Early days for regenerative agriculture: Can it help solve climate change?
Many Feasta members will already be familiar with the pioneering work of Allan Savory and the Savory Institute in regenerating degraded rangelands. In brief, Savory has developed a holistic system of management which, applied to rangelands, allows increased stocking of cattle with benefit to soils vegetation and wildlife, and potential for climate change mitigation benefits too.
A planned rotation of the cattle mimics movements that herds of ruminants would make in response to predation by pack hunters when such environments evolved as systemic wholes. This means that grasses are exposed to heavier trampling and grazing but for shorter periods of time, with concentrated exposure to urine and dung. Crusty, degraded soil gets churned into a crumbly, fertile seedbed.
Last week the Institute put on a major conference in London which Martin Peck and I were privileged to attend for free as Feasta members. There were literally dozens of ranchers there who had applied Savory’s methods and could attest to powerful results reversing soil erosion and desertification. The Institute has now set up an international network of ‘hubs’ where training will be delivered in holistic management and regenerative agriculture. (See http://www.savoryinstitute.com/introduction-to-savory-hubs/.) This network is expanding, and is seeking applications to join.
Concerning presentations, two in particular stood out for me. Firstly, work by soil scientist Dr. Elaine Ingham on the symbiotic interactions between plants and soils, and what happens when these are healthy. Grasses become capable of putting down roots several feet and in some cases metres long, increasing nutrient availability. Yet we mostly think of grass roots as extending only a few inches. Ingham explained that soils can be seen as the stomach of the plant. Not only is there symbiosis with soil microbes and funghi, but also the availability of mineral nutrients is coupled to the soil-plant interactions, via exudates put into the soil by the plants which stimulate the soil flora, fauna and funghi. In her view the “test and replace” approach to restoring soil fertility is moribund, kept going by the vested interests of supplement producers. Ingham’s techniques use ostensibly simple preparations like compost tea to remediate soils with surprising speed, but it seems clear that they require considerable knowledge and technical control to produce and apply successfully.
Secondly, work by medical scientists, represented by Daphne Miller MD, has begun to trace connections between what is going on in the soil and the nutrients that end up in our food – and the microorganisms that inhabit our stomachs. This work suggests that there are strong and demonstrable health benefits from food produced on pasture, so grass-reared cattle, pastured poultry and soil-grown vegetables tend to be higher in certain nutrients than their indoor equivalents. There also seems to be a close relationship between the microbia in the soil and those in our stomachs. Related work seems to show that allergies are associated with the biodiversity of microbes we are exposed to, particularly as children. People in the organic agriculture movement have argued along such lines for a long time, but it is an interesting and encouraging development that some medical researchers are producing confirming evidence.
So, independently of climate change there are good reasons to be excited about regenerative agriculture and the work of the Institute. But climate change is providing a strong motivation to scale up its operations. It’s not yet clear, I think, how much climate change mitigation can be achieved by reversing desertification in rangelands, and this seems a ripe topic for research. Citizen science author Seth Itzkan presented a range of estimates from existing studies extending to 100ppm CO2. If even a quarter of the were realisable, it seems to me critical to pursue given that we are currently in excess of safe concentrations of greenhouse gases. It is clear that this literature is inadequate, though, being based primarily on modelling rather than measurement.
Fast scaling-up presents clear hazards though. A film and presentation by Peter Byck illustrates the pitfalls. Byck reported obtaining funding for a research project from Shell into regenerative agriculture, and spoke of the prospect that people put petrol into their cars with the knowledge that it is ‘carbon negative’. This seems to me an utterly mistaken idea, and a very dangerous place for the movement to go. If the remaining stocks of fossil fuels are burned this seems certain to far outweigh anything we can bio-sequester. We need both to sequester and wind down emissions to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Unfortunately there was no opportunity to debate this at the conference since no time was allocated to questions from the floor. The organisers must have had their reasons for this, but without such debate such problems cannot be addressed.
Presentations from the conference are available at http://paywall.glocast.com/savory-institute-day-1-videos/, initially for free.
Featured image: Cows grazing. Source: http://www.freeimages.com/browse.phtml?f=view&id=1431465 . Author: chokingxl
- Savory Institute International Conference – “Putting Grasslands to Work” – London UK 2014
- Nick Bardsley’s reflections on the Tyndall Centre “Radical Emissions Reduction” conference
- Allan Savory: How to green the world’s deserts and reverse climate change
- Guardian article on Allan Savory’s work with livestock
- Allan Savory wins the Buckminster Fuller award
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