Coronavirus, Regenerative Agriculture and Renewable Energy

pangolin Namibia
A pangolin from Namibia. Globally, pangolins are the world’s most trafficked mammal. Photo: Alex Strachan

I’ve written recently about our pressing need to think globally about wet markets and the bushmeat trade. Aside from their devastating impact on wildlife, these practices are superhighways for diseases to enter the human population, with catastrophic effects to health and the global economy. While we’re currently experiencing this with Covid-19, it’s also been the cause of many other devastating pandemics like HIV/AIDS and Ebola.

Bushmeat, though, is only one corner of the enormously complex problem of humanity’s relationship to food. As is the case elsewhere in the wealthy West, here in the United States, most of the food we purchase from is part of a massive $1.053 trillion industry* that produces 120 million tons of food per year. Fully half of this, some 60 million tons (or $160 billion), equaling one third of all foodstuffs,  is simply thrown away.

agricultural runoff

The water we use to produce our food (and its associated waste) is also part of this equation. The USDA has published data on how much water is applied to agricultural in the US. On that link is a Excel table that shows the total water applied to agricultural lands expressed in acre feet (the surface area of an acre, down to the depth of 1 foot). In 2013, the total for the whole country was 88,511,062 acre-feet. One acre foot of water equals 325,851 gallons, making the total a whopping 1.061789e+11 gallons. That’s roughly equivalent to the volume of Lake Ontario every 15 years. Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of the Nation’s water consumption and over 90 percent in many Western States.

This kind of land use has global repercussions. A study in the prestigious journal Nature found that nearly 80% of the world’s population is exposed to high levels of threat to water security. It’s also well known that intensive farming strips out soils, requiring increasing use of expensive fertilizers, and the pesticides we used to keep the plants growing is, long-term risk of encouraging immunity to the pests we’re trying to control.

While these practices don’t directly cause or spread the pandemic, it does point to the need for greater scientific input, and a more holistic perspective, on how and what we – as a global society – consume.

Regenerative farms focus on encouraging pollinators and other natural systems. Photo: Myriam Zillies

So what to do? One answer may come from the concept of regenerative agriculture. The basic idea is to work with nature, rather than against it, to develop agricultural systems that restore soil quality, although with its natural biological cycles and ecosystems. Regenerative agriculture focuses on topsoil rehabilitation, increasing biodiversity, improving the water cycle, enhancing ecosystem services and supporting biosequestration (capturing and storing carbon in plants, algae and other living organisms like plants). Strengthening the health and vitality of farm soils results in more nutritious food, less waste (because as much farm waste as possible is recycled). And, because yield on a regenerative farm increases over time, it seems like good business.

solar-panels-1794467_1280It’s not only changing agricultural practices that can help us. A recent report on NBC news suggests that the renewable energy market could be able to cope with short-term fluctuations due to the pandemic and may even be poised to see an improvement from efforts to restart economies. With the sharp decline in the price of oil, still a central pillar of the energy sector, many renewable energy projects are continuation. In fact, renewable energy is the only part of the energy sector to grow in 2020, while fossil fuels are expected to plunge because of declining energy demands due to the pandemic.

There are many long-term takeaways from the Coronavirus pandemic, once we’ve come to grips with the tragedy that has, so far, taken a quarter of a million lives worldwide and predicated a global financial meltdown. Here in the US, calls for rethinking our relationship with nature have come at least since Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Rachel Carson and continue today with the likes of Richard Louv and Charles Eisenstein.

As much as these inspiring authors were focused on this country, the philosophy of “not in my backyard” simply won’t work anymore. Global travel and trade has put pay to that. Something that’s one society’s problem is every society’s problem. There is no “away.”

*2017 figure

2 thoughts on “Coronavirus, Regenerative Agriculture and Renewable Energy

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  1. In my country (NL) there have been some attempts to arrive at renewable forms of agriculture, but it’s been tough going despite public support. We’re the second global producer of agricultural goods, which is bonkers since our country is about the size of Maine. As a consequence, we’re beginning to be faced with increasing pollution (e.g., medicine and insecticides in drinking water) issues.
    The biggest problem, turns out, is cultural. Partly because successive governments (and Europe) lost sight of any considerations of sustainability and for decades promoted an agricultural policy that focuses exclusively on profit; and partly because farmers are often deeply conservative (I’m from a farm myself) and suspicious of anyone from outside their own circle proposing alternatives. Those are formidable hurdles. But farmers are not daft, and are firstly entrepreneurs. But the EU is slow in turning, as agriculture is traditionally one of the interest battlegrounds of the big EU nations.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I didn’t realize The Netherlands had such a high production. It’s clearly has to be a highly efficient set of practices. I agree about reluctance to change – that’s one of the reasons science should be partnering with industry to help change develop, and be driven, from within, and has to be based in increased return on investment. Sustainability measures, in my observation, are rarely taken up unless there’s a gain for the producer.

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