Climate Action

Willie Pretorius on the importance of regenerative agriculture in supporting global food demands

Climate Action caught up with Willie Pretorius, Soil Health Consultant at WardLabs, to discuss the importance of regenerative agriculture in supporting global food demands.

  • 28 January 2021
  • Rachel Cooper

Climate Action caught up with Willie Pretorius, Soil Health Consultant at WardLabs, to discuss the importance of regenerative agriculture in supporting global food demands.

Hi Willie. Great to have you join us for an interview today. You spoke at our final instalment of the Great Food Challenge hosted in technical collaboration with the FAO last month.

You focused on the role of soil in helping the industry become carbon positive, for those that missed the session, you said the industry was not taking the role of soil seriously enough to help fight climate change, what would you like to see change across the industry and who are the key stakeholders to drive this change? 

Dr Hans Joachim  Schellnhuber a long-standing member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which was jointly awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize said in 2005; “we are entering a very dangerous era of extreme hydrological based climate events” and he was correct. In 2017, Schellnhuber said that unless climate action is taken by 2020, the world "may be fatally wounded." Have we really taken his warnings seriously? The answer is an emphatic no, and it is going to take more expedient action than the Paris climate accord to prevent a serious catastrophe.

Programs to reduce carbon emissions will go a long way in postponing the evil moment of an eventual crisis of inhabitability of certain parts of the world which Schellnhuber warns against; but by itself will not prevent the eventuality. These programs of reduced CO2 emissions do not reverse the position it merely slows it down.

The work of Schellnhuber and supported by Walter Jehne, a well-respected Australian Scientist call for an urgent regeneration of the earth’s carbon sponge that regulates hydrological cycles which together with aridification are the main drivers of climate change that lead to broken water (hydrological) cycles that induces climate change. Decreased soil organic carbon decreases the soil’s ability to properly infiltrate and store water that induces broken water cycles that create atmospheric water hazes that are responsible for global warming and climate change. Carbon must therefore be replaced (sequestered) back into the soil and bare soils must be revegetated; these two issues are the two most pressing problems facing us today. These have been human induced drivers of climate change and can and must be reversed.

We have lost about 66 billion tons of fossilized soil organic carbon into the atmosphere over the last 150 years which must be restored back into the “ground” where it originated from and where it belongs. The only real process that will save our planet is to get the carbon from the CO2 already in the atmosphere, back into the ground where it came from through the process of photosynthesis on a massive scale.

The Distinguished Soil Scientist Dr Rattan Lal claims that by increasing the carbon content of the world soils by 2 percent would entirely restore greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere to safe levels.

I would like to see Governmental agencies take note of the massive potential that Regenerative Agriculture possesses to address both these issues and reward those farmers who are contributing to alleviating this problem. The present carbon credit scheme is a good start but has many flaws of measurement calculations as it is based on the carbon footprint calculations rather than the actual quantity of sequestered soil organic carbon. I would like to see actual soil organic carbon measurements added to the fold as the footprint is not a true measure of sequestered carbon. The carbon credit market would have to play a role in setting up these parameters.

I would like to see mining activities permanently halted in the natural forests of South America. Between 2010 and 2020, South America lost an average of 2.6 million hectares of forest per year, according to the FAO. In other words, the continent lost an area of forest the size of Ecuador in the space of a decade.

For our readers who are not aware of how harmful and damaging current farming practices are, can you explain some of the science behind it and how regenerative farming differs?

Growing plants and raising animals are natural processes driven by nature that incorporates many different living micro-organisms in an inter dependent ecologically sound manner with lots of species diversity involved without the need for any external inputs. Regenerative Agriculture mimics these ecological principles and therefore the requirements for external inputs are largely reduced and ultimately eliminated completely. Regenerative farming is based on several principles that incorporates no or minimum soil disturbance, keeping the soil always covered, keeping a living root in the soil for as long as possible, maintaining a diversity of plant species and incorporates animals into the system. All these practices mimic nature requiring little or no external inputs because nature provides all these resources in abundance free of charge.

Conventional farming wherever it is practised breaks this ecological balance through tilling and mono-cropping that establishes a vicious circle of reducing diversity and depleting the soil organic carbon, the sponge that retains large quantities of the soil water. With this reduced water infiltration and retention capability more water is required for crop production. With reduced soil organic carbon goes reduced soil fertility that requires more fertilizers; reduced insect diversity populations that incorporates many predator insects therefore now requires more insecticides, more weeds requiring more herbicides and the list goes on.   

It’s certainly not just the Agri industry that is affected by poor farming practices and tradition farming processes, how does this impact the every day person? What does the future hold if we don’t change?

The UN Director-General José Graziano da Silva warned in 2015 that “Further loss of productive soils would severely damage food production and food security, amplify food-price volatility, and potentially plunge millions of people into hunger and poverty.”

In the 21st century conventional agriculture incurs other indirect costs that cannot be ignored. The long-term threat of climate change to the natural environment is well established, and agriculture bears much of the responsibility for this. In its latest report on climate change, the IPCC states that 23% of the total global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are directly related to “agriculture, forestry and other types of land use”.

If we do not change the impact of these negative effects, we will see more hunger, more pandemics, more climatic catastrophes, a decline in human health and parts of the Middle and Far East become inhabitable.

Many still believe that industrial agriculture is the only way to produce the quantity of food needed to support our growing population. Can a shift to regenerative agriculture really support our food demands and still be profitable for businesses?

