The food we eat and the air we breathe is impacted by this brown dirt we take for granted. It’s the foundation on which we grow our food and build our world.
Have you thought about it lately? Probably not; why should you? We are busy worrying about the destruction of forests, the pollution of our oceans and the quality of our air. Who talks about soil?
The health and ecosystem living in soil is something that we all should be concerned about. It’s so important that there is an entire movement happening in the agricultural world that focuses on rebuilding the ecosystems and biodiversity naturally found in soil.
It is called Regenerative Agriculture.
Soil Has an Ecosystem?
Soil is incredibly rich and is – or should be – full of both living and non-living matter, all interacting with each other. This “matter” includes minerals, decomposing organic matter, bugs, worms, microorganisms, and all other types of materials.
Soil is home to many things, including minerals, decomposing organic matter, bugs, worms and microorganisms. It makes soil one of the richest ecosystems on the planet.
This ecosystem has a key role in other ecological cycles such as carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, water and nutrients. At the same time, it services a number of natural processes like decomposition, water filtration, providing nutrients to plants and breaking down environmental contaminants.
According to the Environmental Literacy Council in the United States, “the diversity and abundance of life that exists within the soil is greater than any other ecosystem”.
The fact that 33% of our world’s soil has been degraded due to agricultural practises is having a bigger impact than most of us know.
In fact, the UN predicts that if nothing changes, farming will cease to exist in 60 years as a result of total soil degradation.
What is Regenerative Agriculture?
Regenerative Agriculture is a set of principles and practices which aim to reverse the current land use trends that lead to the destruction of soil. The changes are focused on farming and grazing habits but also include action items for cities and urban areas.
One of the key goals of Regenerative Agriculture is to downdraw atmospheric carbon from the air into the soil to help mitigate climate change.
The mission revolves around bringing our soil back to life, if only to ensure that we ourselves remain alive.
Graphic borrowed from Project Grounded.
6 Ways Soil Makes The World Go ‘Round
According to the Regeneration Canada website, there are six key ways that soil services multiple ecosystems. This is not an exhaustive list of what it does, but the key points they choose to focus on for their impact and importance.
1. Nutrient Cycling
The microorganisms which live in soil break down nutrients- such as phosphorus and calcium – to make them available to plants. This helps plants and crops grow to be full of the nutrients that we ourselves look for when we eat them.
2. Climate Regulation & Air Purification
In soil, carbon is held in living organisms, dead organic matter, and inorganic (or mineral) material.
Healthy soil can absorb carbon from the air and store it. This effectively helps to regulate the climate. This process is called Carbon Drawdown.
Carbon drawdown is being recognized as a way to actually reverse climate change and to help ensure a healthy planet for future generations.
Toxic gasses found in the air are also broken down by microorganisms living in soil, resulting in air purification.
3. Flood & Drought Mitigation
Healthy soil is filled with fungus and all kinds of sticky substances created by microorganisms. These help to bind soil together and build up its structure, allowing for an increased ability to absorb water. This enhances the resiliency that soil has in droughts and floods.
4. Water Purification
When water seeps through soil to join the groundwater reservoir below, healthy soil filters out dangers particles while the handy microorganisms which live in the soil break down organic and inorganic material that would end up polluting our water. It acts as a natural Brita Filter for our groundwater.
Water is purified by soil as it soaks into the earth and joins lakes, rivers and groundwater reservoirs. Healthy soil does a better job at purifying water and removing harmful contaminants.
5. Disease Suppression & Soil Detoxification
The organisms in healthy soil reduce toxic chemicals and actually battle against pathogenic organisms (organisms capable of causing diseases). Soil is helping to keep us healthy.
6. Food, Fluel, Fiber, and Medicine
The food we eat, the materials we get to build our world, the medicines we take to keep us healthy, and many more relied-upon resources all come back to soil. It’s something we have been using for our entire existence. Without it, we are nothing.
We are Losing All These Benefits That Soil Brings
Deforestation, chemical use and tillage are all impacting the health and quality of our soil.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, this ecosystem that has covered our world is at risk of being permanently destroyed unless a change is made. In the past 150 years we have lost half of the planet’s top soil and this will impact more than our ability to grow food.
As the 6 key roles of soil explored above have shown, the health and maintenance of our soil and it’s ecosystem holds more weight in our survival than one may think.
Practical Applications of Regenerative Agriculture
If soil degradation has such a grave impact on climate change, the quality of our food, our health and the climate, then it needs to become a topic of conversation explored just as as much as deforestation or ocean restoration.
There are a few ways that every person – farmer or not – can embody the movement of Regenerative Agriculture to help save our soil.
