A recent Earth4All deep dive paper explores the potential for widespread shifts in agricultural practices in order to sequester carbon at scale. The findings reinforce a wider body of research demonstrating the importance of agricultural carbon sequestration as a meaningful component of a global climate change mitigation strategy. In addition to their contribution to climate stability, regenerative agricultural practices represent a systemic leverage point and solutions multiplier: they contribute to climate resilience and adaptation, enhanced food security, improved nutritional content of crops, pest management, increased biodiversity, and improved water supply and quality. Earth4All elevates the important discussion about how we might collectively support climate-friendly farming.
The Earth4All paper centers social spreading as a frame for scaling regenerative land management with an emphasis, at the local level, on farmer-to-farmer networks. Farmer-to-farmer peer learning is a critical avenue for building farmers’ trust in, and adoption of, new practices. And, a much more robust web of relationships is needed to drive the uptake of best practices at scale. One study in the context of California agriculture, for example, found that crop consultants, cooperative extension, vendors of technology and other inputs, and governmental and nonprofit technical assistance agents were important in driving the adoption of a range of ecological best management practices. To be effective, social spreading depends on multi-stakeholder social networks that produce the frameworks for knowledge generation, dissemination, and adoption.
The Earth4All blog notes that “a complex interplay of factors is needed to scale up landscape regeneration.” In addition to the role of social networks in supporting agricultural climate solutions, the following are (from a US and Canadian perspective) important factors that must be attended to in order for regenerative practices to be meaningfully scaled.
Four interventions to accelerate adoption of regenerative agriculture:
- MITIGATE THE RISKS OF TRANSITION. Most farmers the world over operate on razor thin margins. The financial picture and the incredible complexity of pressures and obstacles that farmers have to navigate make farming a fragile undertaking. Asking farmers to make significant shifts in their operations comes with very real risks to their financial security and wellbeing, particularly as crops or yields can be lost during transitional periods. Having these risks be shared, or borne, by the public (via policy or financial incentives), by buyers, and/or through banking and insurance safeguards can go a long way toward creating the conditions for regenerative agricultural practices to scale out, particularly if care is taken to build structures that are inclusive of the needs of populations whose unique needs are often overlooked, such as farmers of colour and immigrant, LGBTQ+, and women farmers.
- SCALE AND REORIENT TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE TO REGENERATION. The spatial scaling of regenerative farming practices is a complex process that involves, over time and across many different farm types, meaningful change in a wide range of operational aspects, such as different cultural practices, crop mixes, timing of harvest, staffing, patterns of water use, inputs, technologies, and fencing practices. Beyond farmer-to-farmer networks, spreading regenerative land management practices will require a significant and rapid expansion of technical assistance providers trained in ecological land management and soil health. In turn, short-term priorities must include building a pipeline of technical support providers via education and training programs focused on knowledge-based and nature-based practices and systems. Centering farmers’ experience through participatory on-farm research and demonstration projects, and integrating and honouring different land-based knowledge systems can also help build the multi-directional learning required to expand agricultural climate solutions.
- FOSTER SECURITY OF LAND TENURE. Secure land access helps create the conditions for good stewardship and long-term investment in soil health. Here in the United States, in 2014, 40% of farmland was rented or leased and 80% of this land was owned by landlords who themselves don’t farm. Rapidly shifting farm ownership, driven in part by the attractiveness of agricultural land as a vehicle for global financial investment coupled with insecure lease arrangements, may undermine the ability of farmers to make the investments necessary to build long-term soil health. Engaging traditional and innovative models of land security will create a stronger foundation for effective stewardship.
- FOSTER A MINDSET SHIFT FROM ENGINEERING TO ECOLOGICAL. An engineering mindset, that is, one that tends toward command-and-control solutions, continues to dominate in climate strategy and decision-making spaces at international, national, and sub-national levels. Policy and support structures for regenerative agriculture must align with an ecological mindset, one focused on relationships and which acknowledges the inherent emergent, messy, dynamic nature of agroecological systems. Agricultural land managers themselves inhabit various points of the engineering-to-ecological mindset spectrum in their farming approaches. Scaling regenerative farming will be most successful when ecological literacy and systems thinking are fostered among practitioners and policy-makers alike.
Social learning held by collaborative networks is critical to both advance agricultural carbon sequestration and reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. It is essential that these efforts be carried out in tandem with addressing major systemic barriers in order to create the enabling conditions for social learning and behaviour changes. Deeply collaborative approaches that bring together wisdom from across the whole system, support multi-directional learning, and provide the necessary support to all farmers will go a long way toward enabling the kind of transformation that is needed to slow climate change and build more resilient systems.
* Katy Mamen is a collaborative systems change consultant based in California, USA, with a significant focus at the intersection of climate change and agriculture.