Maarten Van Den Heuvel

Regenerative agriculture and food systems

Regenerative Agriculture provides a pathway to an abundant and resilient future by shifting from a narrative of human dominion to one of healing our relationship with the Earth. Regenerative refers to farming, ranching and pastoral practices that contribute to stabilizing the planet’s climate and carbon cycles by rehabilitating organic matter in soil, thereby increasing carbon storage, retaining moisture, and safeguarding biodiversity and living systems. It draws upon Indigenous knowledge and both ancient and modern technology in the creation of new human resources and economies that are just and accessible to all, and that respect and support smallholder farms and collectives. Regenerative Agriculture understands that the increased production of nutritious and humanely raised food, the flora from which we obtain medicines, textiles and pigments, and solutions for other material needs, will all flow from honoring a reciprocal relationship with Nature.

While some argue that we cannot set aside 50% for natural ecosystems because the land will be needed to feed the hungry, we assert that the inverse is true -- a large conservation and restoration effort is essential if we are to provide nutrition for an anticipated population of 10 billion by 2050. As the planet warms, some regions will experience increasing heat and drought, while others will experience increased flooding. In both cases, agricultural lands will be put at risk. Healthy ecosystems are vitally important for the delivery of adequate water supplies for agricultural irrigation, and they also act as a buffer from increasing large storm surges and flooding impacts. 

Last year the world produced enough food to feed 10 billion people on an agricultural footprint of 5.5 billion hectares. Yet with a current population of 7.5 billion, only three-quarters of us are receiving adequate nutrition and one billion people are living in chronic hunger. In the 1960s when petrochemical companies introduced new methods of intense chemical farming, the industrialization of agriculture was hailed as a “green revolution” that could feed the world. This was in large part a failed experiment. While perhaps well intentioned, the paradigm of industrial-scale monoculture has decreased food security worldwide, reduced the nutritional value of foods, and created a “seed extinction” crisis. Currently, just 5 companies control 70% of the world’s seeds.

Not so long ago there were hundreds of varieties of cabbages, potatoes, cauliflowers and other high-nutrition crops. Today only a few remain, selected for their physical appearance and durability. 94% of all vegetable seed varieties have been lost in the past century, including 99% of edible asparagus, 90% of peppers, 96% of corn varieties, 98% of celeries, 94% of onions, 94% of radishes, 91% of melons. This isn’t just sad, it’s dangerous, especially in the age of climate change. Many forget that the Irish famine came about due to an over-reliance upon a single, high-yielding potato. As food activist Will Bonsall has said, “Genetic diversity is the hedge between us and global famine.” 

Our current agricultural system is also incredibly polluting. Farming, if done properly, should actually increase the soil’s carbon content and fertility. Instead, agriculture has become a huge emitter of greenhouse gases -- carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide -- which are now responsible for 19% of total global emissions (including emissions from land clearing for agricultural purposes and livestock). Additionally, many seeds, including genetically modified seeds, require expensive pesticides and herbicides that can not only contaminate the soil, but also make subsistence farming much more difficult.

Every year, more expensive chemicals are required for crops, putting smallholder farmers at risk of losing their livelihoods. In 1998, a new structural adjustment policy forced India to open its seed sector to global corporations like Cargill, Monsanto and Syngenta. Farm-saved seeds were replaced by commercial seeds, which required expensive chemical applications and often couldn’t be saved or replanted. Rising debt and falling prices led many to desperation. Since the 1990’s 200,000 farmers have committed suicide in India alone. Additionally, it is estimated that 200,000 people die every year from acute pesticide poisoning, with 99% of cases occurring in developing countries.

And then there is food waste. Extraordinary inefficiencies in the way food is harvested, stored, processed, and transported has effectively institutionalized food waste. 40% of all food produced is wasted; 20% during processing and transport, another 10% at retail outlets, and another 10% by individual consumers. If “food waste” were a country it would be the third largest emitter of climate pollution in the world, just after China and the United States.

