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REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE / The Long-Term Disaster Far Worse Than The COVID-19 Pandemic

ANDRE LEU, International Director of Regeneration International

Key Points

  • Climate change will have a far more serious long-term impact than COVID-19
  • By 2038, the impact of fires, floods, droughts, storms and sea-level rise linked to climate change could cost $AUD 100 billion every year
  • United Nations states that the world is facing ‘catastrophic’ global warming, with 2020 amongst the hottest years on record
  • The good news is that we can turn this around by scaling up Regenerative Agriculture

Introduction

There is a long-term disaster far worse than the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic will end in a few years, however the world will lose many millions more to sickness, hunger, poverty and catastrophic weather events because of the unprecedented climate emergency.

According to the Climate Council, the cost of extreme weather events in Australia has nearly doubled since the 1970s. Their report shows that the impact of fires, floods, droughts, storms and sea level rise linked to climate change could cost us $AUD 100 billion every year by 2038.

The world reached a record of 417.2 parts per million of carbon dioxide (ppm CO2 )  in the atmosphere in May 2020 – the most in over three million years.

The Untied Nations stated that the world is facing ‘catastrophic’ global warming, with 2020 amongst the hottest years on record.

The good news is that we can turn this around by scaling up Regenerative Agriculture.


Why Regenerative Agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture is based on a range of food and farming systems that use the photosynthesis of plants to capture CO2 and store it in the soil as soil organic matter.

The soil holds almost three times the amount of carbon than the atmosphere and biomass (forests and plants) combined.


Why is it so Important to Dramatically Reduce the Current Rate of CO2 Emissions?

If emissions are not reduced soon, we will enter catastrophic climate change. This is because it will take centuries to get the heat out of our oceans. Ocean heat is a significant driver of our weather. The oceans and the atmosphere are already around one degree Celsius warmer than the industrial revolution.

The energy needed to heat the atmosphere and the ocean by one degree is equivalent to billions of atomic bombs. I am using this violent metaphor so that people can understand how much energy is being released into our atmosphere and oceans and why we will get more extreme weather events wreaking havoc on our communities and environment.

This extra energy is already violently fueling and disrupting our weather systems. It is causing weather events to be far more intense. Winter storms are becoming colder and can be pushed further south and north than normal due to this energy, bringing damaging snowstorms and intense floods. Similarly, summer storms, especially hurricanes, tornadoes, tropical lows etc. are far more intense with deluging destructive rainfall and floods. Droughts and heat waves are more common and are resulting in more crop failures. They are also fueling damaging forest and grass fires that are burning out whole communities and changing regional ecologies due to not allowing time for recovery before the next fires.

The frequency and intensity of these types of events will only get exponentially worse when the world warms to two degrees Celsius which is the upper limit of the Paris Climate Agreement. We are on track to shoot far past this goal.


Managing Climate Change is a Major Issue That We Have to Deal With Now

Atmospheric CO2 levels have been increasing at two parts per million (ppm) per year. Despite the global economic shut down as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic CO2 levels still set a new record of 417.2 ppm in May 2020. This is a massive increase in emissions per year since the Paris Agreement and shows the reality is that most countries are not even close to meeting their Paris reduction commitments and many must be cheating on or ignoring their obligations.

According to peer-reviewed research published by Rohling et al. in the scientific journal, Nature Geoscience, the last time the world had 380 ppm, was 3.0–3.5 million years ago. Temperatures were between five to 16 C warmer and sea levels were 20 to 30 metres higher.

The United Nations Paris Agreement proposes net CO2 neutrality by 2050. The evidence shows this will too late to the stop the enormous damage of catastrophic climate change. At the current rate of emissions there would be close to 500 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere.

The fact is that we are in a serious climate emergency now. We must speed up the transition to renewable energy, stop the clearing of all forests and we have to make a great effort to drawdown CO2 in the atmosphere to the pre industrial level of 280 ppm.


Reversing Climate Change

417 ppm is way beyond the Paris objective of limiting the temperature increase to two degrees Celsius.  In order to stabilise atmospheric CO2 levels, regenerative agricultural systems could drawdown the current emissions of  25 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 per year.


The Potential of Three Best Practice Regenerative Agriculture Systems

There are numerous regenerative farming systems that can sequester CO2 from the atmosphere through the photosynthesis and turn this into soil organic matter through the actions of the roots and soil biology – the soil microbiome. The simple ‘back of the envelope’ calculations used for the three examples below are a good exercise to show the considerable potential of best-practice regenerative systems to reverse the climate emergency.


