August 5, 2015
Organic Consumers Association

by Ronnie Cummins

Regeneration: Global Transformation in Catastrophic Times

Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention…. It is not enough to balance, in the medium term, the protection of nature with financial gain, or the preservation of the environment with progress. Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster.  - Pope Francis, Papal Encyclical “Laudato Si,” June 18, 2015

Regenerate—to give fresh life or vigor to; to reorganize; to recreate the moral nature; to cause to be born again.” (New Webster’s Dictionary, 1997)

A growing number of climate, food, environment, health and justice advocates are embracing and promoting a world-changing concept: regeneration.  

What is regeneration? And why are a so many public figures, including Pope Francis, calling for regeneration or revolution, rather than “halfway measures” such as sustainability or mitigation? 

The inconvenient truth of course is that our degenerate “profit-at-any-cost” global economy is killing us. The living Earth—our soils, forests and oceans—and the “rhythms of nature” are unraveling. Greed and selfishness have displaced sharing and cooperation. Land grabs, Empire-building, resource wars, and out-of-control consumerism have become the norm.
Catastrophic times demand radical solutions. It’s time for change, big change.

Our heat-trapping, climate-disrupting, fossil fuel-intensive, industrial agriculture-and deforestation-induced CO2 monster in the sky, now approaching 400 parts per million (ppm), is the most serious threat humans have ever faced. Either we take down King Coal and Big Oil and switch to renewable energy, and simultaneously move, literally suck down, several hundred billion tons of excess carbon from the atmosphere and naturally sequester this CO2 in the soil and forests—through regenerative farming, grazing and land use practices—or we are doomed

According to activist and author Vandana Shiva, “Regenerative agriculture provides answers to the soil crisis, the food crisis, the health crisis, the climate crisis and the crisis of democracy." 

But just what do we mean by Regenerative Agriculture? 

Solving the Soil, Food and Health Crisis

The international community has set itself three important goals: to stop the loss of biodiversity, keep global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, and ensure everyone has the right to adequate food. Without fertile soil, none of these objectives will be achieved. - Soil Atlas: Facts and figures about earth, land and fields, Heinrich Boll Foundation, 2015

The loss of the world’s fertile soil and biodiversity, along with the loss of indigenous seeds and knowledge, pose a mortal threat to our future survival. According to soil scientists, at current rates of soil destruction, (i.e. decarbonization, erosion, desertification, chemical pollution), within 50 years we will not only suffer serious damage to public health due to a qualitatively degraded food supply characterized by diminished nutrition and loss of important trace minerals, but we will literally no longer have enough arable topsoil to feed ourselves. Without protecting and regenerating the soil on our four billion acres of cultivated farmland, 14 billion acres of pasture and rangeland, and 10 billion acres of forest land, it will be impossible to feed the world, keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, or halt the loss of biodiversity.

Healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy animals, healthy forests, healthy oceans, rivers and lakes, healthy people, a healthy climate . . . our physical and economic health, our very survival as a species, depends upon whether or not, and how quickly, we can carry out a global campaign of Regeneration. 

According to a recent policy proposal by the French government, we need to increase plant photosynthesis and carbon sequestration in global soils by at least 0.4 percent each year if we are to head off runaway global warming. 

Tom Newmark of the Carbon Underground explains the basic concept of Regeneration: 

There is a technology that exists today that will suck excess CO2 out of the atmosphere. That technology is called photosynthesis. When I look outside my office window I see plants. Through photosynthesis, plants convert sunlight, CO2 and water to carbohydrates and oxygen. Plants are sucking tens of billions of tons of CO2 and creating plant sugars/carbohydrates. Some plant sugars we eat and some pass through the plant and get converted into humus, soil organic matter. This isn’t rocket science. This is a biological fact.

