What is Regenerative Agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture is about farming in harmony with nature. It is a philosophy which focuses on nourishing people and the earth: restoring soil, and ecosystem health, addressing inequity and leaving our land, waters and climate in better shape than previously. Rhodes (2017) claimed that “regenerative agriculture has at its core the intention to improve the health of soil or to restore highly degraded soil, which symbiotically enhances the quality of water, vegetation and land-productivity.” Project Drawdown states that “regenerative agriculture enhances and sustains the health of the soil by restoring its carbon content, which in turn improves productivity—just the opposite of conventional agriculture.” There is no strict rule book to how this should be done - the practices which work best largely depend on the land which is being worked with. This means that the variety of different practices could border on the billions. If done correctly, it has been proposed that regenerative agriculture can produce food which may have lower, or net positive environmental and/or social impacts.
Regenerative agriculture has recently received huge amounts of attention from producers, retailers, researchers, and consumers, as well as politicians, and the mainstream media. Interest in regenerative agriculture spans the public, private, and non-profit sectors. This may be because it is becoming extremely apparent that our current process is not sustainable at all. Our current global agricultural production contributes 24% of the total global greenhouse gases. The IPCC states that if we do not begin to change the way we farm, then the soil on our 4 billion acres of cultivated farmland, 8 billion acres of pastureland and 100 billion acres of forest land, simply is not going to be possible to keep global warming below two degrees, per the Paris Agreement. According to Maria-Helena Semedo of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, the world could run out of topsoil in approximately sixty years if our farming techniques are not adapted. This will affect the earth’s ability for food production, water, filtering and carbon absorption.
Using regenerative farming to replenish the topsoil which is used in the growing of food, can have an incredible impact on global warming. This is because, unlike depleted soils, healthy topsoil retains water, recycles water and nutrients and stores carbon. These effects could amount to the reversal of climate change: If all of our topsoils could store 0.4% carbon every year, it could offset all human CO2 emissions. While this may sound like a small statistic, the world is currently losing roughly 23 billion tonnes of fertile topsoil.
Different types of Regenerative Agriculture
As previously said, there are quite literally billions of different ways in which regenerative agriculture can be practised. There are, however, some generally adapted practices which can be seen working globally. These are No-Till Farming, Regenerative Grazing and Agroforestry.
No-till farming is not a new practice, it dates back to 10,000 years ago. However, as the plough designs and production methods improved during Europe’s Agricultural Revolution, tilling became increasingly popular.
Tilling is the process of turning over the first 6-10 inves of the soil before planting new crops. Doing so loosens and removes any plant matter covering the soil - leaving it bare. Bare soil is vulnerable to wind and water, meaning it is likely to erode. Not only this, but when the soil is disturbed by tilling, it is less able to absorb and infiltrate water and nutrients. Because of the harsh way in which the soil is used, most of its microbes and insects which help distribute nutrients, thus keeping it healthy, are disturbed or mainly killed. This then disrupts healthy soil biology.
No-till farming is therefore the process of planting new crops without tilling the soil. Instead, seeds are planted through the remains of previous crops by planters who cut a V-slot, place the seeds and close the furrow.
The benefits of no-till farming include allowing the soil structure to stay intact and also protecting the soil by leaving crop residue on the soil surface. The improved structure increases the soil's ability to absorb and infiltrate water, which in turn reduces soil erosion and runoff as well as prevents pollution from entering from nearby water sources.
No-till farming also slows evaporation. This allows better absorption of rainwater and increases irrigation efficiency. This ultimately leads to higher yields, especially during hot and dry weather.
Soil microorganisms, fungi and bacteria, critical to soil health, also benefit from no-till practices. When soil is left undisturbed, beneficial soil organisms can establish their communities and feed off of the soil’s organic matter. A healthy soil biome is important for nutrient cycling and suppressing plant diseases. As soil organic matter improves, so does the soil’s internal structure—increasing the soil’s capacity to grow more nutrient-dense crops.
This practice of regenerative grazing is the principle-driven agricultural practice of building soil health by managing livestock on perennial and annual forages. It typically involves keeping herds of cattle in tighter packed herds (like in the wild), frequent rotation and long recovery periods for paddocks. Little to no-tillage is used and so an increased diversity of plants, animals and microbes are allowed to inhabit the soil.
While cattle grazing is known to be notoriously bad for the environment, this was not always the way. Livestock and cropping systems used to be integrated closely. Cattle and other species would graze and manure on the land which provided their feed. With this closed nutrient loop, manure could be used more efficiently across the farm to the soil which needed it. As fields became more monocropped however, this cycle was broken. When managed correctly, regenerative grazing can build soil health and reduce farm inputs (such as fertilisers) before eventually diversifying farm income.
Agroforestry involves the process of intentionally integrating trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems. It can be defined as a dynamic, natural resource management system through the integration of chosen plants. The introduced flora will include as many native species as possible, thus mimicking that of the natural environment that it is situated in, aiming to mimic a pre-existing environment which can produce more food. These created environments are known to have seven key layers: root layer, a ground cover layer, herb layer, shrub layer, low tree layer, high tree layer and vine layer. Each layer must be perfectly coordinated to either create food within the system or be helpful to the environment in some way.
As our population continues to grow and more and more people need feeding every year, it is apparent that we need to adapt our farming practices. Regenerative agriculture has promises of not only ensuring that we, as a race, can continue to eat but also even be able to reverse the effects of global warming. There are currently no policies in place which demand the use of regenerative agricultural practices. The creation of these policies would be hugely complex to create, while there's still not a recognised definition of what regenerative farming is. While regenerative farming continues to gain traction across many different sectors, it is yet to be the new accepted way of farming.