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Regenerative Farming

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What is regenerative farming?

Regenerative agriculture is a holistic approach to farming which seeks to improve the land and surrounding environment by increasing biodiversity and resilience . There is a strong focus on improving soil health. For some, carbon sequestering is also key. Essentially, the aim is for farmers to foster agricultural management practices that work in alignment with natural processes, though the term Regenerative Agriculture doesn’t always neatly sit under one definition.

Regenerative farming has similarities to other, overlapping concepts like permaculture and agroecology. Permaculture is essentially a design philosophy concerning energy transfers, but elements of it can be found on regenerative farms and smallholdings. Agroecology is a wider movement, focusing on system change, land reform and social justice. With roots in the global south, it prioritises soil health and nature-friendly farming practises, but also seeks to empower marginalized producers and generate alternative markets. Organic farming also shares elements with regenerative agriculture, eliminating chemical inputs and capitalising on nature’s own bioprocesses. However, it relies on well-regulated certification schemes which may not be accessible to all.

The principles of Regenerative Agriculture

Unlike conventional farming, regenerative methods aim to minimise disturbance to the natural, ecological processes happening within the farm environment. Several underlying principles guide these practices; these are:

Enhance biodiversity

Growing a wide variety of crops has many benefits: they attract a broader range of wildlife, insects and soil microbes, all of which strengthen the local ecosystem and make plants more resilient. One ‘side-effect’ of climate change is an array of new pests and diseases with the potential to destroy entire harvests. Such scenarios devastate the income of small-scale farmers, so creating a diverse local ecosystem that helps plants withstand attacks is really important. Many wildlife species are natural pest controllers – these can replace the use of artificial pesticides, which have a devastating impact on essential pollinating insects, micro fauna and even human health.

On regenerative farms, biodiversity is purposefully welcomed through planting hedgerows or wildflower borders, maintaining areas of trees around farms, keeping the ground covered in fallow periods with ‘cover crops’, installing nesting boxes for birds and bats, and using layered planting (check out our project in Peru for a good example of this, where agroforestry has helped boost coffee bean production).

Prioritise soil health

Improving soil health is key part of regenerative agriculture. This is achieved by protecting the top soil from erosion, adding organic matter back to the soil and minimising use of chemical inputs , such as artificial fertilisers and pesticides. Farmers will typically avoid ploughing or digging because this disrupts the complex structure of soil – the fungal networks, air pockets and microbial life. This is known as ‘no till’ farming. Instead, organic matter is applied to the land, which helps to improve water infiltration, moisture retention and nutrient absorption.

Ideally, soil is never left bare: consistent plant coverage allows carbon to be sequestered (drawn down) from the atmosphere into the soil. The potential for agriculture to reduce the amount of harmful CO2 in our atmosphere is often overlooked, but the figures are staggering: globally, 489 billion tons of CO2 could be sequestered back into arable farmland – the equivalent of 15 years-worth of burning fossil fuels (i).

Rows of freshly plowed soil in a large field with green vegetation and hills in the background under a clear blue sky.

Farmlands being prepared for planting of potato

Integrate animals

The presence of animals allows for more elements of circular farming to be adopted. Their manure or dung provides an effective soil fertilizer, and they may also consume some farm waste. Grazing livestock are beneficial for weed control, microbial diversity and soil aeration.

Resurgence of traditional or indigenous practices

Many regenerative practices are similar to the traditional farming methods which sadly declined amidst the popularity of chemical fertilisers and the pressure to produce higher yields. Local knowledge of plants, cropping techniques and the weather – now seem as critical to support climate change adaptation, was considered inferior to the knowledge developed by scientists and researchers and therefore not supported by governments. But regenerative techniques are giving due respect to ancestral or indigenous knowledge and practices. In our collaborative work with communities, we frequently discover brilliant but neglected solutions that were in existence for centuries, and simply need scaling up and combining with wider systems to be even more effective.

 

 

 

Regenerative Agriculture vs. conventional farming – why the shift?