Most of the Big Ag stakeholders believe that the present conventional way is the only way by funding universities to retain their position. If you look how Big Ag chemical companies are incorporating some form of “Biological” offering in their portfolio then you have to ask the question “are they fully on board with regenerative agriculture”? I would prefer not to speculate but I think we will see more and more farming operations come on board through shear incapacity to afford the present conventional system.

With the growth of regenerative farming, you will see large shifts in crop and animal production types and acreages that will be more efficient with a complete ability to provide sufficient high-quality nutrient and vitamin rich food to feed the world.

As a soil expert, how can businesses change the practices? What are the critical factors/processes that must be addressed first?

The first thing any farmer who wants to move to the Regenerative farming ways must do is to change his mind set by removing all the reasons why it is not possible to all the reasons that it is possible. Having done this, establish where you are and decide in what context you want to apply the regenerative principles to your operation. Is it through an environmental belief, a profit motive or any other context which will become the driver of your decision-making process within your regenerative system? Having done this, seek help from a good neighbour or tutor who is an established Regenerative Farmers and who will guide you along the way, understanding that you are no longer going to have farming recipes, but you are going to embrace nature.

You say crops produced from regenerative agriculture are more nutritious and nutrient dense, can you explain why? Do you think regenerative farming is possible on very large-scale farming operations?

When crop and animal production systems sever its association with the soil microbial activity that connect the roots to the soil minerals you produce food crops with inferior health attributes; void of many important nano minerals, lower mineral density, lower or no real vitamin content, lack of important Phyto chemicals that prevent cancer, asthma, auto immune diseases, and a host of others. Just over the period 1940 to 1991 the UK Ministry of Agriculture reported the following decreases in these essential minerals from vegetables: Copper -76%, Calcium – 46%, Iron – 27%, Magnesium – 24%, Potassium – 16%. In meat; Iron – 54%, Copper – 24%, Calcium – 41%, Magnesium – 10%, Potassium – 28%. It is possible to buy an orange fruit today that is completely void of vitamin C. Chemically driven farming operations usually also till the soil and harm the beneficial fungi that connect the roots with the soil minerals that contain all the minerals required for healthy plants, animals, and humans, some in-nano quantities not yet recognized by science as required. Nature does not wait for science to prescribe its functions. These fungi associate with the root and are dependent on the host plant for its sugary carbohydrates derived from photosynthesis which is exuded in exchange for these soil minerals to which it connects and solubilizes these with the assistance of helper bacteria. These now plant available minerals selected by the plant through a signalling system to the root microbiology are transported through the fungal hyphae strands back to the roots and adsorbed through the vascular system for incorporation into plant growth substances. This is a very delicate signalling requirement system that is in place between plant root and microbial root connected fungi and bacteria.

The fungal hyphae also extend the root systems by several kilometres. Regenerative Agriculture nurtures and protects this system whereas conventional agricultural production systems destroy and ignore this completely and provides these nutrients through chemical means for absorption by a limited volume of plant roots in comparison to the fungal hyphae extensions.

A further complicating issue is the breeding and selection of new crop cultivars based solely on yield without any consideration for nutrition which mostly favours bulk carbohydrates rather than the important Phyto chemicals, vitamins, and minerals.

Consumers are driving changes across the food system. From an increase in plant-based diets to the huge uptake in alternative meat and dairy products. What decision can we make as individuals that will help to accelerate and increase the amount of food available regenerative farming? 

Because millennials have such a high regard for the impact of the environment on food production and cattle are incorrectly labelled as huge contributors to methane gas emissions known to be a bad GHG, they avoid the consumption of red meat. Reasons of compassion also drive this decision.

The record must be corrected in this context that cattle on grass and other plant-based pastures are not contributing to GHG emissions. In fact, cattle raised in this manner in a regenerative system assist with soil carbon sequestration through their enhancement of the photosynthetic process on the grazed pastures.  

The millennial survey further indicated that they read labels carefully, are very concerned about food additives and hormones and buy more organic produced food. They also have a desire to know where their food originates. Regenerative agriculture is already capitalizing on the results of this survey through direct sales offerings with a transparent approach to providing the information needed by their consumers and this sector is growing at a massive rate.  

Certifications and standards have been a good vehicle to help consumer choice. Do you think this will work for regenerative farming practices? 

Certification schemes are confusing especially when several certifying organizations are trying to certify the same concept with different measures.

I believe a single Regenerative Agriculture Seal of Approval that many brands can subscribe to is the way to go. Auditing should be based on conforming to all the regenerative production principles and the seal should be owned by the farmers involved not by an outside profit motivated organization.

The UN are hosting the first Food Systems Summit later this year as well as the UNFCCC’s COP26 being hosted in November. In terms of the agricultural industry and it’s impact on climate change, what would you like to see happen before these meetings and what would you like to see agreed as outcomes? 

Delegates must attend these meetings armed with up-to-date information on the following issues: -

  • An accurate situation analyses of the impact and cost of climate induced catastrophes like hurricanes and others over the last 10 years and what the rate of these annual event increases are.
  • A human health analyses.
  • The state of soil organic carbon worldwide.
  • Future forecast based on these trends; when does the system implode?
  • Demonstrate regenerative farming practices ability to be the best solution to solve these problems over the shortest period.
  • The fact that regenerative agriculture can sequester between 20 and 80 tons of carbon per hectare per annum depending on the efficiency of the operation should be music to the ears of the concerned climatologists and should receive much more attention.
  • Nutritional factors of regenerative agriculture’s produced crops should also be an important topic of discussion.

This report will in my view not reflect a pretty picture and the world must be told how long we still have.