The carbon cycle is a set of chemical and biological reactions and physical processes that move carbon throughout the planet, from the air, to the oceans, to rocks from plants, to animals, to microorganisms, and back to the air. There are many pathways by which carbon can move from one form to another, regulated by various natural processes and mechanisms. In the absence of human intervention, nature is the chief regulator of the carbon cycle.
Human industry, however, has had a profound influence on the carbon cycle. Through the drilling and burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and other means, we have increased the flow of carbon from the land to the air, overwhelming the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. With the carbon scale tipped towards the atmosphere, temperatures are increasing, sea levels are rising, and weather events are becoming more extreme. If we allow nature to take back control of the carbon cycle, perhaps we can begin to even out the scale.
The most direct measure to limit the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels. However, since the terrestrial biosphere is a carbon sink, harnessing the power of nature to pull more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere is also essential to addressing climate change. Regenerative agricultural practices can be put into place with the objective to decrease agriculture-related emissions and to increase the rates of carbon sequestration in plants and soils.
The principal goal of a regenerative agricultural system is to build and maintain the soil’s ability to regenerate and recycle nutrients, and to capture and hold water, decreasing the farm’s dependence on outside inputs. One way to do this is by adopting an agroforestry approach.
Agroforestry systems perform better than monocultures, both economically and ecologically. They help landowners to diversify their income, improve soil and water quality, moderate microclimate, and reduce erosion. They also help improve habitat for wildlife, lower prevalence of pests and beautify the landscape. The permanent plant coverage that agroforestry systems provide enhances soil organic matter and biological activity. Thus, it creates a closed-loop nutrient cycle that greatly reduces the need for maintenance, fertilizers or other external inputs. Furthermore, the release of nutrients from the decomposition of tree cuttings can be synchronized with the needs for nutrient uptake of the crops. Agroforestry systems date back thousands of years and differ greatly in design, depending on their purpose and context — they can appear as wilderness or be highly structured.
Agroforestry is a critically important solution to climate change. Trees form an integral part of a regenerative agricultural system. Some functions they provide include:
Soil carbon and trees are the key ingredients in creating resilience across an agricultural landscape. Better water and nutrient cycling mean less dependence on outside input and fewer costs associated with improving a farm’s productivity. Beyond the benefits to farmers, the more carbon there is in the soil, the less there is in the atmosphere. Implemented on a global scale, regenerative agriculture has the potential to reverse climate change and affect the entire planet.