We need regenerative farming, not geoengineering

Green PasturesThe quick fix mindset behind geoengineering must be transformed to one that seeks a humble partnership with nature if we are to address climate change

Geoengineering has been back in the news recently after the US National Research Council endorsed a proposal to envelop the planet in a layer of sulphate aerosols to reduce solar radiation and cool the atmosphere.

The proposal has been widely criticised for possible unintended consequences, such as ozone depletion, ocean acidification and reduced rainfall in the tropics. Perhaps even more troubling, geoengineering is a technological fix that leaves the economic and industrial system causing climate change untouched.

Regenerative agriculture comprises an array of techniques that rebuild soil and, in the process, sequester carbon. Typically, it uses cover crops and perennials so that bare soil is never exposed, and grazes animals in ways that mimic animals in nature. It also offers ecological benefits far beyond carbon storage: it stops soil erosion, remineralises soil, protects the purity of groundwater and reduces damaging pesticide and fertiliser runoff.

But these methods are slow, expensive and impractical in feeding a growing population, right?

Wrong. While comprehensive statistics are hard to come by, yields from regenerative methods often exceed conventional yields (see here and here for scientific research, and here and here for anecdotal examples). Likewise, since these methods build soil, crowd out weeds and retain moisture, fertiliser and herbicide inputs can be reduced or eliminated entirely, resulting in higher profits for farmers. No-till methods can sequester as much as a ton of carbon per acre annually (2.5 tons/hectare). In the US alone, that could amount to nearly a quarterof current emissions.

Estimates of the total potential impact vary. Rattan Lal of Ohio State University argues that desertified and otherwise degraded soils could sequester up to 3bn tons of carbon per year (equal to 11bn tons of CO2, or nearly one third of current emissions). Other experts foresee even greater potential. According to research at the Rodale Institute, if instituted universally, organic regenerative techniques practiced on cultivated land could offset over 40% of global emissions, while practicing them on pasture land could offset 71%.

That adds up to land-based CO2 reduction of over 100% of current emissions – and that doesn’t even include reforestation and afforestation, which could offset another 10-15%, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Of course, none of this is license to perpetuate a fossil fuel infrastructure, since there is an eventual limit to the amount of carbon that soil and biomass can store.

Working with nature

Given that they are better even from purely commercial considerations, why haven’t regenerative practices spread more quickly? An answer commonly offered by farmers themselves is that “people are slow to change.” Maybe so, but in this case there is more to it than that. Regenerative agriculture represents more than a shift of practices. It is also a shift in paradigm and in our basic relationship to nature – as a comparison with geoengineering highlights.

First, regenerative agriculture seeks to mimic nature, not dominate it. As Ray Archuleta, a soil-health specialist at the USDA, puts it, “We want to go away from control and command agriculture. We should farm in nature’s image.” In contrast, geoengineering seeks to take our centuries-long domination of nature to a new extreme, making the entire planet an object of manipulation.

Second, regenerative agriculture is a departure from linear thinking and its control of variables through mechanical and chemical means. It values the diversity of polycultures, in which animals and plants form a complex, symbiotic, robust system. Geoengineering, on the other hand, ignores the law of unintended consequences that plagues any attempt to engineer a highly nonlinear system. It exemplifies linear thinking: if the atmosphere is too warm, add a cooling factor. But who knows what will happen?

Third, regenerative agriculture seeks to address the deep basis of ecological health: the soil. It sees low fertility, runoff and other problems as symptoms, not the root problem. Geoengineering, on the other hand, addresses the symptom – global warming – while leaving the cause untouched.

There is no quick fix

Unlike geoengineering’s quick fix, regenerative agriculture cannot be implemented at scale without deep cultural changes. We must turn away from an attitude of nature-as-engineering-object to one of humble partnership. Whereas geoengineering is a global solution that feeds the logic of centralisation and the economics of globalism, regeneration of soil and forests is fundamentally local: forest by forest, farm by farm. These are not generic solutions, because the requirements of the land are unique to each place. Unsurprisingly, they are typically more labour-intensive than conventional practices, because they require a direct, intimate relationship to the land.

Ultimately, climate change challenges us to rethink our long-standing separation from nature in which we think we can endlessly engineer our way out of the damage we have caused. It is calling us back to our biophilia, our love of nature and of life, our desire to care for all beings whether or not they make greenhouse gas numbers go up or down.

Geoengineering, beyond its catastrophic risks, is an attempt to avoid that call, to extend the mindset of domination and control to new extremes, and to prolong an economy of overconsumption a few years longer. It is time to fall in love with the land, the soil, and the trees, to halt their destruction and to serve their restoration. It is time for agricultural policy and practice to become aligned with regeneration.

1 Comment We need regenerative farming, not geoengineering

  1. AvatarChristopher A. Haines

    Excellent Article. I am just learning about the soil and water capacity to sequester carbon, but it all makes perfect sense. What is the color of the most fertile soil you can think of. It is black. It is black because of the high level of carbon it it. We have disrespected dirt to such a degree we have destroyed the worlds’ soil. See David Montgomery, Dirt. The carbon of fertile soil is now in the atmosphere. Yes, I know it got there by burning fossil fuels, but we have taken it out of the soil as well. Some claim we can reverse global warming with proper carbon care. I hate to say “management” as it infers a control that is counterproductive. I don’t know if they are correct, but the paradigm shift to get there would be huge. See the documentary ‘the Symphony of the Soil”. We need the end of industrial agriculture that treats dirt as nothing more than a medium to poor man-made chemicals into. That system will fail anyway for lack of energy inputs in the not too distant future. The sooner we create an alternative, the better off we will be when the inevitable weak link in the chain gives way.

    What I do know is the brain science behind this. Everyone knows Einsteins’ quote “You cannot solve a problem with the same level of thinking that created it” What has not been clear is what is the different level of thinking he was seeking. This is it! He sought a shift to right brain three dimensional problem solving. See Peter Calthorpe, Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change. “You cannot engineer your way out of a problem you engineered your way into” Eisenhower made a less well known statement. “Whenever I run into a problem I can’t solve I make it bigger. I will never solve it by trying to make it smaller, but if I make it big enough I can begin to see the outline of a solution” He was also recognizing the need for right brain thinking. The paradigm shift Charles is referring to. Einstein also said “A Clever man solves a problem, A Wise man avoids it” We have been creating problems for so long and our “clever” men have been gaining kudos solving them we have forgotten there is a better way.

    On the one hand people may take a long time to change, but on the other hand our solution is only as far away as our thinking and can change just that fast. A few years with a new paradigm could make a world of difference.

    thank you for your thoughts Charles.

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