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The Role of Energy Efficiency in Regenerative Agriculture

Written by Juana Barnard

Energy is an essential component to agricultural production. It’s needed for powering equipment, fertilizing soil, irrigating land, caring for livestock, processing food, and transporting products to market. According to a fact sheet on the EU agri-environmental indicator for energy use, however, oil and petroleum products — which create carbon emissions — comprise of 55% of the total energy consumption for agriculture in the EU. Even though the use of renewables and biofuels have increased, greenhouse gases are still heavily tied-up with our food production.

Unfortunately, these greenhouse gases cycle back as climate change and affect agriculture. Increasing temperatures lead to weather variability and more frequent extreme weather events that reduce crop yields, livestock productivity, and the overall nutritional quality of food products. It’s essential then, to pursue energy efficiency in alignment with sustainable, regenerative agriculture.

reNature project in Portugal: Quinta das Abelhas

Energy Efficiency and Regenerative Agriculture

As we discussed in a recent article called ‘How Regenerative Agriculture Can Recover Bee Populations’, regenerative farming and agroforestry practices aim to take a systems-based approach to considering the long-term health of the greater ecosystem both on and surrounding farms. Regenerative agriculture tries to balance the impact of human activities with the health of natural systems that allow said activities to be possible.

Now, how can farming practices be more energy-efficient to protect the environment? Some farms install solar panels and wind turbines to produce their own energy. Others opt to utilize alternative fuels like waste vegetable oil or shelled corn to reduce consumption of fossil fuels and heating costs.

Agroforestry Workshop in Kenya / Source: Laikipia Permaculture Centre

For irrigation, sustainability involves changing existing equipment. All irrigation systems consume energy; some are electrically-operated, while others require massive diesel-powered pumps, which should be regularly maintained or replaced. Smart sensors and Internet of Things technology could also help irrigation systems become more efficient. These can track moisture levels in the soil to alert you when it’s time to water the crops. They could also check if soil nutrients are low, so you only use fertilizer when needed — minimizing the building up of harmful chemicals in the earth.

The efficient use of tractors and field equipment should be promoted as well. Farms can reduce operating hours and fuel consumption by harvesting crops when they’re in optimal condition. Waiting until the crops and soil are no longer wet can save plenty of energy. Keeping machinery in good condition also prevents them from burning too much fuel. Supporting “Eat Local” movements can likewise minimize the distance food travels, and a smart distribution model can actively combat the climate crisis.

The Future of Energy in Agriculture

Of course, developing energy-efficient systems will pose its own challenges. As we try to smooth out inefficiencies, waste will still be present. For instance, solar panels are just one part of the equation. Based on Hoymiles’ write-up on microinverters, farms would also need microinverters to transform raw energy into safe, usable, and clean electricity. They would also need to invest in advanced tools that allow them to monitor power generation and ensure solar energy production is always efficient.

We also foresee trial-and-error with upcoming agricultural technologies. In the BBC’s feature on cellular agriculture, scientists are hopeful that they can grow meat in laboratory cultures to cut down on livestock climate emissions. Other experiments include vertical farming, where plants are raised in indoor farms. They’re fed light from specific wavelengths of LEDs, and their need for water or nutrients are monitored by technology. While this can help people grow crops in extreme climate conditions, researchers are still working on how to lower the process’s carbon output.

To progress with energy-minded, regenerative farming practices, support from governments, industries, and individuals is needed. We have to work together and remove barriers to energy-efficient agriculture and food production.


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Article specially penned for by Juana Barnard.