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Food and Agriculture

Regenerative organic agriculture, beyond sustainability

Photography by Tracey Creed
Words by Amandine Paniagua


Published September 5 2019

Conversations around regenerative organic agriculture are serious, yet captivating. Affected by misinformation attached to a profusion of beliefs, much like we see with the sustainability and organic food movement, it seems vital to clarify the words shaping the conversation. The Cambridge Dictionary defines the umbrella word sustainability as "the quality of causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time". In the same dictionary, organic is defined by "not using artificial chemicals in the growing of plants and animals for food and other products". Therefore, organic agriculture is a practice of work or farming that is not using artificial chemicals, while organic food is produced without using synthetic chemicals input.

Over the past 80 years, the industrialisation of agriculture, while dramatically improving productivity has come at a high cost to both humans and the environment. In 20 years, over-use of synthetic pesticides and land conversion resulted in the impoverishment of soil, biodiversity, the disappearance of ecosystems, erosion, loss of hummus and crucial bacterias. And once the backbone of agriculture, small farmers are being displaced by big agriculture, encouraging increased mechanisation and subsequently industrial capitalism. Field workers continue suffering severe health effects, while pest resistance increases. As soon as the 60s, an alternative way of practising agriculture emerged, the organic movement, defined by “farming methods based on living processes”. Organics bans the use of synthetic toxins on the land, a win for the environment and workers; viewed by the public as a safer, healthier approach - a practice “causing little or no damage to the environment”, yet is this method “able to continue for a long time”; shortly, is it entirely sustainable?

Is organic agriculture sustainable?

In practice, traditional organic agriculture remains production-only driven, still structured by a capitalist food system built for conventional agriculture. Perceived often as the result of small-scale farming, certified organic food as we buy it is mainly supplied by big co-operatives and giant farms. Farmers tend to replicate what is aspired to oppose to cope with an ever-increasing demand for organic food. For instance, to boost efficiency and economies of scale, major organic crops like almonds, corn, soybeans or coconuts come from monoculture environments, requiring refrigeration and transports. For Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “a field of identical plants will be exquisitely vulnerable to insects, weeds, and disease. Monoculture is at the root of virtually every problem that bedevils the modern farmer". Organic monoculture farming carries a similar lack of biodiversity than conventional agriculture, which threatens the long term survival of crops. That is especially important for perennial crops relying on pollination to produce. Gathering insects need biodiversification to thrive, only achievable in agricultural fields through crops association and native plants.

Organic monoculture still requires large amounts of inputs to produce, made from natural ingredients instead of synthetics. Due to the lack of crop diversity and organic matters that soil needs to thrive, human-made fertilizers are required to boost the soil. The logic is similar to conventional agriculture. The heavy dependence on mechanized tools relying on petroleum, like tractors designed to vacuums undesirable insects, also remains the same as conventional agriculture.

The executive director of the Rodale Institute, Jeff Moyer, described how a farm could be certified organic without improving soil or human condition. Virgin soil paired with organic-approved input, coupled with minimum wage workers, although a questionable and short-term vision, would lead to the organic certification. In her study “Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California", doctor Julie Guthman drew attention on how the certification deeply configured the way organic farming is practised today. To "emphasize economic viability and sustainable profit margins'' - to thrive in a capitalist economy, the certification minimized the earliest principles of organic farming, such as agroecology, diversity, equity or scale. The way organic certification is structured makes it even harder to switch from conventional to organic farming. It lost its original commitment to building an alternative and sustainable food system that could feed us all.

Biodiversity loss, the decline of crops diversity, erosion of soil, water contamination, scarcity; conventional agriculture massively contributes to the net amount of greenhouses disrupting our climate. Benefits of large scale organic farming are by no means to be discussed. Backed by farmers, studies clearly state organic agriculture has better balance production, environment, economics and social well-being. Yields of organic plots surpass conventional in the long term run, stop depleting soil health, demands less energy, reduce greenhouse gases. However, with only a dozen years to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees, production-driven, organic monoculture won't be enough to stabilize worldwide emissions and sustain the world. The questions become: Is there a way for our natural land to be restored, recover from massive ecological loss? Can these lands help reduce carbon emissions, yet still producing nutritious food?

