Last week, in the midst of the presidential debates and general 2020 madness (can this year be over already), I was in the mood for something hopeful. So I sat down with a bowl of Rocky Road and watched Kiss the Ground, Netflix’s latest documentary venture into the world of sustainability. I was immediately comforted by the sound of Woody Harrelson’s familiar Southern drawl as he relatably states that “There’s so much bad news about our planet; it’s overwhelming. It puts most of us into a state of paralysis….but what if there was another path?” My ears pricked up. Yes, tell us, Woody! I need this! What followed was a flurry of beautiful visuals and celebrity cameos that paint a very rosy picture of the new hot topic in the world of sustainability: regenerative farming.
The term “regenerative farming” is built on the concept that soil, when healthy and full of tiny, living microbes, has the ability to absorb large amounts of carbon through plants. Plants pull carbon from the air and release it into the soil. This process, known as carbon sequestration, is very intriguing, especially considering the enormous amounts of damaging carbon emissions we put into the atmosphere every year. This carbon dioxide, mostly emitted by burning fossil fuels, has formed an invisible layer around the Earth, trapping heat in our atmosphere and essentially turning up the worldwide thermostat.
Unfortunately, a large part of the world is desertifying, or turning to desert. This leaves dead, chalky soil that isn’t capable of growing or absorbing much of anything, not to mention that it can easily be washed or blown away. Kiss the Ground introduces farming practices that aim to breathe life back into the soil, through four main practices: growing cover crops, crop diversification, no tillage, and managed grazing. If you don’t speak farmer, read on for what each of these mean.
Regenerative Farming Practices
1. No tilling
Tilling is the practice of turning over the top layer of soil to prepare it for planting crops, forming long rows like the one in this picture. The problem with this is that it also shakes carbon loose from the soil and back into the atmosphere, which adds to carbon emissions. It also destroys the microbial ecosystems in the soil that make it so rich, and increases evaporation, i.e. water leaving the soil. We don’t want that.
2. Crop diversification
This simply means planting different kinds of crops in the same field, and there are a boatload of benefits to this one. Different crops attract different bugs, who naturally keep each other’s populations in check. This, ideally, keeps pests from swarming and becoming a problem, therefore reducing the need for pesticides. Another benefit is that if one crop is destroyed by disease, the farmer has other crops to fall back on, instead of being completely reliant on just one. (5) Different crops also offer different kinds of nutrients to the soil, significantly increasing the soil’s enrichment.
Netflix. “JMraz_walking_orchard”. 2020. jpg file.
3. Cover Crops
A cover crop is planted to simply cover the soil rather than being harvested, acting as a sort of placeholder while the harvest crop is out of season. Why bother, you ask? Plants’ roots hang onto soil and keep it in place, preventing it from washing or blowing away, otherwise known as soil erosion. Ever heard of the Dust Bowl? Back in the 1930’s, much of America’s farmland essentially turned into dust because of soil erosion. It was bad news.
Cover crops also keep the soil shaded and cool, protecting the carbon that it’s storing. They also excrete organic compounds that enrich the soil and keep those beneficial microbes living within it thriving. When it’s time for the harvest crop to be planted, the soil is ready and in good condition, having been protected and fed by the cover crop in the off season. Cover crops can also be used to graze livestock, which brings us to the fourth method.
4. Managed grazing
Livestock, when kept from overgrazing, can speed up the soil regeneration process. They trample the plants and their own manure onto the soil’s surface. This both spreads and presses these nutrient-rich materials into the soil, so that the soil can then absorb it. Manure is essentially a ball of microbes, which is highly beneficial to the soil. These added nutrients help the soil produce bigger, stronger plants that are capable of pulling more carbon out of the atmosphere.
Kiss the Ground. “Cows Grazing”. 2020. jpg file.
When used in concert, these methods, according to Kiss the Ground, can pull down a jaw-droppingly massive amount of carbon from the atmosphere. If widely adopted, they could not only make the agriculture sector carbon neutral, but also greatly reduce the need for the supposed big bads of industrial farming- pesticides, chemical sprays, and GMO’s. GMO’s are genetically modified organisms- crops that have been genetically altered for a variety of reasons, such as to survive the chemicals that they’re sprayed with, or just to increase their size and durability.
Kiss the Ground also reveals how the government heavily subsidizes the three major U.S. crops- soybeans, hay, and corn- to industrial farmers. Most of these government-subsidized crops are GMO’s that are dependent on chemical sprays and pesticides. The farmers then become dependent on these reduced prices and added farming equipment, and cannot farm without them. This creates a huge dependency on the government, and a dependency on only three crops. That leaves farmers vulnerable if anything happens to whichever crop they grow in a given year. Kiss the Ground claims that American farmers could increase their profits by $100 billion and eliminate their need for subsidies if they only adopt regenerative practices.
By the time I had finished the film, I was buzzing. Could the answer to all of our climate woes really be this simple? I truly wanted to believe Ian Somerhalder and his sparkling blue eyes (Yes, Damon from Vampire Diaries is in a climate change documentary), but I decided to do some of my own research. What I found was, though still promising, much more complex than Kiss the Ground makes it seem.
