Resources could be better spent elsewhere, nonprofit group says
  • Regenerative farming’s impact on climate change is limited, the World Resources Institute says.
  • Investors have bet at least $47.5 billion on regenerative agriculture, research institute said last year.
  • The agriculture sector generates about one-fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions, so practices that can help the industry reduce its carbon footprint have become a focus of activists.

Regenerative agriculture is being hailed as a useful weapon in the fight against climate change. But the impact of the farming practice is limited and time and resources could be better spent elsewhere, the nonprofit World Resources Institute says.

The basic hope is that regenerative agriculture practices, such as planting cover crops between harvests and drilling seeds rather than tilling, would pull more carbon dioxide from the air, reducing the amount of greenhouse emissions in the atmosphere.

“It’s not unreasonable that some would think that restoring this large soil carbon is a big climate mitigation opportunity,” Janet Ranganathan, the institute’s vice president for research, data and innovation, said in a webinar last week. “But doing this at scale is not quite as easy.”

Climate change activists have long seen regenerative farming as a way to cut the agriculture sector’s greenhouse emissions, which account for about one-fifth of the world’s total. For instance, the “4 per 1000” initiative, launched at the 2015 Paris climate summit, argues that increasing the storage of carbon in the top 40 centimeters of soil by 0.4% a year would cut CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, and help achieve the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s target of limiting the temperature increase to 2 degrees Centigrade.

Investors have poured at least $47.5 billion in money and assets into regenerative farming, according to Croatan Institute’s Soil Wealth report last year. Even so, more than $700 billion more in net capital expenditures would be needed over the next 30 years to fully realize the carbon sequestration and climate mitigation potential that regenerative farming may provide, the report said.

Regenerative agriculture includes practices like adding manure to increase the soil’s ability to capture carbon. “The problem is there is only so much manure in this world,” Tim Searchinger, a WRI senior fellow and a Princeton University research scholar, said on the webinar. 

Rather than relying on building soil carbon through regenerative farming, the World Resources Institute says it would be better to focus on improving other practices to fight climate change. Reducing food loss and waste and shifting consumers’ diets toward plant-based foods from meat, for instance, would reduce agricultural land demand, enabling farmland to be restored to forests that would capture more emissions.

Supporters say regenerative agriculture offers benefits beyond its possible impact on climate change.

Organic India, maker of teas, foods and beauty products, has worked with more than 3,000 farms using those farming principles since the 1990s. Farmers say regenerative agriculture has provided better yields using less water, which has reduced costs, COO Balram Singh told Karma in emailed comments.

Also, consumers have become more health-conscious when choosing what they eat, he said. They increasingly want food that is produced using natural methods.

“Hence we are seeing a very positive change in respect to the demand for regenerative agriculture,” Singh said. “The food industry is expected to source more and more raw material from regenerative organic agriculture.”

Photo by Richard Bell on Unsplash