Regenerative Agriculture – a shared strategy for post-COVID-19 recovery and climate action

The year 2020 was anticipated as a critical year for climate action,

But the catastrophic social and economic impact of the pandemic has undermined climate ambition.  Governments across the globe have responded to the pandemic with economic stimulus packages biased towards fossil fuel, attempting to salvage their plunging economies1. For the recovery from the pandemic, terms such as ‘building back better’, ‘reimagining our future’, ‘green recovery’ and ‘new normal’ have monopolized the global rhetoric — all entailing approaches for a sustainable and resilient recovery from the pandemic and altering our existing unsustainable development pathways.

The Agriculture sector is inextricably linked with the most pressing challenges of today’s world, encompassing the climate crises, such as food security, livelihoods and nutrition, water quality, and biodiversity.  The livelihoods especially in the global south are predominantly dependent on the sector and the most adversely impacted by the climate crises. After energy, agriculture is also the second most carbon intensive sector, contributing 18.4% of the global greenhouse gas emissions2. In Pakistan, the agriculture sector accounts for a quarter of the GDP and is the main source of income for the majority of the population; 34% and 74% of economically active men and women respectively3. As per global trends, agriculture sector in Pakistan is also the second most carbon intensive sector and contributes 43% of the emissions4.

‘Regenerative Agriculture’ is a term gaining momentum for a resilient and sustainable agriculture system and a concept that Hashoo Foundation has been quick to adapt as part of its Climate Action program and action research priorities. It is aligned with the principles of ‘building back better’ from the devastation of COVID-19, emphasized by experts for re-carbonizing our soils, given that soil stores more carbon than the world’s biomass and atmosphere combined.. In light of Pakistan’s increasing desertification, healthy soil is the not only the most viable form of bio-sequestration but also a solution towards sustainable agriculture.  It is being touted as a transformative shift in farming practices since the introduction of intensive farming systems in the 1950s and 1960s5. The key principles of regenerative agriculture include minimized tillage, increasing plant diversity, rotating, and deploying cover crops, minimizing chemical or biological activities6.

In June 2020, Hashoo Foundation replicated its SMaRT (Sustainable Methods and Resilient Technologies) Approach in the outskirts of Faisalabad on fallow land set aside by Hashoo Group. The SMaRT approach was an action research initiative devised by the Hashoo Climate Action team for empowering communities in the northern areas of Pakistan. Two projects successful pilots were implemented in Guronjor and Nagar Valley of Gilgit-Baltistan province. The SMaRT Farm pilot on regenerative agriculture centered around its principles pertaining to minimized tillage, intercropping, and using organic fertilizers. The total land area is 93 acres whereas; 57 acres of land is cultivable and the remaining 36 acres of land is saline. The pilot was initiated on 25 acres of agricultural land, with an extensive Geographical Positioning System (GPS) based soil testing exercise of 107 samples. This process determines the soil fertility status including an overview of soil nutrients and guidance for appropriate selection of crops and vegetables.  Initially, the Project team focused on covering all barren lands with vegetative cover to mitigate future carbon emissions. On the basis of soil fertility and nutrient status in potential areas, seasonal vegetables and crops were sown and harvested by strictly adhering to the principles of regenerative agriculture.

Simultaneously, the project team undertook strenuous efforts for the reclamation of saline soil patch of 36 acres, it employed the technique of flooding of the affected area with canal water which leached down soluble salts from the root zone. The concept of relay cropping of seasonal vegetables and fruit trees was practiced, minimizing the soil tillage and nourishing soil microbial activities. The SMaRT Farm also introduced the “recycle and zero burning” of crop stubbles in the area. It also conducted awareness sessions with farmers in the vicinity regarding air pollution and seasonal smog in Punjab, Pakistan. Moreover, the exposure visits of different university students, farmers were also conducted to demonstrate the plantation of trees and to understand the various cropping technologies. The SMaRT Farm is partnering with other private entities in Faisalabad for growing different crops and experimenting with regenerative agriculture.

The agriculture sector in Pakistan has been in crisis mode for over a decade now, the previous two regimes declared an ‘Agricultural Emergency’. Furthermore, the phenomenon of climate change has acutely damaged the sector, while the exploitation of water within the sector has generated a catastrophic water crisis in the country. Regenerative agriculture is the probable agricultural revolution that the soil, water, laborer, and the youth of Pakistan yearn. This approach takes into account the climate crises and regenerates our natural resources and process to ‘restore our earth’ for future generations.