Why Patagonia is standing behind a new agriculture certification

Italian Rye as a cover crop, Photo by Alan Manson

If someone told you that farmers might be able to sequester 100% of world carbon emissions with inexpensive farming practices, would you stand behind that movement?

Well, the clothing company Patagonia, alongside the Rodale Institute and a coalition of farmers, ranchers, nonprofits, scientists, and other socially conscience brands, have done just that.  In March of this year, the Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) label launched with a little bit of fanfare, some controversy, but by and large, a bid to shine a spotlight on an area of immense opportunity.  Not just for CO2 emissions but for addressing poverty and hunger.

Regenerative agriculture is “one of the best-kept secrets in the world today… and is the solution to global warming and the climate crisis …” according to Ronnie Cummins who sits on the Regeneration International Steering Committee.

With 40% of the world’s ice free land dedicated to agriculture, how we steward this land is consequential.  And now some scientist believe specific inexpensive farming practices offer an immense opportunity to address the growing threat of carbon emissions.  The practices, collectively known as carbon farming, slow the release of carbon back into the atmosphere by storing carbon in the soil.

When thinking about the environment and climate change, think in terms of carbon emitters and carbon absorbers.  Carbon emissions come from both natural as well as man-made sources.  As animals, we breathe in oxygen and emit carbon dioxide. Warming oceans release carbon. Burning fossil fuels emit carbon.  Add plowing, bare soil, intense live-stock grazing and clear cutting to the emissions side of the equation.

On the absorption side, forests and oceans act as a carbon sink. Now add untilled agricultural land covered with compost and cover crops that are specifically planted to absorb carbon. It’s a nifty equation. As carbon is emitted, plants take in CO2 and sunlight, and through photosynthesis convert these into energy to fuel their growth.  Untilled soil with cover crops and compost absorb and store carbon.  The stored carbon makes the soil fertile, increasing crop nutrition and resilience.

Much of climate change policy to date has focused on reducing man-made emissions.  Carbon farming works on the other half of the equation, increasing the earth’s ability to absorb and store carbon.

Implementing carbon farming practices has the opportunity to turn large swaths of agriculture land into a giant carbon sponge.  And a sponge that not only sequesters carbon, but retains water and nutrients to grow nutrient rich agriculture.

One component of carbon farming, no-till farming, is catching on in the US particularly among large industrialized farms.  Large farms are jumping on board because reducing tilling saves on labor costs and increases moisture in the soil. Close to 35% of farms in the US practice reduced till strategies, and 10% practice no till.  Internationally no-till remains in an infancy stage, with a small percent of agricultural land outside the US practicing no-till.

Tilling has been used for generations on both conventional and organic farming to suppress weeds. Remove tilling as an option to control weeds, and conventional farmers end up spraying large amounts of herbicide on the soil, leading to toxicity in the soil and run-off.  No-till alone may reduce the amount of stored carbon released into the atmosphere from the soil, but the toxicity from increased herbicides negates a lot of the value.  Organic farmers have been slower to adopt no-till because of weed concerns.

Patagonia and the members behind the ROC certification are focused on combining organic farming practices with no-till strategies.  The Rodale Institute is leading the coalition in researching organic no-till farming practices and educating farmers world-wide about the tools and processes.

The power of combing both organic practices with reduced or no-till strategies maximizes the opportunity to use farming to regenerate not only the soil, but the planet.