Our agricultural system is broken. Industrial agriculture is the number one driver of deforestation. It’s eroding our soils, pushing wildlife, insects and plants into extinction and it’s responsible for about 30% of the world’s total emissions of greenhouse gases Before the 1950s our food came from small, diverse farms.
But with the growing population, increasing urbanization and the rise of a consumer society demand for food skyrocketed and yields needed to increase. The so-called “green revolution” indeed revolutionized the agricultural sector introducing tractors that replace manual labor and chemical fertilizers that increase yield dramatically.
For a short time, all of this worked as crop losses became rarer. However, the world’s food system has gotten out of hand. It is now a major driver of climate change and produces 1.3 billion tons of food waste every year, while 900 million people around the world are still hungering.
The good news: there are agricultural models that produce enough and better food while actually removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Regenerative Agriculture restores degraded land while also addressing all common concerns about fertility, pests, drought, weeds and yield.
Farmers around the world are turning to regenerative agriculture, but they can’t transition fast enough alone. They need support. Making regenerative agriculture a reality needs all of us. It starts with you and me.
If like the Ecosia team, you, too, have the privilege to choose, here are three immediate things you can do to get the ball rolling: First, support small holder farmers. Buy your groceries at farmers’ markets around you, or join a cooperative if you know they apply regenerative practices in their production.
Secondly, change your consumption pattern. Reduce meat from your diet and don’t waste food – About 35% of food waste happens in our homes, in restaurants, supermarkets… Finally, use the power of your vote.
Support politicians who have an actual plan on how to scale regenerative agriculture in your country. The bottom line is: learn as much as you can about how food is grown. Watch this video until the end and share.
The better we understand how food could be produced without harming the environment, the better we will be able to push for a global shift in agriculture. To understand why regenerative agriculture could change everything, let’s get to the bottom of it.
Literally, because it all begins at ground level – with the soil. Soil is a living organism. It’s home to two-thirds of earth’s species including bugs, bacteria, fungus and many other living things.
In a chain of connected processes, these microorganisms help decompose organic matter — such as leaves, animal dung… turning them into nutrients that feed the plants humans and wildlife need to survive.
During this process, soil stores carbon and has been doing so over thousands of years. Here’s how that works. Among other things, plants need nitrogen in order to grow. But because they can’t retrieve it from the atmosphere on their own, they get it from bacteria living in the soil.
In exchange, plants will feed those bacteria carbon from the air, which they absorb through photosynthesis. The bacteria then use that carbon to build the very soil on which new plants can grow.
When left untouched, this cycle, called the nutrient cycle, has a spill-over effect over the quality and fertility of the soil, the air and the overall health of our planet. But if anything does disturb this cycle, if there are no plants or grass protecting the soil, If the microorganisms below are exposed or weakened, we release the carbon already stored in the soil and interrupt the nutrient cycle — breaking the most efficient natural mechanism known to humankind to absorb CO2.
And that’s exactly what industrial agriculture does. Current farming practices are optimized to produce as much of any single crop as possible. To make space for it and keep up with production, entire landscapes are cleared of plants and trees.
As a result, 50 to 70% of organic carbon historically stored in the world’s soils has already been released. While in big agriculture farmers are forced to ask: “what is the maximum amount of any given crop that i can produce on my land?” In regenerative agriculture, the question becomes: “What is the maximum amount of years into the future that I can equip my soul to be fertile for future generations?” When done properly, farming should continually improve and regenerate the health of the soil by restoring its carbon content.
Because each soil landscape is a unique ecosystem with its own particularities, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions in regenerative agriculture. Instead, there are general principles and practices, all of which aim to disturb the soil as little as possible and keep it covered at all times.
Three main principles guide the regenerative approach to agriculture: Don’t till or over-plough the soil, always have a diverse set of plants on your farm instead of rows of monocultures, and keep your soil covered all year round with plants, crops and trees.
Now add trees into the mix, and you will increase yields even further! Of course, we as Ecosia love trees, so it’s a great coincidence that they also play a very important role in regenerative agriculture.
Trees have a very simple function. They provide shade, protect crops against strong heat and create a habitat for other animals and plants. Trees are also a long-term investment as their yield cycle amounts to 10 to 30 years, much longer than any plant.
And once the tree dies, the farmer can still use the wood as timber for energy production, opening up yet another revenue stream. But trees do much more than that. Combined with reforestation, regenerative agriculture could pull in most of the CO2 emissions out of the air again.
The main point is that this carbon can only be stored in the soil if we continue to apply practices that will not re-emit this carbon. Soil is, as we explained earlier, very easily disturbed and can very easily be re-destroyed, So, really, a transition to regenerative practices long-term is important in order to store and keep carbon in our soil.
