Can Regenerative Agricultural Systems Feed the World?

It all depends on what you mean by “feed the world.” There are two very separate ways of measuring how we “feed the world”. The current model is to look at energy, or calories. “Thus, human food systems, based on food quantity rather than on biochemical richness, have a maladaptive feedback loop built into them.” Nourishment pg. 89-90. Basically, the argument is there that we are eating more because the nutrient levels in our food are decreasing. More energy consumption + less activity = body fat gain. Discussion around feeding the world rarely, if ever, discuss biochemical richness or nutrient-density of the food supply. Do current discussions acknowledge that we need to eat more individually when food is less nutrient-dense? Do they take into account that western food systems are designed to increase consumerism through food science and processing? Local food system, more nutrient-dense food, less spoilage, less waste, etc.

 

The United States has enough land to support current beef production with grazed perennial grasslands. Environmental benefits are also present when switching to grazed perennial grasslands. (https://acsess.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ael2.20059)

 The FAO suggests that agricultural output must increase by 70% to feed the world in 2050 (https://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/wsfs/docs/expert_paper/How_to_Feed_the_World_in_2050.pdf)

How many of these studies are following up on operations ten years down the road? It may sound heretical, but yield isn’t the only factor to consider either. What are the benefits to water quality? Organic matter? Insect life? Crop nutritional density? Are they taking into account the calories that are being produced via livestock grazing on cover crops? Integrating livestock back on crop fields is a wonderful way of improving soil health like that of a higher succession landscape and also getting more bang for your buck for the cover crop. Mimic succession with animal integration as well.

 

There are many reasons to study ecology as an agriculture professional, not least of which are the profound life lessons that nature teaches us. First, we learn that context is key. Individuals find themselves embedded in their environment in a two-way relationship. Individuals affect their environment and the environment affects the individual. Second, everything happens for a reason when you take in the full context of the situation. Third, we all rely on each other. Many living and non-living factors work together inside of each individual ecosystem process. Zoom out a little further and we see that each of the 4 ecosystem processes influence each other and rely on one another. Fourth, time waits for no one. Fifth, we’re all capable of changing. Diversity Cycle (a.k.a. Community Dynamics) is Energy, Water and Nutrient Cycles. Life is tilted toward moving in certain directions. Understanding the strategies of weeds and pathogens allows us to avoid creating the conditions conducive to their reproductive success.

 

It’s my opinion that God instructed us humans to steward the land and animals wisely with the dominion he gave us for the short time we are here on Earth. What does stewarding wisely look like? From my studying of scripture, I would say wise stewardship is promoting life lovingly within, on and above the land. There are many ways to interpret scripture, so I don’t want to get into a verse battle, but I believe Genesis 1:31 provides good insight into stewardship: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” From what we call weeds to microbes that can cause disease, God sees them as good. It’s our job to help create a balanced environment that allows them to be part of an efficient cycling of life. Even insects and “pathogens” can be useful for us as they tell us which plants in our fields are weak. What a beautiful way to view farming and ranching!

 

Yeah, but I’ll mine out the nutrients in my soil if I don’t replace them. Mine soils? Well, we’re already mining out nutrients in literal mines!
Phosphate mines! They don’t just show up out of nowhere. The point is that a more ecological view of management will increase efficiency. Are there soils that are naturally deficient in certain nutrients? Again, trials on-farm are the best teachers. Grazing animals typically recycle back to the soil most of the nutrients taken up by the vegetation so properly grazed pastures rarely need fertilizer. In fact, fertilization of grazed pastures may lead to excess phosphorus in runoff water and to excessive leaching of nitrogen” (Brady and Weil, 2017 pg. 766) Human waste cleaning. Less antibiotics, xenobiotics = more nutrients retrieved and recycled.

 

Reduce food waste. Food waste stats. Localize food system. Cut transportation emissions. Loss during transportation. Longer shelf life with nutrient-dense foods. “David Jochinke, the president of the National Farmers Federation, says the target is about the “aspiration” towards decarbonisation. “We’ve always said at the NFF, we’re not going to reduce production in an attempt to get to net zero,” he says. “Will we make it? I’m not really sure, but we are going to
give it a red hot go.” (https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2024/feb/19/saturation-point-australias-best-known-carbon-neutral-farm-can-no-longer-offset-its-emissions) Production is the only variable being evaluated. There’s a whole other side of the equation. What if profitability increases with regenerative practices? Maybe yields drop initially and finally, which they don’t have to, but even so, regenerative operations produce many more types of products by stacking enterprises. (Show Gabe’s food output vs neighbors) Restoration agriculture page 180

 

Sustainable annual agriculture is tough. Mathematically, there is a direct removal of nutrients. The question is: how big are the pools of nutrients in the environment and how much of that can be made available by active biology. Grazing sustainably makes more sense mathematically speaking. when we allow the biology to do more of the work.