While the issues of agriculture may be daunting, there is still hope. Fortunately, the solutions for environmental repair and indefinite settlement are readily available and easy to implement. The hard part is altering the reigning paradigm which shapes our decisions.
As creatures of comfort, we tend to be set in our ways and slow to change them, making only the minimum necessary effort to ease short-term suffering. To succeed at the global scale, we must expand our horizon of concern beyond today's shareholders to include the welfare of all life and future generations. If we can do this, the way forward is clear.
Regenerative agriculture, permaculture, agroforestry, holistic management, & microbial repopulation offer advanced strategies to revolutionize the way we engage with the planet. Together, they mimic specific patterns and processes of the natural world.
Nature's success over millions of years is a function of competitive cooperation between a highly diverse species of plants, animals and microorganisms. This ancient competition symbiotically shapes the environment to benefit their mutual survival. If we aim to exist on Earth beyond the next century, we must harvest the intelligence of these time-tested mechanisms to acquire guidance in designing our societies to be more harmonious with the biosphere.
These agricultural methodologies do just that. While emulating Nature's behaviour to restore landscapes and build new farming systems, they compound on their mutual successes, creating an amplifying feedback loop of regenerative momentum.
Selecting the right tactics, for the right region, at the right stage, is the most crucial part of landscape regeneration. Each bioregion has a unique set of characteristics which dictate how the land will respond to various management solutions over time. Based on the most pressing issues, bioregional assessments are conducted to understand the full scope of disruption, as well as determine the highest leverage strategy to restore functionality and productivity.
The highest priority of this new approach is to support the ecosystem services which sustain all life, such as water cycles, soil carbon and forests. Land-use decisions are made from the perspective of cultivation, rather than exploitation; remembering it is us who must humbly comply to the will of Nature, not the other way around.
What is Regenerative Agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture is a method of farming which improves the health of our crops, as well as the surrounding environment and all life within it. In the current model, all sides are losing due to ecological destruction, soil degradation, heavy pollution and poor food quality.
At the cutting edge of modern farming, regenerative agriculture is an integration of various agricultural and land management techniques which simultaneously reverse ecological damage, yield superior crops, and cultivate indefinite soil fertility. The goal is to protect, preserve and restore the farmland and green spaces of the planet.
Regenerative agriculture supports ecosystem services by restoring watersheds, rebuilding topsoil, enhancing biodiversity and increasing resiliency to climate change. It also offsets greenhouse gas emissions, solves water and food security issues, and stops deforestation, while upgrading our food supply and being more economically advantageous than the conventional industrial approach.
How Does It Work?
The primary focus of regenerative agriculture is to build and maintain soil health, which is the foundation of nutrient density in vegetation. This is achieved by emulating Nature's processes of building soil organic matter and supporting the ecosystem. Tactics are employed to improve water percolation, build soil organic matter, restore diversity of microbiology, revegetate and reintroduce grazing animals.
Through this process, we are rebuilding the mechanisms of fertility which allow us to produce crops, while providing self-perpetuating support for the ecosystem.
The first and most important step in bioremediation is to rehydrate the landscape. Sufficient access to on-site water storage reduces soil erosion drastically. To do this, the infrastructure of water management systems must be redesigned. Once water stores are secured, we then look to the specific conditions which dictate possible approaches to tailoring a regenerative system.
Although each site is unique in what actions can be taken, the general regenerative process involves establishing reliable water management, removing agrochemicals, revitalizing the soil, revegetation, introducing grazing animals, and providing natural space for the facilitation of ecosystem services.
This process is executed after a thorough analysis of the social and climatic controlling factors. If the directives are not financially viable long-term, the strategy does not classify as sustainable, let alone regenerative.
What Does It Offer?
As a whole, regenerative agriculture offers a systematic approach to growing better quality food - without the use of harmful chemicals - in a way that repairs the damage we have done through industrial models. It provides the means to harmonize the existence of humanity, Nature and agriculture; allowing us to provide the resources we need to thrive, through stewardship of the environment.
What is Permaculture?
Permaculture is a system of ecological design that echoes the closed-loop, zero-waste systems found in Nature. Innovated in Australia, the term is a compound of Permanent Agriculture and Permanent Culture, capturing the ultimate initiative of creating resilient human settlements which function as harmonious allies to the environment.
The key distinction between permaculture and regenerative agriculture is the extent of their purview. The scope of regenerative agriculture is focused strictly on strategies for landscape management and ecological restoration, whereas the field of permaculture includes social, ethical, economic and legal factors concerning the government of communities on a broader scale.
In its full essence, permaculture is a system of problem solving in all matters related to permanent human settlements.
How Does It Work?
Permaculture is guided by The Three Ethics: Care of the Earth, Care of the People, and Return of Surplus (also referred to as "Fair Share").
