A Crisis Underfoot

  • Note to the Reader. As part of the Stanford Existential Risk Initiative summer research cohort, I have chosen to research topsoil loss and how we can empower farmers to protect and regenerate our soils for the larger goal of carbon sequestration, prosperous livelihoods, and planetary health. After nine weeks of research, pouring through the abundance of studies and essays on this very topic found online, I’ve realized that I myself cannot contribute anything particularly novel, especially when my research has been so dependent on reading the expertise that already exists. What I can offer, however, is a call for attention and action and a space to elevate the many, often less-known voices of this movement. As such, I’ll rely heavily on hyperlinks and I encourage you to explore the many linked pages to learn from the experts, farmers, and activists working in the field.
Photo by Ramin Khatibi, Unsplash
  • No till/low till: In order to reduce erosion and maintain the integrity of their soil, regenerative farmers avoid tillage whenever possible and opt to combat weeds and prepare for planting with no-till drills and cover crops.
  • Plant Cover Crops: In addition to helping suppress weeds and mitigate the need for tilling, planting crops other than the variety you intend to sell (cash crops) can improve the soil microbiome by cycling more and sometimes different nutrients into the soil. Legumes, for instance, can even fix nitrogen into accessible nitrates available to plant roots. Furthermore, cover crops can aid in deterring pests, preventing leaching of nitrogen into waterways, and providing an armor for the soil to protect against wind and water erosion. Any crop can be a cover crop, but grasses and cereals (rye for example) are common choices.
  • Maintaining Living Roots. In a similar vein, active roots feed soil biology its most basic food source — carbon. By keeping living roots in the soil for as long as possible throughout the year, this allows for continued nutrient cycling while also supporting the integrity of the soil structure and warding against erosion.
  • Fostering Biodiversity. Regenerative farmers aim to enhance biodiversity above and below ground by inoculating soils with composts to support soil microbial populations, planting a diversity of plant species, and engaging in practices that build on symbiotic ecosystem relationships, increasing resilience of the farm as a whole.
  • Incorporate livestock onto the land. When applicable, regenerative agriculture calls for well-managed, holistic grazing of livestock to stimulate plant growth, increase soil carbon deposits, promote biodiversity, and return fertility to the soil in manure.
  • Shop at Farmers Markets. and actively engage with and support regenerative farmers and those working towards that goal. Because farmers take so little of the market price of their produce sold in grocery stores, buying at a farmers market is a great way to share consumer values while putting more of the final price in the pockets of farmers so that farmers can be more innovative and less risk averse. For those who are able, buy directly from farmers through markets and CSA programs whenever possible.
  • Support Regenerative Brands. Like the above, vote with your dollar as much as you are able to support regenerative organic certified brands and others working towards this goal (but prior to certification). While information on specific brands that fit this criteria is poorly organized and constantly changing, national brands engaging with the regenerative movement include Annie’s, General Mills, Danone, Applegate, and many more local and regional brands.
  • Donate to and Support Regenerative BIPOC Farmers and land reparations movements. Support BIPOC farmers working to restore our soils and ecosystems and expand the land on which they do so using this map of BIPOC farmers looking for support or through a quick google search of the many land reparation fundraisers taking place across the country. Farming While Black by Leah Penniman and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer are wonderful reads that explain the importance of this movement.
  • Vote to Elect Officials Who Will Empower Farmers of All Backgrounds. Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s platform to empower rural America includes exciting plans to empower small and mid sized farmers, reduce agricultural carbon emissions, and end structural discrimination against farmers of color. Representatives on both sides of the aisle have worked together to draft The Growing Climate Solutions Act. Local officials are drafting policies to develop grants for farmers transitioning to conservation agriculture while national movements like the Green New Deal take radical steps towards making our food system more just and regenerative. Voting is one major way to make structural change in favor of preserving our topsoil.

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Student at Stanford University. I love backpacking, skiing, agriculture, and ecosystem services. I believe when you don't understand a problem, make it bigger!

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Tule Horton

Student at Stanford University. I love backpacking, skiing, agriculture, and ecosystem services. I believe when you don't understand a problem, make it bigger!