No-Till or Reduced Tillage
One of the biggest impacts on soil health is tillage. An article from the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative from California State University, Chico, states that tilling is one of the most degreating agriculture practises which increases soil erosion, water runoff and carbon release into the atmosphere.
If soil holds 2-3X more carbon than the atmosphere, imagine how much is being released every spring and fall when tilling occurs.
The process of tilling soil has been used by farmers to prepare for the following years harvest. It helps to loosen up the soil, making it easier to plant new seeds. It is also used as a form of weed control. The act of tilling is believed to aerates the soil which is seen as beneficial to crop growth.
These benefits, however, are focused on short term gain. Regenerative Agriculture charges people to think long term and sustainably instead of focusing on the traditional practise.
Planting seeds are easier after tilling but it can result in topsoil loss. It may help water soak through right after but the moisture sitting in the soil is exposed to the air and evaporates after being turned over. The loose soil is then at risk of damage or erosion in the case of heavy rainfall or flooding.
The act of tilling physically disrupts the ecosystem that is living in the soil, resulting in the loss of the helpful microorganisms, bugs, worms, minerals, and other organic matter that helps to grow healthy crops.
Needing to turn to man made fertilizers creates an imbalance in the structure and function of the soil itself. It ultimately creates a dependent ecosystem where plants need fertilizers to be successful. They become less resilient with lower levels of nutrients.
The concept of no-till is to leave fields to grow and live as they do in nature: with minimal disruption from machines or tilling ploughs.
Why does it matter?
Although the tools needed to plant seeds in untilled soil can be more expensive, the fuel and time saved by not tilling in the first place can help mitigate costs. In the long run, leaving farm land untilled helps to maintain soil quality, keeps CO2 in the ground, reduces soil erosion, improves water permeation and increases resilience in floods and droughts.
A visualization of regenerative agriculture and no till vs traditional tilling. Image borrowed from Joyce Farms
By switching to perennial crops, the need to till can be eliminated altogether. Since they come back every year, there is no need to plant new seeds or turn the soil for the next year’s harvest.
Perennial crops grow a deeper, more sustainable root system that improve soil structure and water infiltration while increasing carbon confinement. Although not all crops are available in perennial varieties, many are. They include fruit and nut trees, asparagus, wheat, potatoes, grapes, as well as almost all grains, dried legumes and oilseed crops.
Graphic taken from Erb Institute at the University of Michigan
Why does it matter?
Perennial crops go hand in hand with no-till farming. Overall, perennial crops contribute to climate change mitigation as well as food and water security. The root system helps to hold the soil in place during flooding or periods of drought. Soil quality, water infiltration and soil ecosystem are all improved through these root systems.
Intercropping and Managing Grazing with Animals
Diversifying what plants are grown and growing these plants together can help create an ecosystem that supports the natural process of growing food. It is encouraged to pair intercropping with a more natural grazing practise for animals to reduce the reliance on feed crops and increase the overall ecosystem in a farm.
Why does it matter?
Diversifying the crop in a section of land or field can increase composts, diversify the population of microorganisms, improve soil structure, and raise general nutrient levels in soil.
Regenerative Agriculture Works
An Alberta farmer, Ryan Boyd, made the choice to practise regenerative agriculture to secure the viability of his farm into the future. He began grazing his animals in a way that mimicked natural grazing practises. At the same time, he started interplanting peas with his canola to see what impact it would have on his harvest.
Mr. Boyd states that he saw less disease pressure on plants and has been able to grow peas in wet climates. His cattle have improved as well. There has been virtually no cases of pink eye or foot rot since making the grazing change and the animals are growing larger in general than they had in the past.
Check out this video to see how a cattle and sheep farm from New Zealand implemented regenerative agriculture practises into their farm.
The key message in Regenerative Agriculture is carbon drawdown.
Drawdown is the process of pulling carbon from the air for it to be stored in the ground.
While farmers can contribute to this with non-tilling, crop choice, and adjusting their farming practices, everyone can contribute to Carbon Drawdown by reducing food waste, eating a plant-rich diet and supporting eco friendly businesses all have an impact.
Science Animated made a video about Carbon Drawdown so you can learn all about it in 2:21 by clicking here.
Leaving It Better Than When We Started
By recognizing the role that soil plays in our world and the impact that our practices have on it’s health, change can be made to bring our soil back to life.
It’s not often that we get a second chance, especially when it comes to the environment. But studies have shown that the practice of Regenerative Agriculture can actually turn back the clock and bring soil back to what it once was. More than that, it can actually help tackle climate change and grow healthier, more sustainable food.
Who would have thought there’d be so much hope in soil.