Why Regenerative Agriculture Can Benefit The Soil, Ecosystems & The Atmosphere
By Ben Hardman, the creator of sustainability and eco blog Tiny Eco Home Life.
Modern agriculture is unsustainable.
Instead of enhancing the land, local biodiversity and natural landscapes, it leads to depletion on a huge scale.
Just look at the dust bowls in America, the swathes of monocultures in Europe, the deforestation in Asia and the water scarcity in Africa. All, in part, caused by modern agriculture and food producing techniques aimed at maximising yield.
Over the long term however, these techniques lead to a slow decline not only in our beautiful habitats, but in the health of the all-important soils beneath our feet.
Like many things, it doesn’t have to be that way. This type of agriculture may have worked well for a while, but we need a new way now. A more sustainable type of farming that benefits our environment and the world around us.
Enter: Regenerative Agriculture.
What is regenerative agriculture and how does it work?
The aim of regenerative agriculture is to put the health of the soil at the heart of all proceedings. As a method, it’s been around in one way or another for centuries, back when farmers were truly in tune with the land.
However, with more awareness around whole ecosystems, soil health and the damage being caused, regenerative agriculture is currently living through a renaissance period as a sustainable farming technique.
Traditional farming doesn’t put soil at the centre. Instead, it puts crop yield at the heart of its activities because this is what farms are measured on.
This will work for a little while, but intensive methods will eventually lead to degradation. It’s the equivalent of building a lovely house without proper foundations – eventually things will go wrong.
By putting soil front and centre, it isn’t just farmland and crops that can thrive, but nature and ecosystems as a whole.
So, how does it work?
Although there’s no set definition of regenerative agriculture, there are a number of common principles that farms keep in mind. These include:
- No artificial chemical use for fertilisers and biocides. Organic and natural fertiliser use instead.
- No tilling and breaking up the soil. The major problem with this is that continuous breaking the ground up after a harvest disrupts soil structure and the below ground ecosystems.
- Use of cover crops. To stop soil erosion and water evaporation, soil needs to be covered with plants.
- Ecosystem approach. Rather than huge fields of one crop as far as the eye can see, a more natural approach is to have a diversified crop system.
- Use of animals. Almost all animals have been banished from common agriculture. They’re seen as a nuisance. However, grazing rotation and the physical movement of animals is fantastic for the soil beneath.
We’ll get into the benefits of these principles for the land, and hopefully the farmer, shortly. But first, let’s take a look at the reasons why regenerative farming is so important at this time in the modern human-influenced era.
Why is regenerative agriculture so important?
Soil gets overlooked because it isn’t glamorous. It’s brown and mucky with strange creepy crawlies.
The truth is that life on land would not be possible without soil – in particular the thin layer of organic topsoil you find at the surface.
According to the most up to date figures, agricultural land such as pastures and cropland controlled by humans expands over 37% of the entire world’s land area. In the UK, agriculture occupies 70% of the land, in the US around 44% and in China 56%.
With such vast areas of land under human control, the impacts (good or bad) can be significant. This is why it’s crucial that we look after it properly. The problem – you probably guessed it – is that it’s being grossly neglected.
In the last 150 years, the world has presided over a 50% loss in fertile topsoil.
It’s not just the direct impacts on plants and local ecosystems this affects, but the world’s climate at large. This is because soil is a huge store of carbon. Disturb the soil and turn it to dirt and you release carbon dioxide. Dried out soil is a hard, non-absorbent surface which leads to pollution of water systems due to run-off, increased flood risk and less resilience in the land.
For the consumer who’s conscious about sustainable living, this is why it’s important to try and buy produce from farms that really do care.
How regenerative farming benefits ecosystems and the environment
The question then to all of this is what benefits can regenerative agriculture bring to the farming world and wider environment.
The first major benefit is that regenerative farming treats soil as the number one priority. Healthy soil full of microorganisms, earthworms and nutrients offers huge benefits.
Healthier soils also hold more carbon – many more times the quantity in the atmosphere.
Around 58% of soil organic matter is carbon. It’s important here to note that carbon is not a bad guy. Just like water, carbon is essential for life. It’s only since human activity started to dump unnatural quantities into the atmosphere that carbon has taken on negative connotations.
With more carbon drawdown from the atmosphere, the hope is that extreme weather events across the world can be stabilised. One extreme event impacted by soil health is flood risk. Eroded soils that are dry and depleted of nutrients cannot hold as much water. If water isn’t being absorbed by the land, it will run off, accumulate and increase the chance of flooding.
With these two points in mind, regenerative farming may be better for the environment and act as a way to combat climate change.
Doing away with monocultures by definition increases biodiversity. Regenerative agriculture isn’t about intensively growing one crop. It takes into account ecosystems, plants and animals to create a sustainable, more natural system. A well-developed and diverse root system can help aerate soils and provide mutually beneficial nutrients for the different plants living there.
From the microbes in the soil to a more diversified crop system, cover plants and potential integration of animals, regenerative farming should be an ecosystem approach. When you have this you also benefit other wildlife, such as birds, insects, fungi and other animals.
An added benefit is that regenerative agriculture should result in better quality food crops. Food grown naturally with good nutrient availability and without the use of synthetic chemicals is just better!
Whilst we’re on chemicals, reducing both the manufacturing and use of artificial pesticides, fertilisers and other nasties lowers energy costs, as well as the unintended impacts on the environment through run-off and soil degradation.
Instead of synthetics, natural fertilisers and composts are welcomed. This not only reuses an existing resource, but it will also benefit the soil as the organic compost degrades down.
With all this in mind, regenerative farming makes pure sense from an environmental point of view. Incorporated the correct way, these methods can not only produce enough food but enhance the soil and environment at the same time.