Many of us are familiar with the term sustainability. It’s a term we use all the time, but what if I told you there’s an option that’s even better?
In the simplest terms, sustainability refers to sustaining things and doing no further harm, but this isn’t the only option. A regenerative approach goes beyond sustainability; it’s about actively making things better than they were before.
If you’ve never heard about the amazing potential of regenerative agriculture and land use practices to naturally sequester a critical mass of CO2 in the soil and forests, you’re not alone. One of the best-kept secrets in the world today is that the solution to global warming and the climate crisis (as well as poverty and deteriorating public health) lies right under our feet
The way regenerative systems do this is by focusing on soil, an often overlooked but vital component of our lives. Every resource we have is either mined or farmed, if you go far enough back, making the way we treat land extremely important. Current agricultural systems degrade soil. Around one third of the world’s topsoil is already degraded, with the United Nations estimating complete degradation within 60 years if things don’t change. At the same time, agriculture also accounts for around 20% of global emissions. When combined with forestry and other land use, this rises to 25% of emissions. The way we treat soil is not working.
Around the globe we have 4 billion acres of cultivated farmland, 8 billion acres of pastureland, and 10 billion acres of forest land. We rely on this land to grow food and fibres, support biodiversity, and maintain water security. While agriculture may seem like a large part of the problem, it can also be vital to the solution. Soil can be built back, farms can convert to regenerative practices, and we can put carbon back into the ground, where it belongs.
The benefits of regeneration
So why is soil important? Well, on the most basic level we need healthy soil in order to be able to grow anything, and therefore be able to eat. However, there are more benefits than just this. Here are some of the key ones.
Healthy soil is vital when it comes to carbon sequestration. Soil is full of microbes (one teaspoon contains more than all the humans on earth) who work in exchange with plants growing in soil. Plants pull in carbon through photosynthesis which they use to grow leaves, stems and roots. The excess carbon is then transported into soil, where it becomes known as soil organic carbon, the main component of soil organic matter. This carbon feeds microbes and fungi in the soil, who in return provide the plants with nutrients they’d struggle to access alone. It’s a perfect balance, with these systems working in harmony together. The healthier the soil, the more carbon the plants pull in for the microbes. Healthier soil literally means more carbon taken out of the air. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that soils could sequester more than 10% of humanmade CO2 emissions, while others estimate it to be higher.
Estimates of the total potential impact vary. Rattan Lal of Ohio State University argues that desertified and otherwise degraded soils could sequester up to 3bn tons of carbon per year (equal to 11bn tons of CO2, or nearly one third of current emissions). Other experts foresee even greater potential. According to research at the Rodale Institute, if instituted universally, organic regenerative techniques practiced on cultivated land could offset over 40% of global emissions, while practicing them on pasture land could offset 71%.
That adds up to land-based CO2 reduction of over 100% of current emissions – and that doesn’t even include reforestation and afforestation, which could offset another 10-15%, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
When water falls on unhealthy soil it can lead to erosion and runoff, because the ground can’t absorb water as fast as its falling. This can lead to plants drowning, mass flooding, and loss of more topsoil. When precipitation is unstable it can also cause increased drought and desertification.
However, when soil has higher soil organic matter (aka, it’s healthy), it has more structure and space, meaning it’s able to store more water, for a longer time. Each 1% increase in soil organic matter helps soil hold 20,000 gallons more water per acre. This helps farms be more resilient, as it reduces the chance of desertification and erosion, as well as avoiding the worst effects of flooding.
When water falls onto healthy soil, it also replenishes water systems properly. It moves through healthy soil before filtering underground aquifers. This helps overall water systems maintain health and protects the purity of groundwater.
This is pretty logical, the healthier the soil, the more nutrient-dense the food grown. Regenerating soil leads to better, healthier crops that pass on more nutrients to the end consumer. Plus, regeneration reduces the need for chemicals like pesticides and herbicides, because when plants have the right nutrients and root systems they build compounds to naturally protect against insects and disease (think of it like a plant immune system). This means farmers save money while also improving yields and quality. Regeneration is the smartest economic choice for growers too.
While comprehensive statistics are hard to come by, yields from regenerative methods often exceed conventional yields (see here and here for scientific research, and here and here for anecdotal examples). Likewise, since these methods build soil, crowd out weeds and retain moisture, fertiliser and herbicide inputs can be reduced or eliminated entirely, resulting in higher profits for farmers. No-till methods can sequester as much as a ton of carbon per acre annually (2.5 tons/hectare). In the US alone, that could amount to nearly a quarter of current emissions.
There are varying regenerative approaches, each tailored to the conditions of the specific land being restored. The overarching theme, however, is taking a holistic approach and focusing on building soil.
