As far as modern life is concerned, agriculture is both a friend and a foe. Yes, it provides sustenance through our food supply, but it also contributes to ongoing global climate change. Anyone familiar with climate change knows that our food system has burdened the earth with a meaningful carbon footprint. Unsustainable farming practices are responsible for 80% of tropical deforestation, adding more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than all the world’s cars and trucks combined. This problem is snowballing as the population continues to climb. But hope is not lost.

The promised land

Believe it or not, there’s a light radiating at the end of this bleak tunnel, and the solution actually lies in one of the largest historical emitters of carbon: land. Though 23% of greenhouse gas emissions are generated by land use via agriculture, forestry, or other uses, land can also act as a carbon sink, sucking up CO2 from the atmosphere faster than it produces it. Each year, American land emits 5.2 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide, but the country’s landmass absorbs 11.2 Gt CO2. The amount of carbon absorbed exceeds that produced by a whopping 6GtCO2.

A recent report published by the IPCC highlights the critical role land must play if we want to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and slow warming. In order to do this, we have to use land to rid the atmosphere of carbon. It’s not optional. Relying on a decrease in emissions alone won’t cut it.

“The level of risk posed by climate change depends both on the level of warming and on how population, consumption, production, technological development, and land management patterns evolve,” the report states.

There are multiple methods to leverage land’s carbon-sequestering potential, and the IPCC report highlights the efficacy of each of these methods, along with the respective pros and cons. A shortage of farmland will arguably lead to more food insecurity, while siphoning off large portions of land for afforestation can similarly jeopardize food security.

Another way land can reverse climate change is through soil carbon sequestration, and this method is not associated with harmful side effects. According to a 2018 special report by the IPCC, by 2050, 2-5 gigatons of CO2 could be removed through soil, and this will cost between $0 and $100 per ton, much lower than other carbon sequestration techniques. If employed globally, soil sequestration through regenerative agriculture can potentially absorb up to 54 gigatonnes of carbon per year, canceling out the amount of carbon released through emissions annually. If fully implemented, this would be a game-changer for climate change.

And there’s more good news.

When farmers cultivate the soil to increase carbon sequestration, they don’t just build a bigger carbon sink, they also increase the fertility of the soil, thereby increasing food production. When soil fertility is high, fewer artificial fertilizers are needed. Farmers not only save money, but also reduce their carbon emissions: one ton of ammonium nitrate, a widely used fertilizer, will emit over 7 tons of CO2.  

Topsoil that is high in Soil Organic Carbon (SOC) also prevents erosion, increases nutrient content in food, and mitigates land degradation.

This process is just one benefit of a farming methodology called regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture truly as close as we get to a silver bullet – a solution to agriculture that will allow us to meet the growing demands for food while swallowing up carbon in the process.

It’s the ultimate win-win.

Beyond sustainable

The primary goal of regenerative agriculture is improving the health of topsoil so that it can regenerate itself. By doing this, the land will improve over the years rather than degrading from excessive use of inputs or physical processes like tilling.

There are various ways to engage regenerative agriculture and different philosophies on how best to do it, but the objective outcomes are always: higher yields, improved water retention, increased profitability, more efficient plant nutrient uptake, and last but certainly not least, carbon sequestration. Some ways to do this include minimizing tillage, protecting the soil, encouraging biodiversity, and promoting management-intensive grazing of livestock.

There’s a key difference between regenerative agriculture and sustainable agriculture: sustainable agriculture aims to do no harm. It avoids contributing to climate change and land degradation, as opposed to mitigating climate change through biosequestration. So sustainable farming shoots for carbon neutrality, not carbon-negativity.  As the name suggests, regenerative agriculture regenerates the land, improving it each passing year by creating a new, more-fertile and more-nutrient-rich topsoil.

Just as there are dangerous positive feedback loops associated with climate change, so too exist promising feedback loops through regenerative agriculture, and the net benefit of this method of farming grows exponentially over time.

The more widespread regenerative agriculture becomes, the more SOC will increase over the years, slowing global temperature rise while creating a robust and renewed agricultural ecosystem that can feed the booming population for decades to come.

But we have to encourage adoption first.

Investment is key

We must accelerate the adoption of regenerative farming practices, and one of the fastest ways to perpetuate regenerative farming is through investment.

By investing in farmers who implement regenerative practices, and by investing in technologies that support it, we can drive a movement towards advancing regenerative adoption, technologies, and even more research. Not only will doing so grow the carbon sink through biosequestration, potentially reversing climate change, but it will also build wealth in rural farming communities, further strengthening the agricultural ecosystem. Rich soils are more resistant to adverse climate conditions, and can increase food security in developing regions. All of this is necessary to ensure we continue to sustain the growing population within the next few decades.

It’s essential that we start doing this now.