A resilient agricultural model for rebuilding ecosystems and feed people...

In parallel to the organic movement, alternative agricultural processes were developed to produce food while repairing ecological damage done to the land, particularly water and soil, through resilient methods. Regenerative agriculture is based on permaculture design principles, thoughtful land planning. Inspired by Nature mechanisms, these principles are more adaptive, like in Nature. Sometimes called holistic management, regenerative agriculture also combines concepts of healing before producing, considering the long-term consequences of farming activities. Embodied by low-cost practices, contexts and scales, regenerative agriculture aims to improve resource use, biological diversity and perennial crops. It also prefers closed nutrient loops, internal resources dependence, while improving watershed. In practice, regenerative organic agriculture approaches include, but it is not limited to, crop rotation, conservation un-tillage, cover crops, residue retention (mulching), use of compost, etc.

Regenerative agriculture begins with soil restoration. In Nature, soil is the protagonist of the agrarian system; it holds life, the organisms, microbes and insects that fed by the plants, return nutrients to the plants. Favouring microbial life strengthen soil health and vitality, nourishes crops, manages pests and disease with the support of plant diversity and beneficial organisms such as birds or pollinators. In conventional agriculture, pesticides kill these beneficial organisms, disrupting soil and plants cycles, decreasing over time crop productivity. In contrast, regenerative agriculture achieves productivity as the soil recovers, rebuilds, producing more with less input. In continuity, this enables biodiversity to return, thus increasing ecosystem stability, while providing increased resilience towards potential environmental changes, without reducing agricultural yields. Comparative field studies have shown increased biodiversity generate higher crop yields than intensive management. Think of it as a closed-loop system, far from the logic using synthetic chemical inputs - regenerative agriculture is, therefore, organic agriculture closer to what we imagine.

Overall, regenerative agriculture favoured a comprehensive approach, building long-term relationships with the land, growing better instead of bigger, being able to experiment with the generosity of Mother-Nature. Inspiring conventional and not so conventional (non-) organic farmers, attitudes towards regenerative organic agriculture are slowly changing. Large organic monoculture farms pushed to increase demand on unpopular crops, such as broccoli or lentils. These crops are more suited for rotation - a regenerative method consisting of planting different crops each year in the same plot to rebuild soil. Ideally, farmers would shift from the compulsory 3-year rotation for organic certification to a yearly rotation, better-enhancing soils and productivity, limiting fungal pathogens and replenishing soils.

In Canada Jean-Martin Fortier, alongside his wife Maude-Hélène, developed “Les Jardins de la Grelinette” a micro-farm recognised for its high productivity and profitability. The farm is not mechanised and operates annually with very little fossil fuel. An old pasture with only 4% of organic matter in the soil, the farm increased organic matter to 14% only using input locally sourced. The couple yet managed to generate a six-figure yearly income, 60% margins, on 6000 m2 of land (1½ acres). With soil condition improving, fertility, water holding capacity and biodiversity increase in parallel to productivity, resilience and profitability. In his book “The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower's Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming" Jean-Martin shares all the basics on setting up this micro-farm, a human-sized scale farm that is lucrative, productive and a contagious passion project. It's a simple win-win for the people and ecosystems. As Daniel Zetah from New Story Farm in Tasmania, Australia stated, “only regenerative agriculture has any hope at feeding a growing population into the future since it is becoming more productive as it matures.” Regenerative organic agriculture provides a viable solution to feed the nearly 10 billion people on the planet over the next century without further damaging ecosystems.

… and mitigate climate change impacts, an inclusive, sustainable approach.

