Agriculture, the planet and humanity’s future. Op-ed By Charles Massy

Earth system and social scientists continue to describe and quantify the rapid descent of our planetary systems (including biodiversity) and human society into a new, frightening Anthropocene epoch.

However, the doom-laden messages of impending disaster seem to be triggering a negative reaction: of denial, dismissal, ridicule, or of pushing our heads and hearts deeper under the sand.

This denialism is reinforced by the reigning but suicidal human philosophy that now both governs our planet and thereby determines the future of every organism on it: of Neo-Liberal Economic Rationalism – or the pursuit of economic growth for the sake of growth, which  in turn means endless destruction.

Ironically, one of the modern founders of the Neo Liberal approach, Milton Friedman, had this to say in his introduction to Capitalism and Freedom in 1962: ‘Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change.’ ‘Moreover’, he continued, ‘when that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.’ 1

Well, we are certainly in a crisis: indeed the greatest humanity has ever faced. But this crisis is not what Friedman had in mind. And ironically, the ideas, the solutions to this crisis are not just lying around but are proven and active. Nor are we lacking alternatives to existing policies and practices: for these abound and are ground-proofed, whilst constantly evolving into better forms.

When faced with complex problems, our species has a tendency to seek complex solutions. However, it is often the simple, the most elegant solutions that can reside directly under our noses. And that applies in this case, for many of the best alternatives to our planetary and Anthropocene crisis reside in the ubiquitous field of agriculture: and specifically in that of regenerative agriculture. The irony here is that, when our planet entered the previous, stable, and human-conducive geological epoch of the Holocene, it was agriculture that triggered the rise of the city state and human civilisation. From this, after many millennia, came the emergence of industrial capitalism and of economic rationalist human civilisation.

Today, it is the extreme form of an ancient agriculture – of modern industrial agriculture – in conjunction with traditional malpractices that have become major players in helping destabilize many of our Earth systems.

Friedman talks about policy as a change agent. As a self-reinforcing factor in entrenching and furthering our deadly behaviours under Neoliberalism, then perhaps he is correct. But as an agent for the radical change that is needed, it is hard to see how the prevailing policies that bulwark and foster our suicidal philosophies can trigger the radical changes that are needed. For policy is developed and implemented by those holding power, not by the challengers, the innovators, the alternative thinkers.

In this case, however, the urgently needed solutions – albeit bereft of supporting ‘policy’ – already exist.

Foremost of these are the solutions inherent in an evolving regenerative agriculture movement. These solutions, in addressing the corrosion and destabilizing of critical Earth systems like Climate change, biodiversity loss, degradation of landscapes and water cycles (large and small), and destabilization of the integrated nitrogen-phosphorous cycles, lie very much with regenerative agriculture and are being applied across tens of millions of hectares world-wide.

Given that agriculture operates in the multiple, complex adaptive systems of our landscapes, bioregions and even planet, then a basic definition of regenerative agriculture is: ‘Those agricultural practices and underlying belief systems that enable the healthy self-organization of key landscape functions within long co-evolved, natural complex adaptive systems.’ The pathway to this is the triggering and utilisation of emergent properties within those systems.

Take climate change and the drawdown of CO2. The work of Paul Hawken and colleagues in Drawdown. The Most Comprehensive Plan ever proposed to Reverse Global Warming of 2017, reveals that of the eighty calculated best methods of drawing down CO₂ from the atmosphere, ten of the top twenty are variants of regenerative agriculture. That is, taken together, regenerative agriculture is one of our very best avenues to such desperately needed carbon drawdown. 2

But in constructively addressing our climate crisis, the positive regenerative impacts don’t stop there. Once you begin capturing and fixing more carbon in the soil, this in turn has multiple and positive knock-on effects. First, fixing extra carbon in the soil is the key initial step to addressing land degradation.

Second, healthy organic carbon stimulates soil life, which in turn radically impacts the water cycle through enabling greater water storage and healthier, diverse plant growth and ground-cover so as to prevent water loss.

In turn, and third, this extra carbon and water impacts and enriches biodiversity of all kinds.

Fourth, these benefits create conditions where the wasteful and damaging industrial addition of synthetic nitrogen and phosphorous can be both eliminated and their impact nullified. Fifth, a healthy soil biology also means the elimination of harmful chemicals like pesticides and herbicides (such as glyph sate, now shown to be wreaking havoc on human and animal health), as natural pest-control and alternate means of grazing and cropping are enabled to be expressed.

Finally, a healthier soil biology (which means greater nutrient and mineral richness in our plants), in combination with the elimination of human-made poisons, pharmaceuticals and the like, means regenerative agriculture is also playing a huge role in addressing many of the causal factors of modern human health diseases.

The regenerative agriculture revolution is now rapidly spreading globally. Today in Australia, due to increasing recognition of the power and importance of regenerative agriculture to planetary, human and animal health, tens of billions of dollars of philanthropic, corporate and private money is pouring into this regenerative space: not just for the Great Barrier Reef (where regenerative agriculture is having a huge healing impact in regard to nutrient run-off) but also for the widely degraded landscapes that are the legacy of an invading settler economy and our prevailing economic rationalist world-view. That is, there is an increasing understanding that land is not an inert resource for just maximising profit, but instead that, once we understand how landscapes function, then regenerated landscapes can provide a major solution for our own and our planet’s long-term survival.

As environmental and futurist thinker David Korten once said: ‘The Great Turning…requires reframing the cultural stories by which we define our human nature, purpose and possibilities.’ He further explained that ‘Change begins with a story of the wonder and beauty of life and the cosmos’, stories ‘so compelling as to displace in the public mind the story of Sacred Money & Markets’. 3

That is, top-down policy shaped by the ‘Sacred Money & Markets’ ruling paradigm will only exacerbate our planetary emergency. We need instead to listen to, learn from, follow, and encourage the ‘bottom-up’ or ‘underground’ revolution of regenerative agriculture and its associated urban ‘green’ and food cultures. For, in regenerating the key landscape functions of the solar cycle, water cycle, soil-mineral cycle and biodiversity, in conjunction with a reborn human-social factor that nurtures rather then destroys, then our human society at last has a philosophy and a series of regenerative practices to both renew our landscapes and our planetary and human health.

1 Friedman, M. Capitalism  and Freedom. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.1962.

2 Hawken, P. (ed.) Drawdown. The Most Comprehensive Plan ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. Penguin, 2017.

3 Korten, D. ‘The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community! Yes!’ In: a Journal of Positive Futures, Summer 2006.

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