Greening the desert through regenerative farming

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We should take our lead from the regenerative farmers who have started reversing soil damage by understanding exactly what’s needed for each complex landscape and ecosystem under their guardianship.


There’s an old saying among conservationists and traditionalists in farming and other rural industries that suggests farmers and land managers should act as if they were going to live for 1,000 years.

If they did so, they’d be forced to confront the consequences of their environmental actions within their lifetimes.

While this may not be wholly practicable for an industry on which the world depends for its continued existence, there’s a grain of truth in the idea, at least insofar as looking after and improving the world’s soil quality is concerned.

But are all the stories of doom in the industrial agricultural sector true? And do we only have a handful of harvests left in the soil before it finally gives up and dies?

Wake-up call

One small farm at a time, the farming industry is waking up to the need to revert to old, sometimes ancient, farming practices to reverse previous damages.

Very slowly, rural areas in developed economies are beginning to revert to the mixed, regenerative, rotational arable and livestock farming that prevailed before the Haber-Bosch invention of mass-market ammonium-nitrate fertilizer after World War II.

This method uses organic fertilizers, allows productive arable land to rest on a rotational basis, avoids monoculture farming, and feeds cattle exclusively on grass, not human grain.

The world’s press regularly seize upon and amplify scare stories about soil health that have little or no basis in science, yet there is still much to worry about when it comes to soil health. And as with any complex, multi-factor problem, the reality is more nuanced and complex than press headlines would have us believe. Claims that we only have 30 harvests left in the soil before it becomes permanently infertile are based on scaremongering rather than science.

Soil erosion rates across the world fall into five different orders of magnitude.

According to data based on extensive research, around 15 per cent of productive soil is thought to have an estimated remaining lifespan of less than 100 years if we continue with business as usual. Around 50 per cent of soils have a remaining lifespan of more than 1,000 years, and around one-third are thought to be in good enough shape as things stand to remain productive for more than 5,000 years.

It’s crucial to remember that the soil health problem is fixable.

As celebrated British author and farmer James Rebanks spells out: “It sometimes feels like this is a lousy age to be a farmer because whatever we do we are subject to endless criticisms. But in the past few years, I’ve come to believe that this is also one of the most exciting times in history to be a farmer – because the problems we face are solvable”.


Regenerative farming to the rescue

So, what exactly is regenerative farming, and is it economically viable? In short, it’s a practice by which farmers grow healthy, nutrient-dense and often organic food – including leafy greens, livestock, fowl, poultry, grains, cereals and legumes – without synthetic fertilizers, while reversing the damage done to our soils by building up soil layers with organic material and waste, restoring native habitats and natural processes, and once again filling rural landscapes with insects, birds and wildlife so that nature cannot just survive but thrive alongside farming.

As we’ll touch on below, there’s a strong business case for moving to a regenerative model, backed up by extensive research that shows that, despite an initial drop in yields, the crucial KPI of any business, your net margins, actually improves.

The way the world has produced food since 1945 has damaged entire landscapes, as wild land has been taken over by monocultures and ammonium-nitrate fertilizers and pesticides to maximize crop yields.

This pattern has banished nature from land that had successfully been farmed in harmony with the ecosystem for many centuries. What’s more, nitrate runoff from arable land treated with ammonium nitrate fertilizers causes loss of biodiversity and habitat in and along many of the water courses into which that runoff flows.

Many critics of regenerative farming will often say it simply cannot meet the nutrient demands of the world’s nearly eight billion people. But as many farmers, including James Rebanks, have amply demonstrated, farmers know how to produce enough calories to feed everyone alive now, and the couple of billion yet to be born. They can do so using a variety of methods that are far kinder to humans and nature than the practices followed since the middle of the 20th century.

To achieve this change, reboot, revival – call it what you will – it’s necessary to re-invent farming, ditch the damaging chemical and industrial methods, and take our lead from the regenerative farmers who have started reversing soil damage by understanding exactly what’s needed for each complex landscape and ecosystem under their guardianship.

‘Old’ farming with new technology

Innovative technology and practices are being deployed in the UAE desert as the regenerative market establishes desert greening and the production of a wide variety of food.

When greening the Arabian desert for nutrient-rich food, it’s crucial to sow crop varieties that suit diverse cropping systems, local topographical or geographical features, and the demands of the UAE’s consumer market.

