NASA's supercomputer model depicting global CO2 emissions over a year.
Goosebumps appeared on my arms when Ray Archuleta, Conservation Agronomist, presented it.
The dynamic world map illustrates swathes of menacing red and purple gasses during March, April, and May, with weather patterns aiding their envelopment of the planet. Archuleta explains this is high levels of CO2 leaving the soil during tilling time in modern agriculture. The model then progresses into the summer and autumn months. The red gasses gradually deplete, replaced by reassuring blue waves, low CO2 emissions. These are the months when crops are growing and drawing the CO2 back into our soil.
This small scene was one of the eye-opening moments for me in Kiss the Ground, a feature-length movie released at the end of 2020. The ground-breaking film explores key soil health and regenerative agricultural principles (and is narrated by Woody Harrelson!). It argues compellingly that by regenerating the world’s soils, humans can stabilise Planet Earth’s climate, restore lost ecosystems and create abundant food supplies, featuring the opinions of experts, authors, scientists, farmers, and researchers like Archuleta. With so much of the world’s topsoil already eroded by modern agriculture, the apocalyptic message it sends is that the world has only 60 harvests left.
Regenerative agriculture is, rightly, a hot topic in the FMCG industry. There are many definitions, but perhaps the one that defines the approach best is “a system of principles and practices that generates agricultural products, sequesters carbon, and enhances biodiversity at the farm scale." Essentially, it improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying and depleting them.
Improving the health of our soil is the core objective of regenerative agriculture as this leads to numerous, interconnecting benefits. The planet’s thin layer of topsoil is indeed responsible for 95% of all the food produced for human consumption. Yet our soil is a resource humankind has taken for granted for decades.
Rapid erosion of soil began when humans developed the plough and adopted ‘modern’ agricultural practices where the soil is cultivated deeply, completely, and regularly. In fact, as Kiss The Ground explains, in the 1930’s America experienced the largest man-made environmental disaster in history, the Dust Bowl.
It was a period of severe dust storms, which was largely caused by farmers over-tilling the once fertile Mid-Western Plains.By the end of 1934, roughly 200 million acres of cropland were permanently damaged and thousands of people and livestock were killed. President Franklin D Roosevelt himself observed the destruction and, in response, created The Soil Conservation Service in an attempt to try and save the nation’s soil.
Sadly, today an estimated 33% of land worldwide is considered “moderately to highly degraded” due to “erosion, salinization, compaction, acidification, and chemical pollution of soils”. Research has also shown that farmland around the world has “generally lost about half the carbon it held fifty years ago,” mostly from agricultural tillage.
So, why is soil health so important?
Good soil health leads to increased soil carbon storage, greater soil resilience to flooding and drought through higher organic matter levels and improved soil structure, improved nutrient recycling, and improved soil biota that supports plant health and biodiversity up the food chain. In summary, healthier soils lead to healthier plants and, hopefully, healthier profits for farmers. All while sequestering carbon from our atmosphere.
By transforming modern agricultural and forestry practices (predicted today to generate 24% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide), we can help reverse this situation and build healthy, resilient soil.
Ploughs are completely absent on farms practicing regenerative agriculture for good reason. When farmers plough their fields to destroy weeds and fertilise the ground, water in the freshly-turned soil evaporates. This means the soil is blown or washed away and that the carbon held within is released (as demonstrated in Nasa’s CO2 model). Tilling of fields also quickly makes them nutrient-poor, and therefore, less life-giving.
So, what are the key principles that regenerative farmers need to follow?
There are four:
1. Minimising soil disturbance
Healthy soil is teaming with life. In fact, “there are more micro-organisms in a teaspoon of soil than there are people of Earth”, and every life form depends on healthy soil to survive. The living organisms in the soil create soil fertility, but disturbing them through ploughing and chemical usage destroys the soil structure that is their home. The Latin root of “conserve” means “to keep together”, regenerative farming abides by this principle, keeping the soil together and treating it as the living ecosystem it is.
2. Keeping the soil covered
Keeping soil covered protects it from wind and water erosion while preventing moisture evaporation and weed seeds from germinating is essential. “Covering” the soil in practice means maintaining living roots within it as much as possible. This is best achieved by growing “cover crops” in the gaps between “cash crops”, helping retain nutrients and a food supply for micro-organisms in the soil.
3. Maximising plant/ crop diversity
Pests, diseases, and poor nutrient cycling in crops are due to the lack of diversity in our farming system. Increasing the variety of crops and animals in the system is proven to help decrease pest and disease pressure. Essentially, supporting biodiversity will aid soil health.
4. Integrating livestock
Livestock grazing of crops on arable land provides fresh organic matter and encourages new plant growth by stimulating plants to pump more carbon back into the soil. This encourages nutrient recycling by feeding biology.
So what are food companies doing?
