Image: Charlie Arnott and some of the Chief team on his Regenerative Farm in Boorowa, NSW in 2020 - coping with extreme drought much better than others.
At Chief, we're passionate about helping people to be healthier, but you can't have healthy humans without a healthy planet.
So, I've spent the past few years delving deeply into Regenerative Farming, trying to understand the potential of its impact on global warming and climate change. And I have to say, the logic is overwhelming.
How can we fight climate change?
In trying to answer this question I found some interesting research done by Project Drawdown which ranks the most viable global climate solutions.
The first thing that jumped out to me is if you combine all the regenerative type practices that appear in the top 100, Regenerative Agriculture is actually 2.4 times more effective than the next method.
But perhaps more importantly, other solutions do little to reverse the damage already caused. They might reduce carbon emissions, for example, but they don’t take carbon out of the atmosphere. That means they’ll slow down the rate we go off the cliff, but off the cliff we’ll go all the same.
When looking for the best solution to reversing global warming and stopping climate change, surely the number one criterion needs to be how effective it is at taking out the carbon we’ve already put, and are going to put, into the atmosphere?
I’ll return to this in a moment, but for now let’s look at how we currently grow our food.
The industrialised agricultural system that dominates today is essentially about working against nature to dominate and control the environment. It uses intensive farming practices that include fertilisers (most often based on fossil fuels), pesticides and herbicides to maintain mono cultures (growing one type of species only and killing everything else that tries to get in the way).
Intensive farming (sometimes referred to as factory farming) also includes raising animals in close quarters, feeding them grain instead of their natural diet of pasture, and pumping them full of hormones and antibiotics. You know, the stuff you see in anti-meat doco's.
Does any of that sound like food you really want to eat? It doesn’t to me, and the science shows that this system produces food (both plant and animal) that is lacking in nutrients and is often harmful to our health.
Let’s take glyphosate (AKA Round Up) for example. This is a herbicide that is so widespread it’s now found in the breast milk of human mothers. It’s also incredibly detrimental to our gut microbiota, as are pesticides, which means it’s incredibly detrimental to our immune system and our health. It’s perhaps no surprise that many modern diseases like autism are closely correlated with the increase in the pervasiveness of these chemicals in our food.
The other impact of industrial farming is that we’re destroying our soil. Our race to produce more from less is like taking drugs – it’s great while it lasts but then there’s a price to pay because you’ve drained the system and it’s out of balance. The result is soils that don’t hold a lot of nutrients because they don’t hold a lot of biomass, which means they don’t hold a lot of carbon.
It’s the same with industrial farming of animals. Around 70% of grain grown in the US is used to feed animals (globally the average is about 40%). So, all of those issues I outlined above are compounded when you raise animals. But on top of that, because those animals aren’t eating their natural diet and aren’t living in natural conditions, they need antibiotics and pesticides to reduce the risk of disease and they often get pumped full of hormones. All of which ends up in the meat which in turn ends up in our bodies.
So, what’s the solution? Surely, we need to use industrial farming techniques if we’re going to feed 9 billion people in 2050? I mean, we need the industrial model if we’re going to get the most from the land, it’s either that or starvation, right?
Sorry folks, that’s just plain wrong and it’s that paradigm of thinking that got us into this pickle in the first place.
Enter Regenerative Farming
There are so many better places to learn about regenerative farming than in this article. I’ve included some references throughout and at the end if you want to delve deeper but here are some of the basics.
Regenerative farming is about working with nature, not against it. It shuns the use of pesticides, herbicides or fertilisers, which saves farmers a shit ton of money and means nature can do its thing. Instead of trying to maintain monocultures, regenerative farmers integrate multiple species and rotate the use of the land through different types of agriculture which protects the soil, improves the nutrient levels in the soil and gets more use from it at the same time.
Instead of dedicating a farm to one type of produce, like soy or wheat, they stack businesses to make their farms more profitable and more resilient – both financially and in terms of food produced. For example, producing eggs, honey, timber from trees (which are replanted of course - renewable resource), fruit, vegetables, livestock and more.
Regenerative farmers graze ruminant animals (cows, sheep, etc) like they used to in nature, eating their natural diet, not grain. Their natural diet includes grass of course but often other types of plants which gives them access to a broader range of nutrients. Nutrients that end up in the meat.
This all sounds like food you’d like to eat right? Food that our grandparents ate. Food that science agrees is much better for our health.
So, there’s lots to like about regenerative farming right there. But here’s the kicker, it’s probably the best solution I’ve seen for combating climate change by a long shot.
Regenerative Farming reduces the carbon we’ve already pumped into the atmosphere
All organic material is made of carbon. Don’t think of plants as growing from the ground, think of them as growing from the air. Plants take CO2 from the atmosphere and use the carbon (C) to grow, then release to oxygen (O2) back into the atmosphere. Excess carbon is sequestered back into the soil.
Will that make a difference. You bet your arse. The soil contains more than three times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and four times the amount stored in all living plants and animals. This is where we’ll have a real impact folks and this is where we need to be focusing our energy.
But what about animals, aren’t cows bad for the environment?
We need to stop thinking of meat versus plants and start thinking of industrial agriculture versus regenerative agriculture. Industrially farmed meat AND crops are terrible for the environment and by extension for global warming and climate change.
We also need to understand that ruminants, like cows, are an important part of the earth’s ecology when they’re managed properly and therefore are an important part of the solution to global warming and climate change.
