Rolling back the years with a new style of farming
How regenerative agriculture and new technological advances are helping farming adapt to climate change.
Homo-Sapiens are estimated to have evolved 300,000 years ago, with our earliest human ancestors dating back two million years. It was not until 1.8 million years ago before we first used fire to cook our food. This technological advance is said to have been a major factor in our development and evolution. Not having to spend valuable energy on food digestion enabled our brains to develop and evolve into the multidimensional, creative and sometimes slightly esoteric organs of today.
The leap into farming did not happen until relatively recently, around 10–12,000 years ago. During the ‘Man the Hunter’ symposium in Chicago in 1966, Marshall Sahlins suggested that farming was not necessarily a useful step forward for the hunter-gatherers of the stone age world. He argued that hunting and gathering gave our ancestors a well balanced and healthy diet, gave us an excellent work-life balance, and could be seen as the original ‘affluent society’. Farming by contrast involved heavy workloads and made us more susceptible to physical injuries.
The first farming was detected in the wetland areas of Mesopotamia, and the ‘Fertile Crescent’ of southeast Asia, as well as China. The areas at the time were an abundant food source, including plants (club rush, water lily, bullrush), crustaneons, migrating gazelles, fish, molluscs etc. Seasonal changes brought even more variety with the arrival of migrationary species. Our ancestors understood the vital importance of variety and diversity, if one food source was unavailable, then there would have been plenty alternatives.
Although it is not known for certain why our ancestors decided to move to agriculture, it is thought that they found that it apparently gave them even more variety, and hence security to their food source. In his book ‘Sapiens’, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that 90 percent of the calories modern humans eat come from a small number of plants that were domesticated between 5,500 and 11,500 years ago. He goes on to suggest that agriculture is ‘history’s biggest fraud’, that it did not create better lifestyles or increase our levels of intelligence as previously thought. Although there is no doubt that it created greater volumes of food, it bound us into heavy workloads and limited diets. Ultimately, it was a small number of plants including the potato, rice and wheat that domesticated humans, not the other way around.
Today, wheat covers 2.25 million square kilometers of our planet, over ten times the surface area of the UK. The human population has increased from 7 million at the dawn of agriculture to 7.9 billion now.
Agriculture is here to stay.
The Spiral of Global Warming
It is estimated that agriculture contributes to 15% of the world’s carbon emissions, and is a major contributor to global warming. However, this increase in mean temperature, and increased variability of rain reduces crop yields. Rising sea levels increase salt water intrusion into coastal areas, reducing the amount of usable land for agriculture. The reduction in biodiversity means that there are fewer pollinating insects, threatening crop resilience.
In 2001, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said that added heat stress, shifting monsoons, and drier soils may reduce yields by as much as a third in the tropics and subtropics, where crops are already near their maximum heat tolerance.
Traditional methods of agriculture that involve plowing have been shown to release Co2 into the atmosphere, reduce the microbe content of the soil, and erode around 100 times faster than non-tilled soils. The bare soil that tilling produces increases surface temperatures that can be an issue during times of drought.
A Regenerative Approach
A relatively new style of farming has attracted a great deal of attention. “Regenerative Farming” seeks to regenerate the soil, land and water, as well as being of benefit to the wider environment. It also tends to produce crops that have a far higher nutritional value than those grown using conventional methods.
There is no absolute definition of regenerative agriculture, it is more a general approach, and can have different characteristics on a farm by farm basis, depending on the soil type, geography, climate — ‘Terroirs’ as is said in the wine industry. There are however certain characteristics of the regenerative approach, including:
- Understanding the context of the farm’s operation;
- Minimizing soil disturbance
- Maximizing crop diversity
- Keeping the soil covered
- Maintaining living roots all year round
- Integrating livestock
Regenerative agriculture goes beyond sustainability. Its aim is not to maintain the status quo, instead it intends to actively and positively regenerate the landscapes and rivers for future generations. It also encompasses other farming practices such as organic and agro-ecology.
When one crop is grown on land (monoculture), the natural life inside the soil is reduced, impacting the ability for the plants to grow effectively. Conversely, when a variety of crops are grown on land, each will have different root depths and shapes, enabling them to lock into different areas for water and nutrients in a non-competitive manner. The living roots release sugars that promote the growth of microbes such as fungi and bacteria which capture carbon, and hold it in the soil for extended periods of time. When these roots eventually die, as the soil is not tilled and compacted, a network of channels build up for air and water that promote subsequent crop growth.
Occasionally adding biologically-rich compost that includes mycorrhizal spores, or alternatively grazing animals protects the soil, creating a living and nutrition-full environment for the crops to grow.
Practices such as mixed planting, relay cropping and intercropping increase the life in the soil, improving resilience as well as the nutritional value of the crop. Producing crops close to their consumers reduces transport costs, as well as greenhouse emissions.
Rewilding is also integral to this new approach. It is the process of managing access corridors for animals, insects and seeds to travel further, mirroring the original habitat of the pre-agricultural era.
Can Regenerative Agriculture be Profitable?
A research article published by Claire LaCanne and Johnathan Lundgren in 2018 looked at corn production in the North American plaines, an area traditionally dedicated to monocultures, and heavily reliant on tillage and artificial soil additives.
They tried three or more regenerative techniques on some fields compared to just one on others. They found that the fields using regenerative techniques had 29% less crop yields than the traditional ones, however due to the reduced need for additives and tilling, produced 78% higher profits than their traditional counterparts.
Although this study was specific to a certain area, it did show that the principles of regenerative agriculture could be both environmentally and financially beneficial.
As regenerative agriculture is site specific, it is heavily reliant on the in-depth understanding of a farm’s environment, location, geography and climate. Rather than adopting the farming blueprint model of the late 20th century, modern regenerative agriculture has a far higher need for understanding the climate of a specific region, with high levels of detail and granularity.
Farmers starting regenerative agriculture will need to understand the combination of crops that are most complimentary not just for their soil type, but also their climate. The understanding of climate nuances traditionally associated with the wine industry are now becoming increasingly relevant to agriculture in general. This means not just having access to accurate forecast data, but also detailed and agriculturally relevant historical data sets.
Since the first time humans decided to plant a few seeds to supplement their already diverse diet, farming has evolved mono-directionally. Today, we are experiencing a new era of regenerative agricultural techniques that create foods of greater nutritional value, while also enhancing our environmental biodiversity, reversing greenhouse emissions and importantly protecting the livelihoods of the farmers themselves.
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Learn more about ‘Climate Smart’ agriculture with our next article on the ways agriculture, industry and government are adapting to climate change.