Regeneration: Global Transformation in Catastrophic Times
by Ronnie Cummins,
Organic Consumers Association
profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its
phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be
gravely upset by human intervention…. It is not enough to balance, in the medium
term, the protection of nature with financial gain, or the preservation of the
environment with progress. Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable
disaster. - Pope Francis, Papal Encyclical “Laudato Si,” June 18, 2015
Regenerate—to give fresh life or vigor to; to reorganize; to recreate the moral
nature; to cause to be born again.” (New Webster’s Dictionary, 1997)
A growing number of climate, food, environment, health and justice advocates are
embracing and promoting a world-changing concept: regeneration.
What is regeneration? And why are a so many public figures, including Pope
Francis, calling for regeneration or revolution, rather than “halfway measures”
such as sustainability or mitigation?
The inconvenient truth of course is that our degenerate “profit-at-any-cost”
global economy is killing us. The living Earth—our soils, forests and oceans—and
the “rhythms of nature” are unraveling. Greed and selfishness have displaced
sharing and cooperation. Land grabs, Empire-building, resource wars, and
out-of-control consumerism have become the norm.
Catastrophic times demand radical solutions. It’s time for change, big change.
Our heat-trapping, climate-disrupting, fossil fuel-intensive, industrial
agriculture-and deforestation-induced CO2 monster in the sky, now approaching
400 parts per million (ppm), is the most serious threat humans have ever faced.
Either we take down King Coal and Big Oil and switch to renewable energy, and
simultaneously move, literally suck down, several hundred billion tons of excess
carbon from the atmosphere and naturally sequester this CO2 in the soil and
forests—through regenerative farming, grazing and land use practices—or we are
According to activist and author Vandana Shiva, “Regenerative agriculture
provides answers to the soil crisis, the food crisis, the health crisis, the
climate crisis and the crisis of democracy."
But just what do we mean by Regenerative Agriculture?
Solving the Soil, Food and Health Crisis
The international community has set itself three important goals: to stop the
loss of biodiversity, keep global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, and ensure
everyone has the right to adequate food. Without fertile soil, none of these
objectives will be achieved. - Soil Atlas: Facts and figures about earth, land
and fields, Heinrich Boll Foundation, 2015
The loss of the world’s fertile soil and biodiversity, along with the loss of
indigenous seeds and knowledge, pose a mortal threat to our future survival.
According to soil scientists, at current rates of soil destruction, (i.e.
decarbonization, erosion, desertification, chemical pollution), within 50 years
we will not only suffer serious damage to public health due to a qualitatively
degraded food supply characterized by diminished nutrition and loss of important
trace minerals, but we will literally no longer have enough arable topsoil to
feed ourselves. Without protecting and regenerating the soil on our four billion
acres of cultivated farmland, 14 billion acres of pasture and rangeland, and 10
billion acres of forest land, it will be impossible to feed the world, keep
global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, or halt the loss of biodiversity.
Healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy animals, healthy forests, healthy oceans,
rivers and lakes, healthy people, a healthy climate . . . our physical and
economic health, our very survival as a species, depends upon whether or not,
and how quickly, we can carry out a global campaign of Regeneration.
According to a recent policy proposal by the French government, we need to
increase plant photosynthesis and carbon sequestration in global soils by at
least 0.4 percent each year if we are to head off runaway global warming.
Tom Newmark of the Carbon Underground explains the basic concept of
There is a technology that exists today that will suck excess CO2 out of the
atmosphere. That technology is called photosynthesis. When I look outside my
office window I see plants. Through photosynthesis, plants convert sunlight, CO2
and water to carbohydrates and oxygen. Plants are sucking tens of billions of
tons of CO2 and creating plant sugars/carbohydrates. Some plant sugars we eat
and some pass through the plant and get converted into humus, soil organic
matter. This isn’t rocket science. This is a biological fact.
The soil itself is the largest available sink for CO2. There is more carbon
currently sequestered in the living soils of the planet (2,700 billion tons),
than there is in the entire atmosphere and biotic community combined (plants,
and trees).The bad news is that by ripping up the soil through industrial
agriculture abuse, we’ve put excess CO2 into the atmosphere.
The good news is that if we farm and ranch in harmony with carbon cycles, we can
put carbon back in the soil—quickly. Scientists say that we can get back to 350
ppm in 10 years. All we have to do is increase soil organic matter in all
grasslands on the planet by one percent. That is all we need to do to bring it
back to 350 ppm. Nature can fix this problem that humans have created.
Along with educating ourselves and our community, we must utilize marketplace
pressure to change our degenerate food and farming systems. We must boycott the
fossil fuel-emitting, soil-destroying, climate-destructive products of
industrial agriculture and the junk food industry. We must support those farmers
and businesses whose products regenerate our health, our soils and our forests.
Marketplace pressure, public education, and public policy change must go
A recent article in the Guardian summarizes Regenerative Agriculture this way:
Regenerative agriculture comprises an array of techniques that rebuild soil and,
in the process, sequester carbon. Typically, it uses cover crops and perennials
so that bare soil is never exposed, and grazes animals in ways that mimic
animals in nature. It also offers ecological benefits far beyond carbon storage:
it stops soil erosion, remineralises soil, protects the purity of groundwater
and reduces damaging pesticide and fertiliser runoff.