(i) BEAM

BEAM (Biologically Enhanced Agricultural Management), developed by Dr David Johnson of New Mexico State University, produces compost with a high diversity of soil microorganisms. Multiple crops grown with BEAM show it can sequester 37,700 kilos of CO2 per hectare per year.

BEAM can be used in all soil-based food production systems including annual crops, permanent crops and grazing systems, including arid and semi-arid regions. If BEAM was extrapolated globally across agricultural lands it would sequester 185 Gt of CO2 per year.

BEAM Compost System

(ii) Potential of No Kill No Till

Singing Frogs Farm is a highly productive No Kill No Till richly biodiverse certified organic, agroecological horticulture farm on three acres. The key to their no till system is to cover the planting beds with mulch and compost instead of plowing them, or using herbicides, and planting directly into the compost, along with a high biodiversity of cash and cover crops that are continuously rotated to break weed, disease and pest cycles.

According to Chico State University they have increased the soil organic matter from 2.4% to an optimal 7-8% in six years.

This farming system is applicable to more than 80% of farmers around the world as the majority of farmers have less than two hectares. If the Singing Frog farm was extrapolated globally across arable and permanent crop lands it would sequester 179 Gt of CO2/yr.

Singing Frogs Farm

(iii) Potential of Regenerative Grazing

Around 68% of the world’s agricultural lands are used for grazing. Published evidence shows that correctly managed pastures can build up soil carbon faster than many other agricultural systems and this is stored deeper in the soil. This very important for Australia where grazing systems are a significant part of the economy

Research by published Machmuller et al. showed that regenerative grazing systems sequestered 29,360 kilos of CO2 per hectare per year. If these regenerative grazing practices were implemented on the world’s grazing lands they would sequester 98.6 Gt of CO2 per year.


Ending the Climate Emergency

Transitioning a small proportion of global agricultural production to these evidence based, best-practice, regenerative systems will sequester enough CO2 to reverse climate change and restore the global climate.

10% of Agricultural lands under Beam could sequester 18.5 Gt of CO2 per year.

10%  of small holder farms across arable and permanent crop lands using Singing Frog Farm’s No Kill No Till systems could sequester 18 Gt of CO2/yr.

And a further 10% of grasslands under regenerative grazing could sequester 10 Gt of CO2 per year.

This would result in 46.5 Gt of CO2 per year being sequestered into the soil which is more than the amount of sequestration needed to drawdown the 25.61 Gt of CO2 that is currently being emitted.

These ‘back of the envelope’ calculations are designed to show the considerable potential of scaling up proven high performing regenerative systems. These examples are ‘shovel ready’ solutions as they are based on existing practices. There is no need to invest in expensive, potentially dangerous and unproven technologies such as carbon capture and storage or geo-engineering.


Summary

We are in a climate emergency and we need every tool in the tool box to fix this problem. We don’t have the luxury of wasting precious time on intellectual arguments about whether this is possible or to convince skeptics and land managers unwilling to change.

It is time to get on with drawing down the excess CO2  by scaling up existing regenerative agriculture practices. This is very doable and achievable. It would require minimal financial costs to fund existing institutions, training organisations and relevant NGOs to run courses and workshops. Most importantly this then needs to be scaled up through proven farmer to farmer training systems. The evidence shows that these types of peer-to-peer systems are the most effective way to increase adoption of best practices.

The widespread adoption of best practice regenerative agriculture systems should be the highest priority for farmers, ranchers, governments, international organisations, elected representatives, industry, training organisations, educational institutions and climate change organisations. We owe this to future generations and to all the rich biodiversity on our precious living planet.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR / André Leu is the International Director of Regeneration International, a global NGO that promotes food, farming and land use systems that regenerate and stabilise eco systems, climate systems, the health of the planet and people. He, along with the other founders of Regeneration International, started the world wide regenerative farming movement. André is the Author of the ‘Myths of Safe Pesticides’ and ‘Poisoning our Children’. He is the co-author with Dr Vandana Shiva of ‘Biodiversity, Agroecology, Regenerative Organic Agriculture – Sustainable Solutions for Hunger, Poverty and Climate Change’ . André first came to the Douglas Shire in 1971 and has, with his wife Julia, an organic tropical fruit farm in Lower Daintree.

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