These ethics comprise a framework of decision-making used to achieve the goals of Permanent Culture, and are further supported by a set of 12 design principles. These principles, such as "Produce No Waste" and "Catch & Store Energy", more specifically illustrate a comprehensive set of creative and analytical guidelines to help us produce and refine the most optimal initiatives.
One of the core axioms is: the problem is the solution. This implies that, once thoroughly defined, any problem can be inverted to discover or create a solution. The more specifically we can understand the problem, the closer we are to solving it through the application of these proprietary ethics and principles.
A permaculture design aspires toward total self-sufficiency. It perpetuates it's own supplies of food, water, shelter, and energy, while supporting the ecological functions of the immediate environment, as well as surrounding areas. This goal of operational self-sufficiency is achieved by simulating, or leveraging, the patterns and features of the natural world. More specifically: Nature's innate strategies of self-regulation.
With an "Earth-first" agenda, the philosophy of permaculture places Nature's health and intelligence ahead of humanity's. While putting people second is a controversial ideal, permaculturists would argue that our wellbeing and satisfaction of basic needs are directly dependent on the existence of healthy, flourishing ecosystems, and therefore our highest priority in decision-making should be the preservation and restoration of the environment.
What Does It Offer?
Permaculture offers similar improvements in farming systems and environmental care as regenerative agriculture, but goes on to outline higher philosophies and directives with which to guide the management of human settlements as a whole. It presents us with a set of blueprints we may use to establish and maintain resilient, environmentally net-positive communities.
What is Agroforestry?
Agroforestry is a system of farming that interlaces trees, crops, livestock and aquaculture to enhance agricultural yield.
When properly executed, this intentionally designed ecosystem is strengthened by the synergy of its complimentary components - a dynamic we normally find in naturally forested areas. In a sense, agroforestry is synthetic forestation for the purposes of boosting the health and productivity of crops.
However, the impact of this methodology goes far beyond more efficiently growing food. To date, agroforestry is the most scientifically validated practice of agriculture which positively impacts the environment and supports ecosystem services, while still out-producing the conventional model.
Soil conservation, sequestering atmospheric carbon, recharging aquifers, building biodiversity and healthier livestock are just a few core environmental benefits of this approach.
How Does It Work?
Agroforestry designs hinge on a pivotal element known as shelter belts, which are strips of trees grown on the landscape in strategic positions. While acting as windshields to prevent crop damage and soil erosion, shelter belts create their own microclimates, which improves moisture retention and regulates temperature.
By screening out windchill in colder seasons, and providing shade in warmer ones, the wellbeing of livestock is improved dramatically. This reduction in stress promotes more regular feeding patterns and prevents disease, as well as other health issues. The overall quality of their rangeland and habitat is also much higher. Beyond livestock, the robust habitats created by agroforestry provide a platform for other flora and fauna to thrive, thereby supporting the flourishing of biodiversity.
Shelter belts also serve the surrounding community, as they buffer against noise, odours, and other byproducts of by agricultural activity.
Because Agroforestry designs heavily encourage the cohabitation of trees and many different plant species, they perform many of the same crucial ecosystem support functions as natural forests - primarily the sequestration of atmospheric carbon, replenishing groundwater stores and building soil fertility.
The diverse vegetation on the landscape not only absorbs large amounts of greenhouse gases, but creates healthy, porous soil, which facilitates the percolation of water into underground stores. This surface vegetation also protects the soil from excessive exposure to wind and rainfall, thereby eliminating common issues of soil loss through erosion.
Apart from Antarctica and the Arctic tundra, every climate has the ability to incorporate agroforestry practices and reap its impressive array of benefits.
What Does It Offer?
Agroforestry provides farmers with a scientifically proven method of increasing crop yield, while providing invaluable regenerative and economic incentives. In one comprehensive approach, we find the simple means to further the industrial initiatives of productivity while answering the urgent environmental calls of our time.
What is Holistic Management?
Created by Zimbabwean ecologist and environmentalist, Allan Savory, Holistic Management is an approach to decision-making which treats individual components of agricultural systems as mutually dependent parts of an interconnected whole, rather than isolated and independent fractions.
While Holistic Management offers many tools, such as modified goal setting and financial planning, it has mainly become concerned with the regeneration of landscapes through the strategic grazing of livestock.
With over 60 years of research and in-field experience, Savory believes the manmade desertification of Earth's vast grasslands is a major cause of climate change, and the only remedy for this problem is the reintroduction of herd animals into these regions.
Although they cover the majority of Earth's surface, the welfare of our grasslands and savannahs is commonly overlooked. Environmental concern is more commonly dedicated to rain forests and other more conspicuously populated habitats. But despite their seemingly inactive expanses, grasslands are crucial to the processes of environmental regulation, agriculture and life as we know it. They play pivotal roles in sequestering atmospheric carbon, mitigating hydrological cycles and creating arable farmland for growing food.
How Does It Work?
