Small-scale agriculture could play a significant role in combating climate change while achieving food and nutritional security, as illustrated by speakers at the recent “We don’t have time” international webinar. By adopting regenerative agriculture practices small-scale farmers can earn carbon credits while restoring healthy soils with economically viable and ecologically sustainable options.
Regenerative agriculture is proven to reduce dependence on pricey and environmentally toxic pesticides, particularly on smallholder farms. All this while playing a vital role in climate mitigation, through the restoration of soil in land use sectors.
“This potential is enormous,” said Hunter Lovins, president of Natural Capitalism Solutions, during a session on regenerative agriculture at the virtual conference. She said farmers now know how to farm regeneratively.
“Farmers are starting to do this because it’s more profitable. The way they’re farming now – industrialised, mechanised, chemicalised – imposes costs. Eliminate those or reduce them [and] you cut your costs.”
Gabe Brown, a farmer from North Dakota in the United States, successfully used this approach to regenerative agriculture over a 20-year period. Brown is credited with helping invent this approach in the US.
Building on indigenous knowledge
Furthermore, indigenous links to regenerative or ecological agriculture are well documented.
In 2020, the US National Farmers Union (NFU) commemorated Indigenous Peoples’ Day by celebrating and acknowledging the “invaluable contributions of Native Americans and the indigenous origins of many practices currently used in the regenerative agricultural movement”.
“As we rethink American history, we can thank indigenous Americans for advancing practices that define sustainable agriculture and land stewardship,” the organisation said during the webinar.
It explained how an example of this was how, “for hundreds of years, Indigenous Americans have planted more than one crop together in a practice known as intercropping. Intercropping is based on synergy in which the physical aspects of each plant complement one another and improve each other’s health and growth.
“A combination of corn, beans and squash, known as the Three Sisters, was cultivated extensively by the Iroquois in the Northeast. In this system, the corn stalks provide a natural trellis for the beans to grow on, which in turn help the corn grow by adding nitrogen to the soil.” At the same time, “the squash vines act as a “living mulch” that maintains soil moisture and prevents weeds from growing”.
Restoring soil profitably
Nevertheless, farmer Brown is a recognised activist for this practice after his own experience of going broke from depleted soil forced him to consider alternative but less expensive methods. According to Lovins Brown began rolling climate change backward at a profit.
In India, she said, farmers were committing suicide by drinking the pesticide they could no longer afford. One farmer, Vijay Kumar, started working with women in the villages on farms of an acre or less to begin regenerative smallholder farming.
“Now they don’t eat the cows there but they use the cows for the manure, for the urine, mix it and create a mycorrhizal inoculant, a fungal inoculant that jumpstarts the ability of the soil to mineralise carbon, which holds the water, which provides the nutrient space for the crops.
“They’ve gone from planting once a year, just before the monsoons, which with climate change are now becoming unreliable, to three plantings a year. So, they have tripled their income. They no longer use poisons of any sort. They are healthier, their families are healthier, their communities are healthier,” she said.
Both the US states of Colorado and Iowa, the speakers said, were making significant progress in using these methods. A non-profit organisation in Iowa has a goal of converting one million acres of farmland that is currently in conventional and agri-chemical farming to regenerative agriculture. Iowa is the second largest food-producing state in the US.
Regenerative agriculture in Mzansi
Back home in South Africa, this type of farming also has native roots. The Borgen Project says regenerative farming has become essential to the agricultural model because “the country has suffered irregularity in its rainy season, as well as a lack of crops that can actually survive in the region”.
It says South African farmers learned that rotating native crops that did not necessarily have the same benefits was easier because they required less water. The Western Cape’s feasibility study which the Borgen Project highlights, concluded that “the secrets to regenerative farming are increasing biodiversity, using native crops and using manure from local animal farms”.
Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientific assessment found that as critically important as it is to reduce carbon emissions, “that alone will not get us to the goals of the Paris Climate Accord; we also have to take atmospheric carbon and trap it in our soils,” said Elizabeth Pearce, chief executive at SymSoil Inc.
It comes at a time when the global carbon market is good to go in raising the capital needed to finance mitigation through the trading of carbon credits from carbon sequestration projects.
The rule book for the carbon market was finalised at the United Nations climate talks (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland last year.
Industries under pressure to begin their journey to carbon neutrality are expected to ramp up investments in carbon-offset projects to secure carbon credits that count towards their overall contribution to carbon reduction – thereby helping stop climate change. Ratings agency S&P Global found that a number of factors, however, impede the popularity of soil carbon as a credit. Despite this, in 2021, a landmark deal saw Australian-owned Wilmot Cattle Co. announce the sale of $500 000 worth of soil carbon credits to Microsoft, which has pledged to become carbon negative by 2030.
The carbon market spells big money for various sectors like tourism, agriculture, forestry and other land use parts of the economy where scaling up carbon dioxide (CO₂) absorption, or sequestration is more convenient for mega emitters than closing down a fuel refinery overnight, for example.
The conference session made a case for agriculture to show that not only can it be carbon neutral, it can massively draw the greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere – making it vital to stop climate change, which has severely affected the sector and threatened food security.
Regenerative agriculture highlights the value of cows in smallholder farms for soil health and climate mitigation, a move that may offset the impact of methane (another dangerous greenhouse gas) from cow dung and burping.
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