Agriculture is bad for the environment. In the process of making food, humans destroy forests and grasslands, missing out on the ecosystem services those areas provided us. Well, not always. Regenerative agriculture is a conceptual agricultural model which emphasizes a healthy relationship with the land. In many ways, it is the modern western equivalent of malama‘āina. We are already benefiting from its implementation.
Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices which increase biodiversity, improve soil health, maintain watersheds and enhance ecosystem services. Through the implementation of farming principles such as no-till farming, agroforestry, animal integration and permaculture, farmers can foster a positive relationship with their land. This can not only improve yields and decrease management costs, but can also have far reaching benefits outside of farmlands.
“Conventional agricultural systems are often degenerative - losing topsoil by wind and water erosion and decreasing biodiversity. In an island context especially, we need to create agricultural systems that decrease our reliance on imported products while increasing ecological stability and ensuring that farmers can evolve their capacity as managers of their agroecosystem,” Zach Mermel, director, Agroforestry at Shaka Forest Farms, said.
The ecosystem services that are provided through regenerative systems include the reduction of erosion, reduction in fertilizer runoff leading to eutrophication, maintenance of healthy watersheds, improving soil health and can providing habitats for animals and insects. Whether you realize it or not, we are all reliant on ecosystem services like these to keep food on our tables, water in our cups, and fish in our ocean.
On top of all the benefits listed above, regenerative agriculture can reduce the impacts of climate change. Plants uptake carbon from our atmosphere and convert it into sugar, which is then stored in the plant or excreted into the soil. By fostering plant growth on a year-round basis, like in permacultures or agroforests, plants can sequester large amounts of carbon. Carbon sequestration estimates for permacultures range between 1-26 metric tons per hectare per year, and for agroforestry ranges from 3-46 metric tons per hectare per year. In comparison, annual cropping with the use of compost and crop rotation, can only sequester 2-6 metric tons of carbon per hectare per year. These numbers are even lower when farmers are using synthetic fertilizers and are growing the same crop every cropping cycle.
For reference, approximately 5.1 billion metric tons of carbon were produced last year in the U.S. alone. That comes out to 110 million hectares of agroforestry needed to counteract that carbon in a best-case scenario. The entire state of Hawai‘i covers 1.6 million hectares, so we’d need over one hundred Hawai‘i’s worth of land, or more than two California’s, to counteract just our own country’s carbon emissions through regenerative agriculture alone. Seems like a lot of land, right? Well, there were 373 million hectares of U.S. agricultural land in 2007. If just a third of that land were converted to regenerative systems, it would have a major impact on reducing our net carbon production. Plus, the benefits we’d receive from the maintenance of ecosystem services would add immense value as well.
Much work has already been done to support regenerative agriculture, but there is still a long way to go before regenerative systems can completely replace degenerative ones. “A major barrier to adoption has been the scaling up of regenerative agriculture to the commercial scale and the integration of strategies from conventional agriculture” says Mermel. It’s much simpler to adjust farming systems on a small scale compared to a large scale. Small scale subsistence farmers in developing countries have been readily converting their farms to regenerative systems, but this process becomes much tougher in places like the U.S. where many medium to large scale producers are more hesitant to completely uproot and change the practices that have made them successful. But there are groups in Hawai‘i which are actively functioning to aid farmers of all scales in this transition. Shaka Forest Farms, a sister company to Shaka Tea, operates to provide training and pioneer new technologies in regenerative systems focused around the farming of Māmaki, an endemic Hawaiian nettle grown as a medicinal, and delicious, tea. “Shaka Forest Farms, operates as a teaching farm and community space - whether it is for a professional farmer, or someone just beginning to experiment with 1/2 an acre of land” says Bella Hughes, president and co-founder of Shaka Tea. She adds, “we believe in championing sustainable farming methods and regenerative agriculture. This is important for the health of our ‘āina, communities and the future. Our goal is for our 29-acre native rainforest farm to serve as a model for potential future farmers who want to preserve native rainforest whilst at the same time making it profitable.” They recently hosted several events in conjunction with the Māmaki Association to share techniques and information about regenerative agriculture with prospective farmers.
Organizations like Hawai‘i Farmers Union United and companies like Shaka Tea and Voyaging Foods have made commitments to supporting regenerative agriculture in Hawai‘i. But what can you do? Unfortunately, aside from becoming a farmer and engaging in regenerative agriculture yourself, not much. But there is considerable influence when we exercise our power as consumers. This does take some work on our parts though. It’s important for us to find out where our food is coming from and how it is being produced. Look at the stickers on your produce and try to find information about those farms online. Attend local farmers markets and talk to the farmers about their practices. You can even contact your local representative and voice your desire for programs which encourage and support regenerative agriculture.
Conventional agricultural models are insufficient, and the ecological damage associated with increasing productivity within these models will be devastating. With our growing population’s equally growing demand for food, we need regenerative agricultural systems if we are to keep food on our tables and water in our cups.