What is regenerative agriculture?
the potential of regenerative agriculture
Modern agriculture is at a crossroads. We are faced both with the ever increasing need to feed a growing global population, and the devastating soil degradation caused by intensive farming.
As well as being one of the largest producers of green house gasses, with an IPCC estimate of 24% of total anthropogenic emissions; the agricultural sector holds the rare potential to not just drastically reduce emissions, but to sequester atmospheric carbon back into the soil, providing a natural way to limit global warming whilst producing nutritious food.
Regenerative agriculture is a way of farming to build and improve soil fertility, whilst sequestering and storing atmospheric CO2, increasing on farm diversity and improving water and energy management. It is a holistic solution that represents a first step towards a wider set of economic, environmental, and social benefits. Farms using regenerative practises can benefit from higher and more stable yields, lower input costs and the development of natural capital and ecosystem services whilst building agricultural resilience.
In fact, if all global agricultural land was converted to a regenerative system it would have the ability to sequester a more than 37.5 Gt of carbon per annum, more than the current level of global emissions.
Regenerative agriculture focusses on working with nature, limiting costly artificial inputs and mimicking natural ecosystems within an agricultural setting. It draws its practices from Agroecology, Permaculture and Conservation Agriculture; its objective is to restore soil health.
There is no single methodology for regenerative agriculture, as it is highly dependent on working with the unique environmental conditions of each farm. However, there are some key principles which are consistent no matter where in the world it is being implemented:
Limit soil disturbance. While tillage has been widely used in agriculture for many years, this practice represents a direct threat to soil organic matter, a key element for soil fertility and carbon stocks. By limiting soil disturbance and introducing other agricultural practices such as cover cropping and direct drilling, the soil ecosystem can develop and provide key ecosystem services . Very quickly you can see a drastic reduction of soil erosion, maximisation of soil’s biodiversity and associated increase in nutrient cycling capacity and improved water retention.
Cover the soil. Leaving bare soil, especially after tillage, greatly increases CO2 emissions from the land. Sunlight shining on bare soil oxidises organic matter causing CO2 to be released, and generating a direct loss of fertility. The adoption of cover crops: temporary crops seeded between the main rotations, represents a cost effective, natural way to avoid bare soil. Covering the soil also prevents soil erosion and runoff entering water systems.
Integrate livestock. Historically livestock and crops have been deeply intertwined. With the over specialisation of intensive methods many farms moved away from livestock or brought them into indoor systems. The separation of animals and plants is a great source of bio-chemical inefficiency, and CO2 emissions. By re-integrating crops and livestock through planned grazing and manure application, we can increase soil fertility whilst reducing the need for artificial fungicides, pesticides and fertilisers.
Keep living roots in the ground: Healthy root systems build soil biodiversity, cycle nutrients and help the soil to retain water. Perennial crops are highly beneficial for maintaining a living root system in the soil. However intensive agriculture focuses annual species which do not leave living roots in the ground, degrading the soil structure and nutrient levels. Reintroducing perennials into the agricultural system is a quick way of re-establishing year round living root systems which also has the added benefits of reducing disease and providing a home for nature.
These regenerative practices are a return to what some might say is a traditional way of farming, but they also represent a very modern opportunity for farmers. The recent focus on the reduction of Green House Gas emissions and the potential for soils to sequester carbon has lead to the creation of carbon market. When farmers implement regenerative practises they can sequester and reduce carbon, improve local biodiversity and increase natural capital. These actions, when verified, will give them access to a new source of funding through the Green Finance Market, such as environmental impact bonds and payment for environmental services schemes.
The regenagri initiative exists to support farmers and businesses to transition towards regenerative practises, securing the health of the land, and the wealth of those who live on it.