As the impact of climate change becomes increasingly severe, agriculture is bearing the brunt as one of the sectors most affected by extreme weather, according to data from the World Economic Forum. Meanwhile, a 2021 Nature Food study attributes around a third of all greenhouse gas emissions to the global agri-food system.
In the face of this enormous challenge, advocates and practitioners of regenerative agriculture have come to the fore, arguing that now is time for farming — a sector that needs to fortify itself against risks while also reducing its own impact — to transition to a much more sustainable model at scale.
Preserving arable land
“What I like about regenerative agriculture is that it gets to this idea of addressing land degradation as essential for all of these other things: for sustainability, for climate adaptation, for conservation and protection of water resources, and even economic and social development,” says Kristin Rosenow, a business development specialist for water smart agriculture and land restoration programming at Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in Latin America.
Rosenow adds that there are different terms that relate to similar practices — climate-smart agriculture, sustainable agriculture, and organic agriculture, for example. Regenerative agriculture refers specifically to maintaining the health of the soil by rebuilding organic soil matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity. Some practices include minimizing tillage or soil turnover, and using crop diversification, crop rotation and natural fertilizers to ensure soil micronutrients are kept in top condition. It also means ensuring animal grazing is well-managed and helps to promote plant growth, according to the definition outlined by nonprofit advocacy organization Regeneration International.
“We're heading toward seeing half of the agricultural land in the world degraded, damaged and less productive,” Rosenow says, referencing the second UN Global Land Outlook report. “This threatens the world's food and water supplies. It also threatens the livelihoods of some 600 million family farmers who are especially important to food security in the world's poorest and most vulnerable countries.”
This will be especially important as the world gets warmer. While conflict is the biggest driver of hunger globally, climate threats loom large. About 80% of the world’s population most at risk from crop failures and hunger from climate change are in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, according to a 2022 World Bank article.
As well as being good for biodiversity, regenerative agriculture reduces carbon emissions and therefore can be a tool to fight climate change in the short and long term. Regenerative farming on 40% of the world’s cropland would save around 600 million tons of emissions, equivalent to Germany’s carbon footprint, according to the World Economic Forum.
It also sequesters carbon emissions, meaning it draws down carbon from the atmosphere. Regenerative agriculture practices applied at scale could draw down more than 10% of all human-caused carbon emissions over the next 25 years.
Tackling extreme weather
In Kenya, the nonprofit Farm Africa is running regenerative farming projects, training thousands of smallholder farmers to use more sustainable methods after initially training 100 village-based advisors who spread the tools and information to do so.
Patrick Nyaga, the project’s coordinator, says that traditional methods include using oxen to plow the soil, but regenerative farming minimizes tillage, avoiding the exposure of the soil, to prevent it from losing moisture.
It’s vital that farms keep their soil healthy and water is conserved in the face of unpredictable weather patterns, Nyaga says.
“Climate change is a reality all over and therefore rainfall patterns have changed, we no longer have regular rainfall patterns,” he says. “Farmers are not able to grow stable crops in abundance … that means they don't have a reliable income.”
Rosenow said that where CRS is working in Central America, the impact of extreme weather such as heavy rainfall is exacerbated by degraded land, in turn making communities even more vulnerable to floods.
“Where my work is focused in Central America, it's estimated that over 75% of the agricultural soils are degraded due to deforestation and the clearing of land for agriculture on the steep hillsides of the region,” Rosenow says.
This leads to hillsides which are eroded and dry.
“Imagine this heavy tropical rainfall hitting that dry, hard exposed ground,” Rosenow says. “The water just runs off and causes flooding damage downhill. The water is not in the soil. It's not replenishing the surface and groundwater sources, so when longer dry spells and drought hit, it's not available for the farmers or even for drinking.”
CRS is working with local communities and governments in the region to create watersheds, a water drainage basin which helps manage water levels and ensure it isn’t lost. They do this by building trenches, water infiltration pits and small dams, as well as planting trees on the slopes to reduce erosion.
“With hillside agriculture, on somewhat marginal lands, regenerative agriculture is actually more efficient and profitable than conventional farming methods,” Rosenow says.
Action needed to scale
In Kenya, Nyaga says his project has also had promising results.
“Farmers are more receptive to the new farming methods, because of what they’ve seen and have been able to do in terms of food security … the farmer has been able to send surplus to market.”
He adds that there needs to be more concerted efforts from national and local governments to come together and work with organizations to reduce land degradation, increase food productivity and improve the environment.
Barriers to scaling regenerative agriculture are well-documented. They include the financial risk in the short term of making a change, a lack of knowledge in the farming community about sustainable methods, and a lack of drivers in the value chain to promote changing to regenerative agriculture, for example by buyers who do not necessarily value whether food items have been produced this way.
The World Economic Forum recommends that governments incentivize farmers to transition to this type of farming by finding mechanisms to share the cost including paying farmers for efforts made towards carbon removal and ensuring that there are clear metrics to define environmental outcomes that the food industry can follow.
For Rosenow, the costs and effort required to support farmers transitioning to regenerative agriculture are well worth it.
“Over 90% of farmers reported highly positive reactions to the project in regard to their livelihoods, food security and drought resilience,” she says. “There’s nothing more convincing than hearing a farmer saying that this practice fundamentally changed and doubled yields in a short period of time.”
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