With the UK government committing to slash its carbon emissions by 78% by 2035, the food and drink industry is taking action to help achieve this goal. And with food supply chains being some of the greatest contributors to carbon emissions globally (the world’s food system is currently responsible for approximately 30% of greenhouse gas emissions), them taking action is crucial. And many are doing so by addressing their farming principles.
In fact, PepsiCo recently announced commitments to spread regenerative farming practices throughout seven million acres of farmland around the world and reduce an estimated three million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
Other multinational heavyweights, including Danone and Nestlé, have recently increased their environmental protection efforts. Nestlé has committed around $1.4 billion over the next five years to regenerative agriculture across its supply chain. Brand house, Danone comments it is “Developing new agricultural models to regenerate the planet while feeding a global population that is set to surpass 9 billion people by 2050”, and General Mills agree the most promising solutions start with healthy soil, “We will advance regenerative agriculture on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030”.
Matt Dight, Head of Sustainability at Pilgrims UK, Britain’s biggest provider of higher welfare pork, commented: “100% of the pigs we produce- which account for 20% of the pigs produced in the UK are all farmed as part of a mixed rotation along with arable crops. Utilising pigs to regenerative valuable, productive arable land to regenerate soil health, sequester carbon, improving soil health and increasing biodiversity”.
Smaller brands are also adopting regenerative farming schemes. Organic chocolate maker Alter Eco, which sources its cocoa beans principally from Ecuador, Peru, and the Dominican Republic, already manufactures its chocolate at a carbon-neutral facility in Switzerland. It has recently announced a $10 million investment to convert its 20,000 acres of farmland into regenerative agriculture.
Also, earlier this year, The Soil Association partnered with various retailers and FMCG companies including M&S, Sainsbury’s, Arla Foods, and Nando’s to create a new centre of excellence for nature-friendly farming called The Soil Association Exchange (SAX). The initiative aims to create an industry-wide set of standards and tools to enable farmers to make positive environmental and social changes. Director of the scheme, Joseph Gridley, commented: “Our hope is that all farmers are thus inspired to move along a spectrum from degenerative to regenerative”.
Why is regenerative farming unique?
Regenerative agriculture is unique in that it has the ability not just to diminish carbon emissions, but reverse them. Astonishingly, as technology in the agricultural industry becomes more advanced with the use of sophisticated moisture sensors, GPS technology, robots and drones but the importance of fundamental photosynthesis and the power of carbon capture from plants seems to have been cast aside. Indeed, Kiss The Ground reports that soil can hold around 30x the amount of carbon dioxide we release annually by burning fossil fuels; our soil is an incredible resource unlike any other, and currently we’re not only underutilising it, but actively abusing it.
It says that switching to regenerative farming principles could sequester a couple of tonnes of carbon per acre per year, which, if scaled across agriculture, can help reverse global warming. It adds that sadly currently 5% or less of US farms are managed for soil health. In fact, 70% of US crop land grows only corn, soy, and hay and a staggering 99% of that goes to feed animals. However, the Soil Health Partnership (established by Nature Conservancy and theNational Corn Growers Association) has an ambitious goal to change this current farming approach and to grow the current 5% to 50% of US farms managed for soil health, by 2025.
But it’ll cost more won’t it?
One myth about regenerative farming is that it requires an economic trade-off. But actually, regenerative farmers are already more profitable due to decreased input costs and have better margins. If on top of this, farmers can monetise carbon (including in programs by Bayer in the US which offers $10 per acre for farmers), it has the potential to double profitability. By switching to regenerative farming principles, Kiss The Ground estimates that American farmers could increase their profits by $100 billion annually and virtually eliminate their Government subsidies (which currently equate to $25 billion annually).
Harrelson’s declaration in the film that “we only have 60 harvests left” has been reported as exaggerated, but there is no doubt that time IS running out for mankind to make the changes it needs to make to continue feeding itself. Food production has been the biggest destroyer of biodiversity in recent decades, and a radical change to production (and consumption) is urgently required to avoid a total collapse of our food systems.
Food producers and farmers must harness the regenerative power of Earth itself and utilise technology to ensure the farm of the future is very different from today. We must combine regenerative farming principles that are sensitive to our ecosystem and our incredible advancements in technology, to help better inform our farmer’s decisions. This includes the use of sensors, artificial intelligence, and improvements in our ability to measure carbon levels in the soil. This way, billions of acres of monoculture (one crop) and polyculture (two corps) fields will be a thing of the past. They will be replaced with healthy farm ecosystems cultivating varied crops like peas, barley, wheat, oats, vetch, triticale, alfalfa, growing vegetables, rearing grass-fed beef, lamb, pork, harvesting honey, and much more.
Given the huge contribution to CO2 emissions our food companies make, they have a crucial role to play in paving the way. Over the next few crucial years, there needs to be a push in food companies supporting their suppliers in grow produce using regenerative farming values, and we, as consumers, have the responsibility to make the ‘right choices’ in the supermarket.If food companies act quickly to adopt regenerative farming principles, they can truly help to reverse climate change.
And NASA’s CO2 model will give us goosebumps for all the right reasons.