15 April 2021

 

Dr David Cutress: IBERS, Aberystwyth University.

 

  • Regenerative agriculture aims to shift away from productivity and sustaining outputs towards the four R’s, renewal, recovery, replacement and repair of ecosystems.
  • Many farmers already use individual regenerative practices but may need support to combine more of these into total holistic systems which are still profitable.
  • Regenerative agriculture may be a buzzword, but its spirit fits in well with the UK government’s perceived role for agriculture as a global asset moving forwards.

 

What is regenerative agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture/farming is nothing new and is often used interchangeably with concepts including conservational agriculture and agroecology. The concept was originally discussed over 40 years ago and was adapted from practices and ideals in organic farming. A pivotal text in 2015, which indicated regenerative organic agriculture could reverse climate change has led to regenerative agriculture becoming a buzzword in the agricultural sector and the media. However, regenerative agriculture is a difficult concept to define and often attempting to do so can limit the scope for agricultural systems to work in harmony with nature. However, an agreed key aspect of regenerative agriculture is to move away from sustainable agriculture’s aims “to reduce or do no harm” or “apply fewer chemicals” towards an approach where “restoring”, “improving” and “providing benefits” are the focus. Many look at regenerative farming as aiming to restore degraded soils and the associated biology, but this can be just one element. Other than soils, regenerative agriculture should also impact biodiversity, habitats, water cycles, forests, social gains, and landscapes with the holistic broad impacts of agriculture being considered. Regenerative agriculture could, therefore, be considered a semi-closed system that uses aspects of a circular economy to minimise inputs and detrimental outputs (such as waste) in several forms. The strategy has seen significant development as a concept in the US with a recent report estimating investments totalling $47.5 billion in regenerative systems. With several warnings in the last 10 – 20 years towards the requirement of a fundamental shift away from industrialised agriculture, what can regenerative agriculture offer?

 

Current UK focus

Whilst the numbers of farmers considered regenerative in the UK are limited many regenerative processes are practised to varying levels, particularly in organic certified systems which require these for certification. Encouraging the uptake of regenerative practices has been shown to benefit from services providing information and advice sharing between farmers. One site which does this is BASE UK (Biodiversity, Agriculture, Soil & Environment) in collaboration with ‘The Farming Forum’. More recently ‘Regenagri’, a global regenerative agriculture initiative, has been launched with the ‘Sustainable Food Trust’ as part of the governance team. Regenagri provides a digital hub that aims to bring farmers together to give access to assessment tools allowing regenerative benchmarking and access to managerial actions which could improve farm scores. Importantly any system which provides such a digital assessment may become increasingly important as an evidence system in applying for environmental based subsidies. Furthermore, a non-profit organisation ‘Regeneration international’ has recently produced a ‘regenerative farm map’ displaying regeneratively produced products based on consumer demands, indicating this is a growing area of consumer concern (inclusive of 4 farms in the UK compared to thousands in the US).

Closer to home Farming Connect has a focus site looking at utilising this regenerative perspective as a follow on from the lead farmer’s visit to Europe to evaluate similar systems through the ‘Management Exchange’ programme. An informative webinar on this can be found here.  

 

Processes

Agricultural processes which are considered regenerative can be varied but include the use of cover crops, mixed-species crops or leys (crop diversification), mixed-farming (livestock alongside crops), reducing or eliminating tillage, riparian buffers, silvopasture, agroforestry, integrated pest management (IPM), aquaculture, integrated nutrient management (INM), rotational grazing (cell grazing) and use of perennial grasses/permanent pastures “there should always be roots in the ground”. Independently all these processes are nothing new to farmers and many of these are practised to various degrees, the combination of such into holistic systems, however, could provide further benefits than have been seen from single implementations.

Regenerative grazing systems for example use high-intensity, short-duration and frequent pasture rotations which can benefit soil health whilst sustaining pasture and animal growth. In order to do this they follow key principles;

  • Plan, monitor and manage grazing accurately
  • Give plant cover resting recovery periods between grazing
  • Match stocking and carrying capacities
  • Ensure livestock optimal performance
  • Manage plant animal and microbiological diversity holistically

Confirmed and potential impacts of regenerative grazing practices taken from Spratt et al. (2021)

Other regenerative grazing strategies involve mixed farming. It is proposed that by applying grazing livestock into a crop rotation farmers can directly add nutrients to the soil via dung leading to closed-loop systems. This can reduce external inputs and have significant ecosystem impacts for the field including improved nutrient cycling via dung beetles. Arable farmers could consider utilising livestock from nearby farms rotated in as and when needed to provide benefits that flow both ways.

Several regenerative processes have previously been discussed by Farming Connect articles to find more information about any specific area of interest see links in the table below.

Process

links

     

Cover crops

1

2

   

Reduce/no-tillage

1

2

3

 

Riparian buffers

1

     

Silvopasture

1

2

   

Agroforestry

1

2

   

Rotational grazing (Cell grazing)

1

2

3

 

Perennial grasses/Permanent pastures

1

2

3

 

Mixed-species crops or swards

1

2

3

4

 

 

Concepts and Outcomes

Increasingly discussion surrounding regenerative agriculture is shifting the focus away from processes and towards evaluating outcomes. Through this mentality, the sector can move to a more holistic viewpoint and key performance indicators (KPI’s) of most importance become clear. This leads to a significant change in performance metrics with the measuring of many of these requiring increased refinement and development to become fit for the task. Many discussions of regenerative farming discuss the 5 core concerns:
1) Improving soil health and fertility, 2) sequestering carbon, 3) increasing biodiversity, 4) improving ecosystem health and 5) improving water quality.

