There is broad agreement in the scientific community that in order to rein in climate change and ensure global food security, our food system has to undergo a deep transformation. As it stands today, it is responsible for roughly half of the greenhouse gas emissions worldwide (with estimates ranging between 44 and 57%). (1)
At the same time, it produces rapid land degradation that has a negative impact on at least 3.2 billion lives already, while costing over 10% of the annual global gross product in loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, and creating a critical risk for future food security. (2)
When we look at the food system’s enormous carbon footprint, we see many culprits beyond agricultural production. They include processing, packaging, transport, retail and waste. The ways in which they produce CO2, predominantly through energy use and methane release, have received their fair share of press in recent years.
There is, however, a seemingly innocuous jargon that is less talked about, yet it is responsible for the third of all emissions: “land use change.” To understand the pivotal role that regenerative agriculture can play in transforming our food system, it is important to look at what changing land use means in practice, and how it contributes to global warming.
The top meter of the soil and the vegetation that grows on it holds over 3 trillion tons of carbon, most of it in organic matter. This is roughly four times the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere.(3)
Land use change means releasing this carbon into the air primarily through deforestation, but also through killing organisms in the soil (which are carbon based, just like we are) with chemical inputs and ploughing.
How fast this may happen varies greatly — soils in temperate climates lose 30-50% of their organic carbon after 50 years of cultivation. In tropical climates, however, the same can happen in a mere decade.(4) This is part of the reason why whatever we do as a fresh fruit company that sources much of its produce from the tropics matters so much.
Already at the historic Paris Climate Summit in 2015 a strong case was made for sequestering carbon by changing agriculture, and there were countries and companies who pledged to do so. At the time however, the focus of most participants rested firmly on the transition to renewable energy.
Today, the global community is becoming increasingly aware that while that is needed, it is not sufficient. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, without removing carbon from the atmosphere, we will most probably not be able to limit global warming to 1.5°C. (5)
We have to vastly increase nature’s capacity to bring carbon back into the soil. Evidence is mounting that that is possible, and that agriculture has to play a key role. The only way it can fulfil its potential, however, is through regeneration.
The impact of regenerative practices on climate change are manifold. Estimates vary quite broadly, but in the most optimistic yet still realistic scenario, when regenerative agriculture is adopted widely, croplands and pastures may sequester over 13 of the roughly 50 gigatons of CO2 that the world economy emits each year. (6)
While soils erode faster in the tropics, once we committed to managing them well, their sequestration potential can also be several times higher than that of regenerative systems in temperate climates. This is especially true for the kind of semi-arid regions where much of our fruit comes from.
What is also abundantly clear is that the presence of trees can multiply sequestration per hectare, (7) so agroforestry and the types of perennial fruits that we work with have an outsize role to play.
Still, when we look at the world’s total emissions, it is clear that without dramatic reductions, farming alone will not save the day. Its role in offsetting emissions in the medium term, however, is indispensable — and in the long run, it can help us reduce the carbon content of the atmosphere to safe levels.
Crucially, by bringing CO2 into the ground, regenerative practices not only help us mitigate climate change globally, but also make farms more climate resilient and more productive. When more atmospheric CO2 is incorporated into soil organic matter,
This has profound implications for not only food security, but also for the economic security of hundreds of millions of farmers in developing countries. It also has an indirect positive effect on land use change (and thus climate change), since improved productivity on current agricultural land means that fewer additional areas have to be cleared to meet increases in demand.
When we look at all of these benefits and their profound impact on every level, from soil health through farmer livelihoods to climate change, it is crystal clear that the adoptation of regenerative practices has to be a top priority for our company, and for the food sector at large.
(1) Toensmeier, E. (2016) The Carbon Farming Solution A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security. p26.
(2) Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (2018): The IPBES assessment report on land degradation and restoration. Montanarella, L., Scholes, R., and Brainich, A. (eds.). Approved by UNESCO, UNEP, FAO and UNDP. pXX, pXXXII.
(3) Toensmeier., p26, p23. See also: Rattan Lal, Managing Soils and Ecosystems for Mitigating Anthropogenic Carbon Emissions and Advancing Global Food Security, BioScience, Volume 60, Issue 9 (October 2010) , p708.
(4) Toensmeier, p26.
(5) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2018): Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5°C. Permalink: **https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/
(6) Dr. Jonathan Foley, Dr. Mamta Mehra, Eric Toensmeier, Chad Frischmann (2020): Farming Our Way Out of the Crisis: Changing Our Land Use, Agricultural Practices, and Food System Offers Numerous Opportunities to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Sequester Atmospheric Carbon, and Help Address Climate Change. p37.
(7) Toensmeier, pp41-44.
(8) Ibid., p37.