The Rodale Institute’s Soil-Carbon Solution and the Future of Regenerative Agriculture – Food Tank

The Rodale Institute’s Soil-Carbon Solution and the Future of Regenerative Agriculture – Food Tank


According to a recent white paper from the Rodale Institute, global implementation of regenerative practices could sequester more than 100 percent of human-related carbon emissions.

One decade ago the United Nations Environment Programme predicted that in a worst case scenario, yearly global greenhouse emissions could reach 56 gigatons in 2020. And Rodale Institute’s paper notes that in 2018 total emissions approached this projection, reaching 55.3 gigatons. Global agricultural production accounts for roughly ten percent of these yearly emissions.

Despite this, Rodale Institute remains confident the world is already equipped with the tools it needs to achieve massive drawdown. The action paper assures that the technology necessary for a massive ecological rehabilitation is already available.

The paper defines regenerative agriculture as a set of farming practices that return nutrients to the earth and rehabilitate entire ecosystems, rather than depleting them. These practices include farming organically without synthetics and chemical sprays, diversifying crop rotations, cover cropping, and integrating livestock with rotational grazing.

And the Institute stresses the importance of incorporating these techniques into conventional farming in the hope that every farming model may make use of its most valuable tool: healthy soil.

The paper indicates that soil can contain three to four times as much carbon as the atmosphere or terrestrial vegetation. This implies that even small changes to the quantity of carbon stored in the soil can vastly impact levels of atmospheric carbon.

“There are very few cost-effective tools that work as well as the soil, that can be implemented across such a broad spectrum of topographies and cultures,” Jeff Moyer tells Food Tank. “We’d be amiss to not use this tool.”

Moyer says that cover crops, when grown to maturity, are one of the easiest and most cost-effective tools farmers can use to sequester carbon anywhere in the world. But this isn’t always a priority. In the United States, for example, activists say that crop insurance doesn’t incentivize farmers to take advantage of the benefits of cover crops. “We have very conflicting incentives, and we need to change that,” Moyer says.

Producers and consumers also have a key role to play. “If we don’t incentivize [regenerative agriculture] at the policy level, then we have to incentivize it from within the supply chain,” Moyer says.

Elizabeth Whitlow, Executive Director of the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA), says incentivizing regenerative farming and generating trust with shoppers may go hand-in-hand. In 2017, ROA created a certification, Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC), to incentivize regenerative practices from within the supply chain.

“We wanted to create a high-bar standard to demonstrate and clarify what regenerative can and should be: a holistic type of agriculture that regenerates resources and considers all players in the farm system, from the soil microbiome to the animals to the workers,” Whitlow tells Food Tank.

According to Whitlow, ROC surpasses what is required by most other certifications. To pass, farms must apply with a baseline of organic certification and meet strict requirements under each of ROC’s three pillars: soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness. Since its founding, the program has certified 15 brands through its pilot program, including Dr. Bronner’s and Patagonia Provisions.

Whitlow says brands will have a significant role to play in driving interest and investment in regenerative organic farming. While she believes consumers are ready to start making purchases in line with their values, producers may need a push from their supply chains.

“Growers operate on razor-thin margins,” Whitlow tells Food Tank. “To adopt regenerative organic practices, which carry more risk than chemical-intensive methods, growers need buyers that will pay a premium and commit long-term through the trials and tribulations of adopting new, innovative methods.”

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