It’s the kind of conundrum you might expect to read about in a fast-paced, eco-thriller: There’s only a finite number of food harvests left in the future of humanity because of the declining state of the world’s soils. If soil health isn’t improved, the future of the human race will be in peril. If a solution is found, the planet won’t go hungry, and some of our current environmental crises, including climate change, could be reversed.
As gripping a plot line as it sounds, this isn’t the crux of a fictional story. It’s the current state of the world in a nutshell. But the good news is that there’s a method of farming that can protect and improve the Earth’s soils, ensuring our food supply while sequestering enough carbon from the atmosphere to help undo the effects of climate change.
It’s called regenerative agriculture, and more and more, this fringe way of working the land is finding its way into mainstream food production.
What is regenerative agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture is “a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services,” according to regenerative design consulting firm Terra Genesis International.
Regenerative agriculture principles
Terra Genesis International has proposed four principles of regenerative agriculture.
- Progressively improve whole agroecosystems (soil, water, and biodiversity).
- Create context-specific designs and make holistic decisions that express the essence of each farm.
- Ensure and develop just and reciprocal relationships amongst all stakeholders.
- Continually grow and evolve individuals, farms, and communities to actualize their innate potential.
Still, there really isn’t a universally accepted definition, because regenerative agriculture is such a new concept, explained Brent Preston, who along with partner Gillian Flies, owns and operates The New Farm vegetable farm in Creemore, Ontario, using organic and regenerative techniques. That means there’s no certification for it, either.
“It’s sort of the wild west,” said Preston, who’s also board president of the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario. “Anyone can say they’re regenerative.”
In the US, organic and regenerative agriculture get more support than in Canada, he noted. Even corporate food giant General Mills invests in developing tools and resources to get those in its supply chain to adopt soil health practices.
“(Americans) see it as a real economic opportunity and, for one reason or another, the Canadian government hasn’t seen it the same way,” Preston said.
The pillars of regenerative agriculture
There’s a saying in organic agriculture that to feed the soil is to feed the planet. Having fertile soil is fundamental to the survival of humanity, and the raison d’etre for regenerative agriculture.
Not all organic farming is regenerative, however, because it can include soil-disturbing and -damaging practices, such as tilling. At Brent Preston’s New Farm in Creemore, he and partner Gillian Flies grow organic vegetables and cut salads for restaurants throughout southern Ontario. Instead of tilling their salad stubble after each harvest to clear the way for new crops, they use tarps to kill the leftover stems and roots. When it’s time to plant, they gently rake the top layer of soil to create room for seeds.
Organic and regenerative farming overlap in several ways, though. Both avoid using chemicals, which kill soil microbes. They also incorporate cover crops to prevent soil erosion and act as green manure, breaking down and amending soil. Both The New Farm and Standard Process rotate crops, keeping unused swaths planted with cover crops for those reasons.
Maximizing biodiversity, using compost, and animal integration to graze cover crops and add nutrients to the earth are other essential regenerative practices.
Why regenerative farming?
Regenerative farming is standard practice at Standard Process, which grows organic vegetables in Wisconsin for use in supplements. Christine Mason, the company’s farm operations manager, has grown the organic matter in soil at one Standard Process farm between 11 and 130 percent in the last decade using regenerative agriculture methods. Along the way, the land has sequestered significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere while making Standard Process products more nutritious.
Mason, who sits on several US regenerative agriculture councils, is seeing more farmers use cover crops to feed their soil, which is one of the tenets of the farming method. More farmers are also adopting no-till practices, which reduce fossil fuel consumption and keep carbon sequestered in fields.
“We’ve got to feed soil and take care of soil similar to how we take care of ourselves,” Mason said. “We can’t just take from the soil and not put anything back. A lot of farmers are now realizing this is our most precious resource.”
How precious is soil?
One-third to one-quarter of the organic matter in Canadian Prairie topsoil was lost after only two or three decades of farming. That affects soil fertility as much as the nutritional quality of food grown in the nation’s breadbasket.
Soil by the numbers
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO), the world’s food production is at a critical juncture. Here’s why.
- 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil (12 million hectares) are lost every year.
- Enough land to feed 1.5 billion people—about one-quarter of the Earth’s surface—has been degraded so badly, it’s no longer suitable for food production.
- The UNFAO calculated in 2015 that we have about 60 harvests left.
Regenerative agriculture is good for the bottom line, too
The end result isn’t just good for the planet. It’s made farming more profitable for Preston and Flies, who don’t need off-farm jobs to supplement their income.
“We think regenerative farming is a big plus in the financial column, for sure,” Preston said.
Convincing more conventional farmers to adopt regenerative practices will require serious changes to farm policy in Canada, however. The focus needs to get away from monocrops and commodities for export, such as soy and corn, and cheap meat, he explained.
“We have the food system we have because that’s what’s been promoted by government,” Preston said. “If we want a different agriculture system, we have to do things differently.”
Improving soil through regenerative agriculture is one of the most important actions farmers can take—for the sake of the planet and the people living on it, Mason explained.
“A lot of farmland is in crisis and we need to protect topsoil,” she said. “Without topsoil, you don’t have food. We have to change our farming to help.”
Tiffany Mayer is a journalist based in St. Catharines, Ontario. You can read more of her work at timeforgrub.com.
This article was originally published in the March 2020 issue of alive Canada, under the title “Farming to Feed the Planet.”