Regenerative Agriculture for landscape restoration
Regenerative Agriculture can be a catalyst for holistic landscape restoration. The movement has grown more popular over the past years, bringing both opportunities and risks. This chapter will guide you through the basic concepts, practices, and examples of regenerative agriculture, and provide perspective on some questions surrounding the topic.
Five billion hectares of the world’s land area is dedicated to agriculture – that’s 38% of the global land surface and half of the world’s habitable land. Transforming agriculture is therefore an essential part of restoring landscapes.
A long-dominant view in agriculture – rooted in industrialisation – sees the farm as a factory. This view emphasises the maximisation of yield per hectare, efficiency, and input-output thinking. Many conventional agricultural practices, therefore, prioritise the use of synthetic inputs, monoculture cropping systems, and intensive tillage and water use, which can lead to soil degradation and negative impacts on the landscape.
The growing movement of regenerative agriculture challenges this view. It recognises the farm as an ecosystem that promotes yields for the long term without degrading the land. Adopting practices that promote soil health, biodiversity, water management and ecosystem balance leaves the land a little better each year. The harmonious relationship created between agriculture and nature leads to healthier soils, increased yields, and a more resilient landscape. Agriculture can therefore help transform damaged landscapes into thriving ecosystems.
Regenerative agriculture addresses the root causes of degradation and recognises the interdependence of social, economic, and ecological systems. This includes empowering local communities, promoting food security, and supporting the preservation of traditional knowledge and practices. Sound familiar? That’s why it fits so neatly into the 4 Returns framework.
Regenerative agriculture is a large, rapidly developing field with lots of existing resources. This chapter will help you navigate the context of and relevance of regenerative agriculture for holistic landscape restoration. We will cover its history, main principles and practices, and some points of debate.
For us, advocating the benefits of regenerative agriculture and supporting regenerative farmers is our way of creating positive change
Wide Open Agriculture
A bit of history
The principles and practices of regenerative agriculture are not a new concept. In fact, many of them have been used by indigenous cultures for centuries (see this long read): cultures that are working in harmony with the natural world, rather than against it, to produce food sustainably and regeneratively.
The term “regenerative agriculture” has its roots in the 1970s, when a group of farmers and researchers began to explore alternative approaches to conventional agriculture. In the 1980s, Robert Rodale was the first one to propose regenerative organic agriculture (ROA) as a “beyond sustainable” approach.
Over the decades that followed, the regenerative agriculture movement has grown and evolved. Today it has gained widespread recognition and support from farmers, researchers, policymakers, and consumers. There is now a growing body of research that demonstrates the benefits of these practices to soil health and several ecosystem services.
Recently, the Kiss the Ground documentary, and the adoption by large corporations, such as General Mills, PepsiCo, Nestle, and Unilever are combining to bring regenerative agriculture to a larger audience. While promising for the scaling potential of regenerative agriculture, it also raises concerns about potential greenwashing and the lack of evidence. Read more about this evidence gap in lesson 4 of this story.
Agroecology, agroforestry, permaculture: seeing the trees through the forest
Regenerative agriculture is not the only agricultural approach with the aim of preventing harm or restoring nature. There are many different approaches and sub-movements, each with its own unique perspectives and practices, such as organic farming, biodynamic agriculture, conservation agriculture, agroforestry, and holistic grazing.
Agroecology is an area often equated with regenerative agriculture. However, it often differs in its political position on social issues such as rights and access to natural resources. Some regenerative agriculture projects, e.g., those initiated by corporate players do not take such a position. For others, however, it can be a central theme of their project. This article tells you more about the topic.
What binds all these approaches together is that they restore the relationship between agriculture and nature. Regenerative agriculture is different for everyone; everyone needs to figure it out for themselves and find their own place in it.
All farmers, regenerative, conventional, or otherwise, have the same goal: to leave their land in a better condition for future generations.
Warren Pensini, regenerative farmer, Blackwood Valley Beef, West Australia
Principles & practices
Many principles are considered part of regenerative agriculture. The ecosystem in which you farm, the history of your farm and your goals for the landscape have a great influence on which regenerative agriculture principles and practices will be beneficial. It is therefore valuable to define what regenerative agriculture means to you. See for example Grounded’s definition and these examples of different interpretations in lesson 2 of this story.
At Grounded, our definition of regenerative agriculture takes into account the diverse landscapes in which we operate, and the diverse perspectives of the skilled individuals we work with and who make up our team.
Daniel Fourie, Grounded
Consider also which practices fit best in your landscape (as explained in lesson 3 in this story). For example, for semi-arid landscapes, such as the Altiplano Estepario in Spain where AlVelAl is catalyzing a movement of regenerative agriculture, soil erosion is an obvious threat. Practices to reduce erosion (such as reduced tilling and ground cover) and increase the soil’s water-holding capacity (such as swales, ponds, and keyline design). Consider also any local research results. This story details the 4 years of research into effective practices in the Altiplano Estepario.