Sequestering carbon through regenerative agriculture could play a role in its economic viability as a concept if potential future carbon trading/sharing practices come into place. Such strategies could allow agriculture as a sector to exchange excess sequestration for equivalent value inputs with other sectors (such as aviation which has little to no sequestration potential). If regenerative practices become commonplace the pool of sequestered carbon available for such trades should increase to higher equilibriums, though only in regions with currently degraded soils as well managed soils may already be at or near to carbon capacities. This is an area where regenerative agriculture must be considered carefully, to avoid overblown claims with regards to carbon capture. One reason for this being that agricultural soil carbon capture can easily be reversed if management changes are made, practices such as no-till farms reverting back to tilling, as occurs in 30% of cases in the US are a good example of this. Beneficially, however, regenerative agriculture is designed to be a fluid and reactive system with rotations of cropping species and mixes of crops being a key component. Such species diversity can increase the resistance of farm systems to climate instabilities such as drought and flood either directly through species interactions or indirectly through risk spreading (certain crops thrive and take up the yield losses of other species).

As with processes, many concepts of regenerative agriculture have also been discussed to varying degrees in previous Farming Connect articles and further information can be found below:

Concepts

Links

   

Reduced or no chemical input

1

   

Reduced or no fertiliser input

1

2

3

Improved soil health and fertility

1

2

3

Sequestering carbon

1

2

3

Increasing biodiversity

1

   

Improving water quality.

1

2

 

Prospects

Mixed outputs have been suggested on utilising regenerative practices on farm with regards to yields achieved. Organic farms utilise many regenerative practices and studies have noted lower yields through such systems in some cases whilst others indicate comparable or higher yields. As with many farming practices this evaluation can be different on a case by case basis. Studies of regenerative agricultural practices in US croplands have demonstrated economic benefits compared to conventional agriculture, particularly in smallholder farms regarding the use of labour. This indicates such efficient low labour systems could be key to tackling increasing issues with labour availability across Europe. Alongside this, a recent comparison of regenerative and conventional corn farming in North America demonstrated 10-fold reductions in pests via pest resilience design practices compared to conventional pesticide strategies. They did, however, note lower yields on regenerative farms (a key concern to many opposing this strategy) but highlighted achieving higher profits despite this. A key consideration in evaluating regenerative farms to conventional is the level to which they are regenerative, as in many studies they consider a farm regenerative if it is employing only one or two regenerative practices.

Regenerative corn fields generate nearly twice the profit of conventionally managed corn taken from LaCanne and Lundgren 2018 – Regenerative practices included use of cover crops, no insecticides or pesticides, no tillage and grazing of animals on crop fields.

 

Farmers’ awareness of which practices they are already undertaking and others that could be changed or tweaked to be more regenerative is crucial. Education and training around such strategies to both farmers and as a focus in general education could be of benefit to spreading an environmental focused message. Providing opportunities where farmers can communicate with other farmers to discuss ideas are also consistently shown to work well. Beyond this, several technologies could play roles in regenerative farming, including soil sensors, yield mapping, satellite/drone mapping and variable rate application technologies to optimise soil, crop and pasture health whilst reducing the amount of chemicals and fertilisers applied. For livestock grazing, there is potential in virtual fencing GPS systems which allow remote low labour rotational grazing practices across open land without the need for extensive fencing. Realistically, the sector should be looking to combine any and all tools available to move towards more than just a sustainable system, but also one which actively regenerates and flourishes at new lower input equilibriums long term.

A key question for increased uptake remains that if regenerative agricultural practices are to be recognised going forward; do they need to be more specifically defined? A study from 2020 highlighted that uncertainty of terms could lead to mistrust issues with eco-labelling of food stuffs and allow unscrupulous use of the term ‘regeneratively farmed’ for perceived image benefits. Opposing this, a clear understanding of what exactly regenerative farming is can be beneficial in policy programme development particularly where these strategies could play into future carbon/ecosystem service payments.

 

Summary

Regenerative agriculture looks to be a step further on from sustainable systems. Sustainable farming can be a confusing concept as sustainability differs depending on the perspectives of those involved. Sustaining economic outputs or the soil nutrient profile across a single farm can be the defined goals despite the detriment of environmental impacts of supplementations required to achieve these. As such moving our perspective away from simply sustaining but towards holistic management is vital for the long-term maintenance of the planet and all its occupants. Farmers are already aware of individual processes which can help to achieve this but providing a broader overview of the potential benefits of combining multiple regenerative practices could offer further gains. Importantly many regenerative practices need time to take effect and may have associated productivity and economic burdens during this establishment time. This along with the struggle to move away from intensive systems could act as a barrier to farmer uptake and may well need addressing through upcoming changes in subsidies being provided across the UK if regenerative agriculture is ultimately deemed beneficial. Regenerative agriculture could offer higher environmental benefits whilst supplying indirect public goods, as such these outputs need to be evaluated carefully to effectively reward farmers for their contributions. Furthermore, as with organic products, there could be the argument that regeneratively grown products should come at a premium to reflect the true costs of food production.

 


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