The soil itself is the largest available sink for CO2. There is more carbon currently sequestered in the living soils of the planet (2,700 billion tons), than there is in the entire atmosphere and biotic community combined (plants, and trees).The bad news is that by ripping up the soil through industrial agriculture abuse, we’ve put excess CO2 into the atmosphere.

The good news is that if we farm and ranch in harmony with carbon cycles, we can put carbon back in the soil—quickly. Scientists say that we can get back to 350 ppm in 10 years. All we have to do is increase soil organic matter in all grasslands on the planet by one percent. That is all we need to do to bring it back to 350 ppm. Nature can fix this problem that humans have created.

Along with educating ourselves and our community, we must utilize marketplace pressure to change our degenerate food and farming systems. We must boycott the fossil fuel-emitting, soil-destroying, climate-destructive products of industrial agriculture and the junk food industry. We must support those farmers and businesses whose products regenerate our health, our soils and our forests. Marketplace pressure, public education, and public policy change must go hand-in-hand.

recent article in the Guardian summarizes Regenerative Agriculture this way:

Regenerative agriculture comprises an array of techniques that rebuild soil and, in the process, sequester carbon. Typically, it uses cover crops and perennials so that bare soil is never exposed, and grazes animals in ways that mimic animals in nature. It also offers ecological benefits far beyond carbon storage: it stops soil erosion, remineralises soil, protects the purity of groundwater and reduces damaging pesticide and fertiliser runoff.

The benefits of raising and grazing beef cattle, sheep, goats, dairy cows, poultry and pigs “in ways that mimic nature” are many. These practices are more humane, they rebuild soil fertility and they sequester carbon in the soil. 

But there’s another important benefit to these techniques, one that is driving consumers away from factory farm foods. These practices produce animal products that are qualitatively healthier than CAFO products, because they are higher in Omega 3 and “good” fats, and lower in animal drug residues and harmful fats that clog arteries, destroy gut health and cause cancer.

Our agricultural soils have lost 25-75 percent of the soil carbon they once held in storage before the onslaught of industrial agricultural and destructive land use practices. The most important task of our generation is Regeneration: to put this dislodged, heat-trapping atmospheric carbon back into the soil and forests, where it belongs.

The Climate Crisis: Halfway Solutions Are Not Enough

Unfortunately, the current climate change movement up until now has focused almost exclusively on reducing fossil fuel emissions. There has been little or no mention of the critical role soil and forests play as carbon sinks or repositories for excess CO2 in the atmosphere. 

Reducing fossil fuel emissions to zero over the next few decades, as called for by climate activist leaders such as Naomi Klein and, will solve half the problem, but only half. By the time we reach zero emissions under this “50-percent solution” scenario, even the most optimistic projections are that we’ll get down to 450 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, a level that will detonate runaway global warming, and catastrophic climate change. 

So widespread is this fixation on fossil fuel emissions that even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the upcoming Paris Climate Summit have yet to recognize soil and soil regeneration practices as important carbon sinks. Yet there is a growing body of scientific evidence to support the idea that Regenerative Organic Agriculture, grazing, reforestation and land use practices, scaled up globally, could not only mitigate, but actually, over several decades, reverse global warming. 

We need to embrace the regenerative “100-percent solution” if we want to get back down to the safe level of 350 ppm or lower, as soon as possible. And we need to pressure the IPCC and national governments to acknowledge the importance of carbon sequestration through regenerative land use practices.

A number of critics have told me and others that we should not talk about natural sequestration of CO2 in the soil, nor the enormous regenerative potential of organic food, farming and forestry, because this “positive talk” will distract people from the main task at hand, drastically reducing fossil fuel emissions and taking down King Coal and Big Oil. Of course we need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels, extractivism and over-consumption into conservation, sustainable living and renewable energy. We must all become climate activists and radical conservationists. 

But we must also become advocates of Regenerative Organic Agriculture and forest/land use.

