Climate change is destroying earth at an unprecedented rate, urgent action is needed1,2 or we face severe consequences3,4,5. The release of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions6, increasing global temperatures7, land-use change8 and ironically, their impacts on humans9,10 are familiar in the climate discussion space. Those responsible for contributing to such disasters include human food production systems.
Conventional agriculture (CA) techniques used in crop11,12, livestock13,14,15 and land management contribute significantly to the climate crisis by producing considerable GHG emissions17. Over a third of global emissions (18 Gt CO2e yr-1 in 2015) originate from human food systems, and accelerate increasing atmospheric temperatures18, biodiversity loss19,20, and land degradation21. Tilling, the mechanical manipulation of soil to change its structure in preparation for sowing22, releases a significant amount of CO223, is highly detrimental to soil health24 and facilitates desertification25. Global warming, drought26, soil mortality27, and land displacement28 are all products of traditional farming systems. Human health29,30,31, socio-economic factors including food security28,32,33, poverty34 and human migration35,36,37 add to the affected.
Nevertheless, agriculture is essential for feeding a growing population of 7.8 billion,39.
“A Global Solution”
One proposed resolution to the aforementioned issues, involves taking an ecological conservationist approach to traditional agronomy in the form of Regenerative Agriculture (RA). RA is a holistic land management technique, and whereas CA tends to produce large quantities of single outputs (e.g., monocropping), RA supports the notion of forming relationships between nature as much as possible40 to create a solid partnership with the environment.
The main concept of RA focuses on soil-based, opposed to seed-based, methodology adapted to the specific agroecosystem in which it takes place41. There are generally five core environmental concerns of RA comprising “soil fertility and health, water quality, biodiversity, ecosystem health and carbon sequestration”42. Various systems developed from observing natural and agricultural systems, support them.
As one of the largest carbon sequestration systems on the planet, with over 2000 GtC stored globally in soil organic matter (SOM)43, it is unsurprising that soil health and biodiversity (un-tilled soils, soil surface cover, and sustaining living roots within soil) are fundamental to RA44. Unlike CA tilling systems which disrupt soil chemistry and destroy its beneficial organisms, undisturbed soils promote the survival of microorganisms required for nutrient cycling essential for plant growth and development45. This symbiotically improves the quality of water, vegetation, and land-productivity of the land. Tillage systems need chemical fertilisers for nutrients46, which eventually leach into the water table and cause pollution47; RA utilizes cover crops to naturally stimulate and enhance the soil with their roots48, and earthworms (as well as other organisms) are left to assist in natural aeration and nutrient enrichment49. Covering soils with organic matter i.e., mulch, ensures slower water absorption and increased retention50, opposed to the erosion-contributing run-off and evaporation seen in bare soils. This increases root and plant growth, as well as contributes to increased rainfall due to transpiration51. Eventually, the organic coverage re-enters the soil, boosting and completing the nutrient cycle52. Non-tilling has been shown to reduce GHG emissions, lead to increased crop yields53, improve soil health and even restore damaged, eroded soils40.
Crop diversity is another component of RA54 which increases crop yields and food security55. By observing natural forests or woodlands and the interactions between flora and fauna that reside within the ecosystem, these natural relationships are then recreated in an agricultural setting, resulting in an ecologically resilient, food producing system56. Planting perennial crops57 and including as many native species as possible in order to mimic the natural environment ensures a living, diverse ecosystem56. Unlike monoculture, polyculture (planting multiple crops beneficial to each other) offers soil several root exudates, speeding up the biological processes leading to healthier soils and plants58. Furthermore, if a crop fails in a polyculture system, there are others to fall back on, providing an extra benefit to farmers59.
Another component, regenerative grazing (RG) has a lower carbon footprint than CA livestock management60 and provides ecological benefits. Environmentally damaging CA livestock management releases high emissions61 and degrades land27, however, this is not inherent to grazing animals if correct methods are put into place62. RG livestock is managed for efficient carbon sequestration, soil development and land regeneration over a relatively short period of time63. Livestock is kept in tight herds, as in nature. Farmers limit grazing to specific sections of land for a short period of time63. Livestock trampling, and nutrients absorbed from urea and dung encourages water retention, promotes plant growth, soil biodiversity, nutrient content and productivity as well as absorbs carbon and methane before that section is grazed on again63. In contrast, CA allows overgrazing, which keeps vegetation constantly stunted - anything that does grow is grazed on immediately contributing to soil erosion, drought, and desertification. RG utilizes livestock to mimic what would happen in nature.
RA also has economic benefits for farmers, including reducing the need for inputs such as chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and animal feed64. RA can help lift farmers out of hardship and alleviate the socio-economic uncertainties that CA imposes65,66.
RA requires a system-level shift as it is unlikely that applying individual regeneration practices to current CA production models will deliver the proven results of RA. RA is scalable to global agricultural systems and in five continents, ecological grazing is already regenerating tens of millions of hectares41. Refined management systems for commercial landscapes are needed to replicate an ecological impact and implementation requires openness to creating an environment which attracts interest from others.
Many farmers are aware of climate change and its consequences yet fail to make the connection between ecology and agriculture to understand how making decisions for the environment can be highly beneficial for their business.
Increasingly, RA is being recognised as a holistic food production system that offers significant benefits to environments, farmers, economies, and communities.
With current agricultural methods being so far from regenerative agriculture, there is huge potential for restoring soil and biodiversity health whilst producing sufficient yields to feed a growing population – the scope is limitless.
RA can be hard work, but in transforming our food systems this way, the multitude of benefits outweigh the costs of conventional systems – especially when it comes to feeding a planet without depleting its natural resources!
https://nrev.jp/2020/06/28/the-food-crusaders-agriculture-vs-permaculture/ [Accessed April 2021].