It’s hard to condense this, but let’s start with what ruminants predominantly eat, which is grass. If I asked you, “what stores more carbon, trees or grass?” chances are you’d say “trees of course!”.
Actually, trees are the least efficient way to store carbon. More carbon is stored in a hectare of healthy grassland than in a hectare of rainforest. Why?
- The root system. We need to think of the total size of the plant including the root system. By in large, the root systems of trees mirrors what we see. Grass on the other hand is like an iceberg, so much of the biomass of grass is underground.
- How long it takes to grow. If you look at a forest, all those trees probably took decades or centuries to grow and store all of that carbon. Grass grows a lot more quickly, storing loads of carbon into the soil in every cycle of growth. They’re the perfect carbon pump, pumping carbon from the air and into the ground.
- The ground cover. Grass covers the whole surface of the ground. Trees have gaps between them.
So, if grass stores more carbon, how do we support healthy grasslands? The answer is ruminants, like cows, so long as they’re managed in the right way.
Here's a little more on this subject from Charlie Arnott.
By the way the picture in this article is from Charlie's regenerative farm in Boorowa, NSW which is currently experiencing extreme drought. Despite this, his fields still have good ground coverage as opposed to many others in the district who's land is churning up great big dust bowls as their top soil blows away.
When cows are managed to mimic the migratory movements of large herds of ruminants, grasslands thrive. This means keeping herds in dense packs and only giving them access to a paddock for a limited time, where their hooves churn up the soil and their dung and urine fertilises it (Fun fact: bovine urine has plant growth hormone in it, who knew! Thanks Charlie Arnott for that one). You can learn more about cows and climate here.
But what about methane from cows?
Here's a quote from Diana Rogers, Director of the film Sacred Cow (highly recommended) who sums it up best:
"When we are only looking at things in terms of "emissions" we are not taking in the full picture. Yes, cattle belch methane, but this is part of a natural BIOGENIC carbon cycle. So, they eat carbon (grass, crop "residue" like corn stalks, or leftover grains from the alcohol industry that have no other use and would emit GHG if we didn't turn it into protein by feeding it to cattle) and the bacteria in their stomachs break this down and methane is a byproduct of this digestion.
The methane enters the atmosphere and after 10 years, it's broken down into CO2 & H2O. The water becomes part of the water cycle (like rain) and the CO2 is taken up by plants. During photosynthesis, the O2 is released back into the air and we humans can live because we breathe this.
Then the C (carbon) is taken up by the roots, and parts of it are dripped down to microorganisms and fungi in the soil, which live on the carbon and in exchange, send the plant's roots the other nutrients it needs to live. Up to about 40% can be SEQUESTERED in the soil, when the cattle are managed well. Then, the cow eats grass (carbon) and the cycle happens again. Some of this carbon is pooped out; some of it becomes meat, leather, bones, etc.
This is VERY different than pumping up ancient carbon and methane from deep in the earth's core, introducing it to the atmosphere. That is not a cycle, it's a one way road.
We DON'T have more belching grazing animals today in North America than we did before we eliminated the large wild herds of bison, elk, etc."
But can't we just grow crops instead?
A favourite argument from plant based diet advocates in Australia is only 4% of our land is used for growing plants, but 56% of the land is used for grazing animals. Let's just flip that around! What this stat fails to recognise is that only 6% of Australia is suitable for growing crops. The reason so much land is being used to graze animals is that's the only thing we can grow there. To feed an ever growing population, we need to make use of that land.
How much carbon can Regenerative Farming take out of the atmosphere?
I’m still trying to wrap my head around this and don’t have a clear answer but here are some basic ‘back of napkin’ calculations that give an indication:
- Our Pre-industrial CO2 was 280ppm (parts per million - the number of units of mass of a contaminant per million units of total mass)
- We are now at 393ppm and in 2050 we’ll be at around 550ppm
- Each 1ppm = 7,800,000,000 tonnes of CO2
- So we need to remove 270ppm which is 2,108,000,000,000 tonnes of CO2
- A 1% increase in organic matter to one hectare of soil can sequester 100 tonnes of atmospheric CO2
- In general, organic matter levels have fallen from 5-6 percent of the soil to less than 3 percent on most cropland soils. Over time, with proper management, we might realistically expect a 2-3 percent increase. Healthy soils can have over 10% organic matter.
- A 2% increase in organic matter to 10 billion hectares of land would sequester 270ppm of atmospheric CO2.
- Globally there are about 15 billion hectares of agricultural land.
Here’s an interesting video from which I got a lot of these figures.
Side note: a 1% increase in carbon in soil increases it's water holding capacity in the top 300mm across one hectare by 165,000 litres. In other words, the land becomes a lot more drought resistant.
The closer I look the more the logic of Regenerative Farming is undeniable. In fact, one of the world’s largest food companies General Mills agrees and is supporting the move to Regenerative Agriculture. Timberland is also getting involved.
So, what can you do? We live in a predominantly capitalistic system where investment follows demand so the solution is simple, we can create demand for regeneratively farmed products by buying them. Until regenerative certification becomes more commonplace, buy organic produce (which isn't necessarily regenerative, for example when using tilling which can damage soil biology) and/or grass-fed meat where possible.
If you’re in the food business, like we are at Chief, source your ingredients from regenerative farmers. If you can’t find them yet, focus on organic produce and/or grass-fed meat until you can.
We already source grass-fed meat and collagen, and are working towards regenerative and organic where possible. We also support Regenerative Farmers through our support of Thankful4Farmers.
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- Regenerative Agriculture is Getting More Mainstream But How Scalable is it?