additional 71 %, which in total results in negative emissions. Thus, regenerative organic agriculture has the capability to reverse more than 100 % of our annual carbon emissions rapidly.
- Considering only half of the global pasture and croplands, a transition to regenerative farming techniques on these lands may sequester 55 % GtCO2e as equivalent to annual 2012 emissions data. And only half of the available croplands shift to regenerative methods, could reach to the equivalents/numbers where limiting the global temperature below 1.5°C is plausible.
ROA for Carbon Sequestration
ROA methods are simple, easy to adopt, and produce tangible results with conscious efforts. Some of the ROA techniques that help sequester carbon are as follows.
- The uncovered soil releases the trapped carbon decreasing the amount of carbon sequestrated and effecting the overall soil health. Cover crops and enhanced rotations ensure soil cover, soil at no point in time is left bare thus helping to build-up soil carbon organic biomass with additional benefits in terms of increased water infiltration capacity, soil structure, complex root system and disease control. The seeded grass species, living mulches, perennials can be used as cover crops, and particularly perennial cover crops that have deep bushy root system helps accumulate the soil carbon stocks. Tillage erodes soil through exposure to wind and water leading to loss of carbon biomass rich top soil.
- Regenerative practices reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions only if the farming methods are organic. For example, no-tillage benefits in conventional farming is offset by the nitrogen emissions from nitrogen fertilization that increases microbial CO2 respiration and phosphorus during fertilization and prevents growth of microbes responsible for long-term soil carbon storage.Retaining the crop residue is a practice generally followed in no-tillage system, increasing carbon sequestration of soils.Composting is another practice that builds up the soil carbon through enhance deep root system, controls diseases and pests, provides energy for microorganisms to grow and build up healthy soils for healthy plant growth. Trials done using compost as a manure on farm lands have resulted in improved soil health with much less water and fertilizer needs. Also increase in soil carbon content was observed compared to the conventional farm using synthetic fertilizers where decreased soil carbon content was observed in same time frames.
Retaining the soil carbon stocksRegenerative organic agriculture not only enhances carbon sequestration but is also meant to hold the carbon reserves in the soil for long. ROA ensures that soil organic carbon content is stable and trapped for long time, however, the complexity of the soil microbiology doesn’t completely define this longevity. Still a lot of research is required to understand the complex structures within soils that would define the long-term stability of soil carbon stock beneath the surface.
Among the microorganisms that are responsible for carbon sequestration in soils, mycorrhizal fungi is predominantly responsible for soil carbon through its property of forming soil aggregates that traps carbon forming soil carbon complexes preventing the loss of carbon. The fungi has a symbiotic relationship with the root, and secrets a protein called glomalin. It is the glomalin form stable soil carbon aggregates .
These aggregates remain even after the fungal deteriorate and hence, the soil carbon is intact for decades. Further this soil carbon organic matter binds with metals and minerals to form stable complexes trapping the carbon for even longer duration.
Another thing that defines the carbon sequestration rates is the depth at which we find the carbon stocks and for the timeframe these soil carbon stocks can be held in such depths. It is established that the carbon stocks in soils are found in depth below 30 cm, but there are no established data sets to showcase the levels enhanced/ improved by regenerative organic farming methods in such depths.
However,, no-tillage, compost manure and crop rotations have significantly and rapidly, improved the soil carbon contents. Various trials conducted have proved that transition to regenerative organic practices have increased the soil carbon in just few years and these changes has been observed rapidly in the initial years of transition.
Even though we don’t know the unique soil carbon saturation rates, we can still see regenerative organic farming as means to reduce emission in years to come. A long-term solution that would fetch us time till we have proven technological solutions.
The yield of regenerative organic methods compared to conventional chemical production methods has always been the big question in adopting organic practices.
As per data, regenerative organic production yields are proved to be more compared to the that of any conventional synthetic fertilizer-based production method for most crops. It has been evidenced that under the extreme climate events, the organic methods provide much more yield as compared to conventional chemical methods.
The Rodale Institute Farming System Trials have reported a consistent increase in yields of corn production, which were 28% to 30 % higher using regenerative organic methods as compared to conventional farm production , in drought years.
Another thing debated is, can organic methods cater to the increasing food demands? can these methods provide enough food to serves the billion population?The amount of food production is not lacking, in fact, we produce enough food to feed our growing population.
These are economic and social issues, policy crisis and distribution inequality that cause the lack of food access and hunger. Moreover, if we promote small-scale regenerative agriculture, this to an extent, partially, can reduce this food inequality.
Regenerative agriculture is seen as a way forward towards sustaining the human population- a sustained need for nutritious food, clean water, pollution- free air and healthy land.
- Investing in designing trials that can provide a tangible solution to be adopted by farmers and young enthusiasts.
- A skillful and knowledge sharing platform that not only defines regenerative organic farming but is continually improving, replenishing and reviving the global landscapes and needs.
- Most importantly believing in the powers of natural ecosystem, which if appropriately utilized, can reverse the climate change impacts.
 Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change, Rodale Institute