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Regenerative Agriculture,
the Solution to Climate Change

Part 1: Carbon and The Carbon Soil Sponge

On the left is a graph of global Carbon Dioxide (CO2) levels since 2016. The black line is the mean, and the red line the actual, which shows the natural fluctuations through the year. We can see from this graph, how the planet takes a breath in and out each year. CO2 levels peak in April at the start of the northern hemisphere spring (there is a far greater land mass in the north), so the peak comes right before everything starts growing and absorbs carbon back into matter, which is only possible via photosynthesis.

Figure 1. Global Atmospheric Carbon Levels - annual fluctuation and overall rise. Graph thanks to NASA:

What is evidently unnatural about this graph is the fact that levels are increasing year on year. The planet draws down 120 billion tons of carbon a year, but 130 billion tons end up back in the atmosphere. The additional 10 billion tons coming largely from the combustion of fossil fuels (7,8).

The jump in atmospheric CO2 in 2019 and 2020, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), was probably due to an increase in extreme weather events - rainstorms and droughts causing floods and fires; and because our oceans, which are warming and acidifying, are less able to absorb excess CO2 (1). The world's oceans act as a huge buffer to atmospheric CO2, there is currently 30,000 billion tons more CO2 dissolved therein than normal. 

But let’s go back for a moment to this idea that the world breathes in and out on an annual basis. This shows us how important and powerful the growth of life is in regulating the earth's atmosphere. This fact is the gold at the end of the rainbow, it is the key to solving our climate crisis, but in order to understand how we can help nature to help us, we must first gain some understanding of the relationships and cycles between our atmosphere, climate and land management. 

For this reason we have put together this 3 part article on Climate and Agriculture, we hope you enjoy reading it. Welcome to part 1.

How do we Help the Earth Breathe More Deeply

Crucial to earth's annual ‘breath-in’, is the functional condition of her ecosystems and soils, and we will return to this point in a moment, but first we must distinguish between ‘ancient’ and ‘current' carbon. 


Are Cows Causing Climate Change?

Animals breathe Oxygen in and Carbon Dioxide out, and plants do the opposite, so it is easy to jump to the conclusion that the best thing we can do to help the situation, is plant lots of trees and stop eating meat. Animals also emit Methane (CH4), so cows are further demonised as part of the problem (we will cover this in detail in part 2). But blaming cow farts for climate change is a gross red herring, because it ignores the role of animals in cycling carbon into the soil (which we will come on to), and it detracts from the important distinction between ‘current’ and ‘ancient’ sources of carbon. 

Fossil fuels are ‘ancient carbon’, mostly accumulated in the carboniferous period when there were much higher levels of CO2 and CH4 in the atmosphere. At that time mega-flora with huge photosynthetic capacity evolved. These plants sequestered vast amounts of carbon which eventually became the stable solid (coal), and liquid (crude oil) forms, buried underground, the power of which we harness today. The mega-flora that locked carbon into the earth, led to increasing oxygen levels, and eventually created the stable climate we humans now benefit from.

‘Current carbon’ is what was left in circulation, the stuff that the world breathes in and out each year. So whatever aspect of ‘the problem’ of climate change we are looking at, it is essential that we ask, are we pumping ‘ancient carbon’ into the system as a shortcut to productivity? Or are we working with ‘current carbon?’

If we look again at the beef industry for example, then yes, intensively farmed beef has ancient carbon pumped into the system on many levels. All feed that isn’t pasture, will be dripping in ‘ancient carbon’. Animals kept indoors or in feed-lots require a lot of machinery to move food around. So intensive beef is a serious problem, but then so is all intensive agriculture: Soya, wheat, chicken, you name it, it is all saturated in ‘ancient carbon’. 

100% grass-fed meat however has a very small ‘ancient carbon’ footprint. Very little if any machinery is required, mostly these farms manage to get away with just a quad-bike and no tractor. The animals never receive any additional feed, so apart from animal transport to slaughter and quad-bike fuel, the carbon is almost entirely ‘current,’ sequestered by the grasses and herbs in the pasture. 


How the Earth Breathes Deeply

You know how elderly people often have a shortness of breath, their bodily functions are not quite what they were, and they are unable to breathe deeply and easily like in their younger days. Well, the earth's ability to breathe deeply also depends on the state of her body. It depends on the functional condition of her ecosystems and soils. 

The earth breathes CO2 in through photosynthesis by plants and trees, but the earth retains carbon (locks it in long term), by incorporating it into soils. Every living thing is made largely from carbon, so it is through all life forms that carbon gets cycled ultimately into the soil. These are the main 3 ways: 

  1. Through animals who eat those plants and then defecate on the ground which soil microbes incorporate into soil. 

  2. Dead organic matter from either plants or animals, which soil microbes and fungi incorporated into the soil. 

  3. A  less apparent route is that plants directly feed soil microbes and fungi via root sugar exudates. 

So while it is an excellent idea to plant trees to try and stabilise the climate, it remains largely unacknowledged that soils are the ultimate carbon sink. There is no limit to carbon accumulation in soils, as long as they are well managed. This is where the debate about grazing animals heats up, because these walking bio-digesters are a key component to effective carbon draw.

