Agriculture can have negative impacts on the environment. It is one of the leading sources of pollution in most countries with a substantial agricultural sector. Conventional farming practices also result in the degradation of land and water resources. Agricultural activities emit greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Hence, based on these examples, modern agriculture is unsustainable. It threatens food security or can result in food shortage and food insecurity because of its environmental impacts. The concept of regenerative agriculture has been proposed as a solution to these problems.
The Principles of Regenerative Agriculture: A Guide For Farmers, Policymakers, and Consumers
The specific concept is connected to the more general concept of regenerative design. This approach to design can be traced back to Australian environmental designer David Holmgren and Australian scientist and university lecturer Bill Mollison came up with a method for managing land that is sustainable and self-sufficient based on ideas from thriving ecosystems. They named it “permaculture” and talked about it in their 1978 book “Permaculture One: A Perennial Agricultural System for Human Settlements.”
American organic farming adherent Robert Rodale began working on advancing an approach to farming that renews and regenerates agricultural resources beginning in the 1980s. The approach maximizes the natural tendencies of ecosystems to regenerate when disturbed using closed nutrient loops, greater diversity in the biological community, fewer annuals and more perennials, and greater dependence and utilization on internal rather than external resources. His nonprofit organic farming think tank Rodale Institute first used the term “regenerative agriculture” in several books published in 1987 and 1988.
It is still important to note that the ideas behind regenerative agriculture mirror traditional farming practices that have been used for centuries by indigenous cultures before the arrival of large-scale and intensive food production or industrial agriculture. The concept of integrating regeneration with agricultural activities has emerged in the last three to two decades alongside sustainable farming principles and due to the need to tackle the negative environmental impacts of conventional farming practices.
Understanding the definition of regenerative agriculture requires understanding the definition of regenerative design. Hence, for starters, regenerative design is an approach to design that equips a particular system with the capacity to restore, renew, or revitalize its own sources of energy and materials. It is based on whole systems thinking and draws inspiration from the processes found in nature. Regenerative design aims to reconnect and realign humans and their activities with the natural environment to lessen the negative environmental impacts of the modern and address pressing environmental issues such as the ongoing climate emergency.
Nevertheless, based on the aforementioned, integrating regeneration with agricultural activities means creating harmony between food production systems and nature. It equips farms with the capacity to restore, renew, or revitalize their resources or production inputs while also minimizing the environmental impacts of their outputs and sub-outputs. The concept can also be related to the principles of a circular economic model of production. This means that it runs against the linear economic model of modern food production.
Regenerative agriculture is not a specific practice itself. It represents a set of techniques from sustainable agricultural practices. These include no-till farming, rotational grazing, mixed crop rotation or rotational farming, cover cropping, and the application of compost and manure. It is also based on philosophies like permaculture, agroecology, agroforestry, restoration ecology, keyline design, and holistic management. There is also no one-size-fits-all approach because regenerating a food production system is dependent on its local environment. The following are the specific principles of regenerative agriculture:
1. Topsoil Regeneration: Intensive farming depletes the nutrients from the soil and can render it barren or unconducive for plant growth. Regenerating the topsoil means restoring the fertility of the upper layer of the land to support plant growth. It involves techniques like cover cropping, mulching, and composting to improve soil structure and nutrient content. This is vital because healthy topsoil contributes to better crops, reduces erosion, and boosts ecosystem resilience.
2. Water Cycle Improvement: Practices like cover cropping and reduced tilling helps the soil retains more water help the soil retain more water. Other practices that help in reducing runoff and erosion allow rainwater to infiltrate the ground and replenish underground aquifers. Improving the structure of the soil through no-till farming or reduced tilling, cover cropping, composting, and crop rotation can also help prevent droughts and floods or mitigate their negative impacts.
3. Increasing Biodiversity: Another principle of regenerative agriculture is the need to increase biodiversity through conservation, livestock integration, polyculture, and reduced chemicals. A diverse ecosystem is more resilient and productive. Biodiversity also supports pollinators, like bees, which aid in crop reproduction. It also enhances pest control, reduces disease risk, and improves soil fertility. Increasing biodiversity means fostering a sustainable and thriving agricultural system.
4. Enhancing Ecosystem Services: Ecosystem services represent the different benefits to humans provided by the natural environment and healthy ecosystems. Examples of these services include nutrient cycling, water filtration, and pollination. Practices aimed at regenerating an agricultural land align farming with the functions of nature. This alignment creates a healthier ecosystem and helps in boosting yields, reducing input costs, and fostering long-term sustainability.
5. Biosequestration Support: The process in which living organisms capture and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis is called biosequestration. It is a natural form of carbon capture and storage. Practices like agroforestry, cover cropping, and polyculture help in enhancing the ability of an agricultural land to capture and store carbon. Natural carbon sequestration creates a feedback loop that reduces the carbon footprint of agricultural activities.
6. Climate Change Resilience: Changes in weather patterns threaten food security or can result in food shortages. Abrupt weather that leads to megadrought can also cause water stress and water scarcity. Another principle of regenerative agriculture is to improve the resilience of agricultural lands and crops to climate change. This is done through practices that reduce the carbon footprint of food production systems, improve the water cycle, and enhance ecosystem services.