Regenerative agriculture enthusiasts have been making claims about carbon sequestration for some years, the practices being ahead of the science. So it’s good to see reporting of some peer reviewed research that shows significant benefit for climate mitigation of shifting from conventional livestock farming to regenag.
Before looking at that it’s vital to note here that if regenag’s carbon sequestration is to be meaningful, we still have to transition to a post carbon economy more rapidly than we are currently doing i.e. stop using fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Regenag doesn’t enable green BAU via offsetting, it gives us a chance of averting the worst of disasters when coupled with rapid dropping of GHG emissions.
Also to note that this research is US based so is comparing regenag with high emission, highly industrialised farming models like CAFO. It’s important to understand that debate often uses global figures which don’t easily apply to New Zealand’s largely grass fed farming sector (go-vegan enthusiasts take note too).
The broad strokes of the research:
The new peer-reviewed study looks at the multi-species rotational grazing done on the ranch and found that White Oak’s approach reduced net greenhouse gas emissions of the grazing system by 80 percent. Regenerative practices helped sequester 2.29 megagrams of carbon per hectare annually. To put that into context, sequestering just 1 Mg of carbon per hectare each year on half the rangeland area in California would offset 42 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, roughly the annual emissions from energy use for the state’s commercial and residential sectors.
Again, we need to be mindful that this isn’t a get out of jail free card that allows us to keep burning fossil fuels. But it does point to some benefit from actual sustainability farming, if we have the sense to make best use of it.
Let’s just take a moment to put this in a systems rather than reductionist frame: there are multiple benefits here. The carbon sequestration offsets GHG emissions but also improves soil, rebuilding depleted soils and then maintaining them sustainability. It tends to use closed loop, on site systems rather than relying on the long distance, imported, often extractive and polluting inputs of conventional ag.
Regenerative agriculture’s approach increases biodiversity of plants, animals, fungi and microbes thus mitigating climate change’s ecological crisis twin. Systems are more resilient giving better protection from extreme weather events such as flooding or droughts.
Using a systems frame matters here. If we use a conventional reductionist frame, we soon end up in a TINA cul de sac of abstractions that inhibit innovation and actual climate solutions. Two such reductionist, narrow focus views are:
The neoliberal, global market economic model demands measurement of export dollars, for farmer/corporate wealth as well as nation wealth.
Both of those are inherently unsustainable approaches. We know that conventional farming is both climate and ecology destroying so unless we are saying that we should preserve the economic status quo for current generations but bugger those coming after us, we have to stop using systems that are literally destroying the ground upon which all our economics rest.
The two issues above can be solved with whole systems design, which looks at the interrelated aspects of an issue and its wider context. Agricultural land use needs to include space for nature because vibrant, self sustaining ecological systems require biodiversity, and sustainable farming only works if we have functional, biodiverse ecosystems (natural and human built). Humans can’t live without either (we need food growing systems that will outlast fossil fuels, and such systems require ecosystems to be sustainable).
New Zealand has a lot of poorly utilised land that we could be restoring via ecosystem restoration. This supports natural ecosystems as well as adjacent productive land. Increasing biodiversity on productive land increases resiliency for both sets of systems (the less divide between the systems, the more mutual benefit).
This dovetails neatly with the imperative to assess production at the landbase level, taking into account the natural systems that enable any kind of long term land use for meeting human needs (food, fibre, timber, raw materials, habitat). Is it appropriate to try and grow export milk powder in the driest parts of the country? Systems, sustainable thinking approaches start with the land and assessing what grows there well and how nature can support that. Conventional, industrial models largely ignore nature and impose artificial systems over existing systems and rely on external inputs to make it work (taking resources from other landbases).
It’s a bloody weird economics that starts with human needs and says oh we will take that from the rest of nature even if it means in the (near) future we won’t be able to any more and our economy will collapse.
This also dovetails with the giant moa in the New Zealand left’s living room of population. How many people can New Zealand’s land base support sustainably? No one wants to talk about it, but again what kind of politics starts with saying humans are the most important and we will force nature to accommodate that? Turns out to not be such a good approach. Systems approaches allow us to talk about population in a positive, life-affirming and just way when we understand the benefits.
Sustainability requires more land and yet also gives us a much better chance of surviving as a species. The reductionist view stops with the first part of that sentence and gets bogged down in how to make reality fit the desire.
If the systems stuff isn’t quite landing here, there are some easy low hanging reductionist fruits. For example the global food system is incredibly wasteful of food that is produced, so we have a decent buffer there (use more land to produce the same amount of food, use food more efficiently).
Which leads us to the second issue, of how to make a living as we move beyond the conventional farming and economic models? Fortunately there are many farming pioneers including in New Zealand who are figuring out how to make this work. That they are doing this largely outside the mainstream supports of government, banks and industry means that once the mainstream gets on board we should see an explosion of innovation en masse. This should in turn enable more farmers to make the shift to regenag economically viable.
At the nation level and fears for our standard of living if we don’t continue to wring every last dairy dollar out of the land, the covid pandemic taught us a few things. Tourism was halved overnight, pointing to the glaring vulnerability of basing so much on long haul flying. The climate and ecology crises are a slower burn but the vulnerabilities are bigger and longstanding. Developing new economic models that can withstand pandemics, global financial stresses, climate/ecology disasters, and for NZ, earthquakes, is now an imperative visible to all who want to look.
TINA says that the only way we can have our current standard of living is an export economy that is inherently destructive. I honestly don’t get this thinking, a kind of consumerist do or die, if we insist that we have to have this standard of living it will somehow work out. Or not. Some of the other options we have are to Powerdown, or adopt regenerative models like Doughnut economics.