The Environmental, Social and Economic Opportunities of Regenerative Organic Agriculture
The impact of agriculture and our food systems is enormous. According to the United Nations, agriculture (including irrigation, livestock and aquaculture) accounts for 69% of annual water withdrawals globally – making it the largest water consumer globally. Meanwhile, land degradation, declining soil fertility, unsustainable water use, overfishing and marine environment degradation are all lessening the ability of the natural resource base to supply food. With nearly 750 million people being exposed to severe levels of food insecurity in 2019, the current state of agriculture and food systems are immediately threatening to the health and resilience of people and the planet.
Fortunately, transforming our agriculture practices and food systems is one of the single strongest opportunities to improve health and equity, restore biodiverse ecosystems and create resilient communities.
Regenerative organic agriculture offers such an opportunity because its ethos goes beyond sustainability. Instead of focusing on sustaining the current balance, it aims to regenerate and improve the soil and other aspects of the agricultural system. Similar to organic agriculture, regenerative agriculture aims to provide habitat for soil life, improve levels of soil organic matter, and enhance biodiversity.
With that said, non-organic regenerative agriculture can involve the use of many substances and practices that are prohibited in organic agriculture. Organic agriculture is conducted without the use of genetically engineered crops or dependence on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, which is why it is important that regenerative practices be woven together with organic practices.
The principal practices of regenerative organic agriculture include reduced tillage; keeping the soil covered as much as possible; providing nutrients and organic matter to the soil in the form of composted manure and plant material; diverse crop rotations incorporating green manures; managed rotational grazing and outdoor access for all livestock; agroforestry, and providing social justice for workers and all other people along the supply chain.
Permits organic matter to be returned to the soil to feed the soil and draw down atmospheric carbon. Unlike excessive tillage which disrupts the microbial networks and natural processes that lead to a good soil structure, reduced tillage increases the soil’s capacity to absorb and store water and nutrients, making it more resilient to erosion, flooding and drought, and less likely to lose nutrients through leaching and erosion.
Improving Soil Fertility
Requires returning organic matter to the soil. This can be done through cover crops, mulches or compost, and by leaving crop residue in the field. When soil is healthy, it cycles nutrients, enhances the nutritional value of crops, and can support a robust crop through the action of soil microbes without any chemical inputs.
Allowing Animals to Graze
Has shown to be one of the best ways to regenerate soil health. When ruminants are moved through the landscape they trample the plants and stimulate growth. Rotation of pastures provides the forage a chance to recover before it is grazed again. The animal manure and crushed leaves add organic matter to the soil and increase productivity of the grasses and depth of their roots.
Practicing Agroforestry, and Growing a Diversity of Crops Including Perennial Crops
Enhances the biodiversity of the landscape. This leads to an increase in the abundance and biodiversity of many life forms including soil microorganisms, wild plants, beneficial insects and songbirds.
Integrating trees into the farm and combining tree crops with vegetable crops or pasture also improves resilience, especially to droughts and floods. Tree roots penetrate deep into the soil and help water percolate to a great depth, and the tree canopy can intercept the rain and reduce the impact of heavy rainfall on the soil.
Overall, these practices all aim to regenerate soil and its biology, thereby allowing it to sequester carbon and mitigate the impact of climate change; improve the water cycle; restore microbial, plant and animal biodiversity; increase soil and crop resilience to erosion, flooding and drought; improve the welfare of livestock; and enhance nutritional quality of crops.
How Can Regenerative Organic Agriculture Help Canada Fulfill Its Commitments to Agenda 2030?
There is a tremendous opportunity for regenerative organic agriculture practices in Canada. To meet various social, economic and environmental needs, regenerative organic agriculture presents the opportunity for Canada to:
- Build resilient communities with strong organic food systems
- Increase access to healthy food & address the root causes of food insecurity
- Support indigenous food sovereignty
- Champion decent work & justice for workers along the food chain
- Seize economic opportunities & reduce inequalities
- Take immediate climate action by sequestering carbon
- Increase biodiversity & improve air,water and soil health.
Implementing and supporting more regenerative organic agriculture practices will enable Canada to address a multitude of Sustainable Development Goals. COG has identified the four that will be most prominently addressed.
Join Canadian Organic Growers in Our Support for Regenerative Organic Practices in Canada!
Regenerating agro-ecosystems is critical for biodiverse, climate-resilient, food-secure and healthy communities now, and for years to come. The social, economic and environmental opportunities for regenerative organic agriculture in Canada are innumerable, and, as we stand at the juncture of simultaneous social, economic and environmental crises, the time to work with nature, for the planet and for ourselves is now.