Regenerating soil can double corn farmers’ incomes

Farming sustainably isn’t just good for the planet: if it’s done right it can double profits too, finds a new study published in PeerJ. But this requires a paradigm shift that champions crop diversity over monoculture, and quality over quantity–a way of growing food that’s known as ‘regenerative agriculture’.

Currently in the United States and many other countries, farming is characterised by monoculture, heavy pesticide use, and tillage to rid the soil of weeds. These contribute in different ways to several environmental ills–such as climate change, water and soil pollution, and the quashing of biodiversity. A fraction of farmers practice regenerative methods, designed to boost biodiversity and increase soil nutrients by reducing tillage, planting cover crops on exposed soil, enabling livestock to graze amongst crops, and cutting out pesticides.

But little has been done to explore whether the perceived benefits of these regenerative methods really stand up to the test.

To find out, the study researchers focused on corn, one of the biggest agricultural commodities in the United States. They included about 20 farms across the country’s Northern Plains, evaluating them according to a set of defining features—like whether or not they used pesticides or planted cover crops–which placed them into either ‘conventional’ or ‘regenerative’ farming categories.

At each of the study sites, the researchers took plant samples so they could count individual pests and extrapolate their density across each plot. They also took soil cores to help them measure how much organic matter the soil contained. Then they tallied up corn yield and resulting profits, as well as the costs of buying crop seeds, insecticides, and fertilizers.

Their analysis revealed two unexpected things. Firstly, compared to regenerative plots, conventional farms had on average 10 times more pests–even though they applied pesticides and regenerative farms did not. Notably, regenerative farms with greater plant diversity also had fewer pest problems–probably because the variety of plants makes it harder for pests to adapt to the environment and rapidly spread–something that’s conversely enabled by monoculture.

Secondly, regenerative farms achieved almost twice the profits of the conventional farming–despite producing 29% less corn overall. That’s partly because of the organic premium farmers can charge on their produce. But it’s also because they didn’t have to fritter away cash on insecticides and fertilizer. 

Whereas conventional farmers spend a chunk of their income on these things, regenerative farmers saved this cost by instead using cover crops to naturally boost the organic content of the soil, and enabling livestock to graze on the land and donate their nutrient-rich droppings. These roaming livestock also increased the farmers’ overall profits: because they gain more weight by grazing freely, farmers could sell the animals for more.

By considering not just the health of the environment but the profits of farmers, too, the study shares a particularly hopeful vision for the future. And, what’s even more hopeful is that regenerative farming is already happening on fields around the planet.

Source: La Canne, et. al. “Regenerative agriculture: merging farming and natural resource conservation profitably.” PeerJ. 2018
Image: YouTube

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