The benefits of regenerative agriculture

Post Date
08 January 2024
Jason Gale
Read Time
9 minutes

Contemporary agricultural practices globally have significant negative impacts on the climate and nature, putting at risk global food security, critical ecosystem services, and consequently, our financial and societal futures.

The contribution of the agricultural sector to global warming is high. In 2021, the United Nations reported that agri-food supply chains account for one third of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) caused by human activity, with agriculture and land use alone accounting for two thirds of this. In addition the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi) estimates the GHG emissions from Forest, Land and Agriculture (FLAG) as being as high as 22%. Without significant changes at farm production level, the agri-food sector will not meet the Net Zero Standard of reducing at least 72% of emissions from the forest, land and agriculture sectors by 2050.

The move from more traditional farming practices to more-intensive methods has taken its toll on nature and ecosystem services, with widespread impacts locally and globally. These include reduced drought resilience, increased water pollution, and a greater loss of soil health, biodiversity and habitats.

Coupled with these environmental impacts, there is the stark question of demographics, with the UN predicting the global population increasing from 7.7 billion to 8.5 billion by 2030. With all agri-food supply chains relying on agriculture at production level, the resulting demand for food is going to have an impact somewhere, whether locally or globally; this is regardless of the dietary decisions we choose or need to make.

Improving the carbon balance and provision of nature and ecosystem services on farmland is a practical goal that can sit hand in hand with maintaining food security. Being able to follow regenerative agricultural practices at production level, and incorporating them into supply chain procurement, balances the increasing requirements of enhancing ecosystem services, climate change mitigation and ongoing food production.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines regenerative agriculture as “holistic farming systems that, among other benefits, improve water and air quality, enhance ecosystem biodiversity, produce nutrient-dense food, and store carbon to help mitigate the effects of climate change, designed to work in harmony with nature, while maintaining and improving economic viability”.

The thinking here being, that by looking in closer detail at all practices at farm production level, and how they fit into the whole agri-food supply chain, we can make real progress in meeting global climate change and nature targets, balancing production methods with the increasing need for food.

Many critics may see agriculture as a barrier to climate action and improvements to biodiversity habitats, but regenerative practices are not focused on taking land out of production as a means of cutting emissions and habitat creation; they are part of the wider systems-based solution.

In order to meet the requirements of the UN Global Compact’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, these challenges cannot be faced in isolation. Every part of the agri-food supply chain has the opportunity to play its part in transforming farming systems from the conventional intensive methods we have become used to, to sustainable, resilient and inclusive systems, which not only provide access to healthy, nutritious food, but create livelihoods for small-scale producers, at the same time as protecting and enhancing the ecosystem and combatting climate change.

Regenerative agriculture at a farm production level can be broken down into several elements, all of which must concurrently exist to achieve overall Net Zero targets, protect natural capital, and meet the definition of being “regenerative”.