Our food system is broken. And it’s breaking our planet and ecosystems too. Globally, food production is responsible for 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions (IPCC 2019). Agriculture is the cause of 80% of tropical deforestation and, since its processes account for 70% of the world’s water usage, it’s also a major contributor to water pollution, not to mention biodiversity loss, habitat destruction and desertification.

How has this happened?

For most of the last century, global population growth and the dominance of capitalism has put huge pressure on our land to produce ever higher crop yields. To keep up with demand, poor, unsustainable land management practices were adopted which have left soils depleted, rivers polluted and our ecosystems at risk of irreversible damage. In the past, modern agriculture was promoted as a solution, capable of producing ever higher crop yields. But in reality the way this was applied, with a focus on intensive use of chemicals, monocultures and the neglect of soil health, has destroyed the very resources on which food production depends.

A group of individuals practicing regenerative agriculture in a field.

Awadalla (right), Environmental Conservation Manager in our Sudan team, trains farmers on regenerative agriculture techniques

The industrial revolution led to the mechanization of farming and the dominance of synthetic fertilisers. Fields were frequently ploughed up and left bare, leaving the soil vulnerable to erosion. Then, during World War I and II, food shortages led to a dominant trend of monocultures, with large quantities of wheat and corn grown to feed the hungry. The poorer the soil quality becomes, the more the chemicals need to be used. It’s a vicious circle with serious side effects, not least the large quantities of CO2 emitted from the production of fertilisers.

The reliance on chemical fertiliser to increase productivity has been combined with a lack of organic matter being put back into the soil (when you harvest a crop, you take away the organic matter, that was originally, in the soil – and hence, the total amount of organic matter in the soil declines with successive harvests). As organic matter content in soil declines, soil structure breaks down. The soil’s ability to hold water declines – making it more susceptible to drought and it becomes more vulnerable to erosion. Without organic matter, inorganic fertiliser also becomes less effective – as seen in countries like Kenya, where productivity even under fertiliser is declining significantly.

FAO estimate that over 30% of the world’s soils are now considered “degraded”. This problem is worse in Africa.

This has increased food security issues across the globe and reduced the amount of nutrients in our food. It makes it harder for the land to recover from extreme weather events.

And yet, despite all this destruction, conventional farming isn’t working: 850 million people still are going hungry, predominantly in Africa and Asia. As a livelihood, it’s unreliable – smallholders in developing countries struggle to make a decent wage and feed their families.

 

The benefits of Regen Agriculture for people and planet

Approximately half of the earth’s habitable surface is used for agriculture(ii) . So the choices farmers make have an immense impact for the future of our environment and natural resources.

But, at a time when food producers across the world are having to balance the pressures of securing an income with adapting to increasingly extreme and irregular weather patterns, is it fair to position farmers as stewards of our land as well? The good news is, regenerative farming has the potential to sustain yields and profits whilst preserving and working with nature.

Farming that works for the planet

As we’ve seen, embracing a ‘no soil, no food’ approach and minimising artificial fertilisers and pesticides results in greater biodiversity, creating a positive feedback loop across the local ecosystem. Many sustainable farming initiatives also involve a revival of indigenous wisdom and traditional techniques, which often embody a greater respect for nature and our intrinsic relationship as part of it. And when it comes to climate resilient farming, the benefits of regenerative practices are heralded as holding greater scope to adapt to floods, droughts and other extreme weather events. On top of this, the methods used all contribute to either keeping carbon dioxide in the soil or capturing and sequestering it through crop coverage. Many argue that regenerative agriculture has the potential to significantly cool the climate if adopted on a large enough scale.

A team developing market systems for regenerative agriculture.

A team developing market systems for regenerative agriculture.

Farming that works for people:

Regenerative agriculture can significantly improve the sustainability of food production, leading to better profits for farmers and, ultimately, making farming a more reliable source of income amidst these challenges times.

Regen methods can lower the cost of operational inputs in many contexts. For example, since the focus is on maintaining healthy, nutrient-rich soils that can absorb and store more moisture, there is less need for expensive fertiliser. When the soil is healthier and the local ecosystem is thriving, there is also less need to spend on fungicides or insecticides, since nature’s own predators can keep infestations in check. On top of this, a ‘no till’ approach reduces the cost of equipment, labour and sometimes fuel.

