A regenerative farming approach focuses on restoring soils that have been degraded by overuse or too much exposure to artificial fertilizers and pesticides through industrial and agricultural practices. Conversely, regenerative farming’s methods promote conservation and healthier ecosystems by rebuilding soil’s organic matter through holistic farming and grazing techniques.
The agriculture industry currently ranks as one of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide in the world. Combined with deforestation and poor forest management, it makes up a third of all man-made greenhouse emissions. Globally, people, and industries, are becoming increasingly interested in adopting sustainable practices, and within agriculture, there is considerable pressure to reduce emissions and limit waste.
Advantages of regenerative agriculture
Regenerative agriculture practitioners let nature do the work for them. There are many advantages of incorporating conservative agricultural practices into your farming organization, such as:
Important to the success of regenerative agriculture will be the ability of farmers to charge a premium for their produce, as they often can for organic food.
Organic producers can use various certification schemes that confirm to consumers that the producer followed agreed rules and procedures, but other than the as-yet small scale Regenerative Organic Certified scheme, there is nothing comparable for regenerative food producers. Philip Fernandez, EIT Food’s Agriculture Project Manager, thinks that regenerative certification might not be entirely beneficial, however.
“There are arguments for and against it,” he says. “One problem is that it could potentially confuse people, as the average consumer doesn’t yet know what regenerative agriculture is. Also, it would entail many rules, and until now advantage of regenerative has been its flexibility. The case for certification is that regenerative agriculture is after all a different approach to farming – so why not recognize it appropriately?”
One alternative would be to hope that technology enables greater communication and information exchange between producers and consumers. At a simple level, the internet already allows farmers and producers to explain their principles to potential customers. Uri Rosenzweig, Head of Product at the EIT Food-supported tech startup Trellis, foresees farmers and food manufacturers sharing more data with the public online, and people taking that information into account when buying food.
“Remember that organic was a bottom-up movement, with consumers creating the demand as they found out more about food. Technology now allows us to have more traceability and visibility of how much energy is used to produce food, and how much waste has been involved, for example. I would hope the sort of consumers who pushed for organic would care about such issues.”
Soil organic matter is a plant or animal tissue in the process of decay. Whilst most soils are only 2% to 10% soil organic matter, it plays a vital role in determining the health of the soil and the plant. It pays to keep in mind that a 1% increase in soil organic matter helps soil hold 20,000 more gallons of water per acre. A higher water-holding capacity means crops are more resilient through times of drought or heavy rain. By maintaining surface residues, roots, and soil structure with better aggregation and pores, soil organic matter also reduces nutrient runoff and erosion.
In the 21st-century conventional agriculture incurs other indirect costs that cannot be ignored. The long-term threat of climate change to the natural environment is well established, and agriculture bears much of the responsibility for this. In its latest report on climate change, the IPCC states that 23% of the total global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are directly related to “agriculture, forestry and other types of land use”.
Conversely, regenerative agriculture seeks to increase the organic matter in the soil, which makes it better able to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, meaning it has the potential to reduce climate change instead of contributing to it.
The soil scientist Dr. Rattan Lal, the winner of the 2020 World Food Prize, claims that increasing the carbon content of the world’s soil by just two percent would entirely return greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to safe levels.
Some regenerative farmers argue that their grazing techniques can play a significant role in reducing the carbon intensity of agriculture, and while some of these claims have been credibly disputed, some scientists endorse the findings.
Organic farming is friendlier to the climate because it stores carbon in healthy soil, and reduces energy requirements by relying more on physical and animal labor rather than fossil fuels. It eliminates the use of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides and supports natural ecosystems that store carbon, such as forests and prairies. Lastly, it reduces the production of greenhouse gases due to a reduction in fossil fuel use.
Infiltration and biodiversity
Regenerative farming has other demonstrable benefits besides improving soil health and helping to fight climate change. Improving the soil not only increases fertility in a sustainable way but also tends to improve water infiltration. Better infiltration means less runoff, and also less erosion and pollution from the soil being carried away in the runoff water. In some areas, water springs that dried up several years ago have begun to flow again due to new regenerative farming approaches.
An increase in biodiversity also tends to make ecosystems more sustainable and resilient. Dan Kittredge, the US-based organic farmer and executive director of the Bionutrient Food Association, has observed that regenerative agriculture focuses more attention on the quality of life and growth on a farm, contrasting this with organic farming which, he says, can focus on policing inputs. However, there are some arguments that disadvantages of regenerative agriculture do indeed exist.
