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It’s Not Enough to Sustain: We Must Regenerate

 

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Leo HorriganIn this episode of Unconfined, the Center for a Livable Future’s food system correspondent Leo Horrigan walks us through the world of biological farming, the soil food web, the unpaid labor done by billions of microbes on the daily (they need a better agent!), and how some farmers could save a lot of money and agita if they just let nature do its thing. It’s not enough to simply stop the loss of soil—we must regrow new soil, and we can do that using plants, fungi, and microbes in an ecological system that’s been doing pretty well without our help for billions of years. 

 

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Regenerative Mindset: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Microbes

 

By Christine Grillo                                                                                                                                                            Subscribe to Host Notes

In the churn of trending food system terms, it seems that “sustainable” is out, and “regenerative” is in. As Leo Horrigan, CLF food correspondent, says, “Why would you want to sustain a degraded resource?” We have to rebuild it.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 33 percent of the Earth’s soils are already degraded, and more than 90 percent could be degraded by 2050. Homo sapiens, it turns out, has not been great for the planet’s soil, and this seems to be especially true of the last hundred years, as we’ve come to see farming as a struggle against nature, instead of an endeavor done in partnership with nature. The predominant agriculture mindset today is one in which we try to outsmart nature, look for one-stop solutions, and take reductionist approaches to solve one problem at a time. Farmers who participate in conventional farming wake up and worry about weeds, pests, fertility, and yield. As Leo explains in this episode, as farmers consider which pesticides to use, they find themselves asking, “What do I need to kill today?” 

But pesticides, as Leo tells us, are far from being “smart bombs.” Insecticides, for example, kill pests, but they also kill soil microbes. On top of that, they disrupt chemical signaling between plants and beneficial bacteria and fungi, interfering with the plant’s immune system. Some farmers also find themselves in an agricultural arms race against weeds, as each new and improved herbicide leads to the evolution of new and improved superweeds.

This is so much more complicated than it needs to be. Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of wondering what we need to kill today, we were to wake up and ask, “What am I going to nurture today?” 

Some farmers have made the transition from conventional methods to regenerative methods, and one of the things they like to talk about is the discovery that once they started farming in concert with the planet’s plants, fungi, and microbes, they were doing less work and spending less money on inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides. We co-exist with billions of microbes that are literally dying to build soil and to put critical nutrients into the plants that we eat. The plants reciprocate by feeding “exudates” to the microbes – mostly carbohydrates and simple sugars. When we do regenerative agriculture, we are taking inedible energy—photons from the sun and chemicals and gases in the air—and turning it into edible energy.

As Leo says, “That’s all plants do, all day long, is make life on Earth possible.” For free. And the farmers who choose to facilitate the microbes doing their thing seem to worry less about weeds, pests, fertility and yield.  

And let’s not overlook the big deal that is carbon sequestration. Plants, fungi, and microbes work together to make use of an unfathomably abundant resource—sunshine—to grab carbon from the air and stash it into soil and plants, which is the perfect place for it. There’s nothing wrong with carbon, per se, but we need less of it in the air, where it warms the planet, and more of it in the ground: carbon-rich soils are better at holding water and keeping it from vaporizing into the atmosphere. Ditto with water vapor, which is the Earth’s most abundant greenhouse gas

The primary principles of regenerative agriculture can probably be boiled down to “Do not disturb” and “Leave no land bare.” Some of the common practices include refraining from tilling, using cover crops, planting a diversity of crops, and refraining from using fertilizers and pesticides. But every piece of land is different, and it therefore requires a bespoke set of best practices. Cookie-cutter operation manuals don’t work well with regenerative farming, and maybe this is why people are afraid of it. To paraphrase Wendell Berry, novelist, poet, and farmer, when running a small farm, everyone is called to be an artist.

Wendell Berry also says that soil is the great connector of our lives. A 2023 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that 59 percent of all life on Earth makes its home in soil.

These days, one of my favorite philosophers is Christiana Figueres, an author, diplomat, and powerhouse in forging the Paris Agreement on climate change, and co-host of the podcast “Outrage and Optimism.” Like Leo, she advocates for a mindset shift. We can have “endless abundance,” she says. The sun will die someday, of course, but not for quite a while, and until then we can use it as a boundless energy source to keep this nearly perfect system—which evolved over billions of years, with no help from humans—operating at maximum capacity. It has withstood the test of time. We can trust it, and sometimes even regenerate it. 

In Host Notes, the voices behind Unconfined podcast deliver additional context to supplement our interviews. Their views do not necessarily reflect those of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future or the Johns Hopkins University.