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3 circular principles for healthy agriculture

Agriculture contributes to a quarter of the climate crisis. Here is how to replenish the soil, nature’s regenerative capital.

Published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, "A New Dynamic 2: Effective Systems In a Circular Economy" brings together 18 key thinkers, business leaders and academics who look beyond the boundaries of their respective disciplines and establish the necessary connections to re-think our current development path. This volume helps to further understand and engage in the realization of the circular economy model.

Proponents of the regenerative economy are realizing that it is dependent on the circular economy of soil. The soil is one of the key natural capitals on which we all depend. Its loss is our demise.

This chapter advocates three ways to move towards regenerative agriculture: return farming systems to harmony with nature’s cycles; make and use biochar; and implement holistic management across the world’s grasslands.

The challenge: climate destructive agriculture

Most of the climate crisis results from burning fossil fuels, but almost a quarter of the problem derives from agriculture. After 150 years of unsustainable practices, the earth’s soil has been depleted.

Modern agriculture worsens climate change. Unchecked, climate change will destroy our tenuous ability to feed ourselves. For every 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the norm, yields of wheat, rice and corn drop 10 percent. Given that more than a billion people in the world already suffer from malnutrition, this is serious.

Soil that has been de-carbonized (lost its organic matter) requires large amounts of fossil fuel-based fertilizer if it is to grow crops at industrial scale. Petrochemical use in fertilizer releases greenhouse gasses (GHGs), especially nitrous oxide, a gas 300 times more potent per ton in causing global warming than CO2.  Plowing and poor nutrient management release the nitrogen from soils in quantities. When out of place, both carbon and nitrogen, key building blocks of life in nature, are serious threats to the stability of the climate. 

Plowing and poor nutrient management release the nitrogen from soils in quantities. When out of place, both carbon and nitrogen, key building blocks of life in nature, are serious threats to the stability of the climate.

Regenerative agriculture: there is a better way

Critics of current agriculture call for a beyond-modern approach, combining the best of traditional agriculture with the finest science, to deliver abundant, sustainable food and high-quality life to all the world’s people. The Rodale Institute, the Soil Association of the U.K., the Agroecology Lab at U.C. Davis, and the Leopold Center at Iowa State University are a few of the early centers of scientific research into organic agriculture. They are building bio-diverse systems to reintegrate us into living systems agriculture. It takes a longer view of production, not maximizing yields in any one year, but ensuring yield over many years and decreasing chances of crop failure in bad ones.

Regenerative farming practices increase soil-held carbon or organic matter. Farms using crop rotations and animal manure deliver better biodiversity than fields farmed with industrial practices. Organic fields reduce nitrogen runoff and the release of nitrous oxide. Systems that integrate livestock with vegetable production, use perennial pastureland and organic production deliver higher profitability while creating the circular economy of the soil. These methods include long crop rotations, leguminous crops and cover crops and manure produced by livestock as fertilizer.

They take carbon from the air and sequester it in soil. These regenerative methods treat the farms as holistic systems. Farmers use only what is produced on site. Such practices restore soil structure, build healthy topsoil, nurture soil microbes and promote biological activity, all of which contributes to long-term productivity and nutritious crops. Water use is optimized and the best practices in irrigation are applied. Farm worker safety and investment in local dollars sustain farming communities.

This reinvigorates communities. In 2007, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization determined that organic agriculture would positively contribute to food security, climate mitigation, water security and quality, agrobiodiversity, nutritional adequacy and rural development. 

Both the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization recently published reports (PDF) concluding that only organic, smallholder farms could feed the world. Protecting and empowering such bottom-of-the-pyramid growers, who produce 70 percent of world’s food, has enabled half of the world’s countries to meet the Millennium Development goal of cutting malnutrition in half.

In the United States, an even bolder vision of regenerative agriculture is emerging at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Dr. Wes Jackson is leading a team to shift agriculture from a single focus on monocultures of annual plants, intensively managed, to polycultures of perennial plants. This is how nature grows crops.

The Land Institute’s long-standing mission is to use plant-breeding techniques to create several perennial major crops, such as wheat, sorghum and sunflower, and domesticate a few wild perennial species to produce food like their annual counterparts. The institute grows them in various mixtures according to what each given landscape requires. With the pre-agricultural ecosystem as the standard, the institute is attempting to bring as many processes of the wild to the farm as possible, below as well as above the ground surface.

The U.N. Conference on Trade and Development and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization recently published reports concluding that only organic, smallholder farms could feed the world.


Efforts to compost carbon-based flows so that the nutrients can be returned to the soil are important. But the ability of plants to draw carbon from the air can provide vastly bigger ways to put it back into the soil on a massive scale using biochar.

Using pyrolysis, any organic material can be heated at low temperatures with little oxygen until it is carbonized. This produces energy (heat and power), but unlike fossil fuels, it is a carbon-neutral process; it neither adds nor subtracts carbon from the atmosphere. Done intelligently, biochar production delivers usable energy in the form of charcoal, bio-oil and syngas. The syngas can replace petroleum-based oil and natural gas to fuel transportation or as a substitute for charcoal. 

Biochar production only turns part of the woody material into fuel. The other 50 percent or more of the biomass’s carbon becomes the biochar, which, when placed in soil, stays there. It represents a near-permanent carbon sink that reduces atmospheric CO2. In the soil, biochar increases water retention and crop yields, reducing fertilizer needs. By enhancing plant growth, it thus removes more CO2 from the atmosphere. Because it can be made in simple, homemade devices and on at small scale, biochar production represents a start-up opportunity that can create rural jobs. 

Efforts to compost carbon-based flows so that the nutrients can be returned to the soil are important. But the ability of plants to draw carbon from the air can provide vastly bigger ways to put it back into the soil on a massive scale using biochar.

Holistic management

How much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere can be sequestered via plant photosynthesis in properly managed grasslands and how fast? A lot. And fast.

The grasslands of the world are the second-largest store of naturally sequestered carbon after the oceans. Grasslands co-evolved with massive herds of native grazers, dense packed because predators lurked. The 10-foot-thick black soils of the U.S. Great Plains were massive carbon reserves. Most of that carbon is gone, but can be regenerated.

The Savory Institute restores the vast grasslands of the world through the teaching and practice of holistic management and holistic decision making. The institute enables livestock farmers to turn deserts into thriving grasslands, restore biodiversity, bring water sources back to life and combat poverty and hunger, all while putting an end to global climate change. Holistically managed grazing animals are one of the best ways to reclaim depleted land. It is also one of the more important ways to create healthy communities of soil microorganisms. In turn, this recarbonizes the soil and restores natural nitrogen cycles. It is one of the fastest ways to profitably create the circular economy of the soil.

Holistic management is now successfully practised on more than 40 million acres around the world. Re-establishing the symbiotic balance between healthy soils and herd animals is helping land managers bio-remediate barren land to thriving grasslands. Practitioners have increased soil organic matter from 1 percent to over 11 percent in a decade, while increasing crop yields. This is the route to food security for humanity.

The economics of the circular economy are compelling to companies, while the elegant engineering of biological and technical nutrient material flows inspires environmentalists.

Global restoration of grasslands can re-establish soil integrity and biodiversity as it sequesters massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. Regenerative agriculture can stabilize global climate, restore a balanced hydrological cycle and create meaningful job (particularly in developing countries). It can produce high-quality animal protein without synthetic fertilizers and destructive factory farming. The circular economy of the soil is the route to sustainable living worldwide.

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