This is probably one of the strongest arguments in favor of regenerative, organically grown produce. Organic farming does not allow the growth or production of genetically modified organisms.
It goes without saying that the healthier the soil, the healthier the crop yield. When plants have the nutrients and root systems they need to thrive, they build compounds to help protect against insects and disease. There is also growing evidence that a healthy soil microbiome full of vital bacteria, fungi, and nematodes is more likely to produce nutrient-dense food, promoting better human health.
Reduced runoff and erosion
Crops can be rotated year-round in regenerative agriculture, which reduces water and fertilizer runoff. Healthier soil is also less prone to erosion.
Employing regenerative agricultural methodologies means that you don’t have to spend money on artificial fertilizers because the soil is healthy and replenishes itself. Additionally, you don’t have to invest in expensive herbicides and pesticides because the farm is a more robust ecosystem that can tolerate disturbances by invasive or competing species.
Organic agriculture does not use synthetic agricultural chemicals, such as neonicotinoids and glyphosate, that are known for being harmful to pollinators.
Integrates livestock into arable systems
Regenerative agriculture allows for enterprise stacking on the same farming unit or for partnerships with neighboring livestock businesses. There are opportunities for grazing cover crops and for short- to medium-term grass or herbal leys. With livestock comes manure, which returns varying levels of nutrients and organic matter to the soil, reducing the need for manufactured fertilizer.
Healthier working environment for farmers
A pesticide- and artificial fertilizer-free environment is healthier as it does not expose you or your farm workers to toxic synthetic agricultural chemicals. Bear in mind that prolonged exposure to pesticides has been linked to a higher prevalence of neurological diseases. The greater your exposure to chemicals, the more likely you are to suffer from a variety of health problems ranging from headaches and fatigue to memory loss.
Conventional farming practices focus on the growth of a specific commodity crop. Through organic farming practices, there are more opportunities to specialize. This is because you and your farming practice will grow crops that are most suited to the soil composition available to you.
- Increased farmland utilization.
- Using your land more efficiently.
- Diversifies farm income and increases farm viability.
- Increases crop resistance.
- Greater nutrient density in plants.
Disadvantages of regenerative agriculture
In integrating different elements on the farm, the regenerative farmer seeks to revive the classic mixed-farm model, which is an important consideration in the post-COVID food industry. By producing a greater diversity of foodstuffs on one site, a farm can reduce external inputs and outputs, and thus reduce the risk of contamination.
However, to practice regenerative agriculture effectively, many farmers will need to acquire new knowledge and skills, particularly in respect of soil management. And managing farmers’ expectations of results might be difficult, as critics have accused exponents of over-claiming on yield and benefits. By not tilling the soil, farmers can save between 30 and 40 percent of the time and can decrease the amount of soil erosion in certain terrains, but the disadvantages of regenerative agriculture are, in many cases, that more unwelcome plants grow on the land, and some farmers compensate for this by increasing their use of the herbicide.
And it is possible that the extent of soil degradation is exaggerated too. The degradation of soils is difficult to measure, and there are huge variations between estimates by different bodies.
Little to no subsidies
Public consciousness regarding sustainability in agriculture still has a long way to go in this region. Governments are slow to offer farm subsidies to encourage the implementation of regenerative agricultural practices. Without this additional support and encouragement from official sources, it is difficult to grow specialized products in a market saturated with commodity products. Consequently, you are left taking more risks that leave you financially vulnerable.
Requires more work
Regenerative agriculture requires more work to produce goods that are ready for sale. There is more physical burden like pulling weeds and other cultivation techniques, which in conventional agriculture can be dealt with using artificial pesticides and tillage machines.
Requires specialized knowledge
The quality of a crop produced through organic farming is heavily reliant on your skills, knowledge, and experience. In regenerative farming, you have to monitor crop growth patterns during every critical stage of growth.
If you are unable to recognize and address a problem, the value of the crop may be affected. You also need in-depth local knowledge about soil systems, ecology, meteorology, and other factors that can influence the growth of crops.
Unique marketing challenges
Most farmers like yourself will agree that organic foods are more expensive than commodity foods or commercially grown products. Currently, the local market for organic foods is not as defined as it is for other crops. This makes it difficult for specialty farmers to compete with other commercially produced products that are available easily at lower costs.
Rigorous certification process
To be certified as an organic producer, you need to spend more money to hire certifying agents, which adds to the overall cost of production.