Particularly in grasslands, soil, plants and animals have cooperatively evolved to form a codependent reliance. In this triangular relationship, each one needs the other to maintain optimal health. When animals are removed from the equation, the land begins to desertify.
While their waste byproducts provide potent fertilizer, herd animals also perform many other crucial services to these landscapes. When cycled intermittently, animal traffic accelerates the healthy decay of leaves, stems and plants. Trampling of this vegetation not only builds soil fertility, but also prevents soil erosion by creating protection from heavy wind and rain, in the form of soil cover.
According to Savory, "Man-made desertification begins when the available rainfall becomes less effective."
The effectiveness of rainfall in an ecosystem is determined by the soil's capacity to absorb and retain water. With the help of plant root systems, regular disturbance of grassland soil surface by animal impact facilitates the penetration and retention of rainfall, thereby rendering it "effective."
The distribution of this annual rainfall further determines the brittleness of an ecosystem, which is Savory ranks on a scale from 1 to 10. "Brittleness" refers to the fragility of vegetation, or grass, when it's bent or crumpled by hand. Dry, arid regions with low humidity tend to rank high on the scale, whereas temperate rain forests with high humidity rank very low.
This system, known as the Savory brittleness scale, is helpful to predict which remediation strategies will be successful in any given region, as the same tactics used in an area with low brittleness may have the opposite effect in a highly brittle one. The extent of brittleness changes the way soil, plants and animals function, and affects how the land will respond to various management strategies. For example, rates of decomposition change drastically across the brittleness scale. Organic matter breaks down slowly in dry deserts and rapidly in humid tropics.
What Does It Offer?
Holistic Management offers unique perspectives on building the financial and environmental health of agricultural operations, as well as managing general landscapes. The chief practice of rotating livestock - mimicking the natural grazing patterns of herd animals - provides a simple method of leveraging Nature's intelligence to reverse desertification and mitigate climate change, while the brittleness scale provides the means of effectively determining the best strategies for a landscape based on the climate's rainfall patterns and humidity.
What Is Microbial Repopulation?
Microbial repopulation is a concept which was popularized after the discovery of the Soil Foodweb. Developed by Dr. Elaine Ingham, an American microbiologist, the Soil Foodweb is a scientific model describing the network of symbiotic relationships between plants and soil microorganisms.
Her research began in the wake of agriculture's chemical revolution, which introduced fertilizers, pesticides and new tilling techniques, intended to increase crop yield and resilience.
But this so-called revolution would prove to be devastating to soil microorganism populations, which Dr. Ingham's research conclusively revealed to be the foundation of soil fertility. The growth and nutrient density of our crops are dependent on robust communities of these microbes, rather than toxic showers of artificially isolated compounds.
In landscapes where the Soil Foodweb has broken down due to industrial agriculture, fertility can be restored though the innovative practice of microbial repopulation.
How Does It Work?
Soil is much more than mere "dirt". What we see with the naked eye is soil carbon, or the decomposed organic matter which makes up the structural mass. But this carbon acts as housing for unfathomable numbers of microorganisms.
These microbes perform a host of vital functions, from decomposition to disease prevention, processing toxins and nutrient retention. Arguably the most crucial, however, is playing their role in the rhizophagy cycle, which is the process of nutrient exchange between plants and microbes.
Plants produce carbohydrates through photosynthesis. Some are used for energy, while others are released through the root system in the form of sugars known as exudates. These exudates are effectively bait for microbes, bacteria and fungi.
Secreting these exudates is a mutually beneficial and clever tactic. While the microbes receive food from the plants, they also return the favour by providing a variety of rich nutrients from the byproducts of their rapid life cycles. The set of nutrients generated by an organic rhizophagy cycle is far more complete than what is offered by chemical fertilizers.
When soil is over-tilled and laden with heavy chemicals, these microorganisms dissipate, along with the array of services they perform. This creates infertile soil and highly fragile crops.
Repopulating these microbes, and therefore restoring soil fertility, occurs naturally when implementing practices of regenerative agriculture, such as building soil carbon and eliminating the use of chemicals. But it is profoundly accelerated with the use of compost extracts.
These extracts are created by breeding a wide variety of microorganisms on scale, usually through thermophilic composting. These microbes are then suspended in water and distributed across the landscape to replenish the numbers once present.
When the Soil Foodweb is restored, both our crops and the environment at large begin to thrive. Next to water, a healthy soil food web is the most critical element needed to sustain civilization. While revolutionary, Dr. Ingham's work has only begun to scratch the surface of a grossly overlooked and underfunded body of knowledge.
What Does It Offer?
The inclusion of microbiology in our approach to farming alters our entire agricultural paradigm. By understanding the mechanics of the soil food web, we can finally grasp the true importance and fragility of our soil networks, which ultimately empowers us to build food security, rather than destroying it, as per the current industrial model. It also provides a method of supporting the revival of infertile landscapes and rebooting the rhizophagy cycle through composting.