Camilo Pages
CPO and Co-Founder
Sistema.bio

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Regenerative Agriculture a Powerful Climate Resilience Tool

By Camilo Pages | Wed, 08/03/2022 - 17:00

When we go to the supermarket to make our weekly food purchase, or when we sit down to eat in a restaurant, the last thing that comes to mind is the impact this food has on climate change. It is not widely known that the planet's food systems are responsible for more than a third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that cause climate change. According to the latest results of the FAO Agri-Food Systems Emissions Database (FAOSTAT), released in November 2021, global greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 were 54 billion tons (Gt CO2eq), of which 17 billion tons (Gt CO2eq), or 31 percent, came from agri-food systems.

Agriculture, in addition to being a cause of global warming, is also one of the sectors of the economy most affected by climate change itself. Increases in temperature, greater frequency of extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods, weather variabilities, invasive crops and pests and changes in the natural cycles of plants, are some of the effects that global warming is causing in agriculture. These effects will become more and more accentuated, presenting significant challenges for food security in the future, where crops will yield less, input costs will be higher, and the world population to feed will continue to increase.

Smallholder farmers are the most vulnerable within the agricultural sector to the effects of climate change. This situation is alarming since smallholder farmers in developing countries play a key role in food security worldwide. The FAO 2014 paper asks, “What do we really know about the number and distribution of farms and family farms in the world?” About 84 percent (475 million) of worldwide farms are smaller than 2ha. Although they operate about 12 percent of the total farmland, they provide an estimated 80 percent of the food produced in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition to being an important provider of food in the world, smallholder farmers have a significant impact on society. They coexist with some of the most diverse and threatened ecosystems. Farmers are the backbone of rural communities, providing most of the employment within the agriculture sector in developing countries, and maintaining and securing agricultural practices and traditions that would otherwise be lost. According to INEGI, in Mexico, smallholder farmers generate 57 percent of the jobs in the sector, both family members and external.

One of the biggest threats to food security is soil degradation. It is estimated that 95 percent of food is directly or indirectly produced in the soil. Our human existence depends on the health of our soils. The soil must be healthy, full of water, nutrients, and microorganisms to produce healthy and sufficient food. Healthy soil equals life. According to FAO data, an estimated 33 percent of the world's soil is moderately to highly degraded by erosion, salinization, acidification, chemical contamination, and nutrient depletion. While the effects of climate change, such as increasing temperatures and changing rainfall patterns, may cause soil degradation, certain agricultural practices, such as deforestation, overgrazing, forest fires, intensive cultivation, and overuse of chemical fertilizers, are also causing the soil to die. Land degradation, in turn, also causes climate change. Approximately, two-thirds of the total increase in atmospheric CO2 is a result of the burning of fossil fuels, with the remainder coming from soil organic carbon loss due to land use changes.

Here are three bullets that simplify how the agri-food system and climate change are interconnected in a vicious cycle that threatens global food security and increases climate change:

a)   The Agri-food system, including certain agricultural practices, contributes 31 percent of greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

b)   Climate change has a huge negative impact in agriculture, including, among other effects, the degradation of soil, which has a massive effect on global food security.

c)   Smallholder farmers, which produce most of the food consumed in the world, are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Within this interconnection between smallholder farmers, climate change, soil degradation and the global food security crisis, we at Sistema.bio see the potential of a virtuous cycle that has proven not just to make the smallholder farmer more resilient to the effects of climate change but also to secure healthy food availability in developing countries, while restoring the soil and sequestering CO2 in the process. This virtuous cycle is called regenerative agriculture.

Regenerative agriculture (RA), in simple terms, means renewing degraded farmland while improving crop production. RA consists of farming practices that work with the natural systems instead of against them, such as diverse crop rotation, polyculture, rotational grazing, low or no-till farming, cover crops and soil management.

I’ve been directly working with smallholder farmers around the world for 12 years, witnessing their challenges and understanding the importance of their work in their communities and society. Our focus has been the design and facilitation of the Sistema.bio biodigester technology and services, which allow smallholder farmers to be more productive and resilient to the effects of climate change, while improving their soil, saving money, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions on the go. We at Sistema.bio see biodigesters as a potent tool to improve smallholder farmers' lives in ways that not only benefit them but the ecosystems and society as well. This is not only by transforming organic waste into clean energy but also into soil amendment bioslurry.

Every day at Sistema.bio, we witness thousands of small farmers practicing regenerative agriculture, going back to their roots, and experiencing its benefits, while also feeling proud to be part of a global movement of farmers that aims to improve global food security and the health of the Earth. In 2020, I decided to actively participate in this movement. On a small plot of land, of about 2,500m2, at 2,900m above sea level, in the outskirts of the Xinantécatl volcano in the State of Mexico, where rainfed farming is practiced due to lack of irrigation, my kids and I became milpa farmers.

At Sistema.bio we are convinced that regenerative farming practices in smallholder farms is a key solution to global food security and a powerful tool for climate change mitigation. According to Regeneration International, a 10 to 20 percent transition in agricultural production to regenerative practices would be enough to reverse climate change and it would make food security a reality. The only way for this massive transition to happen is by joining forces and spurring collaboration between the many public and private organizations that are working toward these goals.

In my next article, I will tell you more about my experience as a family milpa farmer, using experimental soil and plant nutrition systems, which we are in development so that the millions of smallholder farmers around the world can utilize them in their regenerative agriculture practice.

Photo by:   Camilo Pages