How agriculture can enrich ecosystems


Written by ANNA SIMPSON, The Futures Center

Key points:

  • Agriculture has a role to play in addressing many of the pressing challenges we face today, from nutrition to climate adaptation
  • Our objective must be holistic land management geared towards delivering healthy systems, rather than bumper monocrops
  • Agriculture can help to counter carbon emissions by storing carbon in the soil
  • Today’s problem industries, such as fast fashion, could be tomorrow’s regenerative heroes  
  • We need to shift from singular goals to systemic approaches, and from extractive behaviours to regenerative ones

Agriculture has a role to play in addressing many of the pressing challenges we face today, from climate mitigation and adaptation, to quality nutrition for a growing population, to sustainable livelihoods. When agriculture is purely extractive, it exacerbates all of these challenges. But long-standing holistic practices and innovations can enable us to both farm the land while contributing to the replenishment of biodiverse ecosystems, which support the resilience of society as a whole – countering risks from coastal erosion to urban flooding to the spread of disease. These insights, shared by Mark Driscoll, Forum’s Director of Sustainable Nutrition, helped to set the scene for our discussion.

One step to realizing the potential of agriculture to be a regenerative force – said Sarah Gleason, Director of Marketing and Communications at The Savory Institute – is to rethink what we mean by wealth.

“Ultimately, the only wealth that can sustain any community, economy or nation is derived from the photosynthetic process – green plants growing on regenerating soil”, said Allan Savory, the Institute’s founder.

Sarah insisted that animals and livestock play a role in maintaining healthy soil and plants, as they move around spreading their dung. The key is that they’re holistically managed.

Judith Schwartz, author of Cows Save The Planet, emphasized the role of agriculture in countering carbon emissions. She highlighted a new voluntary action plan under the Global Climate Action Agenda, which aims for a ‘4 per 1000’ annual growth rate of the soil carbon stock, calculated to counter the present increase in atmospheric CO2. According to the IPCC, 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon could be stored every year in agricultural soils (cropland and grassland) – a very achievable goal, Judith said!

Business opportunities are emerging. Judith highlighted the rise of plant-based fibres and dyes for apparel, which could see the fashion industry shift from dependence on land and water-intensive fibres (wool, cotton), or plastic-based synthetics (polyester), to materials that actually contribute to ecosystem regeneration. The Savory Institute is developing a framework and certification scheme to measure the regenerative impacts of brands and businesses through data-backed outcome assessment.  

The relationship of farming to land is also changing. The FAO recently announced that in 2013, the global pasture area declined by 2% for the first time on record, due to shifts in consumption patterns and lifestyles – from urbanisation to the fall of wool prices. Farming is increasingly part of forest management and urban development, rather than a competitor for the land.

The healthy integration of human needs (from food to fashion to livelihoods) with biodiverse ecosystems depends on a shift from singular goals to systemic approaches, and from extractive behaviors to regenerative ones.

Originally published by The Futures Center on September 27, 2017