Javier Valdés González
CEO for North Latin America
Syngenta Agro
Expert Contributor

Regenerative Agriculture: The Power of Soil

By Javier Valdés | Wed, 07/06/2022 - 16:00

It’s quite a moment that we’re living in, aren’t we? In my last pieces I have focused on the challenges that we have in food production, in a pandemic/post-pandemic world (I am not convinced that we are ready to use the term post-pandemic), with the rise of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and nearing a food supply crisis.

Since my last piece, two months ago, several things have happened. For instance, FAO and WFP (World Food Program) have issued calls for urgent humanitarian action in 20 “hunger hotspots” – where acute hunger is expected to worsen from June-September 2022 – to save lives and livelihoods and prevent famine[1].

Fertilizer prices have risen nearly 30 percent since the start of 2022, driven by a confluence of factors, including surging input costs, supply disruptions caused by sanctions (Belarus and Russia) and export restrictions (China). Urea, phosphates and potash are close to their highest peaks registered in 2008. All this has been amplified by the war in Ukraine.

But in this piece, I want to focus on a more positive scenario and some solutions on how, independently of the current context, we as the food production industry should focus on the tools to reverse this possible food crises and to tackle global warming to keep feeding more than 9,000 million mouths, while taking care of the planet.

The Power of Soil

The backbone of climate change mitigation is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. All industries are thoroughly focused on defining and following strategies to do so, and carbon neutrality is one of the big targets across industries.

But it turns out that agriculture has a special power that differentiates it from other key activities for humankind: capturing carbon dioxide in soil. This is practically the only existing technology available for drawing down the gases that are already in the atmosphere, making it a golden opportunity that we need to take advantage of.

As with all complex problems, solutions are not linear but rather a group of alternatives and combinations of practices that are specific to the local conditions with a global perspective. Regenerative agriculture is the next approach to conservation agriculture, which not only focuses on conservation of the soil and resources but also on providing a rehabilitative approach to food and farming systems as a whole. These series of techniques and practices include focusing on topsoil regeneration, making the most of water cycles, enhancing ecosystem services, such as pollination, increasing biodiversity in agricultural landscapes and supporting bio sequestration in soils. All this seeks to assure increasing resilience to climate change.

How Does It Look in the Field?

According to Dr. Rattan Lal, the most renowned scientist in regenerative agriculture and partner of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, where Syngenta participates in the joint Living Soils of the Americas initiative, a third of the total anthropogenic inputs of CO2 to the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution have come from the degradation of soil organic matter[2], and that 30–75 percent of global soil organic matter has been lost since the advent of tillage-based farming.

A simple change based on a no or low tilling perspective could help enormously in the way we produce food and feed and capture carbon. This approach helps to reintroduce carbon back into the soil as crop residues are pressed down when seeding. Syngenta has been locally partnering with CIMMYT (International Wheat and Maize Center) and ANAC (National Association for Conventional Agriculture) for more than eight years to promote this soil management practice among growers in Mexico.

Regenerative agricultural practices not only include no/low till farming but also mixed crop rotation, cover cropping, service crops and using compost and manure. These have the potential to reverse emission trends while maintaining high yields from crops to better suit our food requirements as a growing population.

Reintegration of biodiversity in agricultural landscapes also plays a key role in regenerative agriculture. Syngenta in Mexico has been implementing Operation Pollinator for the last four years in alliance with NGOs, growers and scientific partners. This international program provides technical advice and the scientific basis to introduce what we call Multifunctional Zones, which are well designed flower strips that work as a kind of pollinator bed and breakfast to promote braking with monoculture landscapes and providing refuge, not only for pollinators but for beneficial insects that help the growers manage their fields with an Integrated Pest Management approach.

In 2020, Syngenta partnered with CIMMYT in Mexico to implement one of our more ambitious projects called LivinGro, where we’re evaluating the impact of Multifunctional Zones not only in insect biodiversity but in microbiological conditions within the soils.

The protocols combine the latest science-based advice from Syngenta agronomists, ecologically friendly practices, products and technologies. These range from seed varieties, synthetic crop protection chemicals, biologicals (biofungicides and bioinsecticides) and beneficial insects, to the implementation of multifunctional areas that foster the coexistence of farming and biodiversity.

The Difference Is in our Hands

About 50 percent of the habitable land on our planet is being used for agriculture, so for a company like Syngenta, it is clear that we have a key role in promoting fundamental changes in the way agriculture is produced. Incorporating a different mindset with growers across the world and in Mexico particularly will make us part of the solution. Biodiversity, soil protection and regeneration and capacity building will make a significant difference and Syngenta is demonstrating how this can be done.

[1] https://www.fao.org/asiapacific/news/detail-events/en/c/1538532/#:~:text=The%20'Hunger%20Hotspots%20%E2%80%93%20FAO%2D,and%20livelihoods%2C%20and%20prevent%20famine

[2] Lal, R. (2004-11-01). "Soil carbon sequestration to mitigate climate change"Geoderma123 (1–2): 1–22. Bibcode:2004Geode.123....1Ldoi:10.1016/j.geoderma.2004.01.032ISSN 0016-7061.