Unite the Food, Forest and Climate Movements

The large and growing anti-GMO, organic food and natural health movement must begin to think of itself as a movement that can fix not only the world’s health and hunger crisis, but the climate as well.  Given that the degenerate GMO, factory farm and industrial food and farming system as a whole (production, chemical crop inputs, processing, transportation, waste, emissions, deforestation, biofuel/ethanol production) is the number one cause of greenhouse gas emissions, surpassing even the transportation, utilities, housing and industry sectors, climate activists need to start thinking of themselves as food, farming and natural health activists as well.

There will be no organic food, nor food whatsoever, on a burnt planet. Nor will there ever be a 90-percent reduction in greenhouse gas pollution without a transformation of our food and farming and land use practices, both in North America and globally.

We must begin to connect the dots between fossil fuels, global warming and related issues, including world hunger, poverty, unemployment, toxic food and farming, extractivism, land grabbing, biodiversity, ocean destruction, deforestation, resource wars, and deteriorating public health. As we regenerate the soil and forests, and make organic and grass-fed food and fiber the norm, rather than just the alternative, we will simultaneously develop our collective capacity to address all of the globe’s interrelated problems.

The extraordinary thing about de-industrializing food and farming, restoring grasslands and reversing deforestation—moving several hundred billion tons of carbon back from the atmosphere into our soils, plants and forests—is that this regeneration process will not only reverse global warming and re-stabilize the climate, but will also stimulate hundreds of millions of rural (and urban) jobs, while qualitatively increasing soil fertility, water retention, farm yields and food quality.

Regeneration holds the potential not only to restore forests and grasslands, recharge aquifers, restore and normalize rainfall, but also to address and eliminate rural malnutrition, poverty, unemployment and hunger. 

So who will carry out this global Regeneration Revolution? 

Of course we must continue, and in fact vastly increase, our pressure on governments and corporations to change public policies and marketplace practices. But in order to overturn “business-as-usual” we must inspire and mobilize a vastly larger climate change coalition than the one we have now. Food, climate, and economic justice advocates must unite our forces so we can educate and mobilize a massive grassroots army of Earth Regenerators: three billion small farmers and rural villagers, ranchers, pastoralists, forest dwellers, urban agriculturalists, and indigenous communities—aided and abetted by several billion conscious consumers and urban activists. 

The time is late. Circumstances are dire. But we still have time to regenerate the Earth and the body politic.

Ronnie Cummins is international director of the Organic Consumers Association and its Mexico affiliate, Via Organica. He is also a member of the steering committee for the newly formed Regeneration International. 

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  • If you have done a PDC or just read a little more deeply into permaculture this article will resonant. Of course how many people having done a PDC actually 'walk the talk' and completely embrace the full permaculture lifestyle needed to 'regenerate' the planet? This essay "Crash on Demand" by David Holmgren, co-founder of permaculture, explores a more radical way of furnishing this change. Not a light read but very interesting if you are into this. 

  • Nature will find a balance.  You can let her do it gently, or she'll do it to you.  She has no sense of guilt so don't expect her to feel sorry for you.  

    If you've looked at your water or power bill in the last 10 years, you can already see it happening.  Things that were once "givens" and pretty much "free" are no longer so.   Frankly, they should never have been.  Water is precious in a place like Australia, and fossil fuels are not renewable. 

    I was once struck by the logic of the British Government in WW2.  They only ever needed to put rationing into place on the most common essential goods.  The price of luxuries served far better than any quota. Clever/"not exceptionally poor" folks in those days established "kitchen gardens", just like most of BLF.   It's an interesting analogy. 

    (and by the way, that's a really bad HDR image they've used for this article.  Just saying.)

    • It's the one that came with the article :)

      • Yeah, I knew that Lissa.  I just couldn't help notice how badly they slaughtered the poor thing. 

        • I thought the idea with the pic was that it look uber-idealistic. Glossy ultra bright colours, rainbow. Making farming look utopian. It's like a bit of black humour considering the dire straights the earth is in.