Clearly the system has to change. As our population grows, the way we produce food will likely decide whether or not we survive. Many great civilizations of the past have collapsed because they were unable to meet the demand for food, and today we have added the pressure of climate change -- rising temperatures, weather volatility, reduced water access, and flooding. Farmers in the coming decades could be entering uncharted territory, forced to grow food in an unstable 1.5˚C+ world.

This is why One Earth’s 3rd pillar is centered on regenerative agriculture – shifting from a carbon intensive food system to regenerative, carbon-negative agriculture. This shift will mean a radical transformation of how, where and when we grow food, a great expansion of the varieties of seeds grown and a new microclimate-based approach focusing on smallholder farms, intercropping, agroforestry and micro-farming industries. The transition is already underway with the advent of new regenerative, organic standard (ROC) launched in 2017.

Farmers, governments, and even agricultural companies have seen first-hand that many industrial farming methods are no longer sustainable in the developed or the developing world. The U.S. is losing an estimated $1.2B per year due to soil degradation. Countries like Cameroon, whose forests were devastated by commercial tea plantations, have seen yields decline every year due to degraded soils, despite increased application of chemical fertilizers. 24% of global soils are degraded, including half of all agricultural soils in use in 2017. The UN Human Rights Council issued a report calling for an end to industrial agriculture and a shift to regenerative agriculture to address this problem.

A comparison of annual commercial wheat plants vs. heirloom perennial wheat plants.

Countries like Niger, with some of the most degraded soils on the planet, are showing how it can be done – restoring an astonishing 5 million hectares to productivity in the Sahel. In Mali, agroforestry restoration has created forest plots with higher biomass than even native forests. This crisis has actually created a new opportunity for increasing food security, carbon storage and climate resiliency. A movement is now underway to return to native crops that are specifically adapted to variations in the local climate, and to greatly increase the natural fertility and carbon sequestration potential of degraded soils.

A body of scientific literature is now emerging that presents numerous strategies to decouple food production from land area, enabling us to increase food productivity and nutrition on the current agricultural footprint. A variety of practices have been identified that, taken together, show how we can feed 10 billion people by 2050 without further ecological damage. These include:

  • Placing up to 800M hectares of degraded land back into productivity
  • Eliminating crop biofuels could free up as much as 9% of land area· Eliminating food waste could effectively increase production by 40% 
  • Degraded lands can meet future palm oil demand without deforestation
  • Avoiding pesticides and herbicides increased food security (UN report)
  • Increasing soil carbon provides greater yields and better nutrition
  • Supporting smallholder farms will result in higher nutrition
  • Natural silicate rock additives can increase soil carbon
  • Planting Moringa can greatly increase nutrition in drought prone areas
  • Utilizing human waste to pellet fertilizer in rural South
  • Diverting urban compostable waste to farms could greatly increase soil fertility (PDF)
  • Breeding phytonutrients back into crops is key nutrition strategy
  • Investing in Agroecology to increase climate resilience
  • Promoting seed saving for heirloom crops
  • Replacing annuals with perennial grain crops for food security (FAO report)
  • Crop shifting could feed an additional 825M
  • Utilizing AI solutions for optimized crop placement (Prospera)
  • Torrefaction: using biochar tech to increase soil fertility for rice crops
  • Planting analog forests (agroforestry) stimulates economic growth and nutrition
  • Shifting lifestyles to eat less meat, and less food in general (Climate Focus)
  • Pollinators directly affects the yield and quality of 75% of globally important crops 
  • Alternative protein sources – insect meal, substitute meat, seaweed
  • The role of MPAs and sustainable fisheries for coastal food security
  • Suburban intensification: the potential for a “backyard farming” revolution

One Earth is supporting an analysis of the technical potential of these various strategies, with the goal of producing an optimization map of how croplands and grazing lands could be utilized in 2050, ensuring the livelihoods of billions of smallholder farmers and the health and wellbeing of the world’s growing population.