In addition, with minimal human intervention in the form of non-chemical organic fertilizers and additives such as microbiological concentrated powder or liquid clay that introduce vital organic matter into the soil and help retain water, a diversity of food crops have already had successful harvests in the desert.

From cereals such as corn, wheat and barley to soft fruits and leafy greens, a diverse multi-culture is thriving.

Cover crops such as millet, alfalfa and legumes also flourish in these conditions, as do fig, lemon and nut trees, which provide cover, help restore ecosystems and allow wildlife more opportunity to thrive.

In the UAE, around 80 per cent of the land is desert, a figure that has been slowly rising over the years as desertification marches on. A meagre 5 per cent of the land is farmed, so the UAE has to import 90 per cent of the food needed to sustain its 9.5 million inhabitants.

In this corner of the world, where soil health and water shortages represent a constant risk to food security and quality, regenerative agriculture is gaining traction because of its impressive successes, sustainability, resilience to climate change and ability to improve soil health.

Farmers get by with minimal or no tillage and make use of cover crops such as legumes and pulses to protect soil from erosion and capture carbon dioxide and nitrogen in the soil through natural means, a process known as nitrogen fixation.

Greening the desert

The UAE regenerative agriculture market is still in its infancy, but it represents a huge opportunity for farmers, agribusinesses, sustainable-agriculture practitioners, climate-change advocates and investors to work together towards more nature-friendly, sustainable and resilient production systems.

As regenerative farming success stories begin to show the world how it can be done, the issue of soil health and the notion of putting nature back into the heart of land management is gaining momentum. And in the Gulf region, where limited arable land is under constant threat from desertification, the urgent need to green the desert and work to improve soil quality is particularly acute.

In Sharjah, the UAE’s third-largest emirate, desalinated water has turned the desert into fields of wheat, with around 400 acres currently under production.

Aside from the absence of chemical pesticides, the wheat farm deploys modern technology such as advanced on-site weather stations, satellite imagery that offers farmers thermal imaging capabilities and highly controllable sensors to optimize irrigation.

The UAE’s regenerative agriculture market enjoys government support through policy initiatives that promote sustainable and regenerative farming practices.

This has helped boost the local market, not least because its capacity for CO2 sequestration, nitrogen-fixing and reducing our reliance on ammonium-nitrate fertilizers and chemical pesticides appeals to a broad swathe of society, from consumers and farmers to governments and those tasked with reducing agriculture’s huge carbon footprint (which, for example, currently accounts for 10 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the US, the second biggest emitter of CO2 after China).

The long-term approach

Short-termism and a blinkered approach to progress are obstacles that need to be challenged up front. Yes, extensive research in developed economies has shown that the transition from industrial to regenerative farming can lead to lower yields and margins in the short term. However, with the help of new biotech solutions, yields can be maintained and even increased due to higher nutritional values.

If farmers do it right, and by the specific needs of their landscapes, many adopters will see input costs going down and profits increasing.

For example, in chicken farm pilot projects in Hungary and Serbia, the introduction of new biotech solutions has seen egg production increase by 15 per cent while hen mortality has dropped by 50 per cent.

In the UK, seeds, sprays and fertilizer bills have fallen by GBP80 per acre after a 50 per cent reduction in ammonium-nitrate fertilizer use due to the focus on soil improvement and the integration of livestock into the field rotation.

Results from the same research suggest an eventual increase in profitability of 80 per cent, despite simultaneously experiencing a 30 per cent drop in yields.

Regenerative agriculture also helps improve soil structure, reduces exposure to volatile global commodity prices of items such as fertilizer and potash, and allows farms to develop greater resilience to severe weather, including droughts and floods, as local ecosystems begin to sequester more water and CO2.

Nobody ever said this was going to be easy, but the soil-health case, the business case and the consumer demand for better-quality natural food that’s rich in essential nutrients and grown in soil that is constantly improving in quality are driving the growing move into regenerative practices.

The upshot of concentrating on improving soil health and producing healthier food for consumers is that it will ultimately deliver higher net margins for producers and provide an attractive business case for investors.

Written by Thomas Puskas ~

Read the original article here ~

Article source Gulf Business ~

The writer is the CEO of Premium Food, an agriculture and biotech company, and EcoWatt Energy.


 Thomas Puskas

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