Jun 8, 2022
How Creating A Healthy Soil Microbiology Can Help Us Reverse Climate Change
Food production has long been blamed for playing a role in contributing to our current climate crisis. Water, energy, and land usage have long dominated these conversations around agriculture.
One resource often left out of these discussions is what Iowans call their “black gold” - soil.
According to the Food and Agricultural Organization, a third of the world’s soil is already moderately to highly degraded. This threatens global food security while increasing carbon emissions. As a result, soil degradation has slowly become one of the biggest agricultural challenges of the decade.
In calling for an urgent change in farming practices, “regenerative agriculture” has become a major buzzword in many agriculture and climate circles.
According to estimates from the Savory Institute, over 15 million hectares of land are currently being farmed using regenerative methods. Positive changes from this practice have led to the IPCC describing regenerative agriculture as a “sustainable land management practice.”
Climate research-driven nonprofit Project Drawdown shares that “at least 50% of the carbon in the Earth’s soils has been released into the atmosphere over the past centuries. Bringing that carbon back home through regenerative agriculture is one of the greatest opportunities to address human and climate health, along with the financial well-being of farmers.”
Big companies are also latching onto the trend. Nestle recently said that it will invest $1.3 billion over the next five years to help farmers and suppliers transition to regenerative agriculture.
But, what is regenerative farming?
According to co-authors from the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative of California State University and Carbon Underground, regenerative organic agriculture “describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity.” This includes practices like:
No-till or minimum tillage farming as “tillage breaks up soil aggregation” and adds “excess oxygen to the soil for increased respiration and carbon dioxide emission.”
Increasing soil fertility through the “application of cover crops, crop rotations, compost, and animal manures,” as opposed to artificial and synthetic fertilizers, to “restore the plant/soil microbiome.”
Avoiding monoculture and instead building biological ecosystem diversity through “full-time planting of multiple crop intercrop plantings, multispecies cover crops, and borders planted for bee habitat and other beneficial insects.”
Having well-managed grazing practices to “stimulate improved plant growth, increased soil carbon deposits, and overall pasture and grazing land productivity while greatly increasing soil fertility, insect and plant biodiversity, and soil carbon sequestration.”
These numerous benefits sequester more carbon than is currently emitted. As a result, many scientists believe that this unique way of creating healthy soil microbiology can also help us reverse climate change.
While the figure for the amount of carbon dioxide that can be captured by regenerative agriculture varies between experts, Project Drawdown estimates that it could sequester between 14.52–22.27 gigatons of CO2 between 2020 and 2050. Amongst all the climate solutions that Project Drawdown has investigated for projected emissions, “Regenerative Annual Cropping” ranks in the top 25.
Farmer & Co-Founder of URBAVORE farm, Brooke Salvaggio, shares that “in addition to enhancing food production and improving soil, the recycling of organic waste [in regenerative agriculture] sequesters carbon - taking it from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil through photosynthesis. Carbon sequestration is critical to addressing the climate crisis.”
The flipside here is that regenerative agriculture isn’t always a financially viable solution.
According to this article, “transitioning a farm that doesn’t use regenerative techniques to one that does will take time. The farm’s soil needs to build enough nutrients to support crops, which is done by increasing organic matter in the soil to create healthy and consistent topsoil.” This impacts costs and leads to an initial period of financial loss for farmers.
Additionally, another recent article quotes a study by the Ecdysis Foundation that found that “regenerative fields had 29% lower grain production but 78% higher profits over traditional corn production systems.”
Because of these reasons, we need governments and corporations to support farmers when setting up regenerative farms.
URBAVORE is a biologically diverse farmstead that is successfully using regenerative practices to bring fresh produce to its community.
URBAVORE farm is set on 13.5 acres in Kansas City's urban core. According to farmer Brooke Salvaggio, the farm uses “a unique no-till growing method to produce nutrient-dense crops and preserve the biology of the soil.” With the belief that “improved soil grows more and better food, and is critical to the climate crisis at hand,” the team uses “strives for biologically active soil through minimal tillage, compost applications, cover cropping, deep mulch, and animal rotations.”
The URBAVORE team has taken an active effort to design this farm eco-consciously. Not only does the farm “reside in a passive-solar earth-bermed home (built by Farmer Dan!),” but it also has “a composting toilet, off-grid chemical-free water system, and grey/ black water recycling. The farm is home to a 10kW solar system that produces the majority of the energy used.”
URBAVORE’s layered ecosystem consists of numerous elements working together to create a thriving foodscape. Salvaggio explains that “vegetable fields are sandwiched by fruit trees. Pastured chickens run through fallow vegetable fields eating crop debris, eating pests, scratching up weeds, and fertilizing. The trees provide shade and habitat. The pigs eat and work down crops, integrating them into the soil with their powerful snouts that imitate tillage. Beneficial flowers and herbs are planted throughout the farmscape to attract pollinators and help the farm keep pests in check without the use of chemicals.”
Additionally, “the farm receives food scraps & yard waste from households throughout the metro and turns them into nutrient-rich compost which is spread on land to grow more and better food crops.” This “efficient processing of food waste can reduce emission and capture energy while recycling essential nutrients” that would otherwise end up in landfills.
What’s more, is that the community-wide recognition is hard to miss. Salvaggio shares that “URBAVORE has been instrumental in driving the food revolution in Kansas City. Our produce, meats, and eggs are recognized as being top-notch, and we are often told by customers that the flavor & quality is unsurpassed. The love that goes into the soil is reflected in the flavor of the food. For us, food is the vehicle for the social, political, and environmental changes we want to see in our community. If the food is truly righteous, then it speaks to the impact of our other work as well.”