Environmentalists have long been pushing for the use of regenerative agriculture, an alternative approach to farming they say can help the world’s poorest farmers and fight global food insecurity. Some experts say the biggest limitation of the approach may be just convincing enough of the world to adopt it.
Proponents of regenerative farming say the root of the world’s food insecurity problem is the way we grow food. According to the the U.N.’s 2013 Trade and Environment Review, the most widely used farming system is responsible for 43 percent to 57 percent of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions and results in the loss of 50 percent to 75 percent of cultivated soils’ natural carbon content.
The loss of vital nutrients in soil is due in part to overuse of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. The additives can also reduce resilience to flood and drought by removing the protective barrier provided by organic carbon.
This degenerative approach to farming has contributed to the rising sea levels, erratic rainfall and changing growing patterns associated with climate change; a new reality that threatens the lives and livelihoods of some of the world’s poorest people.
But food insecurity is no longer just a plague of the developing world. Smallholder farmers produce 70 percent of the world’s food, but 80 percent of these smallholders are also solely dependent on increasingly irregular rainfall. Unless we change how we grow our food and manage our natural capital, food security will soon worsen on a global scale.
Regenerative agriculture covers an array of techniques that restore soil fertility while sequestering carbon. One example is simply covering soil with mulch, cover crops or perennials so that bare soil is never exposed.
One more involved technique is the use of watershed management programs, which can reduce drought and flood-related damage as well as reduce farmers’ reliability on rainfall for their crops and livelihoods.
Humanitarian aid organization Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is one organization that uses this approach for smallholder farmers. CRS trains communities to create trenches, water infiltration pits and other water-management structures, as well as techniques like planting trees in strategic locations to reduce erosion. According to Lori Pearson, CRS senior policy adviser for agriculture and climate change, the process is faster than it sounds.
“What we’re seeing in the work that we’ve done is that you can have very dramatic results in a pretty short time,” Pearson said in an interview with Humanosphere.
Just three years after the organization employed watershed-management program in Malawi, she said, the water table had already risen, farmers could access water for their fields for longer periods, and the stream’s flow rate nearly tripled.
“Community elders told us that the streams had never flown throughout the year before, that they were always drying up,” said Pearson, “and that ever since our watershed intervention they were flowing year-round.”
Critics say organic growing methods result in lower crop production, and that there is too little access to safe, effective, pest-control options for the approach to be sustainable.
A more daunting problem is that it simply cannot be implemented on a wide enough scale without fundamental changes in humans’ relationship to growing and eating food. And for the regenerative approach to farming to have the effects its proponents seek, it will need to be adopted and implemented across the world’s 1.5 billion hectares of cultivated farmland.
This reality is felt by every organization working to promote the approach. According to Pearson, CRS is responding by furthering connections with outside actors, such as local governments, the private sector and anyone else with influence in their targeted communities.
“Climate change is so complex, and so big, that it’s really pushing us to work together,” said Pearson. “We’re really focused on partnerships, coalition-building and bringing a variety of skills to the table.”