As droughts and extreme weather wreak havoc on farms and threaten food supplies, regenerative agriculture practices can help farmlands adapt to the changing climate while offsetting greenhouse gas emissions.
“To combat and reverse the growing threat of desertification and land degradation, we need to both reduce carbon emissions and change the way we farm,” writes University of Washington geomorphology professor David Montgomery in The Guardian. “We don’t have to relearn the lessons of past societies that degraded their land. But to avoid their fate, we need to reorient agriculture around farming and grazing practices that regenerate soil health.”
Decades of soil-degrading practices have depleted nutrients and hastened erosion in many regions, making farmland more vulnerable to “desertification”, the “process that turns fertile farms into barren land through the interacting effects of human activity and climate extremes,” writes Montgomery.
Food producing regions in Europe and North America are increasingly at risk of drying out; in Europe, the combined area of land that has become at risk for desertification over the past 10 years is twice the size of Portugal. Worldwide, land degradation already affects the wellbeing of 3.2 billion people, and the area of global drylands is projected to increase by up to 23% this century.
However, “regenerative farming and grazing based on soil-building practices can reverse soil degradation, rebuild soil health, and make farms resilient to extreme weather – while maintaining good harvests,” says Montgomery.
But despite the overwhelming threat desertification poses to global food supply—as well as the economic impacts already occurring—”how farmers treat their soil remains essentially unregulated in regard to soil health on both sides of the Atlantic.” That means a “sustained global drive to rebuild the health of the world’s agricultural soils” should be part of the international response to climate change, Montgomery says.
Farmers and researchers are working to adapt farming systems to improve soil health, including studies exploring how adding rock dust to soil could help draw down carbon.
“Adding rock dust to agricultural lands speeds up the chemical reactions that lock carbon up—for thousands of years—in soil,” reports Yale Environment 360. A global push to apply rock dust on croplands could theoretically absorb two to four billion tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide, or between 34 and 68% of annual emissions from agriculture.
Although the research results so far are significant enough to be included in the most recent science assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, scientists are still weighing costs and benefits of applying rock dust on a large scale. Initial field tests suggest the technique improves yields for crops like corn and alfalfa, and can reduce nutrient pollution issues from runoff by allowing farmers to apply less nitrogen fertilizer.
“What do you think of a carbon dioxide removal technology that reuses waste rock dust, captures carbon, improves soils, restore soils, and improves yields?” Leverhulme Centre director David Beerling asked Yale Environment 360. “It’s a no-brainer, at least in the short term, if you’ve got this material and the evidence stacks up. Why wouldn’t you do it?”