          Then again, maybe they just mangled it.

  • I got a whiff of it from the text as Cummins skirts a few issues with his broad strokes.

    Ronnie Cummins is executive director, Organic Consumers Association; former director, Jeremy Rifkin’s Beyond Beef Campaign & Pure Food Campaign...

    My point is that there is no way that this sort of change can be driven through just growing food plants.The whole 'beyond beef' thing (driven as it is by US corn obsessed factory farming) misses the broader picture. Rangelands means we gotta graze animals as well as grow things to harvest. And, as Allan Savory points out, that's a huge part of the picture. In Australia, carbon sequestration  is driven by the moods of the outback -- not by the amount of  land under cultivation around our cities or in the Murray Darling Basin.

    It has to be bringing back the bush ...and not allowing it to burn as much as it currently is being burnt...and respecting the role of what's there now. While conscious carbon horticulture can play a role, so too can conscious carbon grazing.

    In Australia that's more important.

    When we hit a drought the soil carbon budget is savaged.

    Cummins also argues:

    A number of critics have told me and others that we should not talk about natural sequestration of CO2 in the soil, nor the enormous regenerative potential of organic food, farming and forestry, because this “positive talk” will distract people from the main task at hand, drastically reducing fossil fuel emissions and taking down King Coal and Big Oil. Of course we need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels, extractivism and over-consumption into conservation, sustainable living and renewable energy. We must all become climate activists and radical conservationists. But we must also become advocates of Regenerative Organic Agriculture and forest/land use.

    Well, I think that's very real. Indeed it underscores Tony Abbott's excuse to denigrate renewables through the absurd Direct Action program... and folk like the Carbon Coalition are in sync. The argument is that we can have our carbon cake and eat it too.

    In Australia there are many elements in the carbon sequestration  movement who argue that sequestrating carbon will save us and we don't have to fret over the issue of rushing to renewables.

    For instance, while we may all angst over how much carbon is taken in by our vegey gardens, land clearing in Queensland has trippled over the last 5 years.

    Australia already has alarmingly high rates of land clearing. And Queensland is responsible for more land clearing each year than any other state.

    My point is all about smoke and mirrors.Growing  veges or not eating meat will not save the planet.  Drastically cutting carbon emissions, reducing overall wasteful consumption, shifting to sustainable transport and housing ... and bringing back the vegetation cut down over the decades has a chance of long as it is done on a world wide scale starting with the main culprits -- countries like Australia whose carbon emissions per head are among the highest in the world.

    • And what is overlooked by fossil fuel advocates world-wide is that we will run out of fossil fuel. This century, next century. Run out we surely will.

      • This is a great overview of the situation in Australia today in regard to energy production and our collective carbon emissions. If you allow for some spin -- especially form the pro nuclear lobby -- the potential and challenges are tagged in this very useful series.
        What's presumed, however, is a market driven future which means that there are a lot of maybes in the mix offered.
        What's clear is that there are enough sustainable energy options out there to power many Australias: wind, solar, wave, hot rock...
        But any one can see that nuclear is a dead option already....and that there is no long term future in coal or gas, despite the current obsession with extraction. A series well worth the listen for its up-to date assessment:

        Just an addition: while I suggest that growing veg won's save the planet, I think growing your own veg draws you into the ecology and engages you in the much broader climate change challenge through your engagement with the soil. Its' the best Climate Change University you could attend and it's outback and under your feet.

  • Thank you so much for sharing this article.  It gives great hope for the future of the planet - that it can be vastly improved with plants and soil care.  It can make us feel good that we are contributing a little way towards this wonderful cause with our organic planting and soil care practices and feel motivated to keep striving towards this goal with renewed vigour.  I will have to research which local farmers practice these methods, in order to support them.

  • I've only had time to read the tempter for this before I leave for work, but it looks like a very interesting article. I like this Pope.

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