Society 08/09/2021

An orchard capable of capturing up to 30 times more CO2 per year

Regenerative agriculture is still an anecdotal alternative, but with many potential benefits

Elena Freixa
3 min
Regenerative agriculture

BarcelonaAn abandoned farm has been set up as a laboratory to test how agriculture can respond to the dire consequences of global warming, which are already inevitable, according to UN scientists. What regenerative agriculture proposes -that is how the model that has been studied for the first time in Catalonia has been called- is to apply techniques to recover the quality of the soil in a natural way (without chemical fertilisers). The benefit goes far beyond the necessary food model transformation: researchers who have been working in Planeses (Garrotxa) for three years have found that the living and fertile soil of a regenerative garden "stores 30 times more atmospheric carbon than a conventional one".

The key to the experiment is to feed the soil: to provide fertiliser through natural resources such as animal dung or organic matter from the garden itself and thus achieve better water retention. The abandoned farm in La Garrotxa where the project has been deployed has managed to double the organic matter in the soil in three years and to increase its capacity to retain water by 15-20%. "The soil is the fuel to make the system work to the maximum, and the future harvest will depend on this", insists Marc Garcia, the coordinator of the Polyfarming project deployed by CREAF and co-financed by the European Commission through the Life programme.

Soil that is able to retain more water can soften the effects of flooding and erosion in the event of heavy rainfall. At the same time, this capacity can also help crops to withstand "severe arid conditions, such as droughts that will become increasingly frequent in the Mediterranean due to climate change", adds Maria Josep Broncano, CREAF technician in the project.

The regenerative model manages to convert an activity that emits greenhouse gases such as agriculture - which accounts for 12% of all that is emitted in Catalonia - into an activity that mitigates this climate impact, celebrate the promoters of Polyfarming with the results obtained in the experimental farm. The solution also extends to pastures, which, managed with animals grazing on them, sequester three times more carbon per year than if they are not managed, according to the results observed.

At Planeses the aim was to "integrate everything" to demonstrate that the animal-plant balance is the key to the regenerative model, explains Javier Retana, also a member of the CREAF team, who underlines the uniqueness of the Planeses experiment. On the farm, work has been carried out in the orchard and pastures at the same time, using mobile pens that have allowed animals such as cows, rabbits and chickens to graze in a different plot every day.

Regenerative agriculture.

"It's not about going backwards, but only in what is beneficial", Retana stresses. For example, in the regenerative model the land is not tilled and the soil is not left bare or uncovered, nor are chemicals used. As for emissions, the model reduces them by 40% thanks to the non-use of fertilisers and also thanks to the fact that the farm is practically not run by heavy machinery.

An answer to depopulation

Planeses has gone from rural abandonment to achieving the viability of a farm that now has agricultural and livestock activity. "There the conventional model would not have been profitable", says Garcia, who adds that in a few years there are already eight people working there. The problem with setting up a project like this is the initial investment required to recover the land, but this is where the administration has to come into play, Retana says. "The European Union is promoting everything and the aid has yet to arrive", adds the researcher, who argues that the initial effort is shown to be worthwhile.

"We have lost the rural environment and we cannot afford it. Either we recover it or we have no future", Retana categorically predicts. Promoting an environmentally beneficial model is, in this case, also an opportunity to attract young people to agriculture and livestock farming, to make them a real professional outlet and to combat the growing rural depopulation.

The Polyfarming experience has been collected in a manual with which researchers hope to resolve doubts and encourage replication in other parts of Spain and Europe. At the moment, there is interest in Extremadura, Euskadi and the Ariège area.