Climate change, and related issues, dominate the headlines, our news feeds and infiltrate our daily conversations. It’s a critical problem that weighs heavily on our society, but research shows we might be able to eat our way out of the problem. That’s right, a promising solution is lying right beneath our feet — in the soil.
The practice of regenerative agriculture is an approach to farming that treats farms holistically, as part of whole ecosystems. Modern conventional farms segment crops into separate monocultures, which strips the soil of nutrients and releases stored carbon into the atmosphere. In contrast, regenerative agriculture draws carbon out of the air and into the soil while replenishing and nourishing the land. The result is more productive farms, healthier and more nutritious crops — and it might be the magic we need to fight climate change.
According to the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, increasing the level of carbon in soils by just 0.4% could halt the progress of climate change. Raising that level to 4% might actually reverse the damage done to our planet. So, as the world grapples with dire warnings and bitter debates over climate change, the question is: Why aren’t we implementing this change on the double?
A simple solution that’s not so simple
According to a recent report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agriculture, forestry and other land use contributes around a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions each year, making it the world’s second-largest emitter after the energy sector. This is compounded by the conversion of soil-based carbon into atmospheric carbon through over-tilling, erosion and deforestation due to agriculture.
Regenerative farming practices like no-till, compost application, livestock rotation, cover crops, hedgerows and buffer strips are a promising alternative. These methods improve soil health, increase biodiversity, retain water, decrease erosion and lessen the dependence on chemical inputs. This goes beyond sustainability, it actively restores our land and air to health, while creating more nutrient-rich soil and ultimately, better quality food.
It might seem like a no-brainer for farmers to adopt regenerative practices — after all, every farmer I know cares deeply about the environment and the integrity of the land that supports their livelihoods and their way of life. The trouble is, most conventional farms and big agricultural operations aren’t set up to support these methods. Expensive infrastructure and highly specific machinery, from combines to AI-powered robotic fruit pickers, are designed for the current system of monoculture farming, engineered to handle one type of crop on a parcel of land. Faced with extremely tight margins, rising costs and the challenges of growing food in a shifting climate, many farmers are heavily invested in the status quo and reliant on conventional farming practices to stay competitive.
What’s needed to shift this system are tools that can help farmers make these necessary adaptations while still remaining profitable.
Tech is paving the way for change
Digital technology is evolving to assist this transition. Advanced technologies like AI, machine learning and data science can be valuable tools in harnessing the knowledge we already have to revamp our farming practices.
Services like FarmShots and Vine View use drones to take high-resolution thermal images of crops to measure hydration, health and potential diseases. Soil samples can be tested by companies like Trace Genomics, to identify pathogens and monitor fertility at the DNA level. Smartphone apps like Plantix compare photos of plants against a database of diseases and nutritional deficiencies, and then suggest a plan of action. Companies like Prospera expand on this concept, up to the level of whole-farm monitoring and management.
At my company, Terramera, we fuse hard science with computational chemistry, data science, machine learning and AI to unleash the intelligence in nature with technologies we are scaling to eliminate 80% of synthetic chemicals in agriculture by 2030, while increasing plant health, farm productivity and enabling transition to better materials and more productive farm practices.
The key is to use knowledge, rather than disruptive land-use practices or harmful chemicals, to help nature do what it already does: produce abundant food and enrich the earth, not deplete it.
Meanwhile, tools used in regenerative agriculture also have the potential to open up new revenue streams for farmers. Under the Australian Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund, for instance, farmers can earn credits for sequestering carbon, which they can then sell to corporations in order to offset their carbon footprint. Here in North America, Indigo, a Boston-based startup has launched its own carbon market under the Terraton Initiative, an effort to remove 1 trillion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, to incentivize regenerative agricultural practices. As more of these programs come online, farmers who make the switch to regenerative agriculture could soon find themselves earning two incomes: one from food they produce, the other from carbon capture.
The start of a cultural sea-change
There’s no question we’re still a long way from regenerative agriculture hitting the mainstream. Compared to organics, which represent only 1.4% of global farmland, regenerative farming is barely on the radar. But we are seeing progress. Investment in the space is up — the Savory Institute has built resources to help train people and scale regenerative practices, and organizations like The Buckminster Fuller Institute, Planet Home, Civana, and the Regenerative Food Systems Investment Forum, along with companies like Farmland LP and Delta Institute, are advocating for solutions-based action and encouraging investors with a global conscience to help the agricultural industry take positive steps toward providing food, water and climate security for our future.
Meanwhile, organizations like the Regenerative Organic Certification let consumers know which products are not only good for their personal health, but good for the planet, too. Big businesses like Chevrolet, General Mills, Danone and Anheuser Busch have all taken a leadership role by actively supporting regenerative agricultural practices.
True, adopting regenerative agriculture on a global scale will require a big shift in thinking, and in practice, around how we grow food. But with the health of the planet at stake, this switch could be the fastest, most efficient route to a healthier planet, more nutritious food for the growing global population and a more profitable business model for the people that provide it.
We are eating our planet to death. Can we eat it back to life? It’s a big, audacious goal for sure, but one we must have the gumption for. One we can’t afford not to pursue.
A previous version of this story was published on Forbes.com