Under regenerative agriculture soil health is dramatically improved, By replacing tilling with non-destructive soil practices and taking steps to restore a thriving soil ecosystem, farmers and gardeners are freeing themselves from soil-damaging (and expensive) chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.
As soil health is restored, plant, animal and human health are too!
Healthy, undisturbed natural soil is filled with living things - it's not just bits of dead rock.
"Over 95% of life on land resides in soil", says soil ecologist Christine Jones, PhD. (1)
While most of this life is too small to see with the naked eye, a multitude of organisms in the soil are in symbiotic relationships with plants in ways that humans are just beginning to notice, let alone study.
In regenerative agriculture healthy soil contains fungi, bacteria, actinomycetes, archaea, microarthropods, protozoa, nematodes, earthworms, springtails, and myriad other beings, each of which has a specialty job to do.
Some break down dead organic matter, some extract phosphorus from tiny bits of rock so plants can use it. Some secrete glues that aggregate soil and make it spongy, friable, and able to retain both water and air. Others pull atmospheric nitrogen from the air and convert it into a form that plants use to build proteins.
All the creatures that make up the "95% of life", have specific roles, and they all work together to recycle minerals from the not-living into the living.
Among the most amazing of the plant's soil friends are the miraculous mycorrhizal fungi, whose job it is (among other things) to secrete acids that etch minerals from rock particles, gather the minerals up and transport them along their filaments to plant roots. About 80% of all plants have mycorrhizal symbionts, the majority of food plants among them.
The filaments of these arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi branch and form vast networks underground (some are miles across), massively extending the effective nutrient-gathering area of a plant's roots. Where plant roots and mycorrhizal fungi meet, they form a sac-like structure between them, with each secreting into the sac what the other needs. Plants get minerals brought by the fungi, while fungi get sugars produced by the plant through photosynthesis.
We can think of mycorrhizal fungi as being like waiters at a restaurant, serving up food in exchange for wages and tips, which come in the form of sugars made by the plants above ground. Remember that fungi can't photosynthesize, and have no other way to get energy.
Plants may send up to 60% of the sugars they produce through photosynthesis to the mycorrhizal fungi. This is a lot of energy expenditure for the plant, so the benefit it receives from the mycorrhizal fungi is clearly of great value.
Not only do the mycorrhizal filaments act as supply lines to plant roots, they also function like internet cables that allow plants to communicate with each other!
If one plant gets attacked by a pest, within moments other plants nearby will start developing their own anti-pest phenols. The plant is sending chemical signals through the mycorrhizal network, which notify its neighbors of the attack.
In regenerative agriculture soil health is understood to be created by this diverse soil ecosystem, and all the regenerative agriculture practices are aimed at protecting and promoting this ecosystem.
In the process of photosynthesis, green plants take sunlight energy
and use it to bind together water, carbon dioxide, and minerals from the
soil. This process fuels all of life on Earth, including animals,
people, ocean life, and soil life. (There is one exception*) (sidebar on
the deepsea vents).
Note that in the process of photosynthesis, plants are pulling the powerful greenhouse gas carbon dioxide out of the air and putting it underground. Whether this carbon remains underground or volatilizes back out into the atmosphere depends on how the soil is treated.
Tilling and plowing favors the rapid breakdown of high-carbon crop stubble and the volatization of that carbon back into the atmosphere. Leaving the dead roots underground, as well as keeping living roots (with their carbon-pumping sugar factories intact) keeps carbon in a stabilized form underground. Regenerative agriculture focuses on the latter.
We shouldn't be too quick to write off the potential for living green plants, along with their microbial buddies underground, to play a major role in reversing global warming. There's a fabulous film about this on Netflix called Kiss the Ground.
Consider what the destruction of the soil ecosystem through industrial agriculture has cost all of life on planet Earth :
Now to the part about plants taking minerals from the soil: they can only do that when the minerals are present in the soil, and then only when there are enough diverse microbes present to extract and ferry those minerals to the plants roots.
Nature has had this worked out for millions of years. Microbes feed plants, and plants feed animals and people. Under a natural, balanced sustainable soil ecosystem, vegans, carnivores, and everyone in between are all dependent on the microbes in the soil.
By regenerating the soil ecosystem, we can eliminate agriculture's current dependence on increasingly unaffordable and dangerous chemical inputs, genetically-altered seeds, and buildings full of huge, heavy specialized farm equipment - all of which kill soil life. In so doing, the agrochemical industry is creating and sustaining the market for agrochemicals.
The current monolithic corporate model of industrialized farming has been ruled since 1973 by the mantra: "Get big or get out". Then Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz uttered these words as a demand for how food was to be grown going forward, and was the birth of corporate megafarming, implementing the "efficiencies" of the so-called Green Revolution.
But it was the beginning of the end, not only for soil life, but for family farms.
Now regenerative agriculture is enabling forward-thinking farmers to take back control of their livelihoods, away from Big Ag (and Big Banks). It is the path by which farming is being restored to its former status as a financially viable profession at a human scale.
Regenerative agriculture is also putting deep nutrition back into the food we eat, rather than producing vast quanitites of the pretty - but nutritionally empty - foods that result in chronic disease.
It can even make the farm itself more resilient in the face of adverse weather events, reducing the need for subsidies. When the soil is alive, rich in diversity of plants and soil-critters, full of living and dead roots, rich in carbon and minerals, it retains moisture while providing pore spaces for air, acting much like a sponge. The land is much more resistant to drought, floods, and erosion, and properly managed, can get by on radically reduced irrigation.
Perhaps this all sounds unrealistic. But increasing numbers of very intelligent farmers and ranchers proving that these methods work. These farmers are using regenerative agriculture methods to successfully crawl out from under the shadow of the Big Ag machine, and they are making more profit than they did under its dominion. Agricultural colleges are starting to offer courses in regenerative agriculture, and the USDA and its NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) are taking note of its successes.
Big Ag is starting to feel the heat. As regenerative agriculture works its magic, be on the lookout for disinformation campaigns.
1. Christine Jones, PhD: Light Farming: Restoring carbon, organic nitrogen and biodiversity to agricultural soils; published online at amazingcarbon.com