In the Dutch Peat Meadows, however, where Wij.land works, soil erosion is much less visible. But don’t be deceived by looks. This landscape has serious challenges such as soil subsidence, a loss of soil life and an imbalance of minerals. Practices like zero tillage, herb-rich grassland, and composting are more suited here. Read more about regenerative agriculture in this particular Dutch context.
It’s not going to be uniform, and that’s a good thing. We should celebrate that.
Willemijn de Iongh, landscape developer at Commonland
There isn’t a “one size fits all” solution. Therefore, regenerative agriculture is driven mainly by principles rather than by a set list of practices. These six are widely agreed-upon (text adapted from this Wikifarmer article by the Regeneration Academy).
- Understand your context
Consider your own specific conditions of land, soil, climate, crops, location, access to machinery, financial resources, cooperatives, tradition, market opportunities, etc. Next to your objectives, these will influence the decisions you take.
The revegetation we are doing is just a skeleton, to create the structure for nature to continue the work. To let nature do its thing.
Peter McKenzie, regenerative farmer, Southwest Australia
2. Improving soil quality and health
Soil is the most important asset of the farm. Taking care of and improving it will secure the base from which all other parts of the farm will flourish. To protect our soils, minimising disturbance, ensuring a sufficient soil cover and feeding living soil appropriately are some of the basic principles. Examples of such practices are: no-till, planting cover crops, using crop rotations, and integrating livestock.
The big change comes when you change your focus from feeding the plant to focus on feeding the soil. The soil will take care of the plant.
3. Improving water management
Water is becoming more and more scarce. Using and harvesting this resource efficiently is key to success. Next to this, water bodies on farms promote biodiversity hotspots. The use of key-line design, ponds, and swales can help retain and infiltrate rainwater on your farm.
Biodiversity creates balance in your farm, from both ecological and economic points of view. Enhancing biodiversity below and above ground promotes the correct cycling of nutrients and creates natural pest control. Diversity in crop production is a good strategy to spread risks and bring economic stability to the farm. Creating hedges, crop rotations, the inclusion of perennials, livestock integration, and restoring natural zones are biodiversity-increasing practices
The biodiversity on this farm is its heart
Sylvia Leighton, regenerative farmer, Southwest Australia
Take the entire ecological system into account and balance economic, social and environmental considerations when planning and making decisions.
Sometimes a sixth principle is added:
6. Create community and social impact
Consider the local and international communities around you. How can you create a positive impact within them? Perhaps it’s by growing healthy food, sharing knowledge, and enhancing local economies and/ or creative spaces. Connecting with others can create meaningful connections, moments of inspiration and greater impact by enhancing resilient communities.
Regenerative agriculture is a dynamic and evolving movement, and some questions relating to it are still widely discussed. In this section, we’ll address the most burning ones. Many issues are part of an ongoing debate with still many insecurities, so please do engage in the discussion so that we can keep learning together.
Is there certification for regenerative agriculture?
There are several certification programmes available for regenerative agriculture. These certification programs can be divided into three categories:
- First-party certification: This type of certification involves the farmer sharing stories about their farm and their farming practices through transparency. In this approach, the farmer her- or himself is responsible for demonstrating how they are implementing regenerative and sustainable practices on their farm. This may include sharing data on soil health, biodiversity, and other indicators of sustainability. This type of certification is often seen as the most authentic and trustworthy because it is based on the farmer’s own experience and knowledge.
- Second-party certification: This type of certification involves peer-to-peer evaluations, such as participatory guarantee systems (PGS). In this approach, either farmer-farmer or farmer-client evaluation visits are used to assess the quality of farming practices and outcomes. This type of certification is often seen as more collaborative and inclusive, as it involves the participation of both farmers and consumers.
- Third-party certification with standardisation: this type of certification involves an external organisation assessing and certifying farms based on a set of standardised criteria. It can establish clear benchmarks, but standardisation in a context-specific approach may not always be compatible. Additionally, the cost of third-party certification bodies can create a whole new industry that takes money away from the farmer, making it less favourable, especially for small-scale farmers.
Certification programmes can help to provide transparency and accountability in the regenerative agriculture movement, ensuring that farmers are following best practices and providing consumers with confidence that they are supporting environmentally and socially responsible agriculture. However, it is important to consider the type of certification that fits your context the best, considering the resources available, and the evidence you’d like to build.
Can regenerative agriculture help mitigate climate change?
The food, agriculture, and land use sector is one of the largest contributors to climate change, with ~24% of greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, this sector can play a significant role in the solution. The report ‘Farming our way out of the climate crisis’ by Project Drawdown offers an extensive analysis of the opportunities in this sector, which includes an important role for regenerative practices. They distinguish two methods: reducing emissions and removing already emitted greenhouse gases from the atmosphere through the potential of ‘carbon sinks’.
Reducing emissions is an immediate and permanent solution to stopping climate change as it prevents greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere. The main ways to realise this, according to the report, are conserving and restoring tropical forests, new methods of animal agriculture, new methods of rice cultivation, more prudent use of nitrogen fertilizers and manure in farming, reducing food waste, eating more plant-rich diets, and increasing the productivity of agriculture.
