The Answer is in the Landscape

The Answer is in the Landscape - Potato field - Gippsland Australia

Around the world farmers and other land managers are taking up practices that regenerate soil, restore landscapes and restore water systems. Interest and activity in landscape scale change is growing quickly. Governments are coming on board with funding and projects. Corporations are actively taking part or funding others to meet their emissions offsets. These activities all work toward reducing or even reversing climate change.

Regenerative agriculture reduces agricultural fossil fuel emissions by limiting use of petroleum-based chemicals and reducing machinery passes over the landscape to spread these chemicals. More importantly it draws down carbon into living plants and further into the soil through microbial activity to create long term resistant carbon. In addition, regenerative agriculture practices can restore the small water cycle and bring rain back to agricultural areas.

Agriculture has degraded many landscapes over long periods of time through erosion, vegetation removal, deforestation, and poor management. Degradation and desertification happens slowly, though one only has to read Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive (Diamond, 2005), to understand the oft repeated situation of a culture building its population alongside a rise in agriculture, only to experience catastrophic change leading to its demise. Diamond discusses the overpopulation and associated environmental impacts from excess clearing on the South Pacific Islands of Pitcairn, Easter and Henderson that lead to the demise of those cultures. He also details the Anasazi of the Southwest United States and their plight when a centuries-long period of drought made abandonment of damaged farmland necessary. To survive, civilisations had to find new land or change their agricultural practices.

First Nations Australian agriculture managed a harsh landscape as written about by Bill Gammage in The Biggest Estate (2011), and by Bruce Pascoe in Dark Emu (2014). This led to practices that survived thousands of years by not degrading the challenging soils. Unfortunately, worldwide, many cultures left degraded landscapes behind them as they searched for new fertile soils. Areas of the world where agriculture first began, such as the Levant area of the Middle East, the Indus Valley of India, and the West Andes region of South America, are now dependent on irrigation and are lacking the rich soils once available. 

Tilling the earth is mentioned in the Bible and other religious texts, and considered standard practice by many cultures today, but this has led to continued erosion and drying of soils worldwide. Fallowing is similar. These standard practices have been with us for thousands of years and yet they kill much of the microbiome – the life in the soil made up of bacteria, fungi, nematodes and protozoa. It is the bacteria which can dissolve nutrients from rock and deliver it to the roots of plants in exchange for sugars created through photosynthesis by the plant.

Following World War II, and the reduction of demand on a chemical industry inflated to supply the war, the multinational chemical corporations determined that the same chemicals used for warfare could be used to force the growth of plants. Nitrogen in vast quantities was recommended as soil supplements to increase productivity. Nitrogen increased growth but could also weaken the plants. Plant breeding was then influenced to breed for the increased nitrogen and developed plant varieties that were reliant on the additional inputs.

Industrial agriculture grew more prevalent. Agriculture policy focussed on production quantity above all else. Farmers now compare their success by tonnes per hectare rather than dollars per hectare or the quality of their food. Banks, accountants, and tax law encourage the ‘get big or get out’ mentality as farms grow in size. Farm equipment grows in size and cost reducing labour requirements and requiring more clearing to allow for straighter rows and more efficient weed spray, seeding, fertiliser application and harvest. Genetically modified crops allow later herbicide use, and there is increasing use of fungicides, insecticides and chemical fertilisers. All of which increase oxidation of carbon in the soil.

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CO2 is drawn down by plants with 30% of the carbon going into above ground plant material, 30% into the roots, and 40% into exudates from the roots into the soil. The plant exudes the carbon in the form of sugars which feed the bacteria. Any process that burns or oxidises the carbon removes the opportunity for that carbon to be taken up in the microbiome and converted to longer lasting stored carbon in the soil.

Many farmers adopt minimal till or no-till cropping. No-till often leads to increased herbicide use to control weeds that would normally be turned into the soil through tilling prior to seeding the new crop. Unfortunately, increased biocides, that is herbicides, insecticides and fungicides, also oxidise the organic material back to CO2.

There are farmers who held out and continued to farm in a way that maintained the soil structure. They kept the soil covered and encouraged diversity in the landscape with multi species cropping and minimal biocide use. In the late twentieth century more farmers were taking up these practices in response to the diminishing soil health, low financial returns and the increasing input costs of industrial agriculture. Research began to demonstrate the benefits, and now land managers around the world are gradually adopting regenerative practices. Awareness is growing and some governments are beginning to introduce policies to encourage soil regeneration and landscape scale revegetation.

Regenerative agriculture must be tailored to the landscape, the geology, the farmer, the crops, and so forth. The practices of regenerative agriculture, without trying to create the perfect definition, are to keep the soil covered, use minimal chemical treatments if any, encourage biodiversity, plant diverse crops and include animals as part of the system. It is not a one size fits all. It is vital that the microbiome is protected and that diversity is obtained. A healthy ecology cannot thrive in a monoculture or where the soil is left bare or poisoned.

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There is ongoing discussion and research on the role of animals in regenerative agriculture, and this is why the practices have to be developed for the conditions and as a holistic management exercise. In vast grasslands or what once were grasslands, grazing animals were part of the natural system. Usually, predator species were also involved and the herd would eat and defecate in one area only to be moved to another area after some short period of time. This left the nutrients of their manure and urine to fertilise the grass that they had eaten back but not eaten off too much. The grass responds with rapid growth from a strong root base and many nutrients. To mimic this situation, land managers are now using managed grazing techniques and moving their animals each day or each week into a new restricted area to ensure that not too much grass is consumed and that the animals are eating a variety of plants as they no longer range across a wide area looking for their favourite plants. Better diversity for the animal leads to better diversity in their gut and a healthier animal.

