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'Regenerative Agriculture and the Soil Carbon Solution': New Paper Outlines Vision for Climate Action

"Data from farming and grazing studies show the power of exemplary regenerative systems that, if achieved globally, would drawdown more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions," the new research says.

A Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farmer works on his field in Ghent, Belgium on May 21, 2020. (Photo: Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

A Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farmer works on his field in Ghent, Belgium on May 21, 2020. (Photo: Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

A white paper out Friday declares that "there is hope right beneath our feet" to address the climate crisis as it touts regenerative agriculture as a "win-win-win" solution to tackling runaway carbon emissions.

"Humans broke the planet with grave agricultural malpractice," Tom Newmark, chairman of The Carbon Underground and a contributor to the research, said in a statement. "With this white paper, Rodale Institute shows us how regenerative agriculture has the potential to repair that damage and actually reverse some of the threatening impacts of our climate crisis."

"This is a compelling call to action!" he added.

Released by the Rodale Institute and entitled Regenerative Agriculture and the Soil Carbon Solution (pdf), the white paper discusses how a transformation of current widespread agricultural practices—which now contribute indirectly and directly to the climate crisis—"can be rolled out tomorrow providing multiple benefits beyond climate stabilization."

The findings are based on Rodale's own trials, research data, and interviews with experts, and build upon the institute's 2014 paper Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming.

The claim made in the new paper is bold: "Data from farming and grazing studies show the power of exemplary regenerative systems that, if achieved globally, would drawdown more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions."

Graph from Rodale Institute's new white paper "Regenerative Agriculture and the Soil Carbon Solution."Regenerative agriculture, as the researchers describe, represents "a system of farming principles that rehabilitates the entire ecosystem and enhances natural resources, rather than depleting them."

In contrast to industrial practices dependent upon monocultures, extensive tillage, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers, a regenerative approach uses, at minimum, seven practices which aim to boost biodiversity both above and underground and make possible carbon sequestration in soil.

  • Diversifying crop rotations
  • Planting cover crops, green manures, and perennials
  • Retaining crop residues
  • Using natural sources of fertilizer, such as compost
  • Employing highly managed grazing and/or integrating crops and livestock
  • Reducing tillage frequency and depth
  • Eliminating synthetic chemicals

While passers-by may easily spot visual differences above ground between the divergent agricultural approaches, what's happening below ground is also vital. From the paper:

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Contrary to previous thought, it's not the recalcitrant plant material that persists and creates long-term soil carbon stores, instead it's the microbes who process this plant matter that are most responsible for soil carbon sequestration. Stable soil carbon is formed mostly by microbial necromass (dead biomass) bonded to minerals (silt and clay) in the soil. Long term carbon storage is dependent on the protection of the microbially-derived carbon from decomposition.

As for claims such as agricultural transformation wouldn't be able to produce enough food, the paper counters: "Actual yields in well-designed regenerative organic systems, rather than agglomerated averages, have been shown to outcompete conventional yields for almost all food crops including corn, wheat, rice, soybean, and sunflower."

But that is far from the only benefit. "When compared to conventional industrial agriculture," the authors write, "regenerative systems improve":

  • Biodiversity abundance and species richness
  • Soil health, including soil carbon
  • Pesticide impacts on food and ecosystems
  • Total farm outputs
  • Nutrient density of outputs
  • Resilience to climate shocks
  • Provision of ecosystem services
  • Resource use efficiency
  • Job creation and farmworker welfare
  • Farm profitability
  • Rural community revitalization

Rather than framing it as a "wake-up call," the institute says the paper should be seen as an "invitation to journey in a new direction."

"It is intended to be both a road map to change and a call to action to follow a new path," the authors write. "One led by science and blazed by farmers and ranchers across the globe."

"Together we both sound the alarm and proclaim the regenerative farming solution: It's time to start our journey with a brighter future for our planet and ourselves as the destination," the paper states.

Resources accompanying the white paper include a sample letter to members of Congress to urge support for the Agriculture Resilience Act (H.R. 5861), introduced in February by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), and a "buyer's guide to regenerative food" to help decipher food labels and questions to ask suppliers at farmers' markets.

"A vast amount of data on the carbon sequestration potential of agricultural soils has been published, including from Rodale Institute, and recent findings are starting to reinforce the benefits of regenerative agricultural practices in the fight against the climate crisis," said Dr. Andrew Smith, COO and chief scientist of Rodale Institute.

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