Organic and Regenerative Agricultural Practices, Soil, and Carbon: What’s the Story?
In 2019, Tilth Alliance made supporting the adoption of organic, regenerative and sustainable growing practices by farms and farmers throughout the state of Washington a strategic priority. While practices such as cover cropping, crop rotation, no and low till, and integrated livestock management have multiple environmental benefits, the one benefit that has received the most attention is the potential these practices have to increase soil carbon and help address the climate crisis.
Scientists have determined that more carbon resides in soil than in the atmosphere and all plant life combined. There are 2,500 billion tons of carbon in soil compared with 800 billion tons in the atmosphere and 560 billion tons in plant and animal life. Soils that have been cultivated using traditional western agricultural practices. Since the industrial revolution, the conversion of natural ecosystems to agricultural use is estimated to have resulted in the loss of between 50-70% of the global soil carbon stock. This carbon enters the atmosphere as CO2, a powerful greenhouse gas and the primary driver of global warming. The depletion of soil carbon is the result of the widespread adoption of intensive industrial agricultural practices leading to reductions in the amount of plant matter being returned to the soil, increased decomposition soil organic materials due to soil tillage, and increased soil erosion (Lemus & Lal 2005).
Organic regenerative agricultural practices properly applied can turn back the carbon clock and restore soil carbon. It has been estimated that restoring carbon to degraded soils has the potential to increase carbon storage by 1 to 3 billion tons annually. This translates to 3.5 to 11 billion tons of CO2 removed from the atmosphere, or between 10-30% of the annual CO2 emissions caused by burning fossil fuels. This would make a significant contribution to global efforts to reduce atmospheric CO2 and address climate change.
But the benefits associated with organic regenerative agricultural practice go beyond carbon storage. Soil without carbon is simply dirt that lacks the productive capacity of healthy soil. Healthy soils also lead to improved water retention, reduced erosion, increased resiliency to flooding and drought, and increased nutrient retention. Beyond soil health, organic regenerative practices also lead to increases in biodiversity and a reduction in toxic chemicals being introduced into the environment.
Why aren’t all farms and farmers employing organic regenerative practices?
Over the past 200 years, agricultural production across the globe has focused on deploying intensive industrial agricultural practices in the belief that this would be the only way to feed a growing population. Today, we are having to relearn and refine the regenerative agriculture practiced for thousands of years by the first peoples and indigenous cultures throughout the world. Work must be done to demonstrate that organic regenerative agriculture has the capacity to meet current food production needs, while undoing the harm caused by industrial agriculture. Farmers are anxious to be part of the global solution to the detrimental impacts of past agricultural practices, but they need support on this journey. Converting from conventional to organic regenerative food production takes time, resources and expertise. Tilth Alliance’s programs are designed to provide this support by:
- Providing grants to help fund on-farm investments that support the adoption of organic regenerative agricultural practices.
- Creating opportunities for farmers to learn from each other through farm walks, farmer podcasts, trainings, and an annual conference that brings farmers, technical experts and suppliers together in a social networking environment that includes workshops, speakers, and fun.
- Advocating for policies, programs, research and resources that will promote and support organic regenerative agriculture and the farmers who practice it.