The Solution under Our Feet: Regenerative Agriculture and Climate Change

Time is running out and our planet is about to increase its temperature by 1.5°C more than the global average. However, if every nation in the world would abruptly stopped emitting CO2 gases tomorrow, this would solve our global warming problem, right? Not really, as we have carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that has to go back to where it belongs… the soil.

7 min. read

Our complex history with carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions begins thousands of years ago with the advent and sophistication of agriculture. However, when industrialization began in the early 19th century, the burning of fossil fuels, the implementation of industrial methods of agriculture, and other anthropogenic sources of greenhouse gases (GHG), humankind has extracted 480 GtCO2 in emissions1. Currently, the levels of this gas are found at 420 parts per million (ppm) in the year 2022, figures that had not been seen for more than four million years2. The simplest answer to this problem is to recapture this available CO2 and return it to where it came from in the first place, the soil. In order to pursue this endeavor, it is necessary to understand how the soil works and what must be done to “sequester” the released carbon.

It is commonly believed that climate change is a phenomenon that occurs fundamentally at the atmospheric level, and this is partially true. It must be taken into account that in processes such as photosynthesis, plants trap carbon from the air to produce food (carbohydrates). However, not all the carbon is used for this purpose and another part is absorbed by the roots to finally be deposited into the soil. It is key to understand that if the soil is not disturbed, the moisture and nutrient conditions would be adequate, and there would be a balance between secreted and consumed CO2 by the microorganisms that inhabit it, and “this carbon could stabilize and remain confined for thousands of years3.” Therefore, it is necessary to know how to maintain healthy soils and what characteristics they must have to capture and keep carbon under the ground4.

There are several practices that support a healthy development of soils and these are found under a large umbrella term coined as “regenerative (organic) agriculture”. It consists of:

…rehabilitat[ing] soil and keep[ing] it productive as long as possible to avoid expansion to new areas at the cost of forest cuts, for example. Soil fertility is required not only to grow crops to support human needs but to provide forage for cattle as well. This is why the more fertile pasturelands are, the more food animals will have.

Earth Observing System. 2021

These techniques in the farmers’ routine include: Not disturbing the soil with mechanical mechanisms (specifically industrial tillage) or chemicals (use of synthetic fertilizers); avoiding bare soils through planting crops between harvests (mainly grains) to mitigate erosion; promoting biodiversity through “crop rotation, agroforestry and silvopastoral techniques”. Contrary to what many think, livestock should be part of the agricultural landscape and perennial crops should be implemented to conserve plant roots and protect the soil from factors such as wind and water. These techniques are not the only ones available, but to a large extent they cover most of the pre-industrial type practices to foster healthy soils6.

The biggest concern among farmers is the short-term loss of profits when switching from industrial farming to regenerative farming. However, there are plenty of benefits and it promotes a sustainable future. In the first place, it reduces GHG emissions, where a 26% come from the food industry. Second, it helps combat climate change by reducing emissions and capturing carbon. Third, economic losses are lower since crops where regenerative techniques have been applied, better cope with extreme climatic conditions of rainfall and drought. Fourth, since regenerative agriculture promotes biodiversity, crops are more sustainable. These and more advantages, in the long run, address the initial fear of farmers, who at first do not receive the same economic compensation as if they had used traditional methods of agriculture, but preserve the fertility of their farmland, and thus, ensure their business7.

Around the topic of regenerative agriculture, there are debates that are important to take into account. On the one hand, there is the argument concerning the scope of this solution and whether it would be able to be adopted globally. Currently, there is evidence that approximately 600 millihectares around the world use some regenerative agriculture technique and this number is growing at a rate of 20 millihectares per year. With regard to the CO2 capture capacity of soils, if soils are healthy, they would be capable of sequestering between 100 to 200 GtCO2 until the year 2100. In addition, scientific evidence affirms that a growing production of carbon from soils under land rehabilitation techniques increase their capacity to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere8. The methods proposed by regenerative agriculture certainly bring benefits, but we must not forget that they are not “the solution” to climate change and other efforts must be added, such as a decrease of fossil-fuels use, the reduction and reuse of waste and food residues, the availability of renewable energy sources, among others.

1 One Earth. 2022. Regenerative Agriculture can play a key role in combating climate change. Access on 06/15/2022
2 France 24. 2022. El nivel de CO2 en el aire es 50% más alevado que antes de la era industrial, según agencia de EEUU. Access on 06/11/2022
3 Agencia Europea del Medio Ambiente. 2021. El suelo y el cambio climático. Access on 06/20/2022
4 Id.
5 Earth Observing System. 2021. Agricultura Regenerativa: Camino A Un Futuro Seguro. Access on 06/15/2022
6 Id.
7 Id.
8 Ibid. One Earth. 2022.