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Regenerative Agriculture: is this what sustainable agriculture is about?
Jabier Ruiz, WWF-European Policy Office

4th Jul 2020

Janez opening
Photo by sippakorn yamkasikorn on Unsplash

Regenerative agriculture is one among a myriad of terms we nowadays hear in relation to sustainable agriculture. “Regenerative” is an attractive and positive adjective in itself, so it can hardly be criticised, particularly when compared to its rough opposite “extractive agriculture”. But there are many other words in the “agri-dictionary” that we also use frequently nowadays: agroecology, conservation agriculture, ecological intensification… How does “regenerative agriculture” rank against those?

To help us in providing an answer, just a few days ago, the European office of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released the timely report Approaches to Sustainable Agriculture, where they have carefully assessed what is behind the complex terminology in the field. As the authors point out, the different approaches to sustainable agriculture share a number of important commonalities and challenges, but it is also important to note that their diversity is a strength in itself.

As the report presents, regenerative agriculture is a term coined back in the 1980s in the USA and it is centered on the concept of soil health, aiming to restore its organic matter content and ecological functionality, boost its productivity and increase its resilience. Regenerative agriculture is identified by the Drawdown project as one key solution to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and lock it in the soils, and is also one of the ten critical transitions identified by the FOLU to transform food and land use globally.

Regenerative agriculture embraces a number of farming practices, summarised in the report:

1. Minimum or no tillage, to enhance soil aggregation, water infiltration and retention, and carbon sequestration;

2. Boosting soil fertility biologically by closing nutrient loops through the application of cover crops, crop rotations, perennial crops, compost and animal manure - minimal or no use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and no external nutrients (in-farm fertility);

3. Building biological ecosystem diversity, through composting, intercropping, multi-species cover crops, agroforestry, silvopasture, and borders planted for bees and other beneficial insects;

4. Well-managed grazing practices (e.g. rotational grazing) to stimulate plant growth, increased organic matter inputs, pasture and grazing land productivity, soil fertility, insect and plant biodiversity, and soil carbon sequestration.

This approach to agriculture is not exempt from certain challenges related to its implementation. For instance, adopting no tillage may in the short term result in increased weed-pressure or difficulties for de-compacting heavy soils, the latter of which can cause lower water infiltration and hinder plant and root growth. However, in the longer term, and through maintaining soil cover, these impacts may be overcome.

While they share much common ground, regenerative agriculture can be considered broader than conservation agriculture. One of the most relevant differences is that regenerative agriculture can be applied to animal farming and not just to crop agriculture. Actually, it frequently involves the mixing of crops and livestock, to further boost soil quality and fertility. In many of their aspects, regenerative agriculture initiatives also seem to be inspired by other agroecological approaches to sustainable farming, described in length in the the IUCN report.

Regenerative agriculture has gained further attention in relation to “carbon farming”, due to its potential to sequester CO2 when degraded agricultural soils are progressively restored. Soil scientists have provided us with some encouraging estimates of the climate mitigation potential of increasing organic carbon in cropland soils, although it is far from the expectations raised by the 4 per 1000 initiative. The huge advantage of regenerative agriculture when compared to other strategies to reduce agricultural GHG emissions is that, irrespective of its climate impact, it will be beneficial for one of the main assets of the farm: the health, fertility and productivity of its soils.

Jabier Ruiz
WWF-European Policy Office

The views expressed above are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily endorsed by the FFA or its partners.