Sustainable or Regenerative?

April 16, 2021

Sustainable this, sustainable that, we’ve all heard this buzz word being tossed around and used to describe pretty much anything. Eventually it’s just a word that doesn’t really mean anything. Sustainability in it’s original form is a great thing, essentially meaning that an organization or practice can go on without “running over itself”. When it comes to sustainability in agriculture, a lot of the focus naturally goes to soil health. We don’t want to be exporting more nutrients from the soil than we are giving back, or else we will be, as the proverb goes, “cutting off the branch we are standing on”. While it’s true that many modern agricultural practices are not sustainable, this word has been over used and any meaning or differentiation that it represents has become blurred.

In the past few years, there has been a lot of focus on the idea of “regenerative agriculture”. This term entails many of the same ideas as the original “sustainable”, with perhaps more of a proactive approach to improvement and rejuvenation of soil, rather than just sustaining the original. Along with this, the goals of regenerative agriculture include reducing or eliminating synthetic fertilizers and pest/weed control, increasing yields and productivity, promoting biodiversity instead of mono-culture, water conservation, soil conservation, and carbon sequestration. I will go over some examples of ways in which regenerative agriculture is being facilitated.

Synthetic fertilizers and weed control, are they essential? On most cropland today, the answer is yes. In order to get a profitable crop, you need to use these materials, and complete elimination of these things within a year or two is not going to be possible in most cases. I view fertilizers and pesticides somewhat like energy drinks. Does it give your land a boost? Yes. Is it a healthy, sustainable solution for long term crop production? The data would indicate that it is not. It’s only a matter of time before species (whether bugs or weeds) become resistant to pesticides, and in general, soil health is going downhill. What is the answer? In most cases, the solution is to start using regenerative practices and view the elimination of synthetic fertilizers as a long term goal rather than an immediate protocol. Once you have proper biodiversity, good soil structure, and a properly balanced ecosystem, very little additional fertilizer and weed control is needed. Perhaps the most efficient way of doing this is implementing livestock into crop rotation. By grazing livestock on your land, you are returning 80% of the nutrients and plant material to the soil vs. returning about 10% and exporting 90% when you harvest a crop. Right along with this subject goes the topic of carbon sequestration. Crop producers who have started grazing livestock on their land as part of their crop rotation have reported major increases in the levels of carbon and organic matter in the soil. This means that carbon is coming out of the atmosphere and going into the soil. The increase in organic matter in turn improves the soil’s water and nutrient holding capacity, and makes it more drought resistant. In a bio-diverse environment, plants and animals supply each other the nutrients that they need, and balance each other, producing a healthy, thriving ecosystem.

What is biodiversity? This term refers to the practice of incorporating multiple species into an agricultural operation, instead of focusing on one crop (a mono-culture). The nutrients that any given species needs can be supplied by another plant or animal, and so by promoting a bio-diverse environment, each species is benefited by the other species that grow on the same land. This creates a healthy balance that can support itself, and not only maintain, but improve soil structure.

In order to maintain sustainability, I believe we need to revolutionize the agriculture industry to a more regenerative approach. Initially, crop yields have been shown to decrease by a maximum of 30% when switching to regenerative methods. However, because the input costs are so much lower, properly managed regenerative operations are on average 75% more profitable than conventional operations. Plus, over time, as soil is restored, yields tend to climb to the previous levels of production or higher. In addition to the monetary benefits, regenerative methods have a net zero, and can even have a positive effect on the environment.

Thanks for reading, and keep your smile on! 🙂

God’s in control, so if you’re on His side there’s nothing to worry about.

Josh Bauman

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