What is Regenerative Agriculture? Although the green revolution was successful in feeding a rapidly growing human population, it also degraded the Earth’s soil and its biodiversity, contributing to climate change. Regenerative agriculture combines sustainable innovation with tradition. As the name implies, it focuses on literally regenerating the soil and the planet’s ecosystems. Regenerative agriculture improves soil, produces high-quality food, combats climate change, and restores lost biodiversity.
Modern agriculture has done an impressive job of feeding the world’s 7.9 billion people. However, with the world’s population expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, agriculture will face rising problems from degraded land, unexpected weather extremes, new pests and blights moving from other regions of the world, and diminishing water resources. Regenerative agriculture can improve both the quantity and quality of food crops.
Regenerative agriculture is an evolution of conventional agriculture that saves water and other resources while preventing land degradation and deforestation. It protects and improves soil, biodiversity, climate resilience, and water resources while increasing agricultural productivity and profitability.
Many of the key practices of regenerative agriculture, such as intercropping, agroforestry, and livestock integration, stem from indigenous farmers who work with the soil rather than against it.
Common practices include:
- minimal tilling of the soil
- using cover crops
- using organic fertilizers and organic methods of pest control
No-till farming, which eliminates the use of machinery and plowing, can reduce erosion and help the soil retain moisture. Since carbon that is stored deep in the soil can be released during intensive tilling and become the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, no-till methods are also an important tool in the fight against anthropogenic global warming. Although labor-intensive, no-till agriculture saves farmers the expense of costly machines and their maintenance.
Planting nitrogen-fixing cover crops and green manures, such as vetch or alfalfa, between cash-crop growing seasons or between the rows of some crops helps to keep nutrients in the soil and further avoid erosion. Cover crops and green manures are usually fast-growing annuals that increase the general fertility of the soil, improve its physical condition, and reduce nutrient loss from leaching. They are usually planted in the fall and turned under in the spring before a summer crop is sown.
Polyculture, the planting of more than one crop in the same place, helps to diversify crops and fosters food security. It is typically more labor-intensive than monoculture, because fields are more difficult to sow and harvest mechanically. However, depending on the combination of plants grown, polyculture plantings can be fairly self-sustaining, and the diversity of the crops can reduce the vulnerability of farms (and ultimately the global food supply) to pests and diseases.
As with organic farming, regenerative agriculture does not rely on chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. Instead, pests and weeds are managed by using crop rotation to disrupt pest cycles, biological control to combat insect pests, and rotational animal grazing to control weeds. Livestock can eat cover crops and produce natural nutrient-rich fertilizer, and crop residues can be composted and returned to the soil.
Benefits of Regenerative Agriculture
Regenerative agriculture has the potential to make farming a solution to climate change, which benefits the planet, humanity and all other life on it. Within that, there are many tangible benefits. Some examples:
- Improved biodiversity
- Enhanced farm profitability and farmers’ livelihoods
- Enhanced nutrient management, water retention and less greenhouse gas emissions
- Better nutrition and human health
- Mitigates impact of extreme weather
- Higher yields and increased food security. Improved yields will help feed the world as the global population grows.
- Increased yield on existing arable land prevents further deforestation and saves natural habitats
Regenerative agriculture has recently received significant attention from producers, retailers, researchers, and consumers, as well as politicians and the mainstream media. Regenerative farmers and networks are growing regenerative agriculture globally.
Where is regenerative farming already being used?
In Australia, the case of regenerative farmer Neils Olsen is one such example. He is the first farmer in the world to be paid through a government system to sequester soil carbon. Olsen’s system involves planting a mixture of crops and grazing plants like pulses and grasses in strips in the same field, to increase soil nutrients, yield and soil carbon.
In Brazil, cotton farmers are planting second and third vegetable crops, including sesame, pumpkin and corn, alongside their main cotton crop. They are also using organic alternatives to chemical fertilizers. Their cotton yield has tripled in the two crops since they started, while yields of the other crops have grown as much as seven times.
Other regenerative farming examples include farmers in Tanzania, East Africa, growing beans, bananas and maize alongside commercial crops such as cardamom.
Regenerative Agriculture is about farming and ranching in a style that nourishes people and the earth, with specific practices varying from grower to grower and from region to region. There’s no strict rule book, but the holistic principles behind the dynamic system of regenerative agriculture are meant to restore soil and ecosystem health, address inequity, and leave our land, waters, and climate in better shape for future generations.
When soil is healthy, it produces more food and nutrition, stores more carbon and increases biodiversity. Healthy soil supports other water, land and air environments and ecosystems through natural processes including water drainage and pollination the fertilization of plants.
The challenges of industrial agriculture
Modern industrial agriculture typically relies on synthetic fertilizers, chemical pesticides, and heavy farm machinery to cultivate vast monocultures of productive crops. While efficient, these practices exact a toll on the arable lands that underpin them. Loss of topsoil to erosion, depletion of the soil’s chemical profile from continuous sowing of intensive crops, and increased soil salinity from irrigation are major drivers of the degradation of farmland. Frequent tilling disrupts the physical and microbial profile of the soil and makes fields vulnerable to erosion by wind and rain. Simultaneously, the use of heavy machinery compacts the soil, making it less capable of absorbing and retaining water and rendering it less productive and more vulnerable to flooding. Fertilizers and pesticides frequently contaminate neighboring soils and waterways, a problem that may be exacerbated by soil compaction.
Within 50 years, there may not be enough soil left to feed the world. Intensive farming also churns up CO2 naturally stored in soil and releases it into the atmosphere. This contributes to the global warming that is driving climate change. While damaged soil and eroded land can make environments more vulnerable to extreme weather events like flooding, which are increasing in frequency and intensity as the Earth warms.
There is a rapidly growing interest in regenerative agriculture, among a range of actors in the public, private, and non-profit sectors. This includes rapid growth in the academic field of study around regenerative agriculture and the number of practitioner organizations focused on regenerative agriculture. However the agricultural sector needs to transform and regenerative agriculture can enable this transition through building up soil organic matter and nurturing its health. But it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, each unique context requires a different set of farming approaches to maximize productivity while restoring soils and biodiversity.
Michele. (2023). B.A. in English from Southeast Missouri State University and an M.A. from DePaul University. https://www.britannica.com/technology/regenerative-agriculture#ref357063
Newton P, Civita N, Frankel-Goldwater L, Bartel K and Johns C (2020) What Is Regenerative Agriculture? A Review of Scholar and Practitioner Definitions Based on Processes and Outcomes. Front. Sustain. Food Syst. 4:577723. doi: 10.3389/fsufs.2020.577723