A Beautiful Truth

I have been writing quite a bit lately about climate change, and what can be done about it. One of the terms that I use often is “regenerative agriculture.” It may be that this is an unfamiliar term to some people, so I think I’ll give a brief explanation.

First, this: I’d venture to guess that most people consider the burning of fossil fuels for transportation and home heating to be the main contributor of atmospheric carbon. However, the combined effects of a couple of centuries of soil degradation and fossil fuel use associated with agriculture may exceed it. It is hard to overemphasize the role of soil as both a cause of climate change, and a partial remedy for it.

Regenerative agriculture is guided by a straightforward question: What is good for the soil? (This leads to more questions: What is good for water? Pollinators? Invertebrates? Microbes? Birds?) The central principle is that soil is a neighborhood of inter-related creatures, and its continued health can be the primary concern of the farmer, land manager, or even the home gardener.

One way to think of it is that the word “regenerative” is sort of the opposite of “exploitive.” Exploitive and extractive are kindred words, just as regenerative, nurturing, and restorative are kindred words. How can a farmer or gardener relate to his or her soil in a way that is nurturing rather than exploitive? An analogy might help:

Consider a company where the workers are exploited. This might mean underpaid, overworked, harassed, deprived of benefits, and so on. It is quite possible that the company’s short-term profits are impressive, and shareholders are happy. The bank is happy.

However, the company’s long-term viability is less certain. It might be viable as long as it can get new workers to replace the ones who are burned out, chewed up, and spit out. But can it keep on doing this, indefinitely?

In a similar way, farming that exhausts soil can be quite productive in the short term. In places and times where people find it easy to leave exhausted soil behind, and simply move on to fertile virgin soil, techniques of building soil are not often considered important.

As it turns out, feeding soil a steady diet of ammonium nitrate fertilizer is like giving your employees endless cans of Red Bull rather than food. And using vast amounts of pesticide and herbicide is like flooding antibiotics into a person who is perpetually sick, with no concern about gut flora. There is a better way.

Regenerative Agriculture is not new wisdom. In fact, it is old wisdom. The farmer and author Wendell Berry (among many others) has been describing it to American audiences for the past half-century. Its principles include (but are not limited to): use of cover crops, crop rotation, responsible and appropriate management of livestock, no-till or minimum-till methods, a minimum of chemical inputs that harm soil life and water, and growing a diversity of crops rather than a single crop.

The practices of regenerative agriculture help to address some of the causes of climate change, and provide relief from some of the consequences. In a nutshell: degraded soil releases carbon into the atmosphere, while healthy soil absorbs and holds it.

Just as importantly, healthy soil holds more water than degraded soil, recharging groundwater, and decreasing ground surface temperature. A soil that holds carbon also holds water and resists compaction. It acts like a sponge, and it harbors life. Organic matter and air pockets separate mineral grains.

It is in this space that threads of fungi forge the way, and plant roots follow. Soil with higher moisture, especially if it has something growing on it, heats up more slowly than dry, bare soil. Transpiration cools the air above it. On a wide scale, this is a climate-affecting difference.

The persistent “heat domes” that increasingly plague the arid Western US are absolutely related to a deficit of soil moisture. As are, of course, wildfires. Paradoxically, compacted soil that has poor water retention can lead to problems caused by too much water pooling in fields or running off of denuded slopes: salinization, erosion, flooding.

Regenerative practices can alleviate some of the consequences of climate change. They lower soil temperature and raise soil moisture. They reduce erosion. They improve soil fertility and tilth. This has cascading effects: more microbes, more invertebrates, more pollinators, more birds, and more of everything that depends on soil life, right on up the food chain.

In the past few centuries, the ruination of soil has contributed more C02 to the atmosphere than the burning of fossil fuels. It has contributed to drought, heat waves, and famine. Rehabilitation of soil could do as much as any single action to slow down climate change. This is a huge deal.

Many people are sliding into hopelessness, as they feel that we have passed tipping points. Even if we could halt greenhouse gas emissions now, they fear, there is simply too much C02 and methane in the atmosphere already. But it is too soon to lose hope.

Regenerative agriculture — on both land and at sea — can remove C02 and break down methane. To get a handle on climate change, humans need to understand and work with — rather than against — the natural processes of the carbon cycle and the hydrological cycle. Regenerative agriculture does both.

I have written before and will write again about regenerative agriculture in the oceans, in the form of a very particular style of kelp and shellfish farming. The benefits are similar to regenerative practices on land: more biodiversity, carbon sequestration, cleaner water, and healthy food for people.

We fret over carbon dioxide and methane. Regenerative agriculture reduces both. But in regard to climate change mitigation, the chemical compound we don’t talk about nearly enough is actually good old H20. Water. And regenerative agriculture does something about that, too.

I’ll make a point that seems more ‘spiritual’ than scientific: the practices that improve soil’s ability to absorb both water and carbon are the very same practices that reflect a benevolent attitude toward life of all kinds: animals, plants, fungi, and invertebrates.

In other words, generosity matters. The project of improving soil has everything to do with our treatment of other living creatures. We have a damaged relationship to our fellow creatures. We have a damaged relationship to soil. To water. We can repair it.

Many of us hold deep anxiety about our future; we know we have put ourselves on a path of self-destruction. Curiously enough, the path that leads to our deliverance is the path of caring for other creatures as much as we care for ourselves. This is a beautiful truth.

Anyone can play a role in caring for soil. No role is too small. If you have a yard, you can decide to forego chemicals that harm soil life. You can put away the leaf-blower. You can raise flowers that feed pollinators. You can participate in and advocate for community gardens, school gardens, food forests, rooftop gardens, church gardens.

When you vote, you can pay attention to a candidate’s views on land and water management. You can support businesses that do the right thing when it comes to soil. You can find ways to support local, small farmers, especially those that treat land, water, plants, and animals with respect.

There is hope for our children and grandchildren if we can shift our thinking. We need to work with the earth. Stewardship can replace exploitation; reciprocal relationship with other living beings can replace domination. Love can be our guiding star.