Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems

Get to Know the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative

by Sheryl Karas, RAI staff

Hands holding a plant in soil

Welcome to the blog for the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative (RAI) at California State University in Chico, CA. We are a diverse group of multidisciplinary faculty and farmers, collaborating on research and teaching strategies intended to address the biggest threats to civilization today: climate change, soil erosion and loss of soil fertility.  

The United Nations reports(opens in new window) that if current rates of soil degradation continue, all of the world’s topsoil could be gone within 60 years. Additionally, we have already passed a tipping point in greenhouse gas levels. According to Yale Environment 360(opens in new window), the last time there was so much CO2 in the atmosphere was in the Stone Age and, even if the emissions contributing to those levels stopped today, we’ve passed a critical point on route to climate change. Signs of climate chaos are already starting to appear, and that combined with the loss of topsoil is leading to famine and water shortages in Africa and other parts of the world. Stopping these emissions is no longer enough to stop global warming. We need to do that and adopt a comprehensive strategy to draw carbon from the atmosphere on an international level while addressing the problems of food insecurity and water shortages.   

That’s where Regenerative Agriculture comes in. 

The Promise of Regenerative Agriculture 

Imagine if there was a mechanism that could solve all these problems at once with a process that draws excess carbon from the atmosphere and uses it to restore the soil. Think back to grade school and you might realize that such mechanisms already exist. Plants and trees do this work through the process of photosynthesis. But what most of us did not learn was that the plants are part of an important living system that includes microorganisms and plant matter in the soil. When that system is healthy and working well, surprising amounts of CO2 can be sequestered naturally underground.  

Unfortunately, the most commonly used practices in conventional farming such as tilling and the application of chemical fertilizers release carbon back into the atmosphere and disrupt the biology of the soil. It actually contributes eventually to soil erosion and climate change. But Regenerative Agriculture practices work with and restore the natural balance of the soil. In fact, research done by the Rodale Institute (PDF) shows that it may be possible to sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions by switching to widely available and inexpensive Regenerative Agriculture practices.   

This way of farming is nothing new. We advocate the use of no-till methods, multi-species cover crops, compost, short-term managed grazing and adding biologically correct enhancements to the soil. Farmers who have adopted these methods say that in many ways they are returning to how their grandparents farmed. What’s new is the need to restore conditions that have been lost and scientific verification of this approach’s ability to reduce greenhouse gas levels, restore soil resiliency, increase the economic viability and sustainability of farms/ranches, and address food insecurity.  

Inspirational Research  

The research is extremely heartening with far reaching implications for climate and food policy, agricultural husbandry practices, food justice, business models, as well as local food sheds. RAI co-founder Tim LaSalle says(opens in new window) studies indicate that by using these methods “we can feed the world on probably 50% of the land, even as our populations increase. That’s the exciting thing about regeneration. And we’re rebuilding these systems instead of extracting from them.  It’s an investment in addressing hunger, water, for almost no cost. No need for foreign aid or inputs such as inorganic fertilizers. It’s an investment in hunger, in social justice, and cleaning up the ecology and the environment at the same time.”   

Dr. Cynthia Daley, Director and co-founder of RAI agrees, “part of RAI’s mission is to replicate and build on studies that have been done. We’re also creating on-farm demonstration sites and educational programs to share best practices from the initiative’s research efforts with academia, the broader agricultural community, and society as a whole.” 

In future blog posts we’ll be sharing science-based information about those practices and how they can help the challenges we face. And we’ll show you how to apply this knowledge to your own life as a farmer, home gardener, or as an educated consumer, advocate for healthy food, a healthy environment, or climate change activist.   

We’re also starting an international Journal for Regenerative Agriculture where scientists and farmer-researchers can share peer-reviewed RA research, case studies, and extension reports. The publication is intended to be a user-friendly platform for academics, farmers and the general public, serving as both a marketing and policy advocacy tool to promote awareness and adoption of RA practices and supporting policies. Daley emphasizes that “we want farmers to contribute their own stories to inspire others and create dialog as well.”  

The Climate Clock is Ticking  

The biggest challenge is racing against the clock. Tim LaSalle says, “the timeline may be as short as 5 -10 years to make this shift. People have asked me many times, ‘do you have hope? And I say ‘None!’ Because I see people with hope use it as a placeholder for action. We actually have no time to sit around and hope! We actually have to get engaged and act. . . . We can go back and fix this thing but we have to act, starting today.”  

Luckily, when people do act in their local farms and communities, results can happen quickly. Researcher Roland Bunch(opens in new window), for example, says that in his research on small farms in Africa and many other places around the world, he has found that by using Regenerative Agriculture methods topsoil can be rebuilt at over an inch a year, and likely more quickly than that!  

Tim LaSalle agrees and encourages working quickly towards a shift in consciousness. “Somehow we have to circumvent the normal way that we transition our science and our education and our practice when it comes to soil and carbon. And we have to ramp this up very very fast.”  

Join us on this journey! Follow our blog, visit our website, sign up for our seminars, and learn how to get involved. As RAI director Dr. Cynthia Daley(opens in new window) likes to say, “This is a big push, all hands on deck!” 

Learn more about RAI . . . (opens in new window)