Regenerative Farming and Soil Carbon Sequestration
by Evan DeMarco on Jul 12, 2022
Regenerative farming can provide a number of benefits, including better, nutrient-dense soil, topsoil retention and healthier crops and livestock. It also helps trap carbon, a greenhouse gas, deep within the earth. When greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, it can be decades or centuries before they’re gone. This leads to a warmer planet, and eventually, climate change.
As we know, climate change is an increasingly serious problem. By practicing regenerative farming, we can help sequester soil in the earth and lessen the effects of climate change.
Beware the plow
To understand the benefits of regenerative agriculture, it’s first important to understand why modern farming practices, like plowing and tilling, are so harmful. You might know that our planet has a major topsoil problem: not only is it rapidly eroding, but it has also been depleted by modern farming practices like monocropping. This leads to poor quality food lacking in nutrients.
Plowing and tilling break up the top layer of soil and flip it over. As the soil is turned over and the top layer of plants decompose, they produce methane and carbon dioxide. These greenhouse gases then enter the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. While these practices are effective when you need to grow crops as fast as possible, they also increase greenhouse gas emissions.
When you practice regenerative farming instead, the soil microbiome improves, carbon stays trapped and plants and fungi help keep the soil from eroding away.
Why is carbon sequestration so important?
Global warming is at an all-time high, and unless we take action, we’ll see higher global temperatures and increased catastrophic weather events. “[B]etween 1750 and 2011, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide increased by 40 percent, methane by 150 percent, and nitrous oxide by 20 percent. In the late 1920s, we started adding man-made fluorinated gases like chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, to the mix,” writes the NRDC.
Carbon dioxide along is a major problem. It contributes to 76 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Once carbon is released into the atmosphere, 40 percent will still be around in 100 years. 10 percent will still remain 10,000 years later. If that doesn’t highlight the importance of doing everything we can to sequester carbon, nothing will.
Enter regenerative farming
Regenerative farming works in concert with the environment, rather than against it. Instead of using effective—yet ultimately destructive—farming practices, regenerative agriculture and ranching allows a number of systems to work together. Indigenous societies across the world have long practiced regenerative farming.
The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that “the industrial agricultural system that dominates Western food and fiber supply chains incentivizes practices that promote soil erosion at a rate of 10 to 100 times higher than soil formation.” Because topsoil can trap so much carbon, the erosion is devastating to the planet. Furthermore, industrial practices encourage nutrient runoff, harmful algal blooms, can threaten pollinators and harms local biodiversity.
Regenerative farming uses a number of different ways to promote planetary health. This includes no-plow and no-till farming, allowing for the soil to remain intact and carbon underground. The use of pesticides, fertilizers and fungicides is discouraged, since they can dramatically harm the soil microbiome, insects, pollinators and other helpful parts of the ecosystem. Monocropping is also a no-no: growing only one type of crop on the land depletes the soil of certain nutrients. Instead, crop rotation lets the soil “rest” and regenerate while maximizing the number of crops produced.
Alternatively, cover cropping can help protect the soil. Once a cash crop is grown and harvested, like corn, farmers can plant cover crops. These crops may not produce a source of income, but on the off season, the plants’ roots help protect the soil from erosion, improves soil biodiversity and even helps increase the amount of water the soil can retain—and carbon remains trapped underneath.
There’s no tried-and-true way to perform regenerative farming. Farmers and ranchers can use different methods to protect the soil layer and sequester carbon. What works for one location may not be practical in another. The goal is to find methods that work with the land, rather than releasing carbon into the atmosphere, encouraging erosion and destroying nutrients.
Protect the planet
We can encourage regenerative farming practices in several ways: patronizing regenerative farms, writing to local representatives about the importance of regenerative farms and carbon sequestration, starting our own regenerative gardens and, of course, spreading the word to friends and family. The time to take action is now, before even more greenhouse gas emissions are released into the atmosphere.