  • Soils: Healthy soils are the key to every other interaction on and off the farm being healthy. This can be in the form of regenerative soil and crop management, such as minimum/no tillage, suitable crop rotations, building fertility through rotations and cover crops, and maintaining living roots that promote carbon sequestration. As the 2020 documentary Kiss the Ground clearly shows, there is a through line that links healthy soil to healthy plants to healthy humans to a healthier planet.
  • Water: Agriculture accounts for 70% of groundwater withdrawal globally, and is the largest global source of water pollution. Regenerative agriculture practices address aquifers, efficient use of and water conservation, nutrient management and use, soil erosion, and other risks on the farm.
  • Livestock: All livestock species in some ways either affect – or are affected by – climate change. Ruminants such as cattle do expel methane, and commercially, monogastrics such as pigs and chickens require energy and protein from an external source. Regenerative agriculture looks at the integration of livestock species on farms, and how the crops are grown for external feed sources. Any livestock farmer, especially in the regenerative agriculture space, should be taking a good look at antibiotic usage and alternatives (due to the rise in human anti-microbial resistance), alongside the use of chemicals used for parasite control, which are known to affect soil micro-organisms and invertebrates. The protection and enhancement of natural habitats, maintaining a balanced ecosystem, and managing grazing effectively, have key roles to play in limiting disease transmission through livestock-wildlife interaction.
  • Ecology and Biodiversity: These are key for any farm in order to farm with nature. Regenerative agriculture requires knowing what species (plants, invertebrates, birds/mammals) are on the farm; what should be on the farm; if it’s not on the farm, why; and how to encourage it back. Many of these species will also have a hidden important role to play in pollination, pest and disease control.
  • Climate: Most agricultural operations (if not already listed) have an impact on the climate and reaching Net Zero targets. Regenerative agriculture looks at equipment usage on farm: lower-emission vehicles/changing practices (meaning less field work); energy usage on farm, such as solar panels/wind turbines; physical aesthetics of new buildings and infrastructure; input procurement such as feed and fertilisers; and waste management and reduction (from plastic containers, drug bottles/containers, bags to silage wrap).
  • Finance: Unless directly supplying products to consumers, farmers are known to accept the “current market price”. This may be set by the buyer, processor or retailer. Regenerative agriculture requires understanding alternative sources of finance available to make or cover the costs of changes in practices, which may be through government grants/subsidies, and carbon or biodiversity credits. Regenerative farmers also need to have a look at their “exit strategy”. In the UK, the average age of farmers and farm workers is 59, so it is important for anyone involved in farm business to understand how they will survive post-retirement, and how any improvements carried out to date will be taken forward.
  • Social: Staff and local communities are key to any farming system. Regenerative agriculture addresses living wage, living conditions, working hours and conditions for any person employed on the farm, alongside how the farm business communicates and interacts with local communities.

Achieving the significant shift required is not something that can occur overnight, but is part of a wider journey, where farmers and landowners must adapt to new processes alongside learning what works for their specific farm and climate. Everyone will be entering the journey from a different starting point (from those that haven’t yet looked at their production methods and ecosystems on their farm, to those that have already removed chemicals and artificial fertilisers, changed to minimum and/or no-tillage systems, follow holistic grazing practices, and have created or restored habitats on the farm.

Many farmers may be worried about the reduction or drop in yields, but as regenerative agriculture is about learning what works for an individual farming system, changes may be a phased approach, trialling new or moving back to traditional methods that work on their farm. With ever-increasing fixed and variable costs, and ongoing uncertainty over farmgate prices, moving to regenerative practices has added cost benefits, reducing and potentially removing external inputs, savings in fuel from reducing equipment use, cutting the number of field passes from crop establishment through to harvest. Regenerative practices also attract additional income streams, through government environmental payments, potential farmgate premiums, and through the sale of carbon and other nature credits.

Examples of companies turning such regenerative thinking into regenerative action include McCain Foods, which has established trials at its two Farms of the Future, dedicated to potatoes. In tests conducted at eight pilot farms in France, the company has started to validate local outcomes, observing how winter cover crops improve soil trafficability when coupled with alternative soil tillage practices. The result being that there has been limited erosion and flooding, and increased soil life, such as earthworms. Commenting on the success of the pilots, Leslie Camus (VP Agriculture, McCain Continental Europe) stated that the food giant had “no doubt that regenerative agriculture can help produce food more sustainably while having a positive impact on crop yields locally… this is why we have committed to transitioning to regenerative agriculture practices across 100% of our potato acreage by the end of the decade”.

Such pledges cannot easily prosper in a vacuum, and to realise its true potential, regenerative agriculture can be scaled up only if there is collaboration between business, farmers, policymakers, academics and investors. And we all have a shared interest in seeing the successful outcome of such partnerships, as (to borrow the title of the 2023 sequel to Kiss the Ground) there is a global need to recognise the Common Ground we all rely on.

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