regenerative practices is to use some of the carbon that plants have absorbed from the atmosphere to help restore soil carbon.
Although regenerative agriculture has no universal definition, the term is often used to describe practices aimed at promoting soil health by restoring soil’s organic carbon. The world’s soils store several times the amount carbon as the atmosphere, acting as a natural “carbon sink.” But globally, soil carbon stocks have been declining as a result of factors such as the conversion of native landscapes to croplands and overgrazing. One goal of regenerative practices is to use some of the carbon that plants have absorbed from the atmosphere to help restore soil carbon.
Practices grouped under regenerative agriculture include no-till agriculture — where farmers avoid plowing soils and instead drill seeds into the soil — and use of cover crops, which are plants grown to cover the soil after farmers harvest the main crop.
Do regenerative agriculture practices generate environmental benefits?
There are beliefs that most regenerative agriculture practices are good for soil health and have other environmental benefits. No-till reduces soil erosion and encourages water to infiltrate soils (although it can require greater use of herbicides). Cover crops do the same, and can also reduce water pollution. Diverse crop rotations can lower pesticide use. And good grazing practices such as moving cattle around frequently, adding legumes or fertilizers, and avoiding overgrazing can increase vegetation and protect water sources.
What about the potential of regenerative agriculture practices to mitigate climate change?
The thinking behind regenerative practices as a climate mitigation strategy is to remove carbon dioxide out of the air by storing it as organic carbon in soils. While practices like adding manure can increase soil carbon, the feasibility of scaling such practices over large areas to substantially increase soil carbon and mitigate climate change is much less clear.
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Several challenges include:
There’s limited scientific understanding of what keeps soil carbon sequestered, and, as a result, uncertainty about whether regenerative practices actually sequester additional carbon. For example, there is an active scientific debate about whether no-till, the primary practice relied upon by proponents of regenerative agriculture to generate climate benefits, actually increases soil carbon when properly measured.
Carbon must be added to soils to increase soil carbon, and this carbon must ultimately come from plants that absorb carbon from the air. But if the direct sources of carbon would have otherwise been stored or used elsewhere, it simply moves carbon from one place to another, achieving no additional reduction in emissions. For example, manure is filled with the carbon and nutrients absorbed originally by plants and eaten by animals. For that reason, adding manure to a field increases soil carbon where it is applied.
Regenerative farming is a farming system that focuses on healthy, mineral-rich, and biologically-diverse soils that grow mineral-rich food along with improving soils, crops, and the livelihoods of the farmers. Regenerative farmers also do everything they can to get the soil healthy and mineralized. This not only leads to healthier crops but builds organic matter and good structure in the soil and builds soil resilience.
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