This is The ChangeUnderground
I’m your host, Jon Moore
Decarbonise the Air, Recarbonise the Soil!
Welcome to episode 2 of season 9 a season where we are looking back to move forward.it’s all about the Regen Ag: What? Why? How?
There’s a secret beneath our feet that holds the key to a sustainable and thriving food system. We need, as the title of this pod states, ChangeUnderground. The soil, the foundation of agriculture and life on land itself plays a crucial role in shaping the health of our planet. Regenerative agriculture, an innovative and environmentally curious approach, unveils the soil’s secret and demonstrates how it can be harnessed to enhance soil health. In this blog post, we will delve into the soil’s secret and explore how regenerative agriculture practices unlock its potential to promote flourishing soils.
Unearthing the Real Soil
The soil, a living, breathing series of interlocking ecosystems teeming with microorganisms, fungi, earthworms and other life forms, the vast majority of which have yet to be described by science. It is this poorly understood world that regenerative agriculture seeks to nourish and protect. By understanding the soil’s function, we can begin to comprehend the transformative power of regenerative practices.
Building Soil Organic Matter
The first key to unlocking the soil’s secret lies in increasing its organic matter. Whilst we do not fully understand the complexity of what happens under our feet, Increased organic matter, also known as soil carbon, is a good proxy measure until we understand the soil more fully. Organic matter is essentially dead and decaying plant, animal and fungal material, such as leaves, roots and crop residues, that enriches the soil. Regenerative agriculture prioritises practices that add organic matter, like cover cropping, crop rotation and the use of organic mulches. This organic matter becomes a source of nutrients for soil biota and these become food for plants and a home for beneficial soil microbes. As organic matter accumulates, soil structure improves, making it better at retaining moisture and preventing erosion.
Enhancing Soil Microbiome
The soil’s secret is that it harbours a diverse and intricate microbiome. Healthy soil contains a thriving, complex community of beneficial microorganisms, including bacteria and fungi, that interact with plant roots to create a mutually beneficial relationship. This symbiotic relationship, known as the “rhizosphere,” aids in nutrient uptake by plants and improves soil structure. Regenerative agriculture practices, like minimal tillage, no-till and reduced synthetic inputs, support and nurture this underground microbiome.
Reducing Erosion and Compaction
Erosion and soil compaction are two major threats to soil health. Erosion, often caused by ploughing and the removal of natural vegetation, leads to the loss of topsoil and its valuable nutrients. Compaction occurs when heavy machinery compresses the soil, reducing its porosity and impeding the movement of air, water and roots. Regenerative agriculture mitigates these issues by promoting minimal soil disturbance and encouraging the use of cover crops which protect the soil from erosion and alleviate compaction. It’s about giving the soil microbiome space to grow and that space does not collapse nor blow away.
One of the most important aspects of a living soil is its role as a carbon reservoir. Healthy soils store vast amounts of carbon, playing a crucial part in mitigating climate change. Regenerative agriculture practices, such as no-till farming and cover cropping, sequester carbon by increasing the amount of organic matter in the soil. This not only reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide but also enhances soil fertility. The idea is that we can decarbonise the air and recarbonise the soil. I’m sure I’ve heard that somewhere before…
Improving Water Retention
The soil acts as a sponge, soaking up and holding water. Healthy soil with a high organic matter content can retain more moisture, reducing the need for irrigation and mitigating the effects of flooding rains. Regenerative agricultural practices work to improve water retention, benefiting not only crops but also local ecosystems by preventing water runoff and erosion.
Benefits of Regenerative Agriculture on Soil Health
Understanding the soil’s importance is just the first step; harnessing it is where regenerative agriculture makes a difference. Some examples are:
By increasing organic matter, regenerative practices provide a natural source of nutrients for plants, reducing the need for synthetic fertilisers. This leads to a bank of available nutrients continually growing and interacting as long as the soil is covered with a living carpet.
Cover cropping and no-till farming protect the soil from erosion, preserving topsoil and its essential nutrients. The living carpet of plants, managed properly and I’ll come to that later, the living carpet slows water movement, allows infiltration whilst not tearing the soil particles loose. Try this with a hose on bare soil and grassed and observe the differences.
Healthy soil supports a diverse ecosystem of microorganisms, contributing to overall biodiversity on the farm. The biodiversity of the soil is the base of a pyramid of health and stability upon which the rest of the farming enterprise depends. The greater the biodiversity within the soil, the more productive activity can occur above the soil.
The ability of regenerative agriculture to sequester carbon in the soil not only mitigates climate change but also enhances soil health. I’ve covered this earlier in this episode but to rephrase the concept. Carbon taken up by plants removes carbon from the atmosphere. The plants die or are consumed by animals and the detritus is incorporated into the soil by the soil microbiome and it is held as a reservoir in the soil, not the oceans, not the atmosphere. As of 2022 and as measured at the Mauna Loa site on Hawaii, CO2 ppm has risen from under 320 in 1958 to 421 ppm in May 2022. Lots of this is from the burning of fossil fuels but a significant proportion has been released by agricultural activity disrupting the soil. Things like ploughing, adding synthetic fertilisers and chemical pesticides/herbicides. We have, in essence, been and continue to sequester carbon in the atmosphere.
Resistance to Drought:
Soils with higher organic matter content can better withstand drought, making regenerative practices a valuable tool in adapting to changing weather patterns. They do this by being more porous and open, allowing the ingress of water in rainfall events and by being covered with vegetation which slows down the runoff of rain into waterways.
Regenerative agriculture promotes long-term sustainability by reducing the need for synthetic inputs and fostering ecological balance. Or to put that another way by reducing input costs, the farming enterprise is less likely to be drowned in debt. At the same time smaller parcels of land become economic which keeps rural areas populated and small towns and regional cities thriving. There are people there who need services, education, health and so on that huge agribusiness setups using fossil fuel and chemical inputs to extract a profit do not need.
A Sustainable Future
Regenerative agriculture is not just a buzzword; it represents a fundamental shift in how we approach farming. By recognizing the soil’s place and implementing regenerative practices, we improve soil health, reduce environmental impact and provide healthier, more sustainable food.
This approach is not limited to large-scale farming; it can be adapted to small-scale and urban agriculture as well. Community gardens, rooftop farms and even home gardens can benefit from regenerative practices, contributing to healthier soils and a greener planet. Imagine every suburban backyard cared for with regenerative practices. It would be a good start.
The soil’s purpose as it’s evolved over the past 3 billion odd years is that it is the key to a sustainable and prosperous future. Regenerative agriculture is our guide to fostering healthier soils and ensuring that we leave a legacy of fertile, thriving land for generations to come. Understanding the soil’s potential and implementing regenerative practices is a critical step on the path to a more sustainable and environmentally conscious future. Perhaps we could:
Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil.
The next episode, #3 in season 9 is all about the farm to table ethos.
If you’ve found some value in this episode, please tell a friend who might be interested. This really is the best way you can help this show spread the word and such referrals are deeply appreciated, thanks.