Endorsed by various scientific bodies, the IPCC report released in 2018 clearly states carbon sequestration is a significant action to keep global temperature under 1.5 degrees Celsius. In every scenario, carbon emissions are to be drastically reduced by 45% by 2030, coming down to zero by 2050. The cost of doing nothing would be much higher. Modern technologies that suck carbon gas exist, but they are unrealistic. Regardless, managing forests, grasslands or farms to remove carbon from the air is more efficient, something we already know to do, and now have to do better. According to a study conducted in 2018, the right motivation could lead the world to achieve one-third of carbon reductions needed by 2030 by using Nature better. Actively work with Nature is crucial to maintain life conditions on the planet.

All plants feed on carbon dioxide (CO2). Through their leaves, plants suck carbon from the air, and via photosynthesis convert the CO2 and water into oxygen (02) and sugar glucose (carbohydrates). Half the sugar produced is sent to the plant roots feeding microbes and fungi that in return, transform minerals into plants nourishing nutrients. This microbiome also stabilises humus trapping carbon in the soil for centuries. Understanding this, we come to realise why chemical pesticides and fertilisers disrupting natural processes are counterproductive.

From all over the world, land under regenerative agricultural management continues providing spectacular data and encouraging results. In Iran, a trial conducted over two years demonstrated growing low-input corn through regenerative methods, mainly no-till and composted manure could raise average soil carbon in the soil by 4,100 tonnes per hectare per year. To compare, a similar field using synthetic fertiliser and till systems increase only 10 tonnes per hectare. Another small experiment conducted over 30 years in Egypt’s biodynamic desert land demonstrated soil carbon sequestration of 4,100 tonnes per hectare per year.

Another case study of conventional agriculture scale; in 2017 in the U.S.A., an audit on Nebraska’s dairy farms planting cover crops on land that were otherwise empty, calculated absorption of 6992 tonnes of CO2 across approximately 50,000 hectares - the equivalent absorption of roughly 3000 hectares of forest. An estimated 1% increase in organic matter in all United States croplands alone would return 4.5 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere to the soil.

In Auckland, New Zealand, we have the regenerative agriculture experiment Organic Market Garden - an initiative led by the collaborative group For the Love of Bees. Beyond their social and urban goals is the potential for carbon sequestration on a small scale, 600 m2 (0.06 hectares) urban environment garden. According to Daniel Schuurman, C.E.O. of Biologix, speaker at the last Climate Change Ready Urban Farming talk, Organic Market Garden is a "carbon sequestering machine". In less than 12 months, the garden went from storing 29 tonnes of carbon to 44.8 tonnes, almost 50% increase. In the meantime, a conventional farm with chemical inputs with similar land use would be losing 10 tonnes of carbon over the same period. "Arguably, farmers are capable of single-handedly saving the planet" then summarised mister Schuurman.

Beyond sustainability, regenerative organic agriculture is a cluster of strategies bringing another possible outcome for reducing carbon levels in our atmosphere. Moreover, this agricultural approach remains nothing less than an ancient system, true approach, backed by today’s science. And while regenerative organic agriculture operates somewhat in the background, it has always been part of the fringe food culture movement. If there is to be any potential for a sustainable organic food system, addressing both food security and climate change issues, regenerative organic agriculture must become the mainstream. As Andrew Pittz, heir of a long North-American farmer’s lineage pointed out “it is critical we continue the positive momentum; the more brands, the more farms, the more consumers supporting the regenerative agricultural movement, the better. Now is the time to double down our efforts and create a resilient, regenerative agriculture and food movement that can transform the land base and positively impact the health of farmers, consumers and the environment.”

It seems common sense that national and local governance adopt a proactive approach, seeking guidance from permaculture ambassadors, shifting subsidies from polluting conventional farming to regenerative organic agriculture. It is time to find and support those for whom sustainability is not a marketing buzzword. Organic is more than a certification; it is a way of thinking and doing. Regenerative organic agriculture represents an opportunity to address food security and climate change issues adequately. It is time to challenge the status quo in New Zealand. I wonder what we are waiting for?

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