Trees have a specific role in that because they provide a more long-term storage facility for carbon. The impact of regenerative agriculture is hard to measure and model, more so as each farm and each soil landscape will differ from country to country, even within one same region.
But diverse farms have proven to have huge benefits over conventional monocultures. They produce up to 20 times more food per hectare, they often don’t need any external fertilizers, and they’re much more resilient when faced with droughts and pests.
The conventional wisdom that we can’t feed the world without chemicals and fertilizers simply isn’t true. If we don’t feed our soils, that’s when we won’t be able to feed the world.
It is estimated that food production globally must increase by half in the next 30 years to feed around 10 billion people. Finding that amount of land in suitable conditions would in all likelihood wipe our remaining forests off the earth.
Instead, we need to increase regenerative practices on existing farmland. So the crucial question becomes: Can regenerative agriculture be scaled? I don’t see any reason why it could not be scaled.
The short answer is yes. Regenerative agriculture can be scaled. But scaling it depends on a global shift in our economic system. We need to move away from a system that gives financial incentives to large industries polluting the environment and producing monocultures of low nutritional value; and instead, start financially supporting farmers to switch to regenerative agriculture.
Support is especially needed for smallholder farmers, who are not benefiting from the current system. On a global scale, though, smallholder farmers produce about 80% of our food on only 10% of arable land.
In contrast, big agriculture makes most of the money but occupies more than half of the world’s productive land — mostly producing crops that never reach people but that are instead fed to industrially farmed animals.
From the US, Australia, Canada or the European Union, the pattern persists: governmental, agricultural subsidies are unequally distributed and favor the amount of cultivated hectares over a positive contribution to the environment.
Because each country, each farm, even each soil landscape is different, applying regenerative agriculture will look very different depending on where you are. And while regenerative agriculture is inherently low tech, existing technologies could help make this labor-intensive system more efficient, while still preserving the environment.
Apps exist that allow farmers to time their gates to manage animal grazing more efficiently, for example. But in order to scale, big industries and governments need to invest into improving those technologies and help farmers apply them.
I think many people associate regenerative agriculture and permaculture with very sort of small holder farming-like structures, where we are working on a hectare or a couple of hectares at a time, with a small group of people.
Many of the practices can be scaled easily once they’re adopted. So I think that the main challenge lies in switching and adopting new practices. Once these practices are adopted, the scaling itself is not an issue.
With that said, this is in a way a lock-in of the farmer in this current system. The farmer has invested into machinery, into infrastructure, into… sometimes contracts with seed and chemical providers, etc.
In order to finance all of these, [the farmer] has indebted themselves towards a bank, he’s working for the bank and cannot easily change this system. While more and more farmers around the world are willing to switch to regenerative agriculture, they cannot do so alone.
And as the planet warms, farming lands will be put at risk by extreme climate events, affecting communities who least caused climate warming the most. Now that’s a topic that deserves a story of its own.
But scaling regenerative agriculture is a question of climate justice. Which is why at Ecosia, our tree-planting projects heavily focus on supporting regenerative practices. We have also launched a fund to inspire and support the switch to regenerative agriculture in Europe.
Throughout our different projects, we are working on the topic of regenerative agriculture. And also our reforestation activities are already geared towards implementing trees in agricultural systems.
However, in Europe, we have recognized that it’s not all about reforestation, but it’s a lot about changing our dominant land-use practice, which is agriculture. We decided to approach this topic by creating, in a way, “demonstration farms”.
So we have called out for for proposals of farmers and entrepreneurs all over Europe to propose projects where they want to create or convert a farm to practice regenerative agriculture. So our aim there is really to demonstrate that regenerative agriculture can be a viable alternative to conventional agriculture.
But this will still not be enough for a worldwide shift in our agricultural system. There are many stakeholders that will lose in that transition and these stakeholders happen to be very potent and very powerful ones in our current system.
So how can we create a balance? If we want to curb climate change while feeding a growing population, we need to make a dramatic shift in how we produce food. And like most systemic shifts, change starts locally, with you! If you look around you, you will find many opportunities to get started.
For example, you can participate in local farming projects, or consider joining a farmer-consumer cooperative. You’ll get better quality food and, in some cases, you can even help the farmer produce that food yourself.
You can also reach out to farmers around your area and ask them if they need help. Like the ‘Gonne Girls’ in France, who won Ecosia’s last regenerative farming competition and then called for some hundred people to help them plant trees on their farm to get started.
Bottom line is, learn as much as you can about how food is produced. The better we all understand the struggles of those producing our food, the better we will be able to defend our human right to access it.
Regenerative farmers do their part by protecting nature. We have to do our part by helping them succeed.