More expensive than commercial farming
To qualify as an organic farming enterprise you need to invest in infrastructure and other start-up costs. Soil amendments, such as rock dust, are more expensive for many farmers when compared to the chemicals traditionally used in commodity farming.
Reduced profit margins and increased costs
Any new agricultural system that doesn’t incorporate conventional methodologies will require larger initial investments and work. This means that you may have reduced profit margins.
- It takes time. Trees do not grow overnight and soil needs time to improve.
- It takes planning and organization. A long-term plan is a must.
- The setup can be labor-intensive.
Is regenerative farming the solution?
Regenerative farming clearly has some way to go yet before it can offer an alternative to current conventional, large-scale agriculture. However, it’s equally clear that it is a source of important ideas and influence. For farmers, a regenerative approach can offer new profitable and nature-friendly economic models. For policymakers, it offers alternative ways of thinking about sustainability. And for changemakers looking to reduce the negative impacts of farming, it represents small actions and changes that are closely linked to a large-scale vision.
Crucially, restorative agriculture implies a general approach that allows for different farms to develop new, adaptive cycles and systems. These, in turn, can support and develop a unique and resilient farm ecosystem. “Nature” isn’t fixed; it’s something that humans can work within what writer, Raymond Cole, has called “co-evolutionary, partnered relationships between human and natural systems.”
Can regenerative agriculture live up to this potential?
Probably the biggest challenge to overcome relates to yield. We must continue to feed our growing population whilst regenerating natural systems and ensuring their future productivity. On the surface, industrialized approaches of neat monoculture rows, turbo-charged by chemical inputs, can address both of these needs. What’re more industrial methods have proven high yields, and therefore lower land requirements, meaning less expansion into natural land.
As the 1960s’
Green Revolution demonstrated, this way of producing food certainly made plentiful, accessible food possible for most. However, in the long run, this has proved a false economy. More and more chemicals are required to maintain these yields, while at the same time degrading the natural foundation for fertility and abundance — topsoil, biodiversity, and local water systems.
Evidence shows that regenerative approaches can both address environmental and productivity needs. Farms that focus on soil health are experiencing year-on-year yield increases. Examples include Leontino Balbo’s Native Farm in Brazil reporting a 20% increase in sugar cane yield; thousands of Indian ZBNF farms measuring boosts in many different crops such as a 36% increase in groundnuts; Takao Furuno’s integrated duck-rice model that has led to a 20–50% rice yield increase as well as a tripling in revenue.
In Indiana a farmer called Rodney Rulon spends about $100,000 on cover crop seeds on his 6200-acre arable farm, saving $57,000 on fertilizers and increasing profits by $107,000. These are just a few examples that constitute a rapidly growing dataset proving that regenerative approaches can produce sufficient food with higher profit margins.
However, focusing solely on yield would be to fall into the trap of linear thinking. Taking a systemic view leads to systemic benefits: increased resilience, mitigating the health impact of industrial production, and massive reductions in carbon.
The second challenge relates to implementation. At small scales, such as the ZBNF farmers in Andhra Pradesh, the transition from conventional to regenerative can be quite short with little investment required.
However, at a large scale, the change can take much longer, creating periods of uncertainty in an already low-margin sector. In the case of Leontino Balbo’s 16,000-hectare sugar cane farm, it took 27 years to achieve the full transformation. The reasons for this vary. They can be biological, as building soil organic matter and a healthy population of soil microbes happens over many seasons. Other obstacles are business-oriented. New equipment may need to be purchased; farm activities and schedules redesigned; staff to be retrained, and new scientific knowledge to be acquired.
Alleviating the risks associated with this transition period is where governments or the financial sector could play a role, by offering subsidies, incentives, or some other kind of insurance. To enable this support, we will need new ways of monitoring progress.
What constitutes a healthy soil or ecosystem? How can we easily measure it so we know that farms are on the right trajectory? US organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and the Soil Health Institution are now working with tech companies to use remote sensing and soil modeling to come up with new methods of measuring soil health over large landscapes.
With so much untapped potential, new commercial opportunities exist in developing new technology and products that make it easier for farmers to practice regenerative agriculture. For example, seed companies could offer specially designed mixes so more farmers could achieve the same benefits as Rodney Rulon does on his Indiana farm.
Similarly, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s Cities and Circular Economy for Food report identified the huge potential that exists in converting food by-products from cities into regenerative soil enhancers that are comparable or even better than synthetic fertilizers. Companies like SoilFood in Finland and Lystek in Canada are proving that this is possible in reality.
- Morning Chores