The organisms in the soil provide countless ecosystem services, including:
Soil stores and moderates the release of nutrients like phosphorus and calcium. Microorganisms decompose nutrients held in the soil and make them available for plant uptake.
Climate regulation and air purification
Soils contain 2 to 3 times more carbon than the atmosphere, which is comprised in live organisms, in dead organic material, as well as in inorganic (or mineral) material. When healthy, soils have a tremendous capacity to absorb additional carbon and therefore to regulate the climate. Microorganisms in soils also purify the air by breaking down toxic gases.
Flood and drought regulation
The complex web formed by fungus mycelia as well as the sticky liquids secreted by micro-organisms build soil structure, allowing to hold more water and enhance resiliency to droughts and floods.
Healthy soil filters and degrades various elements in water that pass through on their way to groundwater. The soil acts as a sieve and holds back particles that are too large to pass through. Microorganisms also break down organic and inorganic materials that would otherwise pollute our water supply.
Provision of food, fuel, fiber and medicine
Soil touches people’s lives in many ways, including serving as the source of food, energy, raw materials or medicine. Humanity has been using soil as a resource since time immemorial.
Disease suppression and soil detoxification
Organisms in a healthy living soil compete against pathogenic organisms and break down toxic chemicals.
ONE THIRD of our soils are degraded worldwide.
Degraded soils have less life and less structure. They lose their ability to provide ecosystem services, and therefore to absorb water and grow plants. They also lose their carbon content, which is emitted into the atmosphere as CO2, worsening climate change.
Degenerative Land Management
Deforestation, tillage and chemical inputs in soils inhibit the healthy functioning of soil microorganisms and lead to soil degradation.
Photo by CloudVisual on Unsplash
Regenerative Land Management
Regenerative land management is a set of principles and practices which reverse current trends of degradation in soil, water and air quality by enhancing the soil ecosystem and restoring its biology.
Regenerative land management aims to drawdown atmospheric carbon into soil and the aboveground biomass, helping to reverse climate change.
At the same time, it increases climate resilience in the face of drought, floods, and extreme weather events. Rebuilding soil organic matter reduces dependence on chemicals and pesticides, results in more nutrient dense food, and generates greater economic viability for farmers.
Regenerative land management is also about improving animal welfare, providing fairness for farmers, ranchers, and workers, and growing resilient regional ecosystems and communities.
Photo by Iswanto Arif on Unsplash
Practices that help regenerating soils and drawing down carbon include:
No-till or reduced tillage
Organic fertility and amendments
Holistic livestock management
Better water management
Land use conservation and restoration
Ecological urban planning
Cold climate adaptations
Conservation tillage is a paradigm shift in agriculture. It promotes leaving fields untilled or minimizing tillage so as to minimize soil disturbance, in order for the soil ecosystem to thrive and perform its many beneficial jobs. Reducing tillage can minimize soil erosion, decrease the use of chemical inputs, and foster more resilient agricultural systems.
Keeping soil covered allows for the conditions that enable microorganisms to thrive. Cover crops are the most well-known means of soil cover, where a noncommercial crop is planted to anchor valuable topsoil, fix nitrogen, build organic matter, and retain more water in the soil. Other methods of covering soil include mulch and soil covering textiles. Mulching involves covering the soil around plants with organic matter which keeps moisture from evaporating and adds organic matter to the soil as it decomposes. Soil cover textiles suppress weeds and prevent erosion and evaporation.
Organic soil fertility means more than just providing plants with macro- and micronutrients. It’s about restoring the soil’s biological ability to cycle nutrients through the application of green manures, crop rotations, compost, and animal manures. Artificial and synthetic fertilizers have created imbalances in the structure and function of microbial communities in soils, creating a dependent agroecosystem and weaker, less resilient plants.
Agroforestry refers to the integration of trees in agricultural systems, either with crops or pasture land. Trees can enhance both animal and crop production by increasing the water holding capacity of the soil, by providing habitat for beneficials and by enriching the soil microbiome. Moreover, trees can themselves provide a yield, in fruits, nuts or timber.
Perennials are plants which are alive year-round and are harvested multiple times before dying. They include fruit trees, nut trees, berry shrubs, pastures, certain perennial grains, and some perennial vegetables like asparagus. They all develop deep roots that improve soil structure, increase carbon sequestration, and water infiltration, and can contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation. Overall, they help ensure long term food and water security.
Holistic livestock management is an approach that manages animals in ways that mimic nature, i.e. in dense herds that rotate frequently. Farmers move the animals through temporary fenced areas called paddocks, at a frequency that depends on multiple factors. Livestock eat, fertilize with their manure, trample the grass and move on, leaving the pasture to recover. Not only does this improve animal welfare conditions, it produces highly nutritious food, and captures carbon from the air and stores it in the soil.
The rule of thumb in ecology is the more diversity, the more resilience, and vice-versa. Ecosystems rich in diversity are better able to withstand and recover more readily from stresses such as climatic extremes, human impacts and degradation. Integrating habitat for pollinators or other beneficials in farm design, practicing crop rotations, mixing crops and livestock, and opting out of GMO’s and chemical inputs are all vital practices that preserve and boost biodiversity.
As 40% of the world faces water scarcity, good water management is a key part of regenerative agriculture. Healthy covered soil is more resilient to droughts and floods, and effective irrigation, water collection infrastructure, and farm design all aid in water conservation.
Regenerative practices also aim to preserve or reclaim lands and habitats, like peatlands, wetlands, and forests. These types of ecosystems are key to mitigating climate change, and ensuring the protection of diverse species who inhabit them. Regenerative practices can also remediate soil from chemical or hydrocarbon contamination.
Municipal governments and communities have power to regenerate soil. Allocating more green space, integrating more trees and perennials in urban design, and encouraging urban agriculture are all ways that cities can play a role in regenerative land management.
Given that food supply in cold climates relies heavily on imported products during the winter, adaptations such as greenhouses avoid carbon emissions, and provide healthy local foods, with very little reliance on chemical inputs.