Regenerative agriculture is quite a popular term these days. An increasing number of people see it as the best way to manage soil, environment and human health.
So what exactly is regenerative agriculture? Is just another name for organic farming? There are some aspects of it (for example, no chemicals) but there is so much more to regenerative agriculture.
The proof is in the pudding or, in this case, the name.
The concept concerns regeneration of the soil and considers soils, plants, animals, humans and water as interconnected pieces of a greater whole.
To understand better, let’s look at some of its more common practices.
Regenerative agriculture – common practices
Regenerative agriculture is a set of farming practices that enriches the soil, increases biodiversity, improves the ecosystem and, who knows, can reverse climate change.
To list all practices involved in the process is a lengthy exercise, too vast to be included in this humble blog post. But there are three that are generally considered the most common.
Use cover crops
What are cover crops?
Cover crops are plants that are grown to cover the soil post-harvest. This helps to improve the fertility and general quality of the soil and keep it primed till the time the new crops are planted. In regenerative agriculture rye, crimson clover, buckwheat, Sudan grass, cowpeas and alfalfa are good examples.
Let’s start with the soil.
The soil contains different organisms that are useful for the growth and health of plants.
These organisms help to:
- convert soil nitrogen into a form that plants can use
- loosen the soil and increase water absorption and enable roots to go deeper
- bring water to plants
Most of these organisms are killed off when soil is tilled, increasing our reliance on chemical fertilizers. These organisms include invaluable bacteria, fungi and protozoa.
So, what’s the solution?
Number one: No tilling!
One of the primary job descriptions of the soil is to store carbon. When it is plowed, carbon, in the form of materials such as microorganisms and roots, is brought out to the surface. Initially, this is all well and dandy. Crops get the necessary nutrients and thrive.
However, over time, the carbon in the surface inevitably comes in contact with oxygen and forms carbon dioxide. The result is greenhouse gas emissions and, ultimately, global warming.
Instead use cover crops that can be grown during the bare season, whose roots penetrate and break up the soil. Worms can then aerate the soil and bring nutrients with them.
The trick here is to let the cover crops grow and kill them off just before they seed so they turn into rich nourishment for the soil.
Adding organic mulch over the soil is another good solution, as it will decompose over time and add extra organic matter to the soil.
So, when the time comes to plant new crops, the soil is ready to rock and roll.
Keep grazing animals in tight herds
These seemingly benevolent bovines can be quite destructive to the environment. One, they eat a lot and clear out acres of grazing land. Two, they let the gas out with devastating effects for our ever-expanding carbon footprint.
However, by using the right practices, we can sequester huge amounts of carbon into the ground.
It all begins with the knowledge of how grass grows.
Grass grows in three stages: slow, fast, and slow again.
It’s in the middle stage that it gathers biomass (carbon from the air) most effectively. Cattle make sure that grass never gets to that point resulting in overgrazing and, in worst cases, drought.
There is a solution to this though.
If the grazing animals are kept in a tight herd (as it happens in the wild) the grass will have time to grow. A fencing system will enable you to move the animals around so the grass is left with ample time to recover.
Also, grass that is not eaten is trampled and popped on (terrible huh?) but this is actually quite a good thing. It helps creates ideal conditions for top soil to be built.
Try the magic of agroforestry
This one involves mimicking what happens in the forest – the interdependence between living organisms – and trying to recreate the same. Only difference being this one creates more food.
Food forests have seven layers: root, ground cover, herb, shrub, low tree, high tree, and vine. Each of the layers offers something beneficial to the system. For example, fallen leaves and fruits from trees provide nutrients and help regenerate the top soil.
Such a system also nullifies the need for chemical usage and each of the layers have their predators to take care of the harmful pests.
In short, while conventional agriculture is about producing more and more of the same thing, regenerative agriculture promotes as many relationships between organisms are possible.
Can regenerative agriculture improve our climate?
It probably can. A big claim, no doubt, but let’s look at it logically.
Plants take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and put them in the soil. Healthier the soil, more its ability to hold CO2.
But the warning signs are loud and clear. It is estimated that 75 percent of the planet’s soil is degraded. And, according to the UN, we have a meager 60 harvests left.
Conventional farming with its reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticide and incessant tillage has weakened the soil’s capacity to sequester CO2.
Regenerative agriculture is different. It does more than just avoid chemical usage on soil. This form of farming can truly improve the soil. So much so that Rodale Institute, a pioneer of agricultural research, claims that done properly, the soil can hold 100 percent of human emissions.
There is no doubt that in terms of yield, conventional agriculture has been a success over the last century. But this has come at a cost.
The crops do not have the same kind of nutrients and the chemical run-offs pollute water ways thereby threatening human health. Fuel-based nitrogen fertilizers also give off nitrous oxide which is a very dangerous greenhouse gas.
What we can do to practice regenerative agriculture
First, do not till and let the soil be. This helps keep the carbon in the ground and creates a great environment for soil-enriching organisms to thrive.
Second, keep the soil occupied throughout the year, using cover crops during the off season. This keeps it nourished and ready for the new set of crops to grow.
Third, say a big, loud, boisterous NO! to fertilizers, pesticides and anything chemical-based.
Fourth, create a varied ecosystem where plants, animals and insects such as the invaluable bee and other non-bee pollinating agents can live in harmony.
Is it time to change our farming practices?
For thousands of years, we have lived in perfect sync with nature. Modern agriculture is threatening to permanently destroy this harmony.
Intensive agricultural practices are responsible for close to one-third of greenhouse gas emissions every year. Additionally, 24 billion tonnes of topsoil are being killed off annually.
One fine day, the damage will become irreversible.
We can change all that by arming the soil to fight the fight for us.
What do you think about regenerative agriculture? Do you practice it in some form? Let us know in the comments.
Wow I learned a lot from this post, thank you for sharing this important information!!
You’re welcome, Alex. Glad you found the article useful
Firstly, I absolutely LOVE all the information in this post! Regenerative agriculture isn’t a term I’ve come across before but you explained it all so clearly. In my own small way I think I do incorporate some of these tips. As regards the soil, I’m trialling the no dig method in a couple of beds this year, and I always leave my bean and sweet pea roots in the soil after harvesting to add nitrogen. We also collect all our deciduous tree leaves to make leaf mould for the soil and we mulch heavily too. Unfortunately I do rely on slug pellets though as otherwise I’d have no crops to harvest. A fascinating read, thank you so much for writing this post 🙂
Thanks Lisa. And yes, you are doing your bit and more. No tilling, making mulch out of leaves, leaving roots in the soil – that’s quite a lot of regenerative agriculture practices! 🙂
I don’t know much about regenerative agriculture so I’m glad I came across this post. I’m not the best in the garden, but it’s always interesting to learn about the massive industry surrounding it. And it definitely sounds like this form of agriculture is the way forward, so beneficial!
Glad you found this post useful Anika. You’re right, eventually it seems we’ll all have to adopt these practices.
This was a very interesting read, I had no idea you could actually resort to this sort of agriculture to help with the environment.
Thanks Simona. True, regenerative agriculture is a massive plus for the environment.
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