It isn't sexy, and our ancestors have known this for thousands of years: the key to a healthy environment comes down to having healthy soil. And we can have healthy soil by changing the way we farm.
Yes, it really is that simple.
In a fascinating article in the Guardian, anthropologist Jason Hickel argues that definitive scientific evidence shows that regenerating soil holds the key to combating climate change, and can be done if we stop industrial farming as quickly as possible. He writes:
Soil is the second biggest reservoir of carbon on the planet, next to the oceans. It holds four times more carbon than all the plants and trees in the world. But human activity like deforestation and industrial farming – with its intensive ploughing, monoculture and heavy use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides – is ruining our soils at breakneck speed, killing the organic materials that they contain. Now 40% of agricultural soil is classed as “degraded” or “seriously degraded”. In fact, industrial farming has so damaged our soils that a third of the world’s farmland has been destroyed in the past four decades.
As our soils degrade, they are losing their ability to hold carbon, releasing enormous plumes of CO [pdf] into the atmosphere.
While there are many fancy solutions to climate change -- spraying aerosols into the stratosphere to make artificial clouds, pumping iron into the ocean to trigger algae growth that will absorb CO2 and so on, Hickel argues that we don't have the technology or the time to do at it as a scale large enough to turn things around.
"There is, however, a solution," he writes. "Scientists and farmers around the world are pointing out that we can regenerate degraded soils by switching from intensive industrial farming to more ecological methods – not just organic fertiliser, but also no-tillage, composting, and crop rotation."
"Here’s the brilliant part: as the soils recover, they not only regain their capacity to hold CO, they begin to actively pull additional CO out of the atmosphere."
According to Hickel, the science on this "is quite exciting". He continues:
A study published recently by the US National Academy of Sciences claims that regenerative farming can sequester 3%of our global carbon emissions. An article in Science suggests it could be up to 15%. And new research from the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, although not yet peer-reviewed, says sequestration rates could be as high as 40%. The same report argues that if we apply regenerative techniques to the world’s pastureland as well, we could capture more than 100% of global emissions. In other words, regenerative farming may be our best shot at actually cooling the planet.
While this may seem simple enough, unfortunately it will require a large paradigm shift in order for it to be implemented. Industrial agriculture is based on a philosophy of domination and extraction -- a belief system that human beings have the right to destroy the earth for our benefit, and our benefit alone. To go back to a regenerative method of farming requires rethinking our relationship with the earth, and not relying on highly advanced technology to get us out of the bind highly advanced technology has gotten us into. As Hickel points out:
Maybe our engineers are missing the point. The problem with geo-engineering is that it proceeds from the very same logic that got us into this mess in the first place: one that treats the land as something to be subdued, dominated and consumed. But the solution to climate change won’t be found in the latest schemes to bend our living planet to the will of man. Perhaps instead it lies in something much more down to earth – an ethic of care and healing, starting with the soils on which our existence depends.
Coming to terms with the fact that we humans are dependent on the earth to survive and not the other way around is not something our culture has an easy time with. Being told we can't extract what we want when we want cuts to the heart of capitalism -- an ideology predicated on the notion of unlimited growth at all costs. Going back to regenerative farming is an explicit acknowledgement that we have got it terribly, terribly wrong over the past few centuries, so there will no doubt be a huge amount of resistance. Given we have little time to argue about it though is probably a good thing. We need to move quickly with a plan that we know has a good chance of working. Regenerative farming looks like our best bet, so we need to start changing minds as fast as possible.