It is a well known fact that agriculture is one of the biggest drivers of climate change, accounting for 35% of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 (source epa.ie) Since the end of the second world war farming systems have become more and more intensified, working against nature rather than with it. Where nature seeks to promote diversity among species, conventional modern day agriculture is based on a system of monocultures. There is growing concern for the wellbeing of nature, our health and the climate, that is causing people to think differently about our approach to food production.
Biodiversity is a word that’s bandied around a lot these days but what does it mean and why is it important? Biodiversity is the variety of animal and plant species that exist in an area, including microorganisms like bacteria. It is what makes up our natural world. Each of these species and organisms work together in ecosystems to maintain balance and support life. Biodiversity supports everything in nature that we need to survive but intensive farming systems and excessive use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers are threatening extinction for many species of plant and animal. The World Wildlife Fund’s 2018 Living Planet Report found an average 60% decline in global populations of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians since 1970.
Biodiversity boosts ecosystem productivity where each species, no matter how small, all have an important role to play. For example, A larger number of plant species means a greater variety of crops. Greater species diversity ensures natural sustainability for all life forms.
Regenerative agriculture is a new movement that can change how we farm, so that we can take better care of our planet and replenish our soils. Although agriculture is a key driver of climate change, it is being touted by many as a key climate solution. Regenerative agriculture seeks to promote soil health by storing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the soil than it would under a conventional system. More organic carbon in soils leads to better plant health, which leads to better sequestration of carbon dioxide in a positive feedback loop. This feedback loop also has the added benefit of requiring fewer inputs, in the form of fertilisers and pesticides, to achieve the same level of output. It increases the sequestration of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere whilst decreasing the cost of production for farmers. It’s a win win!
Regenerative farming systems include careful livestock grazing management where ruminants naturally aerate the ground, fertilize the soil and encourage biodiversity. They also incorporate no-till farming, organic composting and ecological aquaculture (water management.) This can lead to reduced greenhouse gases, and more economical yields for farmers, making conscious use of earth’s natural resources and animals’ natural habits to rebalance the carbon cycle.
A shift to a regenerative system is readily achievable for most farmers, and requires little investment. For example, where farmers once ploughed their fields, releasing stored carbon back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, farmers adopting a regenerative system of production would instead direct drill their seeds for next year’s crop into the previous year’s stubble. A regenerative farmer might also plant cover crops, such as legumes and clover, that build up, naturally, the amount of nitrogen in the soil. More nitrogen in the soil means less fertiliser being applied by the farmer, which means less cost to the farmer, and fewer greenhouse gases being emitted to the atmosphere – the production of fertilisers is another key source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Companies and policymakers are increasingly aware of the myriad positives that regenerative agriculture can bring. Nestle, the global consumer products powerhouse, for example, is planning to source 50% of its key ingredients from regenerative agricultural systems by 2030. Bayer, the global chemical company, is currently working to launch a platform where farmers can receive financial incentives for actively increasing the amount of carbon dioxide stored in their soils. And, finally, the European Commission has laid out its plans to enhance biodiversity in the bloc, with regenerative and sustainable agricultural practices firmly at the core of its agricultural and green policies. It seems, therefore, as the global approach to climate change and now biodiversity becomes more targeted and unified, that regenerative agriculture will just be not a passing trend, but the future of how we produce our food.
Of course regenerative farming is just one part of the solution to not only reduce carbon emissions but also feed the growing world population. The current level of fish, meat and dairy consumption is not sustainable and we must shift to more plant-based diets and we must stop rearing animals in factories, feeding them on imported foods that we could eat ourselves. In Ireland we are not food secure at all, importing the bulk of our fruit and vegetables, cereals and grains. In 2019 Ireland imported 3.2 million tons of animal feed from 67 countries including Argentina and Brazil, and over half of these were genetically modified (GM). Two thirds of all animal feed is imported with the main commodities being maize and maize byproducts, soyabean meal and soya hulls, and rapeseed meal. Up to 90% of the soyabean and maize products are imported from Argentina, Brazil, and the USA with the bulk being from GM crops.
Our pig, poultry, and dairy sectors are particularly dependent on imports of GM soybean and GM maize by-products. The reliance on these crops has contributed to large areas of land, rainforests in particular, being depleted for crop production, leading to large scale loss of biodiversity, habitat and the predicted extinction of one million species of plants and animals in areas such as the Amazon rainforest. Conditions in Ireland are not well suited to the growing of soyabean and grain maize, the most common feed protein sources, but we can grow other protein sources and, coupled with a significant decrease in the amount of livestock and a ban on factory farms we can become food secure and more carbon efficient.
The CAP (Common Agriculture Policy) came under review in 2020 and there were high hopes that climate change would be top of the agenda with a revision of supports and incentives to encourage farmers to move away from large-scale, intensive systems to systems that support biodiversity, improve soil health and have much higher animal welfare with more extensive systems followed. However, whilst there are some improvements and positives it falls short of where we need to be. Powerful farming lobby groups with vested interests in intensive animal agriculture stepped in and last minute changes were made. You can read more about it here Arc2020
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