From Depletion to Regenerative Agriculture

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= Open Market Sustainability policy proposals by Patrick Doherty.



Patrick Doherty:

"The Nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value." —Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States17

The United States cannot become sustainable, nor can we induce global sustainability, without addressing the way we farm here at home. Part of the coming challenge is rising global demand; the International Monetary Fund’s food price index has risen 220 percent since 2000, as Asia’s economy creates more purchasing power seeking a more diverse diet. As another three billion people enter the global middle class over the next 20 years, we are going to have to put as much of the planet’s arable land under cultivation as possible—and do so while restoring our ecosystem, not depleting it. That is going to require a different kind of farming revolution, forging a regenerative agricultural system that meets increasing global demand and provides good jobs, all while restoring our soils, our waterways, and our atmosphere. Increasing global yield is still absolutely necessary, but no longer a sufficient metric of success.

We cannot make this change given the way American farms operate today. At present, the United States uses six calories of hydrocarbon energy to produce one calorie of food energy, meaning that food prices are tied dangerously to oil prices. The water we use for irrigation and the fertilizers we use on the land are also unsustainable. Total federal irrigation subsidies are approximately $22 billion, while the giant Ogallala Aquifer that irrigates $20 billion in agricultural products in the Great Plains is being drained at the rate of 18 Colorado Rivers each year—with recharge rates less than one-tenth of 1 percent of withdrawals. Fertilizer-intensive agriculture has led to rapid soil depletion, while nitrogen-rich farm effluent is poisoning our waterways, choking off spawning grounds, estuaries, and shellfisheries.

Depletion and waste on this scale indicate a major market failure. In this case, the failure is a function of policy: agricultural production in the United States is incredibly subsidized and the costs of ecological depletion are external to the market. A Canadian agricultural industry report published in November 2010 estimates that the total value of direct and indirect federal agricultural subsidies amounted to $180 billion dollars in 2009, or over half of total U.S. farm revenue.18 This massive government intervention in the farming sector is in part a product of the disproportionate weight given to farming states in the American political system, specifically the electoral college and the Senate. According to Dan Glickman, former U.S. agriculture secretary, the subsidies are “largely an income transfer program.

It is not just the ecosystem and markets that are affected by the subsidies. Ill-conceived subsidies are at the heart of America’s obesity problem and are undermining the family farm, depleting rural and maritime ecosystems, increasing our carbon emissions, and suppressing agricultural exports from developing nations.

The superiority of regenerative farming is now firmly established: organic agriculture outperforms and outearns conventional industrial farming. In September 2011, the Rodale Institute released the findings of its 30-year study of farming systems.20 Organic techniques beat conventional methods in every category, most importantly in productivity and in profit per acre. Controlling for premium pricing (the Whole Foods effect), organic production brought in three times as much per acre per year. Equally important, organic production produced slightly better yields than standard industrial techniques. Organic farming is also regenerative, rebuilding soils and retaining 15–20 percent more water, in turn improving drought resistance. These regenerative techniques consume 45 percent less energy and emit 29 percent less carbon than conventional methods.

Combined with the successful development of full-scale biochar, the agricultural sector could sequester up to 20 percent of the carbon that flows through the farming cycle.21 Biochar, similar to charcoal, is produced when agricultural waste is heated in a low-oxygen environment, locking the carbon in the waste into a stable form for centuries. In addition to sequestration, biochar rebuilds soil volume, nutrient composition, and water retention. Biochar production, however, also produces syngas, a biofuel, up to ten times more efficiently than corn ethanol production per kilojoule of net energy.22

A shift from a policy of federally subsidized farmland depletion to regenerative agriculture would allow America’s farming families to lead a prosperous life caring for the land. Farmers would once again be stewards of the soil, rebuilding fertility, sequestering carbon, and protecting our waterways, all while feeding the American people wholesome food. Indeed, such a program would likely bring more American farmers back to the land as less profitable, less efficient, capital-intensive industrial agriculture is priced out of the market. ” (

Policy Proposals

(U.S. context)

Patrick Doherty:


Stop the Addiction

  • End perverse subsidies. Conclude subsidy programs for irrigation ($22 billion), the Commodity Credit Corporation ($24 billion), export subsidies ($26 billion), direct producer payments ($10 billion), and the biomass energy tax incentive ($5 billion). Total cost: $0, with $87 billion in savings.
  • Accelerate adoption. Create a market-friendly, budget-neutral fee/bate (penalty/reward) program to reduce and sequester carbon emissions, to reduce water usage intensity, and to eliminate nutrient waste and leakage. Like the Japanese “Top-Runner” program, highest performing farms set the standard that all producers need to hit within five years. Businesses that outperform the standard get a rebate; those underperforming incur a fee. Total cost: $0.

Invest in the Future

  • Finance farm conversion. With the first $60 billion in subsidy savings, directly support the conversion of America’s farms from industrial to regenerative systems. Total cost: $60 billion.
  • Innovate and test rural infrastructure designs. America’s rural infrastructure is as degraded as the rest of the nation. Smart grids, high-speed freight rail, bulk river transport, and inland and coastal port updates are all necessary. Design transport networks to supply regional needs locally and then export surplus production. Total cost: $10 billion
  • Accelerate renewables. End taxation of grid-connected solar, wind, geothermal, microhydro, and waste-energy cogeneration projects to diversify farm income. Total cost: $0.
  • Educate innovators. Increase federal funding to land-grant universities to localize sustainable agriculture production methods and to U.S. Department of Agriculture agricultural extension programs to educate growers about sustainable farming practices tailored to their growing region. Total cost: $10 billion.
  • Finance the biochar revolution. Expand and accelerate funding for biochar research and full-scale production. Total cost: $7 billion."

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