Regenerative agriculture’s role in repairing ecosystems

Working with farmers, not against, to fight climate change

If you drive through the Cariboo-Chilcotin region in B.C. between May and September, you’re likely to see large herds of cattle roaming outside of fences, often causing roadblocks as they haphazardly cross the highway. They’re happily grazing in meadows, while calves play with each other and bulls kick up dust.

The calves are born in the spring, grow up on the range over the summer, and are sold at an auction in the fall. In the summer, ranchers lease crown land—land owned by the provincial government—for their cattle to feed off while farmers are busy haying their own fields for winter feed.

I grew up on one of these ranches in the Cariboo. My summer days consisted of changing irrigation pipes, picking rocks off fields, puttering around on a 1980-something tractor, raking hay, and going out into the range to check on the herd.

When I was a teenager, I decided to quit eating meat. Selling calves in the fall was one of my least favourite things—I always became too attached to them over the course of the summer, and my attention had been drawn to the increasing amount of literature and documentaries about the harmful environmental impacts of meat consumption.

However, the narratives and stories presented in such documentaries were contradictory to what I knew. Later, when I went to university, the conversations on agriculture I heard often lacked one of the most important perspectives: those of the farmers themselves.

The way I grew up raising cattle is not what you’ll see when watching agriculture documentaries like Cowspirarcy, but it is what’s typical of the B.C. beef industry, where the majority of the industry are cow-calf operations. They’re located in the Cariboo, Thompson-Okanagan, Nechako, and Peace River regions.

Over 4000 ranches are in operation, accounting for 4.3 to 5 per cent of Canada’s cattle population. Many of them are run by hard-working families like my own, working long-hours 365 days a year to feed Canadians and scrape together a living.

Still, agriculture, especially livestock, is a huge contributor to climate change. In Canada, 10 percent of greenhouse gases (GHGs) come from crop and livestock production. This doesn’t account for food imports from other countries, nor food distribution. Worldwide, total emissions from global livestock account for 14.5 per cent of human-made GHG emissions. Cattle are responsible for the most, accounting for 65 per cent of the livestock sectors emissions.

Further, the global increase of beef consumption has directly correlated with the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. Up to 5,800 square kilometers of forest in the Amazon and other areas are being deforested annually, to be converted to grassland for cattle farming.

What is regenerative agriculture?

However environmentally destructive the raising of livestock is in the Amazon, it doesn’t need to be that way in B.C. Natural grasslands already exist—they just need to be properly managed.

This can be done by utilizing regenerative agriculture farming practices, which improve the farmland’s ecosystem while simultaneously producing food.

Agriculture accounts for roughly three per cent of B.C.’s total emissions, with the majority coming from enteric fermentation in livestock—the digestive process by which carbohydrates are broken down by microorganisms into simple molecules—as well as manure management and agricultural soils.

To offset these emissions and create beneficial ecosystem services, farmers and ranchers can use regenerative agricultural practices, such as nutrient management plans.

Emma Bryce, a hog, goat, and laying-hen farmer from Chilliwack, B.C., sees potential in these practices. Where conventional agriculture’s outcome is solely production, sustainable agriculture works to prevent land degradation.

Regenerative agriculture takes it one step further.

“When you’re farming, you’re actually looking to benefit and [be] regenerative [in] every aspect of the ecosystem that you’re working in,” Bryce explained in an interview with The Pigeon.

The key is having healthy soil.

When farming regeneratively, Bryce explained that “[you’re] trying to pick out different activities you can do that will benefit the soil […] versus harming it.”

Tilling, repeatedly growing the same type of crop—called a mono-crop—in one field, excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides, leaving fields bare without any grasses or tarps to cover them, and overgrazing are all examples of agriculture practices that disturb the soil and release its stored carbon into the atmosphere.

Most crops are annuals, meaning they are planted on a yearly basis. After they are harvested, their fields are often left bare until the next planting season, allowing carbon to release into the atmosphere.

Better agriculture land-use management, such as crop rotation and planting a diverse set of perennials with deeper roots that grow back on their own each year, minimized tillage, covering bare fields, and rotational grazing are all methods of improving soil health.

“The healthier your soil, the more carbon sequestration potential it has,” Bryce said. “So, if your soil has a really good bacterial community, you’ve got grazing animals on it, and you’ve got a nice perennial pasture crop on there [which is] what is going to take your carbon in […] the soil has a chance to sequester that carbon.”

How does soil store carbon?

Plants need carbon, taken from the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide, for photosynthesis, which is how they produce their own energy. In turn, animals eat plants—or eat animals that have eaten plants—to get their own energy.

Plants sequester carbon through photosynthesis. They use energy from the sun to take carbon from the air and fuse it with hydrogen to make carbohydrates, while keeping some carbon in their leaves, shoots, and stems.

The roots feed the carbohydrates to dirt-bound fungi and the fungi feed minerals back to the plant. The longer a plant’s roots are, the deeper it can sequester carbon in the soil, thereby creating a carbon sink.

