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Regenerative Agriculture | How It Works

In modern agriculture, we see and use land as a tool to produce our food. Decades of intensive agricultural practices have now drawn questions over the impacts on the soil's ability to continually produce long-term. But what if there is a way to produce food that not only takes from the land, but also gives back to it?

What is regenerative agriculture?

While there is no universal definition, regenerative agriculture is a means to produce food with a lower or potentially net positive impact on the environment.1 At its core, it’s a way of farming that includes and supports natural ecosystem functions – from the air and soil to the vegetation and grazers. There is no set technique or instruction manual for regenerative agricultural practices. Instead, regenerative agriculture is about farming with adaptability and an understanding of how different aspects of the environment interact. If done properly, it’s about creating agricultural systems that don’t merely have the ability to sustain agricultural pressure, but actively enrich the resilience and health of those systems.

How does regenerative agriculture differ from the modern approach to farming? 

There’s one key factor common throughout all forms of regenerative approaches – soil is the star of the show. Unlike modern agricultural practices that tend to neglect the impact of healthy soil on ecosystem functions, regenerative methods prioritise soil health as the cornerstone of all production.2 By restoring degraded soils and improving soil health, regenerative agriculture can improve biodiversity, vegetation health, groundwater quality, carbon sequestration and even boost the long-term productivity of our land.2

Five key principles of regenerative agriculture

Regenerative farming generally follows a few broad principles to keep soil health in the spotlight:

1. Don’t disturb the soil

Reducing soil disturbance through no-till agricultural practices or actively rebuilding soil ecosystems after tillage can have a number of positive impacts. Soil is better equipped to handle seasonal temperature changes, retain and transport moisture, and stay aerated year-round. On top of this, soil can also better retain its structure, allowing living roots to remain in the soil, which helps to retain nutrients that would otherwise be lost through nutrient leaching. Less turning of topsoil can also improve the physical structure of soil, making it more durable and protecting it from erosion – for example protecting it from the wind blowing loose dry soils away following tillage events.3

2. Keep a cover on the soil 

This notion follows the old adage that 'if you want to see healthy soils, you shouldn’t see them very often’.4 

By maintaining some form of plant coverage (particularly during rainy seasons), the vast network of microorganisms living in soil is protected from harsh elements. For instance, when rain hits the bare earth, it dislodges loose soil – kickstarting the process of erosion. Cover crops and plant residue are highly successful in reducing the impact of rain-forced erosion, with 100% crop-covered land showing up to 1000 times less erosion compared to comparable plots with zero cover.5 In addition to this, coverage protects roots against both winter frost and hotter dry periods. By aiding with water retention and reduced run-off, soil coverage can be a natural means to address issues in regions suffering water scarcity.

Read more about water scarcity and agriculture.

3. Keep living roots in the soil

While it was once thought that soils require rest between crops, a new wave of research suggests the opposite to be true. By maintaining a cover crop with living roots between cash crops, the cover crop is constantly converting sunlight into sugars and releasing exudates into the surrounding soil that help to boost the efficiency of nutrient transfer between soil and nearby plant roots. These exudates act as ‘signalling messengers’ between soil microbes and plant roots, allowing them to communicate efficiently. Without them, communication between soil microbes and plant roots can be interrupted, making it tougher for plants to use that soil to access crucial nutrients.6

Living roots also act to make the most of nutrients that would be lost between crop seasons. Over winter or between cash crops, nutrients in the soil are often lost through leaching or erosion – wasting valuable energy that could be used to grow. Living roots act as nutrient scavengers, tying up unused nutrients and making them available for the next season’s cash crop. If this wasn’t convincing enough, cover crops and their natural root systems can even naturally suppress unwanted weed growth – meaning less pesticides.7 

4. Increase crop diversity (polyculture)

Similar to how specific plants require certain conditions to thrive, soil microbes also require specific plant types to thrive. When we mono-culture crops consistently, the soil below those crops will become limited to only a select few microbes that thrive with that species of crop.7 So, why is this an issue? Well, much like the way that our bodies need a wide array of bacteria to stay healthy, soil ecosystems are also stronger with diversity. Without a diverse system of microbes, soils can become limited in their ability to support the life of other vegetation, rendering that land largely inhospitable to many other plant species. 

By planting multi-species cover crops between cash crops, the diversity in root ecology translates directly into more diversity in soil ecology.8 This creates healthier and more balanced soil ecosystems with more stable soil structures, better water retention, and an improved ability to store carbon in the soil. While seemingly simple, this practice also holds huge potential for water-scarce regions with more arid climates.9 

5. Integrate animals

The fifth and perhaps more contested principle is integrating animals into the system. Creating a mixed crop-livestock farming system can have a host of benefits to both farmers and the land they manage. Economically, mixed crop-livestock systems offer farmers year-round income through different products – reducing the instability of having to rely on a single crop or a single season. Ecologically, if managed properly, soil, vegetables, and livestock can also benefit from this approach. Moving grazing livestock on a rotation between pastures allows animals to feed on grasses and cover crops while giving soils and grasses enough time to recover. For the animals, eating cover crops or old residue can provide cheap feed and an inexpensive way to turn inedible cover crops into sellable livestock. If well-managed, these grazers also unwittingly prepare the ground by gently compacting and aerating surface soil as they walk, dig and feed.10

Another hidden benefit comes from livestock waste. While these animals slowly eat their way around the paddocks, they are also continuously excreting the very ingredients vegetation needs to grow – phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium. In other words, fertiliser. This natural and nutrient-rich fertiliser not only cuts costs to farmers by reducing the need for synthetic soil boosters, but manures also improve both physical and biological properties of soil through the introduction of organic matter.11, 12 

Read about circular farming.

Limitations of regenerative agriculture

While it is broadly agreed that regenerative agriculture can have positive impacts on both soil and the environment, this is not to say it’s the silver bullet to solve global food security problems.13 There are still questions remaining about the feasibility of scaling regenerative practices to meet projected demand for food production. There are inevitable issues around costs to those transitioning to regenerative practices and questions over where training for farmers will come from. Scientific uncertainties similarly persist on how effective regenerative practices really are for retaining additional carbon in soils – with site selection seemingly playing a critical role. Some critics of regenerative agriculture also quite rightly voice concerns over the lack of specificity surrounding the principles themselves. With some of the principles or techniques only really becoming effective under certain conditions or in certain locations, there are some likely limitations to the realistic applications on a global scale.14

All reasonable critique aside, regenerative practices do offer real and exciting alternatives (at least in part) for food production moving forward. With increasingly uncertain climates and growing conditions, the importance of resilient food systems is undeniably at the forefront of future agricultural development decisions. How large of a role regenerative practices play in that development, only time will tell.

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