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Climate change dominates the headlines and our news feeds and infiltrates our daily conversations. It’s a problem that weighs heavily on our society, but a promising solution could be lying right beneath our feet — in the soil.
The practice of regenerative agriculture is an approach to farming that treats farms as part of whole ecosystems. Modern conventional farms often segment crops into separate monocultures, which one Washington Post writer explained can strip the soil of nutrients. One 2008 study showed that monoculture corn produces significantly higher nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide emissions than when corn follows soybeans on the same land. In contrast, regenerative agriculture is typically intended to take carbon out of the air and put it into the soil while replenishing and nourishing the land. The result can be more productive farms and healthier, more nutritious crops — and it might even fight climate change.
According to the European “4 Per 1,000” initiative (via Fast Company), if we increase the carbon in farm soil by 0.4% per year, it could offset the carbon dioxide humans put into the atmosphere. So, as the world grapples with dire warnings about our future, the question is: Why aren’t we implementing this change on the double?
The simple solution isn’t so simple.
According to a recent report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), agriculture, forestry and other land use contributed around a quarter of total net anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases from 2007 to 2016. According to the IPCC (via the EPA), in 2014, this sector was the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, after the energy sector.
I believe regenerative farming practices such as no-till, compost application, livestock rotation and cover crops are promising alternatives that could create positive environmental impacts. These methods could help farmers improve soil health, increase biodiversity, retain water, decrease erosion and lessen dependence on chemical inputs.
It might seem like a no-brainer for farmers to adopt regenerative practices — after all, every farmer I know cares deeply about the environment and the integrity of the land. The trouble is that not all conventional farms and big agricultural operations are set up to support these methods. Expensive infrastructure and highly specific machinery, from combines to AI-powered robotic fruit pickers, are often designed for the current system: one type of crop on one parcel of land. Farmers who are faced with extremely tight margins, rising costs (paywall) and the challenges of growing food in a shifting climate may be heavily invested in the status quo and reliant on their current farming practices to stay competitive.
To shift this system, I believe we need tools that can help farmers adapt while still remaining profitable.
Tech is part of the solution.
Digital technology is evolving to assist in this transition. AI, machine learning and data science can be valuable tools in harnessing the knowledge we already have to revamp our farming practices.
Services such as FarmShots and Vine View use aerial and drone images to measure hydration, health and potential diseases. Companies such as Trace Genomics use technology to test soil samples to identify pathogens and monitor soil health. Smartphone apps such as Plantix compare photos of plants against a database of diseases and species and suggest action plans for farmers.
I believe the key for tech innovators and farmers alike is to use knowledge, rather than disruptive land-use practices, to help nature do what it already does: produce abundant food and enrich the earth, not deplete it.
Meanwhile, regenerative agriculture also has the potential to open up new revenue streams for farmers. Under the Australian government’s Emissions Reduction Fund, for instance, farmers are presented with credits for adopting in emission-reduction methods, which they can then sell. In North America, Indigo has launched its own market where people can donate to support farmers’ regenerative farming practices under the Terraton Initiative. According to its website, the initiative is an effort to remove 1 trillion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and use it to enrich the soil. As more of these programs come online, I expect farmers who make the switch could soon find themselves earning two incomes: one from food they produce and the other from carbon capture.
Is this the start of a cultural sea change?
We’re likely still a long way from regenerative agriculture hitting the mainstream. Compared to organics, which represented only 0.6% of U.S. cropland in 2011, regenerative farming is barely on the radar. But we are seeing progress. Investment opportunities in the space are significant — the 2019 “Soil Wealth” report identified 70 investable strategies, with combined assets of $47.5 billion, related to regenerative agriculture. The Savory Institute has built resources to help train people, and organizations such as the Buckminster Fuller Institute, Planet Home, Civana and the Regenerative Food Systems Investment Forum, Farmland LP and Delta Institute are advocating for solutions-based action and encouraging investors with a global conscience to help the agricultural industry take positive steps. Meanwhile, organizations such as the Regenerative Organic Certification let consumers know which products achieve a variety of sustainability goals.
Adopting regenerative agriculture on a global scale for companies, farmers and consumers will require a big shift in thinking and practice around how we grow food. But with the health of the planet at stake, this switch could be a faster and more efficient route to a healthier planet, more nutritious food for the global population and a more profitable business model for the people whoprovide it.
For leaders in the tech space, focusing research and development on making regenerative agriculture more accessible and cheaper could have an outsized impact on the future of our world. A pointed shift toward working with farmers to develop tools and solutions that enable and hasten this change could very well be key in combating climate change. Can we eat our planet back to health? It’s a big, audacious goal for sure, but one I believe we as tech and agriculture leaders must have the gumption for, and one we can’t afford not to pursue.