Where large animals are not appropriate, chickens, ducks, pigs or other animals perform a similar beneficial role. Management of the landscape has to look at the entire system to determine what works and adjust as circumstances change. The landscape is a complex dynamic system and practices must evolve and adjust as needed. Many farmers are finding that using holistic regenerative methods not only builds and improves their soil, but also dramatically reduces input costs and enhances animal welfare. 

The benefits of the holistic management of regenerative agriculture are astronomical. Recent research indicates that 3.5 – 5 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalents can be drawn down and sequestered in the soil annually. For each gram of carbon increase in the soil, this can hold eight grams of water. The increased microbiome extracts nutrients from the naturally occurring minerals in the soil and feeds it to the plant roots in exchange for sugars created through photosynthesis from sunlight. Particles of soil called microaggregates are then formed from the exudates of the plants and the bacteria binding smaller soil particles together. Larger macroaggregates are then formed from the microaggregates and fungi hyphae. The spaces which form in these large soil particles not only allow water penetration deep into the soil, but  also allows oxygen into the soil to provide an aerobic atmosphere for decomposition of organic material and the creation of humates and glomalin which can last forty years or more as stable carbon. An additional benefit of soil with good soil aggregates and stored carbon is quicker absorption of rainfall and greater resilience during drought.

Over millennia, humans have been largely incapable of managing the complexity of natural landscapes successfully, with the result of slow deterioration of the land. Regenerative agriculture reverses this, but must be done thoughtfully and dynamically with a willingness and ability to learn and adjust to developments as they arise. The actions must work with the landscape and adjust over time as nature and climate changes. This is a mitigation strategy as much as it is an adaptation strategy to climate change.

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There is now significant evidence that revegetating cleared land with a variety of species and diverse heights, that is, ground covers, shrubs, small trees and taller trees, can restore the small water cycle (Ground Breaking. Mulvey, P. 2021). The vast areas of the denuded Western Australian wheatbelt are having an influence on rainfall as excess heat reflected off the landscape affects weather patterns, and the formation of clouds is inhibited by a lack of bacteria and other small particles in the atmosphere. It is through a diversity of plants providing a diversity of bacteria in the atmosphere which may help to seed the clouds. As this information becomes more readily accessed and government works to encourage strategic revegetation, such as on degraded or saline landscapes, land managers will be able to pursue reversing the historical and ongoing damage.

Regenerative agriculture and the diversity of farm business opportunities that can arise from it leads to increased financial resilience and provides greater employment. As diversity is brought back into farming systems opportunities open up for co-operative management and value adding. Farmers often embark on marketing their product directly as it has a good story to tell. The increased activity strengthens regional communities allowing greater support structures for rural areas and opportunities for people to find a new life in the country.

The barriers to adoption of regenerative practices have been researched, such as in the report Barriers For Farmers & Ranchers To Adopt Regenerative Ag Practices In The US (O’Connor, J. 2020). Of the eight barriers identified, most if not all of them are already being addressed in one form or another. There is significant international interest, and pressure is growing to achieve landscape scale solutions. Financial backing for agricultural enterprises is growing, first through the increased demand for carbon offsets, but also through government policies directed toward healthier more resilient landscapes.

Research is beginning to demonstrate that a healthier more diverse soil microbiome will lead to better quality food with less residual chemicals and greater nutritional content. As people learn more about human gut health and the importance for diversity in our gut, it is hoped by those in the industry that the demand for food grown this way will increase. Unlike ‘organic’ there is currently no certification process as the variables are so great. It will be important to be watchful for large corporations jumping on the bandwagon without making effective land management changes.

There are a growing number of farmers who farm this way, I’ve heard of up to 15 million world-wide. But it is not numbers of farmers, rather land area under regenerative management that is needed. At a large scale, change can seem risky as there may be a production drop in the first few years while the microbiome recovers. Without government or farming organisations taking a lead, it can be difficult to challenge prevailing thought.

Management of natural systems is complex and will never be understood fully. Human management for the most part has been detrimental to the natural systems, and if we acknowledge this and decide to work with nature to obtain the food we require, it is possible that we can begin to reverse the damage we have done to our landscape. 

We can accept the complexity and work with nature to revegetate the landscape, restore water cycles and draw carbon back into the earth.

In the book, Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming (Harken, P. editor, 2017) the top eighty ideas for addressing carbon are reviewed and nineteen of the top forty relate to soil and food production. This is where every person can make a difference. Simply purchase regeneratively farmed products, grow your own veggie garden, request quality food products at your preferred shop, and support farmers who try to look after the health of their land. If you are interested, find out more.

If you have the opportunity, consider farming. More small regenerative farms providing local nutritional food is part of our future. It must be.

Further reading:

  • Walter Jehna
  • Call of the Reed Warbler – Charles Massy
  • Ground Breaking – Philip Mulvey and Freya Mulvey
  • Dirt to Soil – Gabe Brown
  • Oneness and the 1% – Vandana Shiva
  • The Omnivores Dilemma – Michael Pollen
  • Complexity Management – Allan Savory

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