Commentary RESEARCH

Regenerative agriculture for a nature-positive planet


2023-09-14 12:00

Jennifer Morris
China Daily

With swift system-wide planning and collaboration across governments, we have plenty of lands and waters on which to build renewable energy sources and ensure food security if we focus our efforts on systematic planning

The devastation brought by climate change is evident all around, including the recent severe flooding in Beijing and in Hebei province. These, combined with wildfires, heatwaves, droughts, and increased storm intensity around the world, are becoming part of our daily newsfeed.

Our current food system is the biggest driver of biodiversity loss and pollution, accounting for up to 30 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions. We know that without significant changes to how we produce food, we will not be able to meet our collective goal of limiting warming to under 1.5 C.

We also know that agriculture does not have to be a crisis driver. We can have food security without destroying soils, watersheds or threatening the planet's biodiversity.

In the past 50 years, global food demand has skyrocketed. In response, producers have risen to this challenge, driving major advances to dramatically increase food supplies and expand the industry. This shift underpins billions of lives and livelihoods in rural communities around the world — and it also comes at a cost.

Food is more than something we eat to survive — it's a part of how we thrive. Complex food systems include agriculture and soils to aquaculture and fisheries. When we talk about producing food from our soil, which is the skin of the Earth, we know that recycling critical nutrients must be the top priority. When we protect and restore the soil, we also help preserve water, protect biodiversity, and keep greenhouse gases sequestered in the soil from being released into an already stressed-out atmosphere.

Despite this knowledge, soil is getting degraded by the very same practices that have produced a bounty for people. Farmers, especially the millions of smallholders, often lack the information and resources needed to restore nutrients in the soil and transition to regenerative farming. This is starting to change, but we need to see more action and faster.

From Brazil to China, we have incredible examples where no-till and cover-crops are paired with long-term investments to give farmers the time and inputs needed to replenish the soil. I was able to see this firsthand while visiting farmers in Shandong province. In just two years, wheat and corn growers adopting regenerative practice were saving over 100 yuan ($13.76) per mu (0.067 hectares) and reducing their water usage by nearly 10 percent while cutting greenhouse gas emissions by reducing machinery operation by 50 percent.

These innovative pilot programs are supported by novel public-private partnerships and help farmers withstand the shocks from global warming — with floods one year and droughts the next. In addition to food security, better soils yield more resilient crops which is better for the planet, and better for us.

From Aug 28 to 30, I joined the annual general meeting of the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development in Beijing, along with Chinese and international experts and decision-makers to exchange views on the most compelling challenges of our times. We all came to this meeting knowing we have an opportunity now — we are impatient optimists, all seeking solutions to address the poly crisis of the climate emergency, biodiversity loss and increased pollution.

One of those key opportunities is deploying renewable energy. China already has the system and tools to determine the most appropriate places to set up wind farms and solar arrays. The Ecological Red Line System has been used to identify places for setting up protected areas and to support broader planning for ecosystems protection and services. "Red" means "stop", but the ERLS can also be utilized to signal "go", to indicate where renewable energy can be tapped at the least cost to biodiversity, agricultural production, or other priority uses.

As an obvious example, places known to contain highly degraded or contaminated soils, which cannot be used to grow crops and are unlikely to be rich in biodiversity or suitable for human settlement, may be appropriate for wind and solar installations. The Nature Conservancy has used a similar approach in partnership with developers in the United States and Europe where we are helping reduce land conflict by siting renewables on the right land, such as degraded mountain-top coal mines.

In the US, we have identified more than 310,000 square kilometers, an area about the size of Poland, where renewable energy can be sourced while still conserving wildlife habitat. Globally, our research shows the world has 17 times the required energy targets on converted lands, and that most countries can meet the Paris Agreement goals by deploying new energy infrastructure on already converted lands.

Simply put, we do not need to destroy nature to harness wind and solar energy.

TNC and the Energy Research Institute of the National Development and Reform Commission carried out the Eco-friendly Renewable Energy Development Planning Project and jointly published the report Eco-friendly Spatial Layout of Renewable Energy Development in China 2016-30 in 2019, which provides policy recommendations for renewable energy site selection in China.

We can and must have nature-positive energy and agriculture. And we have plenty of lands and waters on which to build renewable energy sources and ensure food security if we focus our efforts on systematic planning. This will require ministries and departments in each of our governments to work together.

The author is chief executive officer at The Nature Conservancy. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. 



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