The benefits of raising and grazing beef cattle, sheep, goats, dairy cows,
poultry and pigs “in ways that mimic nature” are many. These practices are more
humane, they rebuild soil fertility and they sequester carbon in the soil.
But there’s another important benefit to these techniques, one that is driving
consumers away from factory farm foods. These practices produce animal products
that are qualitatively healthier than CAFO products, because they are higher in
Omega 3 and “good” fats, and lower in animal drug residues and harmful fats that
clog arteries, destroy gut health and cause cancer.
Our agricultural soils have lost 25-75 percent of the soil carbon they once held
in storage before the onslaught of industrial agricultural and destructive land
use practices. The most important task of our generation is Regeneration: to put
this dislodged, heat-trapping atmospheric carbon back into the soil and forests,
where it belongs.
The Climate Crisis: Halfway Solutions Are Not Enough
Unfortunately, the current climate change movement up until now has focused
almost exclusively on reducing fossil fuel emissions. There has been little or
no mention of the critical role soil and forests play as carbon sinks or
repositories for excess CO2 in the atmosphere.
Reducing fossil fuel emissions to zero over the next few decades, as called for
by climate activist leaders such as Naomi Klein and 350.org, will solve half the
problem, but only half. By the time we reach zero emissions under this
“50-percent solution” scenario, even the most optimistic projections are that
we’ll get down to 450 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, a level that will detonate
runaway global warming, and catastrophic climate change.
So widespread is this fixation on fossil fuel emissions that even the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the upcoming Paris Climate
Summit have yet to recognize soil and soil regeneration practices as important
carbon sinks. Yet there is a growing body of scientific evidence to support the
idea that Regenerative Organic Agriculture, grazing, reforestation and land use
practices, scaled up globally, could not only mitigate, but actually, over
several decades, reverse global warming.
We need to embrace the regenerative “100-percent solution” if we want to get
back down to the safe level of 350 ppm or lower, as soon as possible. And we
need to pressure the IPCC and national governments to acknowledge the importance
of carbon sequestration through regenerative land use practices.
A number of critics have told me and others that we should not talk about
natural sequestration of CO2 in the soil, nor the enormous regenerative
potential of organic food, farming and forestry, because this “positive talk”
will distract people from the main task at hand, drastically reducing fossil
fuel emissions and taking down King Coal and Big Oil. Of course we need to move
rapidly away from fossil fuels, extractivism and over-consumption into
conservation, sustainable living and renewable energy. We must all become
climate activists and radical conservationists.
But we must also become advocates of Regenerative Organic Agriculture and
Unite the Food, Forest and Climate Movements
The large and growing anti-GMO, organic food and natural health movement must
begin to think of itself as a movement that can fix not only the world’s health
and hunger crisis, but the climate as well. Given that the degenerate GMO,
factory farm and industrial food and farming system as a whole (production,
chemical crop inputs, processing, transportation, waste, emissions,
deforestation, biofuel/ethanol production) is the number one cause of greenhouse
gas emissions, surpassing even the transportation, utilities, housing and
industry sectors, climate activists need to start thinking of themselves as
food, farming and natural health activists as well.
There will be no organic food, nor food whatsoever, on a burnt planet. Nor will
there ever be a 90-percent reduction in greenhouse gas pollution without a
transformation of our food and farming and land use practices, both in North
America and globally.
We must begin to connect the dots between fossil fuels, global warming and
related issues, including world hunger, poverty, unemployment, toxic food and
farming, extractivism, land grabbing, biodiversity, ocean destruction,
deforestation, resource wars, and deteriorating public health. As we regenerate
the soil and forests, and make organic and grass-fed food and fiber the norm,
rather than just the alternative, we will simultaneously develop our collective
capacity to address all of the globe’s interrelated problems.
The extraordinary thing about de-industrializing food and farming, restoring
grasslands and reversing deforestation—moving several hundred billion tons of
carbon back from the atmosphere into our soils, plants and forests—is that this
regeneration process will not only reverse global warming and re-stabilize the
climate, but will also stimulate hundreds of millions of rural (and urban) jobs,
while qualitatively increasing soil fertility, water retention, farm yields and
Regeneration holds the potential not only to restore forests and grasslands,
recharge aquifers, restore and normalize rainfall, but also to address and
eliminate rural malnutrition, poverty, unemployment and hunger.
So who will carry out this global Regeneration Revolution?
Of course we must continue, and in fact vastly increase, our pressure on
governments and corporations to change public policies and marketplace
practices. But in order to overturn “business-as-usual” we must inspire and
mobilize a vastly larger climate change coalition than the one we have now.
Food, climate, and economic justice advocates must unite our forces so we can
educate and mobilize a massive grassroots army of Earth Regenerators: three
billion small farmers and rural villagers, ranchers, pastoralists, forest
dwellers, urban agriculturalists, and indigenous communities—aided and abetted
by several billion conscious consumers and urban activists.
The time is late. Circumstances are dire. But we still have time to regenerate
the Earth and the body politic.
About the Author:
Ronnie Cummins is international director of the Organic Consumers Association
and its Mexico affiliate, Via Organica. He is also a member of the steering
committee for the newly formed Regeneration International.