The idea that the soil on our nation’s farms and ranches can help stop the climate crisis by acting as a carbon sink is gaining momentum. The concept, often referred to as regenerative agriculture, is being enshrined in innovative state policies and programs across the country, and a host of organizations are pushing to make it a fundamental part of climate solution policies like the Green New Deal. Even Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan, Tom Steyer, and Pete Buttigieg have mentioned soil carbon sequestration on the campaign trail.
But in this increasingly robust conversation, there is rarely a mention of a critical issue—reducing agricultural pesticide use. As a new scientific brief shows, pesticides can damage soil biotic communities—the very life that drives soil carbon sequestration and therefore the heart of regenerative agriculture. Failure to explicitly talk about pesticide reduction leaves a critical piece out of the conversation and also opens the regenerative agriculture movement to co-optation by the pesticide industry.
The farming methods being promoted under the banner of regenerative agriculture—which have long been championed by organic farmers, the original soil health advocates—are a huge environmental win. Practices like cover cropping, crop diversification, composting, no-till farming, and managed grazing of livestock not only help sequester carbon, research shows they save precious water resources and bolster farmers’ resilience to drought, flooding and climate chaos.
But these practices will only go so far toward building a sustainable food system if we don’t include pesticide reduction as a fundamental goal.
Pesticide giant Bayer-Monsanto is already cashing in on the interest in soil carbon sequestration. The company claims that by using the “right practices and products” farmers can build “healthy soils for a better planet” that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Scratch the surface, and this is a thin polish on Monsanto’s multi-billion-dollar product, the toxic herbicide Roundup. The company is promoting Roundup as a tool to reduce tillage, encouraging farmers to chemically “burn down” crops at the end of the season rather than till them under. But both organic and conventional farmers who are committed to truly regenerative agriculture are demonstrating that it’s possible to practice no-till farming without toxic chemicals.
The movement around soil health that is taking the national stage should follow the lead of farmers like these and become a vocal force for the reduction of toxic pesticides in our farming systems. The health of the soil and all life depends on it.
Above ground, pesticides are decimating populations of bees, butterflies, and other insects that sustain life on Earth. A new study found that U.S. agriculture has become 48 times more toxic to insect life in the past two decades. This came on the heels of a meta-analysis of global insect populations that found 40 percent of species could face extinction, threatening “catastrophic ecosystem collapse” if we don’t change the way we farm. And the most comprehensive scientific assessment to date warns that biodiversity loss is a global challenge on par with climate change.
Looking below ground, research shows that pesticides can damage the complex living communities of the soil. The billions of bacteria and other microorganisms that live in every teaspoon of healthy soil have been sequestering carbon for hundreds of millions of years. The networks they form with plant roots are what enable the flow of carbon from the atmosphere to the soil.
Toxic pesticides can damage this microbial bridge. They have been found to disrupt soil communities, alter biochemical processes, and harm the fauna that maintain the structure of the soil, like earthworms and springtails.
And Roundup? The new brief shows how the active ingredient—glyphosate—harms soil life and therefore undercuts the goals of regenerative agriculture. Among the evidence are studies finding that glyphosate can damage the ecology of mycorrhizal fungi that are essential for the transfer of carbon to the soil, increase pathogenic microorganisms in the soil, impair respiration of soil-dwelling organisms, and immobilize nutrients that plants and microorganisms need for healthy functioning.
Including pesticide reduction as a vital part of the regenerative agriculture conversation ensures that Monsanto and its ilk do not define the path forward.
As our climate and biodiversity crises worsen, regenerative farming offers a crucial path to growing food in a way that nourishes both people and the planet. Innovative solutions should be guided by the best available science. And the science shows that eliminating or greatly reducing toxic pesticides is key to building healthy soils and ecosystems for a healthy planet.