Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change

Monday, April 28, 2014
Rodale Institute

Executive Summary from the full report:

We are at the most critical moment in the history of our species, as manmade changes to the climate threaten humanity’s security on Earth. In 2012, total annual global emissions of greenhouse gases were approximately 52 GtCO2e (gigatons of CO2 equivalent). These emissions must soon drop to a net of 41 GtCO2e if we are to have a feasible chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C, above which point we dare not pass. 

The key term in the above paragraph is “net.” Gross greenhouse gas emissions come from numerous manmade sources. The resulting climate chaos has begun to modify our planet in ways that are not fully understood, leading to natural emissions that add to the complexity of the challenge. If we continue to attack the climate crisis solely from the direction of reducing gross manmade emissions, we will be forced to confront all the bewildering complexity of climate chaos. We will also be forced to battle carbon pumps everywhere – industrial, agricultural, the transportation sector – and from every direction on the globe. We will be forced to ask what countries should bear what responsibility, what industries should bear what portion of the blame and burden, and who should pay for the sacrifices we tremble to imagine? This daunting challenge is posed by trying to solve the problem by addressing only the “pump,” and it has led to international bickering, incoherence, and inaction. People are left to pray for a yet undiscovered “technological messiah” to undo the damage, for our political will is paralyzed. 

All this flows from the failure to look beyond the source of the problem, namely, the swarming carbon pumps that endlessly contaminate our atmosphere. The purpose of this paper is to redirect the discussion from the “swarm” to the “simple.” We suggest an obvious and immediately available solution – put the carbon back to work in the terrestrial carbon “sinks” that are literally right beneath our feet. Excess carbon in the atmosphere is surely toxic to life, but we are, after all, carbon-based life forms, and returning stable carbon to the soil can support ecological abundance. 

Simply put, recent data from farming systems and pasture trials around the globe show that we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term “regenerative organic agriculture.” These practices work to maximize carbon fixation while minimizing the loss of that carbon once returned to the soil, reversing the greenhouse effect. 

Regenerative organic agriculture for soil-carbon sequestration is tried and true: Humans have long farmed in that fashion, and there is nothing experimental about it. What is new is the scientific verification of regenerative agricultural practices. Farming trials across the world have contrasted various forms of regenerative and conventional practices and studied crop yield, drought impact, and carbon sequestration. Some of these studies are in their third decade of data, such as this Institute’s Farming Systems Trial, and there are important fresh looks such as in the new Tropical Farming Systems Trial (“TFST”) on the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica. The TFST is exactly the type of research needed for us to understand the full sequestration potential of regenerative agriculture, and Rodale Institute is pleased to be collaborating there with local researchers associated with Finca Luna Nueva and EARTH University. Taken together, the wealth of scientific support for regenerative organic agriculture has demonstrated that these practices can comfortably feed the growing human population while repairing our damaged ecosystem. This scientific support has also led the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development (“UNCTAD”) to issue, in September, 2013, it report “Wake Up Before It’s Too Late,” a powerful call for the return to these sustainable practices. 

Developing a comparable set of global farming system trials designed to more specifically measure carbon sequestration is our best hope for demonstrating the power of regenerative organic agriculture to help solve the climate equation. At the same time, these trials will act as hubs of skills incubation and support networks for farmers already working in, or transitioning to, regenerative organic models. 

Today there are farmers and agricultural scientists in every corner of the world committed to and excited about the results of regenerative organic agriculture’s role in reversing both climate issues and food insecurity, and the specific research needs have been well documented. Now is the time to harness cutting-edge technological understanding, human ingenuity and the rich history of farmers working in tandem with the wisdom of natural ecosystems. Now is the time to arrive at a stable climate by way of healing our land and ourselves - through regenerative organic agriculture.