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Carbon storage and regenerative agriculture with Erik Hawkins

If you’re interested in how the food you eat affects climate change, I hope you’ll listen to this episode. In this interview, I talk with Erik Hawkins from Soil Value Exchange. Erik explains what carbon storage is, how cows can have a positive impact on the soil, and why incentives are so important for the regenerative agriculture movement.

Listen on iTunes.

What is carbon storage?

Rebecca: What is carbon storage and how is it related to regenerative agriculture?

Erik: Carbon storage is where carbon is stored in the soil.

A more elaborate answer is that when plants are growing, they take the carbon out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis and they use it to build their cells, their leaves, their flowers, and roots. These plants form a network with other organisms that live underground like fungi and other microbes such as bacteria. They actually make exchanges of carbon in the form of the sugars that they’ve made for other different compounds with those microbes. It is in these exchanges that allow part of that carbon to be permanently stored in the soil. Partly how you achieve this is through regenerative agriculture practices.

Regenerative farming versus conventional farming

Rebecca: Can you help us understand the difference between regenerative agriculture and what we call “factory farming” or “conventional farming” as we know it today in the United States?

Erik: There are a lot of different ways people are managing their land and farming practices. In the traditional sense, you have farmers that are trying to grow these plants and raise cattle. To achieve and maximize yields, they are using a lot of either pesticides or herbicides. A lot of it involves tilling the soil, which breaks up and disrupts that soil underground and causes carbon to be released back into the atmosphere.

Then for beef, they have cattle on a wide-open pasture where they can range however they like, and eat in a non-even pattern. These cattle will then be sent to feedlots where they will get a bunch of corn that has been grown using whatever general practices.

Whereas, regenerative agriculture primarily focuses on changing the way people manage their herd’s grazing habits. It’s changing them from this open pasture to a more dense herd environment where the herd gets moved around to different and smaller pasturing areas more often. This is very similar to how bison in the past would roam the grasslands and interact with the land. A combination of manure deposition, extra stomping of the ground and reducing the pasture area so that eating patterns are more even, forms a more resilient ecosystem. At the end of the day, our goal is to return to the natural way of grazing before the rise of big industrial agriculture.

Regenerative agriculture practices

Rebecca: Is that what you would call “managed grazing?”

Erik: Yes, that’s the big thing we are interested in. There are other names for it like AMP grazing, which stands for Adaptive Multi-Paddock, and High-Intensity Rotational grazing. It’s where cattle are being moved around more often. Different people have done a lot of research on it, and it’s arguably one of the most cutting-edge areas of ecological research. There are a lot of interesting things going on in that field.

Rebecca: Is Allan Savory the guy that started it all?

Erik: Yes, he’s one of them. Allan Savory of the Savory Institute is doing some things like this. Allen Williams and Steven Apfelbaum have also done research on it.

Intensive grazing habits

Rebecca: So part of what you’re trying to do is to have cattle be part of the ecosystem and regenerate the land that they’re on?

Erik: Yes! In most continents, they have their version of what biologists like to call megafauna, which is just really large animals. You can think of them as elephants, rhinos, and wildebeests, but you can also think of them as bison and cattle. These are large animals that have intensive grazing habits. In a herd behavior where they are moving together a lot of plants and grasses have evolved alongside these “megafauna.”

For the full interview, listen to Carbon storage and regenerative agriculture on the podcast.

About Soil Value Exchange

Soil Value Exchange brings together landowners who store carbon in their soil with a network of buyers willing to purchase that carbon storage. You can learn more about Soil Value Exchange on Build Grass Roots.

Watch the below video to learn more.

The interview was edited for clarity and readability.

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