Regenerative Agriculture: The solution to climate change may be right below around feet

Regenerative agriculture could be pivotal in combating climate change & global warming, while at the same time developing sustainable and climate-resilient crop production solutions.

Over the recent decades, renewable energy has been widely adopted as a viable solution in reducing carbon emissions. However, replacing our coal-powered plants with renewable resources is a mitigating strategy which is one part of the solution. Carbon dioxide(CO2) has been hovering above our heads, accumulating in our atmosphere since the industrial era, over time forming a layer which is responsible for the rapid increase in global temperatures.

Fig 1: Carbon emission pathways and strategies

To remove this excess carbon, many direct air capture technologies (DAC) and carbon capture techniques are currently under development. In fact, recently Elon Musk showed his  interest in the same by announcing that he is willing to donate $100 million for the best solution to carbon capture, while Bill Gates is betting on geoengineering as a viable solution. While these technologies need high investments, there is one possible solution which can prove to be promising with very less capital expenses.

What is Regenerative Farming?

The concept of regenerative farming is the very definition of building a sustainable ecosystem. It is a system of agricultural practices and principles that support biodiversity, enrich soils, improve watersheds, and increase the capacity of the soil to capture carbon, contributing to the reversal of global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently reported that soil carbon sequestration is the lowest-cost way to remove and store excess atmospheric CO2.

Fig 2: GHG Emissions from Food Systems

Currently, food production accounts for nearly one-fourth of the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions due, in part, to practices that inhibit the ability of soils to store carbon. Regenerative agricultural practices can reverse these effects and turn agricultural lands into a carbon sink.

We are already familiar with the idea of planting trees to fight climate change, the trees “breathe” in the carbon-dioxide and convert it to oxygen via photosynthesis. Regenerative agriculture works on the same principle, ensuring that our vast agricultural lands work to inhale carbon and store it in soils where it belongs.

How does it work

Farming techniques like deep tilling, mono-cropping, and the overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides contribute to climate change by speeding the erosion of topsoil and killing off microorganisms that build soil carbon and enable the soil to serve as a natural “carbon sink.” Overuse of these techniques mean we are now in the midst of a soil health crisis: About a third of the world’s topsoil has already been degraded, and FAO estimates that 90% of soils could become degraded by 2050.

Regenerative agriculture practices turn agriculture from a climate problem into a climate solution by storing more carbon in the ground than is released into the atmosphere while farming. The core principles of regenerative agriculture are shown in the image below.

Fig 3: Five Core Principles of Regenerative Agriculture

Principles which contribute to carbon sequestering are as follows

No till or low till: Minimizing disruption to the soil ecosystem keeps plant roots connected to unique communities of microorganisms that are key in the processes to build healthy soil and store carbon.

Fig 4: Effects of Tilling and No tilling

Cover crops: Keeping the ground covered with plants has many benefits: It allows for water and carbon to be absorbed by the soil which keeps the soil alive, helps eliminate soil erosion by preventing the soil from blowing or washing away, and prevents desertification.

Planned grazing: Emission from land-use from livestock accounts 16% of the total GHG emissions from food production (see image 2). Planned or rotational grazing of grasses mimics the patterns of animal herds which ensures land is not overgrazed, and manure fertilizes the soil and contributes to carbon sequestration. Animals in pastured systems tend to be healthier and not need antibiotics to treat disease.

How does it help the Farmer?

The popularity of farming as a profession has been falling, especially in countries like India,  where there is little to no support from the government.

A recent study found that farms with regenerative practices were 78% more profitable than those with only conventional practices. Regenerative farmers can give up some yield if it means making more profits, which regenerative agriculture makes possible by growing higher-margin crops and reducing costly inputs.

A creative way of raising money to create an incentive for farmers to capture this carbon is by selling them as carbon credits. Nori, a startup in the USA, has created a virtual carbon-marketplace (based on blockchain) which is similar to buying stocks of a company through an app. Prospective buyers can select the region or farmer they want to support to remove carbon, and how many credits they want to purchase. On purchasing these credits, they receive a certificate acknowledging the same.

Fig 5: How Nori works



Fig 1: @Solar_Edition @WRI

Fig 2: @Solar_Edition @OurWorldInData

Fig 3: @Solar_Edition 

Fig 4: @Solar_Edition @KissTheGround

Fig 5: @Solar_Edition @Nori


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