By reducing the use of chemicals it reduces health risks to farmers and their families. Greater diversity of crops means that the food security of farming households is enhanced. Farming households benefit from improved local water resources and micro-climate (e.g. cooler).

Farming that works for the most vulnerable:

The current agricultural system isn’t working for smallholder farmers in the global south – many of whom are women. They lose out at every stage: from having to cope with soil degradation and low yields in often challenging, remote locations, to dealing with local climate struggles, such as water access or landslides. Even if they do achieve a good harvest, they often struggle to access markets or integrate into commercial value chains because they cannot produce the quality and quantity of produce required. Many Governments around the worlds cannot support them or invest in traditional agricultural extension services.

Farmers located in areas affected by extreme weather are living in extreme hardship. Climate change threatens their very survival. But through our work with rural farmers in remote regions, we’ve discovered that even in the most extreme drought or flood conditions, farmers can use regenerative agriculture to restore health to the soil and grow food.

Sources

i Getting the Soil Right: How Carbon Farming Combats Climate Change (reasonstobecheerful.world)

ii UN Food and Agriculture Organization

 

Regenerative Agriculture in practice: some examples

  • In Kenya, we’ve been working with young people in two counties since 2019 to break the cycles of poverty and rural-to-urban migration. By using technology to connect to markets and share their knowledge, and through the adoption of powerful circular farming techniques, such as using vermiculture to turn livestock manure and organic waste into compost and natural fertiliser, young farmers are not only setting a new trend in environmentally friendly farming, but also securing a better income. They now see agriculture as a viable career option and don’t need to flock to the city. Find out more.
  • In Peru and Bolivia, 85% of coffee farming happens on smallholdings (less than 2 hectares in size). But coffee is one of the most vulnerable crops to climate change. Farmers were struggling to maintain a decent crop amidst an increase in pests and diseases, deforestation and soil degradation. The Café Correcto project succeeded in introducing regenerative farming methods to these small plots. By implementing agroforestry techniques, such as layered planting, and encouraging a wider diversity of crops to nourish the soil and local ecosystem, productivity was enhanced and farmers saw their incomes rise. We know that by working together, farmers can create reciprocal benefits for each other, so we also supported the establishment of cooperative, which have also helped connect farmers with local markets.
  • In Western Nepal, we’ve been working with smallholders and subsistence farmers to repurpose plastic for composting. In an area where soil quality is low, making nutrient-rich compost is vtial. Not only does this remove the need for chemical fertilisers, but it also retains more moisture, meaning that precious water supplies can be used for drinking, washing and cooking instead. These bio-farming methods are part of our wider Turn the Tables on Climate Change project, focused on helping farmers adapt to the extreme of climate change.

    A woman cultivating regenerative agriculture in a field of dried corn.

    Cultivating regenerative agriculture in a field of dried corn.

  • Bulilima district is one of the driest areas of Zimbabwe. But despite living through the most devastating droughts in recent years, local farmers are managing to grow crops thanks to our Planting for Progress project. The application of organic compost to the ground, allows the soil to retain water. Coupled with solar-powered irrigation pumps, communities have created a powerful solution with a big impact: an end to hunger for local families and healthier diets too. It means they can thrive in the face of the climate crisis.

Get involved in the regenerative movement

Here are a few ways you can join the regenerative wave:

  • Buy your food from organic-certified or regenerative farmers, or companies that source products from them.
  • Learn more by watching Kiss the Ground, a great documentary about regenerative principles, currently on Netflix.
  • Apply some nature-friendly growing methods and principles in your own garden or allotment. Could you welcome pollinators with a wild flower area, build a bug hotel or a hedgehog corridor? What about harvesting rainwater for irrigation or creating a key-hole garden to grow vegetables super efficiently?

Find out how to build your own here.

  • Stay in the loop and network with farmers and scientists at Groundswell, the annual regenerative agriculture festival event held in June.
  • Make your own compost from food waste and grass cutting. Here’s a video from one of the farmers we work with in Nepal on his technique for speeding up production.