Studies have shown the potential of sequestering carbon through regenerative agriculture.

A 2017 study even explicitly states it should be used as a tool in achieving the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, a global commitment to reach less than 2 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the 21st Century by lowering global emissions.

With the 2019 Report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emphasizing the importance of immediate action to reach that goal, regenerative agriculture might be a critical step.

While the methods of regenerative agriculture differ depending on the ecosystem in which farmers and ranchers are working, Bryce emphasized the importance of trying to steer clear of chemical inputs, such as fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.

“Every time that you use some sort of synthetic or chemical input […] you’re lessening the count of microbiology in your soil and you’re decreasing the diversity of organisms that are actually living in your soil.”

This biodiversity is critical to overall soil health. By using regenerative agriculture practices, farmers and ranchers might be able to cease their use of chemicals, potentially regenerating healthy soil.

Challenges regenerative agriculture faces

As promising as regenerative agriculture sounds, there are many challenges for those who are trying to implement it.

Hellen Bayliff operates a cattle ranch in the Cariboo-Chilcotin with over 350 animals. For several years, her family has been experimenting with regenerative farming practices to improve their soil quality.

Bayliff and her late husband, Hugh, had been looking for ways to improve their field quality without using chemicals since the early 2000s. It was a frustrating process, and they saw a decline in the output of hay from their fields.

They were first introduced to regenerative agriculture when they attended a soil grazing conference in 2017.

“It was amazing,” Bayliff told The Pigeon. “We got so excited […] we were going to try [regenerative agriculture practices].”

Since then, they have planted different varieties of perennials, tried intensive rotational grazing of their fields, and protected different wetlands on their property. On their range, they move their cattle intensively through the different meadows.

Intensive rotational grazing helps with carbon sequestration by moving herds to new pastures after a quick grazing spurt, ensuring fields aren’t overgrazed while also spreading manure to fertilize the soil.

The idea behind rotational grazing is that it mimics the natural grazing patterns of grazing animals, such as bison. Even though bison are not native to the Chilcotin, “Grasslands in general… respond well to [grazing animals],” Bayliff explained.

However, the Bayliff family has found their productivity rates have decreased. Without the use of fertilizers, their soil has been low in nitrogen. In efforts to mitigate this, they planted perennials high in nitrogen, such as clover, to try and feed more nutrients into the soil. They plan to keep experimenting with 50 acres of land to find what best works within their ecosystem.

This process of trial and error isn’t cheap, and ranching is already a difficult industry to stay afloat.

“It’s very expensive [to implement these practices],” Bayliff said.

She thinks that farmers should be compensated for their eco-conscious services, to make the prospect of regenerative agriculture more appealing.

“There’s so much research [that says] if you do these beneficial practices, the carbon goes up in the soil. So, clearly, we should be encouraging [farmers and ranchers] to do these practices […] and [paying] them for it,” she said.

“Because we’re not getting enough money from the market, and the markets are very unstable,” she continued.

One method of paying farmers for carbon sequestration is to bring them into carbon markets.

“[Carbon markets] have members or customers that are buying carbon credits to offset their pollution. They can buy it from people who are sequestering carbon so that might be farmers or ranchers,” Bayliff said.

Currently, a Federal Greenhouse Gas Offset System is in the works, where approaches for quantifying GHG emissions reductions are being developed. Adopting land-use practices to promote carbon sequestration on farmland is listed as a priority project type.

Sean Smukler, the Principle Investigator for the Sustainable Agriculture Landscapes Lab at the University of British Columbia, agrees that farmers and ranchers need more support

“The reality is that we put too much of the way we produce food onto the shoulders of farmers,” he said in an interview with The Pigeon.

“We have to work together to develop practices that […] make it so the farmers can make a decent living. They need to feel like they have a livelihood that they can pass onto the next generation.”

Another challenge to the regenerative agriculture movement is the growing demand for meat. Spanning a global market, it is something regenerative farmers and ranchers likely cannot supply.

“The challenge becomes what the demand is for that particular product,” Smukler explained. “The reality is that there are a lot of people on the planet, and a lot of them are eating a fair amount of meat.”

“We could raise beef in a way that clearly doesn’t damage the environment by having just a few cows in wildland systems […] but it’s not enough meat to feed the people that are demanding meat.”

The urgency of the issue

Despite the urgency of the climate crisis, industries and global leaders have yet to take sufficient action, including in agriculture.

“We need a Manhattan project. We need a [COVID-19] vaccine project. This is the scale of the problem. And we’re, like, putting pennies into the solution,” Smuckler said.

It is a complicated issue. With different agricultural ideas and studies contradicting each other and practices that work well in some locations not working in others, there is no universal answer. An effective solution will require contributions from every corner.

“I really see this as a joint venture. It’s got to be a combination of efforts from scientists, from farmers, from the consumers, from [the] government,” Smuckler said.

“This is a shared responsibility.”

Hanna Hett is a freelance writer who currently is living in Vancouver, B.C. She has lived, studied, and worked in Latin America, West Africa, and the Middle East. You can find her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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