What is Regenerative Agriculture?

regenerative agriculture

Article by Joseph P. Kauffman

Sustainability is a large focus for many people today, and sustainable development is often see as the solution to the world’s problems. While it is crucial that we learn how to live on this Earth in a way that preserves ecosystem health, rather than destroying it, there is a movement happening that is urging us to shift from thinking about sustainability to thinking about regeneration instead.

It is possible to simply sustain the planet’s damaged ecosystems and human communities, but this is not what needs to happen. What we are in greater need of is regenerating the destruction that we have caused to natural ecosystems, and restoring their health so they can thrive as they once did.

This is the focus of regenerative agriculture, which is defined as: farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improvement of the water cycle.

Regenerative agriculture is a holistic land management practice that leverages the power of photosynthesis in plants to close the carbon cycle, and build soil health, crop resilience and nutrient density. While the modern forms of agriculture that include giant monocrops (the practice of growing a single crop year after year on the same land) severely damages and depletes the soil, regenerative agriculture actually improves soil health, primarily through the practices that increase soil organic matter. This not only aids in increasing soil diversity and health, but increases biodiversity both above and below the soil surface, while increasing both water holding capacity and sequestering carbon at greater depths, thus drawing down climate-damaging levels of atmospheric CO2, and improving soil structure to reverse the dangerous amount of soil loss caused by human activity. Regenerative agriculture seeks to reverse the modern agricultural paradigm to protect and build soil for future generations of living beings.

Regenerative agricultural practices are practices that:

1) contribute to generating/building soils and soil fertility and health;
2) increase water percolation, water retention, and clean and safe water runoff;
3) increase biodiversity and ecosystem health and resiliency; and
4) invert the carbon emissions of our current agriculture to one of remarkably significant carbon sequestration (the process involved in the capture and long-term storage of atmospheric carbon dioxide or other forms of carbon to moderate or defer global warming) thereby cleansing the atmosphere of harmful levels of CO2.

These Practices include:

No-till/minimum tillage

Tillage breaks up soil aggregation and fungal communities while adding excess oxygen to the soil for increased respiration and carbon dioxide emission. It can be one of the most degrading agricultural practices, greatly increasing soil erosion and carbon loss. A secondary effect is soil capping and slaking that can plug soil spaces for percolation creating much more water runoff and soil loss. 

No-till/minimum tillage, in conjunction with other regenerative practices, enhances soil aggregation, water infiltration and retention, and carbon sequestration. However, some soils benefit from temporary tillage to break apart hardpans, which can increase root zones and yields and have the capacity to increase soil health and carbon sequestration, but it is not a practice that supports soil health long-term.


Building soil fertility.

Soil fertility is increased in regenerative systems biologically through application of cover crops, crop rotations, compost, and animal manures, which restore the plant/soil microbiome to promote liberation, transfer, and cycling of essential soil nutrients. Artificial and synthetic fertilizers have created huge imbalances in the structure and function of microbial communities in soils, bypassing the natural biological acquisition of nutrients for the plants, creating a dependent agroecosystem and weaker, less resilient plants. Research has observed that application of synthetic and artificial fertilizers contributes to climate change through the energy costs of production and transportation of the fertilizers, chemical breakdown and migration into water resources and the atmosphere, the distortion of soil microbial communities, and the accelerated decomposition of soil organic matter.


Improving ecological diversity.

Building biological ecosystem diversity begins with 1) inoculation of soils with composts or compost extracts to restore soil microbial community population, structure and functionality, and 2) restoring soil system energy through full-time planting of multiple crop intercrop plantings, multispecies cover crops, and borders planted for bee habitat and other beneficial insects. This can include the highly successful push-pull systems (a strategy for controlling agricultural pests by using repellent "push" plants and trap "pull" plants). It is critical to change synthetic nutrient dependent monocultures, low-biodiversity and soil degrading practices.


Well-managed grazing practices.

Well-managed grazing practices stimulate improved plant growth, increased soil carbon deposits, and overall pasture and grazing land productivity while greatly increasing soil fertility, insect and plant biodiversity, and soil carbon sequestration. These practices not only improve ecological health, but also the health of the animal and human consumer through improved micro-nutrient availability and better dietary omega balances. Feed lots and confined animal feeding systems contribute dramatically to unhealthy monoculture production systems, low nutrient density forage, increased water pollution, antibiotic usage and resistance, and CO2 and methane emissions, all of which together yield broken and ecosystem-degrading food-production systems.

We urgently need to take specific measures to help regenerate soils, forests and watercourses rather than just allowing them to be sustained in an increasingly degraded condition as we have done for many years. We have the knowledge and the technology to make renewable energy sources our primary energy sources, and we urgently need to regenerate local communities and economies that have fallen by the wayside as economic globalization has become a dominant force.

We must understand that development cannot happen at the expense of the health of the world's ecosystems and that their protection and continuous regeneration must be a guiding principle for human action. We cannot afford the continued destruction of delicate ecosystems, and it is time that this understanding be embedded in the teaching of economic theory at universities and business schools all over the world.

A serious state of emergency exists on Earth, endangering its climate, its life support systems and the lives of billions of people. Can we create a better conceptual framework to assure a possible future for people and the planet?

The concept of regenerative development aims to fill this gap: it means that we need to develop comprehensive rules for an environmentally enhancing, restorative relationship between humanity and the ecosystems from which we draw resources for our sustenance.

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