The challenge of feeding a growing human population while simultaneously tackling the climate and biodiversity crises has been top of mind for governments, scientists, and land-use experts for some time. Now, COVID-19 and its economic impacts have heightened awareness of the need for responsible food systems based on sustainable agriculture.
COVID-19 and the Global Food Supply
For sustainable agriculture advocates, the virus’s origin and the exposure of a fragile global food system are a wake-up call.
The coronavirus is another in a long line of pathogens that have been linked to habitat destruction and factory farming. At the same time, the national lockdowns implemented to slow the spread of the virus have disrupted the global food supply chain and caused widespread economic hardship.
This has left millions of people in both the developing world and the United States without enough to eat. The United Nations’ World Food Programme has warned of a looming global food crisis, estimating that as many as 265 million people face acute food insecurity this year, nearly twice as many as in 2019, due to the economic fallout of the COVID crisis.
Regenerative Agriculture for a Food-Secure Future
One goal of sustainable agriculture is to restore natural ecosystems and increase food production sustainably without expanding the land mass used for agricultural purposes. This would allow us to ensure a food-secure future that does not increase the threat of future pandemics or intensify biodiversity loss and global heating.
One emerging practice that appears to tick all of these boxes is regenerative agriculture, which uses holistic farming and grazing techniques to restore soil that has been degraded by industrial practices. Where industrial agriculture involves monoculture farming, water pollution, soil contamination, and animal welfare violations, regenerative agriculture aims to produce food sustainably. Its key principles are crop diversity; using continual crop coverage to protect the soil from wind and water erosion; integrating crops and livestock; and “no-till” farming, which is the avoidance of mechanical, physical, and chemical disturbances to the soil.
New long-term research demonstrates a benefit to crop yield over time for farmers practicing no-till agriculture versus those who use conventional agricultural practices. Moreover, regenerative techniques improve the soil’s water-retaining capacity, helping crops rebound during especially dry or wet periods.
Despite the impression it might give, regenerative agriculture is not just for small, progressive farmers. Multinational corporations such as General Mills, Kellogg’s, and Danone are providing financial incentives to farmers incorporating regenerative farming techniques into their production.
While this mainstreaming is significant, rebuilding a global food system dominated by industrial farming will require support and financial investment from public and private sector actors around the world.