Lands managed under intensive production on the other hand, be it livestock or crops, are only oxidising carbon into the atmosphere. These soils are unable to sequester carbon, because such soils are no longer alive.

Living Soils 


Agriculture still mostly works off a chemical model for how plants receive nutrients from the soil. If plants are short in potassium, we add soluble forms of potassium. But this is a far cry from how nature cycles nutrients. In a natural living soil there is an inexhaustibly complex web of interactions between life and mineral soil, and nutrient deficiencies do not exist. 

Plants exude sugars from their roots which feed bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms. Plants commonly expend around 30% of their energy in this way, feeding all soil microbiota, which in turn cycle minerals back, in forms that the plant can absorb. 

This process is grossly inhibited in intensive production systems because the plants are fed with water soluble inputs, so no-longer need this symbiotic relationship with soil microbiota; and because fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, etc, kill soil life. In livestock farming intestinal parasite treatments are death to soil organisms from dung beetles to bacteria, so the form of farming system is an essential detail when we talk about the relationship between agriculture and climate change. 

In regenerative livestock farming systems the land and animals are managed in a way that breaks the life cycle of intestinal parasites, removing the need for intestinal treatments. Farmers who convert to regenerative methods are astonished by the return of life to their farms. This surge in biodiversity however is just a symptom of what is going on underground - the return of living soils, which rapidly draw down carbon and create the carbon soil sponge.

The Soil Carbon Sponge

The sheer enormity of soil microbiota, itself living and dying, as well as drawing down dung and other organic matter into the soil, builds up as a carbon matrix within the mineral structure of soil. Without this organic matter soils are simply dusty dirt, able to hold little water, and once dry are extremely difficult to rehydrate. However living soils, rich in organic matter have a sponge like texture, are springy under foot and can hold large amounts of water, all due to carbon. 

For every gram of carbon present in the soil, it can hold 8 grams of water (7,8). So we start to see that soil carbon is not just key to climate stabilisation and biodiversity, but also water management. Over time, carbon rich soils just get deeper and deeper, and it is from such soils that we can grow the best, nutrient-dense foods.


Mobile bio-digesters 

Vast areas of the world are naturally grassland-scrub: The great plains of North America once grazed by buffalo; the Savannahs of South and East Africa grazed by a myriad of ungulates; Europe thousands of years ago, where wild horses, aurochs, elk, bison and deer maintaining wood-pastures.

These animals and their grassland-scrub homes are synonymous. Originally predators like wolves and lions would have managed their behaviour, keeping them moving in dense bunches, grazing, trampling, pooing and peeing, then moving on. This animal impact is essential to grassland regeneration. Without them, especially in dry climates, grass stays standing up and can only decompose through oxidation; bare ground soon appears underneath, the start of desertification, where carbon only goes up, not down. Animals in dry grasslands are the only thing that can put carbon back into the soil. 

So while overgrazing is a huge problem across the world, especially in drylands, this is only due to the mismanagement of animals. Animals can be the problem, but also are the solution, because their correct management (mimicking the action of predators), is about the only thing that can reverse desertification which is all about locking carbon into the soil and restoring dense plant cover.  

The following examples show just how effective pastureland is at locking in carbon, if managed correctly:

  • Texas A&M University study demonstrated 1.2 tons of carbon per acre per year (1.2 tC/ac/yr) drawdown via proper grazing methods (2).
  • University of Georgia study demonstrated 3 tons of carbon per acre per year (3 tC/ac/yr) drawdown via a conversion from row cropping to regenerative grazing (3).
  • Michigan State University study demonstrated 1.5 tons of carbon per acre per year (1.5 tC/ac/yr) drawdown via proper grazing methods and demonstrated in a lifecycle analysis that this more than compensated for natural enteric emissions of methane (4).
  • The drawdown potential on North American pasturelands is 800 million tons (megatons) of carbon per year (800 MtC/yr) (5).


To Conclude

  • Whenever we look at a carbon footprint we must also look at whether the carbon involved is ‘ancient’ or ‘current.’ 

  • Agricultural soils are an enormous potential carbon sink, but due to intensive farming methods and mismanagement of pastoral animals, agricultural soils are mostly oxidising carbon into the atmosphere and causing desertification. 

  • Taxing meat as a way to try and cut the number of animals in farming, is an oversimplification of the problem that could lead to disastrous consequences by resulting in more grassland being ploughed up for high protein foods like soya.

  • We are currently running at about 50% of the carbon drawdown capacity of the earth (7,8). Yes! We could double the size of the earth's breath-in each year, if we changed land management worldwide. 

  • Supporting regenerative agriculture is one of the best ways to help our climate and biodiversity crises.

  • A billion hectares of land globally, under regenerative grazing management, would have the potential to tip the balance of climate change the other way (6).


This is part 1 of a three part series of articles about farming and
climate change. For the full article and references,
please click the button below.

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