S9E4: Restoring Ecosystems

This is The ChangeUnderground

I’m your host, Jon Moore

Decarbonise the Air, Recarbonise the Soil!

Welcome to episode 4 of season 9: 

After a nearly six month hiatus, we’re back baby. Ill health – RSV then Covid then general lack of stamina, depression at the shape of the world, life interfering with the joys of podcasting and a period of great flux in my life, I’ve returned with a renewed sense of purpose. Having basically re-engineered my life to be how I’d like it, I now have more creative space to play with. I’ll stick with the seasonal structure for the show. The enforced periods of rest are something I’m scheduling into my life anyway. Rest was something very underappreciated by your narrator. I’ve learned my lesson.

In the face of pressing environmental challenges, the need for sustainable agricultural practices has never been more urgent. One approach that’s actually healing the planet is regenerative agriculture. This blog post digs into the environmental impact of regenerative agriculture and I’m fully aware of the irony in that statement. How does it restore ecosystems, mitigate climate change and conserve biodiversity?

The Environmental Crisis: A Call for Sustainable Farming

The world’s ecosystems are under immense stress due to a range of environmental issues, including climate change, soil degradation and loss of biodiversity. Chemical farming practices have contributed to many of these problems but regenerative agriculture offers a promising solution. It’s an holistic and sustainable approach that focuses on restoring the health of ecosystems rather than depleting them.

  1. Soil Regeneration

At the core of regenerative agriculture is the restoration of soil health. Healthy soils are the foundation of any ecosystem, supporting the growth of plants, the livelihoods of microorganisms and the well-being of larger organisms. Chemical agriculture, with its heavy use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, has caused widespread soil degradation. Killing off not just perceived “pests” but all types of soil biota.

Regenerative agriculture practices, such as minimal tillage, cover cropping and diverse crop rotations, enhance soil health. These methods promote the accumulation of organic matter which increase soil microbial activity and improve soil structure. As a result, the soil can hold more water, making it more resilient to droughts and it captures and stores carbon, mitigating climate change. Win/win.

  1. Carbon Sequestration

One of the most significant environmental impacts of regenerative agriculture is its ability to sequester carbon. As plants grow and die, their organic matter is incorporated into the soil. In healthy, regenerative systems, this carbon-rich organic matter accumulates, essentially storing carbon in the ground. This process is crucial for mitigating climate change by reducing the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Whilst soils can both sequester and release CO2 over time, on balance a regenerative approach is tilted towards increased soil carbon over time.

  1. Mitigating Climate Change

The carbon sequestration potential of regenerative agriculture is substantial. By capturing and storing carbon in the soil, regenerative practices actively reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This approach aligns with the goals of the Paris Agreement and international efforts to limit global warming. Regenerative agriculture is an important tool in the fight against climate change, indeed it might be our best tool in reversing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.

  1. Biodiversity Conservation

Regenerative agriculture promotes biodiversity conservation which is essential for the stability and resilience of ecosystems. Chemical farming practices have led to the destruction of natural habitats, the use of monocultures and the application of chemical pesticides, all of which destroy biodiversity.

In contrast, regenerative agriculture practices foster biodiversity by creating diverse agroecosystems that provide habitat and sustenance for a wide range of species. Hedgerows, cover crops and reduced and eventually nil pesticide use encourage beneficial insects and other wildlife to thrive. In addition to supporting a more balanced and diverse ecosystem, this helps control pests naturally, reducing the need for harmful chemicals. The point is to create a complex system. Contrary to mechanical systems, a more complex biological system is more stable than a simple, think monocultural system.

  1. Reduced Chemical Use

Chemical agriculture, as the name implies, relies heavily on synthetic pesticides and herbicides to control pests and weeds. Unfortunately, this results in the contamination of soil and water, harming both ecosystems and human health. Regenerative agriculture minimises the use of these chemicals, opting for more natural and holistic pest management techniques. The goal is the complete elimination of these chemicals.

