Can climate-smart regenerative farming save the earth?

June 28, 2021

Regenerative agriculture climate change

It’s raining cats and dogs on Gillian Flies’s 100-acre vegetable farm, two hours north of Toronto, the week that this season’s farm workers arrive for a mandatory two-week quarantine. The certified organic acreage in the crest of the Niagara Escarpment will soon be bustling, growing salad greens for Toronto’s pandemic-strained restaurants and grocers. But right now, Flies is giving a Zoom slide show on the power of healthy soil.

“When we are facing climate chaos and these big storms come through, we can suck it in,” says Flies, referring to her soil’s ability to miraculously absorb inches of rain that turn neighbouring fields into a mud bath. A decade into working the land organically, she and her husband, like millions of farmers around the globe, were facing hotter summers, more violent storms and more erratic harvests. The former international election observers–turned farmers were looking for solutions to make their property – The New Farm – more resilient to the impacts of the changing climate. That’s when they came across a farming philosophy that turned them into soil evangelists.

The New York Times has called it the yoga of farming. The phrase “regenerative agriculture” was coined in the 1980s but has its roots in Indigenous and small-scale farming traditions around the world. Instead of tilled rows of monoculture crops on depleted soil, regenerative farms follow a few basic tenets: disturb the earth as little as possible (that means putting down tillers and minimizing synthetic pesticides and fertilizers), never leave the soil bare (farmers plant cover crops like clover and legumes between rows) and embrace biodiversity, both aboveground and below. Proponents say that diverse crops and, optionally, carefully rotated grazing livestock help fuel microscopic soil biodiversity, which, combined synergistically with other regenerative practices, increases soil’s water and carbon absorption power. That makes farmsteads like The New Farm notably more flood- and drought-resistant, and potentially more greenhouse gas–absorbent, too.

Now the concepts are spreading like wildfire. You’ll see the term “regenerative agriculture” cropping up in news feeds, on the back of cereal boxes and in celebrity-studded Netflix docs. Big Food players like General Mills, Danone, Unilever and Nestlé are ramping up regenerative pilots around the globe. Apparel brands like Patagonia, Gucci and Timberland…

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