Here are some of the main techniques regenerative farmers use.
Regenerative farming dramatically reduces the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers. In this way it’s similar to organic farming; protecting landworkers as well as people in surrounding areas by reducing exposure to a variety of harmful chemicals.
Instead, regenerative farming focuses on growing varieties of crops close together to reduce pesticide reliance, as certain plants that repel pests can be included alongside those that entice pollinators. Additionally, planting breeds such as white clover that naturally release nitrogen, reducing the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilisers.
While these bring multiple health benefits for biodiversity, ecosystems and humans in the area, this also massively reduces costs on a farm, as purchasing these chemicals becomes redundant. It’s a win win.
Adrian Newton of the James Hutton Institute has been working on resilient cropping systems… findings include:
Variety blends give a 6-7% yield increase in most situations and have up to 50% less disease, as well as being less susceptible to lodging.
Rotation and cover crops
A key component of regenerative agriculture is keeping the soil covered at all times, protecting it from wind and water erosion, keeping soil temperatures lower, and keeping microorganisms safe and fed.
There are a few of ways to do this including mulching and using plant residues, but strategically planting cover crops is one of the most common approaches. It keeps soil covered, naturally avoids disease and pest problems, and brings more variety to the soil itself.
Additionally, crop rotation is used to avoid planting the same things in the same location endlessly, building up some nutrients in the soil and neglecting others. Rotating crops helps infuse soil with diverse nutrients and build healthy soil organic matter. As long as the soil is always covered, that’s what matters.
In conventional farming soil is often dug up and left bare. Ploughing and tilling dramatically erode soil, hurt the soil microbiome, risk soil nutrients, release large amounts of CO2, while also leaving soil to become bare and compacted, increasing the chance of erosion. By adopting low- or no-till practices, farmers reduce physical disturbance of soil as much as possible, instead maintaining soil structure and preventing erosion. In time these leads to increased levels of soil organic matter, therefore more resilient and healthy soil, and more carbon held in the ground, as well as no bare soil to erode and runoff with rainfall.
The way that many of us have seen livestock held on farms is not regenerative. Animals kept in one field will overgraze, eventually leaving soil bare and compacted.
A regenerative approach to animal integration focuses on moving animals through land to mimic traditional grazing patterns. Animals are free to roam on much larger spaces, moving through different parts of the land each day before they can overgraze one area. As they move their hooves break up the soil, compacting inedible blands and creating a natural mulch as they crush up leaves and stalks, speeding up the building of soil organic matter. At the same time their excrement adds nutrients to the ground, further increasing soil health as it is spread evenly across land.
While many of us still won’t want to eat meat or dairy products for environmental/ethical reasons (and this is still important) it is key to note that there is a huge different between factory farming and regenerative farming.
studies have found that applying this intensive grazing management increased soil carbon sequestration and reduced the lifetime GHG impact of grassfed beef by 24%.
A 2016 study led by Dr. Richard Teague, range ecologist and professor at Texas A&M University, supports the claim that appropriate grazing management can sequester enough carbon to offset GHG emissions.
It is possible to farm animals in a way that is carbon negative. However, the overall data is still not substantial enough to know for sure what the numbers may definitively be. A 2017 report from the University of Oxford states that it’s still vital to reduce meat and dairy consumption, however I do think it’s important to understand just how different farming outputs can be if we treat land differently.
Why haven’t more people changed already?
Given that regenerative practices are beneficial to the environment and a good economic choice for farmers, why haven’t they been adopted more rapidly? One answer may be that any change is slow, but another is that farming regeneratively requires an entirely different approach and understanding.
In this case there is more to it than that. Regenerative agriculture represents more than a shift of practices. It is also a shift in paradigm and in our basic relationship to nature
Firstly, regenerative agriculture seeks to mimic nature, not dominate it, making soil healthy by returning to the way natural systems operate. Erosion, run off and unhealthy soil are symptoms that lead to a larger problem, not issues that require a quick fix, and so farmers need to take time and energy to address the real root of the problem.
Plus, regenerative agriculture means moving away from linear thinking and trying to control things through variables and numbers on a page alone. Nature can’t be engineered, solutions can’t be easily implemented at scale with a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead it requires holistic thinking that values diversity and ecosystems, in which plants and animals are seen as part of one complex, healthy system that functions together. It requires tailored solutions to each specific area, as well as time and labour to foster an intimate relationship with the land.
This may seem counterintuitive in a world obsessed with efficiency and numbers, but the benefits to farmers are huge.
After Gabe Brown introduced regenerative practices on his ranch in Bismark, North Dakota, organic matter and rainwater uptake tripled while he was able to handle five-times the number of cattle he used to. The ranch is also home to sheep, chickens, and dozens of crops. While he noticed a dramatic change in the landscape of the ranch itself, his previously indebted operation began turning a profit.