What’s the Catch?
Firstly, the film portrays industrial farmers as grumpy old-timers who are resistant to soil regeneration practices, and are only held back by their own skepticism. This ignores the complicated web of market pressures and faulty federal policies, such as the heavy government subsidies most farmers are reliant on, that have held industrial agriculture in place for so long. These aren’t broken free from as easily as a farmer’s change of heart. The film glosses over the immense financial risk it takes to make such a drastic change in farming techniques. An industrial farmer is in charge of a huge amount of cropland, making the risk still larger. A regenerative farm isn’t established overnight, and the film doesn’t address how farmers can financially take on this transition. Help with this transition must come from the government and public programs.
There is also a noticeable lack of hard scientific evidence that regenerative farming can work on a global scale, as the film claims. The World Resources Institute, a global organization whose purpose is to research what the world must do to achieve sustainability, recently issued the “World Resources Report: Creating a Sustainable Future”. This report outlines twenty-two ways to cut worldwide emissions by two thirds while also feeding the human population of the future up to the year 2050 (which is projected to be a whopping 10 billion!). However, their report found limited potential for carbon sequestration in the soil through regenerative farming.
According to Janet Ranganathan, Vice President for Science and Research at WRI, “regenerative agriculture can improve soil health and yield some valuable environmental benefits, but are unlikely to achieve large-scale emissions reductions.” She and her colleagues boil down the reasons why into four main points.
1. The jury is still out on how exactly soil holds carbon.
Science’s understanding of what actually keeps carbon sequestered in the soil is inconclusive, and so it’s uncertain how regenerative farming practices can increase it. In fact, there is an ongoing debate in the scientific community about whether no-tillage, one of the main practices of regenerative agriculture, is actually as effective at promoting carbon storage as the movement claims. Supporters of no-till haven’t addressed a large amount of experimental evidence that shows that with no-tillage, the amount of increased organic carbon in soil is actually fairly small. Further, soil’s carbon sequestration potential varies depending on the climate and the amount of precipitation in an area, whether it be croplands, savannas, or forests.
2. Incomplete carbon measurement.
The second problem is flawed carbon measurement. These calculations frequently leave out the effects of carbon emissions coming from outside of the farm.
An example of this is crop residue, or the remaining parts of a crop that are left in the field after harvest. In many places, especially Africa, this is used as animal feed, but there is a limited supply of it. If it is used to increase a farm’s soil carbon instead of feeding animals, the farm may need to have crop residue brought in from elsewhere to feed its animals. That creates an increased demand for crop residue, because it’s now being used for two things instead of one. This increased demand could cause farmers to expand their cropland into forests or grasslands in order to grow more animal feed. This will release the carbon that those wild plants were storing, as well as disrupt natural ecosystems. Yikes!
Sinclair, Cambria. “Carbon Graphic”. 2020. jpg file.
3. Lots of nitrogen is needed for soil to hold carbon.
A third misgiving is the amount of nitrogen required for soil to hold onto carbon for an extended period of time. And by the way, soil can’t hold onto carbon permanently. Scientists agree that carbon has to be changed into microbial organic matter in order for the soil to hang onto it. That conversion requires about one ton of nitrogen for every 12 tons of carbon that the soil sequesters. That’s a lot of nitrogen, and some of it would have to be applied to the field by the farmer. They would have to do this through either fertilizer or legumes (fun fact, legumes can generate nitrogen!), and a lot of the nitrogen would inevitably escape into waterways, where it could boost the growth of algae and cause water pollution.
Worse, some would get converted by the soil into nitrous oxide, which is a particularly nasty greenhouse gas. Suffice it to say, the nitrogen factor in soil sequestration is problematic.
4. How to make this usable over millions of acres.
The fourth and final reason named by Ranganathan and her WRI colleagues is scaling cover crops to cover millions of acres. She recognizes that there are strong studies that suggest that if widely adopted, cover crops really could pull down an astonishing amount of carbon. The hurdles to this are practical, like the fact that currently, cover crops only cover about 4% of US cropland, and would need to cover about 85% to have the effects promised by the studies. There are also increased costs for farmers and a tight window of time to get them growing before winter comes, time that many farmers don’t have.
Largely because of these four points, and a general lack of scientific backing, the gargantuan claims that Kiss the Ground makes about regenerative farming’s potential to reduce carbon emissions “aren’t plausible…based on current evidence” according to WRI.
What it adds up to:
It seems that Kiss the Ground has leapt out ahead of science in its enthusiasm for what regenerative farming can do. That’s not to say that its practices aren’t highly valuable tools in the fight to reduce the effects of climate change. They most certainly are, and they deserve more government-funded research. Presidential candidate, Joe Biden, has even included this in his proposed climate change plan (shameless reminder to vote, people!). Unfortunately, there is no single, simple solution to climate change, and we can’t quite throw our hats in the air yet. It will take a multi-pronged approach, of which regenerative farming is just one part.