Regenerative Farming

What

Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming practices that aims to increase biodiversity, enrich soils, improve catchments, and enhance ecosystem services. Regenerative Agriculture aims to capture carbon in soil and aboveground biomass reversing current global trends of atmospheric accumulation.

There is no formally or universally agreed set of objectives and practices however there are a growing number of organisations worldwide dedicated to Regenerative Agriculture most of which outline the key objectives and practices as:

  • Minimising or eliminating tillage/ploughing (through no-till)
  • Avoiding bare soil/keeping the soil covered at all times with living plants or residues
  • Increasing plant biodiversity in both pasture and crops
  • Integrating livestock and cropping (mixed/rotational farming)

In addition to these basic practices the following are also gaining recognition

  • Maintaining living plants and their roots year round
  • Increasing soil fertility through biological means
  • The use of compost

There is also a keen interest in reducing the amounts of soluble/mineral fertilisers and synthetic agrichemicals (herbicides, pesticides). The aim is to replace them as much as possible with biologically fixed N via legumes and bacteria and archaea that fix atmospheric nitrogen gas into a more usable form. Regenerative Agriculture is considered to be an evolving concept however, improving soil health is universally acknowledged as the core objective.

Pretty diagram of the 5 core principles of regenerative farming in each in their own coloured circles.
Core principles of regenerative agriculture.

How does Regenerative Agriculture work?

Regenerative Agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that seeks to rehabilitate and enhance the entire ecosystem of the farm by placing a heavy emphasis on soil health with attention also paid to water management and fertilizer use. It is a method of farming that seeks to improve the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them. To achieve better soil health the main strategies used are:

  • Minimising tillage: Ploughing or tillage dramatically erode soil and release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. They also can result in the kind of bare or compacted soil that creates a hostile environment for important soil microbes. By adopting low or no-till practices, farmers minimize physical disturbance of the soil, and over time increase levels of soil organic matter, creating healthier, more resilient environments for plants to thrive, as well as keeping more and more carbon where it belongs, in the soil.

  • Plant Diversity: Different plants release different carbohydrates (sugars) through their roots, and various microbes feed on these carbohydrates and return different nutrients back to the plant and the soil. By increasing the plant diversity of their paddocks, farmers help create the rich, varied, and nutrient-dense soils that lead to more productive yields.

  • Rotation and cover crops: Left exposed to the elements, soil will erode and the nutrients necessary for successful plant growth will either dry out or wash away. At the same time, planting the same plants in the same location can lead to a build-up of some nutrients and a lack of others. By rotating crops and using cover crops strategically, farms (and gardens) can infuse soils with more and more soil organic matter, often while avoiding disease and pest problems naturally. The philosophy is bare soil is unhealthy soil.

  • Less artificial additives: In addition to minimizing physical disturbance, regenerative agriculture farmers also seek to be cautious about chemical or biological activities that can also damage long-term soil health. Misapplication of fertilizers and other things such as herbicides and pesticides can disrupt the natural relationship between microorganisms and plant roots.

There are several individual practices that make up a regenerative system, and many of those are routinely employed in the NZ farming system. Regenerative agriculture exists on a spectrum. Most NZ farms operate at one end of the spectrum by employing rotational grazing. Other common practices through the middle of the spectrum include use of minimum tillage cultivation as appropriate for the farming system, multi-species pastures (e.g., combinations of clovers, grasses, and herbs), and soil focussed fertiliser programmes. Full scale regenerative systems are at the other end of the spectrum. As with everything, farmers weigh up the pros and cons and determine what is right for their farming system and situation.

Why

Regenerative Agriculture practices can increase soil biodiversity and organic matter, leading to more resilient soils that can better withstand climate change impacts like flooding and drought. Healthy soils realise strong yields and nutrient-rich crops. They also diminish erosion and runoff, leading to improved water quality on the farm and in the wider catchment.

Importantly, Regenerative Agriculture practices also help fight the climate crisis by pulling carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering it in the ground. 

How does Regenerative Agriculture differ from Organic Farming?

At a practical on-farm level there is a considerable difference between organic farming and regenerative agriculture.

Organic farming takes an input restriction approach, which is defined with standards set out as rules stating what is permissible or not in organic agriculture. These rules are often set out in considerable detail such as those which relate to fertilisers and pest and disease control products. It is therefore considered, at the farm level, that organic agriculture is an \‘input focused\’ approach even though it has wider more holistic aims.

Regenerative agriculture, in contrast, has a set of semi-informally defined objectives to achieve. These relate to soil health, especially microbial health, building soil organic matter for soil health and climate change mitigation and adaptation. To achieve this there is a set of on-farm practices to follow. These include no-till, cover crops, minimising soluble fertiliser use, avoiding agrichemicals and integration of livestock.

Regenerative Agriculture is therefore considered an \‘outcome’ focused approach, in direct contrast to the ‘input’ focused approach of organic agriculture.

References

Lightfoot, C. (1990). Integration of aquaculture and agriculture: a route to sustainable farming systems. Naga, The ICLARM Quarterly, 13(1), 9-12.

LaCanne, C. E., & Lundgren, J. G. (2018). Regenerative agriculture: merging farming and natural resource conservation profitably. PeerJ, 6, e4428.

Toensmeier, E. (2016). The carbon farming solution: a global toolkit of perennial crops and regenerative agriculture practices for climate change mitigation and food security. Chelsea Green Publishing.