A 2013 study published in Agricultural Systems showed that, compared to conventionally managed farms, regenerative farms could accommodate more cattle per acre, had lower cow and calf mortality, purchased less feed, and used fewer herbicides. Researchers also found that topsoil was deeper, more aerated, and densely covered with plants.
Change is happening
Plus, while still a predominantly grassroots movement, regenerative practices are growing in popularity. For example:
- In 2018 The Rodale Institute launched a Regenerative Organic Certification, aiming to build beyond existing organic standards with large partners like Patagonia and Dr Bronner’s.
- General Mills partnered with Understanding Ag, a regenerative agriculture consultation service, to help oat producers implement regenerative models. In 2019 they announced a commitment to regenerative 1 million acres of farmland by 2030.
- In 2018 the government of Andhra Pradesh, India, launched a plan to transition 8 million hectares to chemical-free, zero-budget natural farming by 2024.
- Investment in the sector is growing. Farmland LP, founded in 2009, invests in converting conventional farmland to regenerative and organic practices while Delta Institute partnered with Grower’s Edge Financial in 2019 to fund farmers converting to regenerative agriculture.
Are there any downsides?
Of course, nothing is ever perfect. Amongst a sea of praise for regenerative agriculture, I did find a 2019 report from the World Resources Institute that was more sceptical of regenerative agriculture’s climate benefits. Their main areas of concern break down into a few areas.
The first is in regards to measuring carbon: they argue there’s limited scientific understanding of what keeps soil carbon sequestered, it’s hard to properly account for, and therefore it’s hard to say how much extra carbon is sequestered. Their overall conclusion is that it’s difficult to fully measure and hard to predict. However, some of their wording I don’t quite agree with. They link to a 2014 study that suggests that the climate benefits of no-till may be overstated, however the study itself states ‘In many regions where no-till is practised it is common for soil to be cultivated conventionally every few years for a range of agronomic reasons, so any soil carbon benefit is then lost.’ I would argue this, therefore, isn’t a fault of regenerative agriculture, but of conventional soil tillage. It is therefore not a good reason to not pursue more regenerative farming.
It is fair to say that perhaps emissions reductions may be overstated. Carbon sequestration isn’t always easy to measure, and we haven’t converted all farms to regenerative practices so we can’t know with certainty what the numbers might be. But this isn’t a reason to continue on with business as usual.
The second talks about the need for large quantities of nitrogen to convert carbon into organic matter. However, conventional farming already uses synthetic nitrogen fertilisers, to the point where farmers switching to regenerative practices talk about their methods to reduce nitrogen inputs through planting cover crops, so it’s not as if this is a regenerative specific issue. I found this 2019 article on nitrogen, from a corn farmer’s perspective, particularly useful. In it, he talks about improving nitrogen efficiency for a better crop. The methods he recommends are all regenerative, focusing on soil health and therefore microbe health to increase nitrogen efficiency
A healthy soil supports a larger and broader diversity of microbial species in the rhizosphere that surround plant roots. This microbial system supports corn plants by predigesting soil amendments and rock minerals. As these additional nutrients and pre-made amino acids, derived from the dying off microbes, are taken up by corn plants, nitrogen efficiency increases. In other words, you get more corn with less nitrogen…
A large microbial population around corn roots is actually a biological fertilizer factory.
It seems that regenerative approaches are still the best option in this case.
The final issue was scalability. The summary states:
According to a recent study, the use of cover crops across 85% of annually planted U.S. cropland could sequester around 100 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. Such an unprecedented achievement would offset about 18% of U.S. agricultural production emissions and 1.5% of total U.S. emissions. However, while the use of cover crops has been expanding in the United States, they still occupy less than 4% of U.S. cropland and face barriers to wider adoption, such as costs and limited time to establish them before winter begins
While yes, there are currently barriers to wider adoption, I also don’t think this is a good reason not to push for increased regenerative farming. Investment and popularity in the area is growing, and will hopefully continue to, especially in regards to financing large scale shifts on larger farms. The more we support and demand these shifts, alongside initiatives like rewilding, eating less mass-produced meat and dairy, growing more food at home if we can, and decarbonising other sectors, the more we will get done. Every aspect of society has to come together to prevent climate breakdown, even if it’s hard.
Looking out for regenerative products
So how does this affect our daily life? Well, beyond learning about regeneration and spreading the word, we can look for it in the products we buy too. In the UK you may be closer to a community-supported farm or local vegetable box scheme than you may think. If it’s accessible to you, purchasing produce from smaller-scale suppliers means you can open up dialogues about how farmers are working for soil health, as well as advocating for policy change around soil.