By reducing chemical use towards zero, regenerative practices protect not only ecosystems but also consumers. Reductions in pesticide residues on food products is healthier for consumers, as it lowers the risk of pesticide exposure. The rise in the vast majority of chronic illnesses plaguing the world nowadays can be traced back to the more widespread use of farm chemicals. This is a correlation which does not imply causation. The growing body of evidence would suggest the link between chronic ill health and agricultural chemicals is more than casual.

  1. Water Quality and Conservation

Regenerative agriculture also has a positive impact on water quality and conservation. By minimising soil erosion through practices like cover cropping and removing the possibility of chemical runoff, regenerative farming helps protect water bodies from pollution. Ensuring cleaner, healthier water sources for both aquatic ecosystems and human consumption. This chain links all the way to the ocean depths. Truly everything is linked to everything else.

Additionally, practices like no-till farming and organic mulching enhance the soil’s water-holding capacity. This reduces the need for irrigation and supports water conservation, a critical factor in regions with water scarcity. These practices also mitigate the effects of floods as the water takes longer to reach rivers, streams and creeks allowing for water flow to be maintained at safer levels, safer for human habitat.

  1. Resilience to Climate Extremes

With the increasing frequency of climate-related extreme events, such as droughts and floods, building resilient agricultural systems is crucial. Regenerative agriculture, by improving soil health and water retention, enables farms to better withstand the impacts of these extreme weather events. It provides a safety net for farmers and helps maintain food production even under challenging conditions. A regenerative safety net grows stronger, deeper and more resilient over time. It is likely we’ll be subjected to some really wild weather extremes in the coming years. I write this in mid April 2024 half way into autumn in the North West of Tasmania (40 degrees South of the equator, in the roaring forties trade winds) and I’ve been wearing a T-shirt in the afternoon for the past month. When the cold weather arrives, or is that if the cold weather arrives, an extreme cold snap driving in off Antarctica would not be a surprise. This is our fifth winter coming and the ground cover is much increased from when we took over this block of land. I’d like more, of course, but regen is a process and a journey not a destination.

  1. Soil Erosion Control

Soil erosion is a significant environmental issue, leading to the loss of fertile topsoil and the degradation of landscapes. Regenerative agriculture, with its focus on minimal soil disturbance and cover cropping, effectively reduces soil erosion. This helps protect fragile ecosystems and prevents the loss of valuable soil resources. The US Dust Bowl of the 1930s should have taught us all about the importance of keeping soil in place. The chemical solution, no pun intended, is to pump more fertilisers into the ground to make up for lost topsoil and its associated microbiota. To, in effect, create a giant hydroponic system with sub soil as the growing medium. Not, I would suggest, a sustainable practice.

  1. Sustainable Water Management

Regenerative agriculture practices, such as the creation of water-retaining landscape features like swales and ponds, support sustainable water management. They capture and store water, preventing runoff and helping recharge aquifers. Sustainable water management not only benefits agriculture but also local ecosystems and communities. And as I said before, these upstream water catchments are connected to the ocean depths. What goes in at the top ends up at the bottom, passing through any number of biological layers. Heavy metals, some pesticides and maybe even microplastics all bioaccumulate in increasing concentrations as they travel through the ocean food chains, heading quite often into the human food supply. Clean soils equals clean fish.

The Path Forward: Embracing Regenerative Agriculture

The environmental impact of regenerative agriculture cannot be overstated. This holistic approach has the power to restore ecosystems, mitigate climate change, conserve biodiversity and protect water resources. By embracing regenerative agriculture, we can work towards a more sustainable and environmentally conscious food system.

Consumers can play a vital role in supporting regenerative agriculture by choosing products that are grown using these practices and advocating for sustainable farming methods. In so doing, consumers help accelerate the positive environmental impact of regenerative agriculture and contribute to the restoration of ecosystems and the preservation of our planet for future generations.


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