The New Path to Regenerating Biodiversity by Jim Eckberg

Close up of a ladybug sitting in between petals of a pink wildflower

 

My love of wildlife reaches back to the earliest memories I formed as a child. It’s how I find joy, a sense of belonging, and inspiration that can be shared with others. It reflects a lifelong journey to save our link to the wild and, in doing so, save ourselves.

 

I was the kid who wore the epically detailed wolf t-shirts you often find in zoo gift shops. Unapologetic in my passion for animals, I could tell you more facts about reptiles and amphibians than perhaps you cared to know. By seventh grade, I was a junior docent at the Como Zoo in Saint Paul, Minnesota. My mindset on conservation at that early age was singular, focused on saving individual species, one at a time.

 

A native prairie restoration at the zoo would change everything for me in the summer of 1998. I witnessed a myriad of life spring up from this habitat as if spontaneously. Butterflies, bees, beetles, and other insects hummed and swirled over the wildflowers, breathing new life into the landscape. This experience instilled a deep belief that a holistic, restorative approach was needed to take on the grand challenge of protecting the planet’s biodiversity. 

 

A white man wearing a sun hat and tan shirt holds up a vial containing a yellow solution and small bugs foraged in a pasture. Dr. Eckberg tracks insects and other invertebrates in the vegetation and dung at ROAM Ranch. By sampling every year, changes in biodiversity with regenerative agriculture can be tracked. Samples are sent to Ecdysis—an expert team of entomologists led by Dr. Jon Lundgren—for identification and analysis.

 

The challenges facing biodiversity have reached a fever pitch. A recent study shows rapid decline in 40% of insect species worldwide.1 The story is similarly bleak for mammals, birds, reptiles, and other organisms.2 Species extinctions are happening across the globe—including in our own backyards. Monarch butterflies, a once widespread species that is a part of our culture and childhoods, have declined by 90% since the 1990s.3 The accelerating rate of species extinctions threatens to change life as we know it.

 

Covering around 40% of the land worldwide, agriculture has one of the largest footprints and roles to play in restoring biodiversity.4 In fact, biodiversity is foundational to the health and resiliency of agriculture. A diverse ecosystem of organisms in the soil and crops drives critical farm functions including nutrient cycling, pest control, pollination, and many others.

 

Today, however, most farms are managed more like industrial factories than healthy functioning ecosystems. The conventional mindset looks to biotechnology and chemical inputs to solve problems with pests, disease, and soil infertility. Many conventional practices degrade biodiversity and ecosystem functions, perpetuating the reliance of farmers on such approaches. For example, spraying pests with chemicals also eradicates many of the good insects that control pests.5 More and more, farmers are realizing that a fundamental shift is needed in agriculture.

 

Two white men stand in a green pasture digging up soil samples

 Collection of soil cores suggests regenerative agriculture is restoring soil health and sequestering carbon at ROAM Ranch.

 

EPIC Provisions and General Mills are supporting a small, but growing, revolution to regenerate biodiversity in agriculture. Known as regenerative agriculture, this farmer-led initiative employs a set of principles that mimic nature to restore soil health and agroecosystem biodiversity. The principles include minimizing physical and chemical disturbance, diversifying cropping systems, continuously covering the soil, maintaining living roots, and reintegrating livestock into farmland. These functions are the same as we see in terrestrial ecosystems that formed over millions of years.

 

Regenerative agriculture is in the DNA of EPIC, and the EPIC co-founders are putting theory into action at ROAM Ranch just outside of Austin, Texas. Just a few years ago, this ground was growing cotton. After the cotton harvest, the red soil would bake in the summer heat. But reintroduction of a rotationally grazed bison herd and planting of a diversity of cover crop species is already starting to bring back new signs of life.

 

A close-up selection of various insects found at ROAM Ranch After just two years of implementing regenerative agriculture practices, we are already seeing more biodiversity in regenerative fields compared to neighboring conventional fields. The goal is to restore biodiversity similar to what we see in native ecosystems at ROAM Ranch, shown here.

 

This past spring, we sampled insects in the vegetation and the dung of the bison to see what life is present on the ranch. For example, we checked for dung beetles because they’re critical to an ecosystem’s cycling of nutrients and early indicators of a healthy ecosystem. The results were striking. Species richness of dung insects collected from ROAM Ranch was more than twice as diverse as a neighboring conventionally managed ranch. We observed more diversity of invertebrates in vegetation as well compared to a low-diversity grassland. Diversity begets more diversity, accelerating the rate of ecosystem restoration.

 

Stories like this are not the exception; they are the rule. Farmers who journey into regenerative agriculture report greater profitability and less reliance on inputs like insecticides.4 This movement is only expected to gain momentum as farmers face increasing volatility in trade and climate.

 

And yet, the feel of a regenerative farm cannot simply be captured by quantitative estimates of species diversity or soil health. The hum of life teeming in every square foot elevates the soul, inspiring us to be better to ourselves and each other. Regenerative farming restores connections among each other and to our past. Looking into the dark, prehistoric eyes of the bison at ROAM Ranch reminded me of the wild we have gradually lost, perhaps without realizing it. This journey illuminates a new path to restoring our land and ourselves.

 

I was once asked if my work would ever amount to more than a drop in the bucket. I said probably not, but it only takes a single drop to create a ripple across the water. And only a few ripples are needed to change the world. 

 

Two bison cows facing the camera stand on tall grass. Trees and a light blue sky can be seen behind them.

1 Sánchez-Bayo, F and KAG Wyckhuys. 2019. Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers. Biological Conservation 232: 8-27.

2 Díaz, S, J Settele, E Brondízio et al. Report of the Plenary of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service on the work of its seventh session. Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem services. Paris, 29 April-4 May 2019.

3 Mizejewski, D 2018. Monarch Butterfly 2018 Population Down by 14.8 Percent. National Wildlife Federation. https://blog.nwf.org/2018/03/monarch-butterfly-2018-population-down-by-14-8-percent/

4 Owen, James. “Farming Claims Almost Half Earth’s Land, New Maps Show,” December 9, 2005. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/12/agriculture-food-crops-land/.

5 LaCanne, C and J Lundgren. 2018. Regenerative agriculture: merging farming and natural resource conservation profitability. PeerJ 6: 1-12

Jim Eckberg is a Research Agronomist at General Mills working on sustainability of agricultural systems, including oats and dairy. Jim engages the farm community in regenerative agriculture practices that improve farm profitability, soil health, and biodiversity while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He also works with food scientists and businesses to source ingredients that support healthy agroecosystems and diets. Jim completed a MS degree in ecology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a PhD in agroecology at the University of Minnesota.

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