And, beyond food, regeneration is in our fashion too. Some key components when shopping for clothes include
- Look for natural fibres and dyes, as anything synthetic can’t be grown and therefore can’t be regenerative.
- Organic certifications like GOTS are a good starting point, as regenerative techniques will also inherently be using organic methods.
- Look for specific regenerative labels, though these aren’t yet widespread, including Regeneration Organic Certified and Climate Beneficial verification from Fibershed.
- Look for overall supply chain transparency. Regenerative practices are about what’s happening on the farm, so brands will need to be able to tell you what farms they’re sourcing from and what techniques are being used. If your brand has a direct relationship to their farms, then you can ask them about their farming techniques and soil health.
Learning more about regeneration
There are multiple organisations working to create better agricultural systems, so if you want to get involved or learn more, please do! This is a huge area that deserves more attention, as it could make a huge different to the future of our planet.
Here’s a list condensed from GreenBiz:
Kiss the Ground, a US-based organisation who run education programmes on regenerative agriculture alongside working with farmers, scientists and policymakers to facilitate shifting to regenerative models. (disclaimer, I have done their soil advocacy course and would massively recommend it!)
The Traditional Native American Farmers Association, who hold an annual Indigenous Sustainable Food Systems Design Course (ISFSDC), which focuses on a holistic Indigenous approach based on traditional knowledge and practices. They also hold workshops and training on a variety of topics such as seed saving and growing medicinal herbs to enhance biodiversity.
Aranya Agricultural Alternatives, who work to support rural farming communities in India adopting permaculture farming practices such as watershed and soil management, tree-based farming, diversified cropping, animal integration, and seed saving.
Grounded, who partner with farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to develop regenerative projects that restore biodiversity, improve soil, increase crop cover, and improve water security.
RegenAG, a community-based organisation running education and training to help farmers shift to regenerative models, build soil, repair the water cycle and holistically manage farms.
Regeneration International, who provide resources to highlight the links between healthy soil and climate, food, health and economics. They train farmers and raise awareness of the importance of soil health at each UN climate summit.
Rodale Institute, who have advocated for regenerative agriculture since the 1940s. Thus far they have regenerated 33 acres of formerly degraded farmland which forms a basis for research and education, while also being home to the longest-running comparative study of organic and chemical agriculture.
Savory Network, a global group of innovators and leaders working to advance regeneration and combat climate change and desertification. Their hubs around the world advocate, faciliate and educate on regenerative agriculture to increase public awareness and influence policy.
Soil Capital, a company working to scale regenerative agriculture, maximising farm profitability through focusing on soil health and resilience. They assist farmers in transitioning to regenerative practices.
Soils, Food, and Healthy Communities, a farmer-led organisation utilising local Indigenous knowledge and agroecological methods to improve food security, nutrition, and soils in Malawi. Their Malawi Farmer-to-Farmer Agroecology project uses farmer-to-farmer teaching to manage soils while enhancing environmental and food security, improving the income of 6,000 farming households.
Soil Foodweb Institute, who provide analysis and advice to help farmers improve soil health around the globe.
Sustainable Harvest International, who work in Central America to promote sustainable alternatives to slash-and-burn agriculture, helping farmers provide for their families while using restorative practices.
Terra Genesis International, a regenerative design consultancy that helps large scale agriculture and business clients redesign supply chains and incorporate regenerative practices into their agricutlural systems.
The Carbon Underground, an umbrella organisation connecting academia, businesses, organisations, schools, governments, and the general public to educate on the potential of soil health to combat climate breakdown. They focus on education, policy, communications and corporate impact to facilitate widespread transition of farms, ranches, and grasslands to regenerative practices.
The Ecological Farming Association (EcoFarm), an organisation connecting farmers, ranchers, distributors, retailers, activists, and researchers for education, alliance building, and advocacy. They run an annual Ecological Farming Conference as well as a free mentoring programme for new farmers and other farmer resources.
The Land Institute, a team of ecologists and plant breeders who partner with multiple global organisations to breed new perennial crops and develops ways to grow them in diverse mixtures, working to develop an agricultural system that can increase food security without the negative impacts of conventional agriculture.
The Timbaktu Collective, who work to protect and restore degraded ecosystems in rural Indian communities. They reach around 21,000 families, their work focuses on restoring wastelands through planting locally adapted Indigenous trees, reviving traditional water-harvesting structures, and rejuvenating soil health.
I know a lot of the time it’s hard to feel hopeful about the state of our world. But regenerative agriculture is a place for hope. It’s achievable in a relatively short span of time, and I believe it has immense power to change things for the better. So get involved if you can, and spread the word!