The second method, carbon sequestration or ‘carbon sinks’ are realised when (agricultural) practices remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and store them in temporary reservoirs like trees, grasses, and soil organic matter. Approaches to this include restoring forests and planting large areas of trees, using regenerative annual cropping techniques (e.g., no-till cultivation, cover cropping, or compost application), perennialising agriculture through agroforestry systems and perennial crops, and managing grazing lands with regenerative agriculture techniques. Carbon sequestration offers great opportunities but there are challenges. The process takes time, sometimes decades, and the amount of carbon that can be stored is limited by the size of the soil reservoirs. Also, changes in land use can lead to the release of stored carbon back into the atmosphere.
Let’s imagine your home has a bathtub, and it’s rapidly overflowing with water. […] Cutting emissions is like turning off the faucet; it addresses the source of the problem. Carbon sinks are like the mop; they can help clean up the mess you already caused. Both are helpful, but they are not substitutable.
So, regenerative agriculture practices contribute positively to slowing down climate change. However, we need to take a holistic approach and look at a portfolio of solutions that address both carbon sequestration and emission reduction.
Is regenerative agriculture economically viable, also for smaller-scale farmers?
Can you make a proper income from regenerative farming? This is a critical question, in particular for smallholder farmers considering taking the plunge. These farms are crucial for the global transition (see the next question), as smallholder farms produce a third of the world’s food.
Let’s start with the core business. Here we see that regenerative farming can bring economic challenges. First, in the beginning, farmers need to learn a lot (‘pay school fees’) and good advice is often difficult to come by. Secondly, a farm that is used to conventional agriculture often needs to be weaned off the chemicals for a couple of years before the health of the ecosystem is built up enough that it can start taking care of itself again. During this period the farm is extremely vulnerable to shocks. Finally, regenerative agriculture tends to bring higher labour costs.
Fortunately, regenerative agriculture also brings several economic opportunities. Firstly, in cost reduction, such as the cost of fertilizer and pesticides. Secondly, in decreasing certain risks. Regenerative practices in the long run can reduce the risk of crop failures due to weather events or pests. Also, growing diverse crops through diverse practices increases economic resilience. A final opportunity may be price premiums. See for example this research which explores price premiums for regenerative almonds. The story of farming in harmony with nature will resonate with conscious consumers. What may also interest consumers, is that regenerative food seems to have higher nutritional quality, as healthier soils can produce more nutrient-dense crops (see this study in the Journal PeerJ). In 2018, US researchers showed that on farms in the Northern Plains of the USA, regenerative fields had 29% lower grain production but 78% higher profits over conventional corn production systems, largely due to price premiums received for the products. But whether it will be possible to get price premiums, is very dependent on your market, so make sure to do good market research before betting on this opportunity.
Another potential opportunity might be to sell carbon credits, or more broadly, payments for ecosystem services. To learn more about this, see the chapter on landscape finance).
Figuring out whether the benefits outweigh the costs in your situation can be a complex puzzle. Fortunately, you can draw from existing analyses. Wij.land, for example, works on a thorough methodology for cost-benefit analyses (see here, in Dutch). And this analysis shows how this can be done on a landscape scale.
Can regenerative agriculture be applied at the scale needed to meet human and planetary needs?
That regenerative agriculture provides many benefits for the local landscape is quite clear, but can it be applied on a large enough scale to feed our growing world population? Conventional agriculture has been technologically and economically optimised for efficiency. Regenerative agriculture, on the other hand, can be labour-intensive, and making the transition requires financial investment. It will take time until the natural and financial benefits emerge, and meanwhile, crop yield may decrease.
First, we should consider here whether increasing food production is our biggest concern when it comes to feeding the world population. The problem of world hunger is not so much a problem of the amount of food that is produced, but rather a problem of food waste and a problem of unequal access to food. The FAO found that every year, one-third of all the food produced across the globe is lost or wasted: 14% between harvest and retail, and the rest at retail or consumer. If we can reduce food waste by only one quarter, world hunger can be ended. On top of that, around 80% of all agricultural land is used directly or indirectly for meat and dairy production. We feed only 48% of cereals and 7% of soy to humans – the rest goes to animal feed, and to a lesser extent, biofuels. Research suggests that if we saw a widespread shift towards plant-based diets, it’s possible to feed everyone in the world a nutritious diet on existing croplands. So, even if switching to regenerative agriculture would slightly reduce the productivity of the land, there would still be plenty of food to go around if the distribution and food waste problems could be resolved.
Having said that, it is still important to examine whether regenerative agriculture could largely replace conventional agricultural practices. According to this report by the Sustainable Markets Initiative (a global sustainability initiative for the private sector), there are three main barriers to scaling regenerative farming. First, the short-term economic case is not compelling enough for the average farmer (read more about this in the question ‘Is regenerative agriculture economically viable’ below). Second, there is a knowledge gap in how to implement regenerative farming (see also lesson for practice 4 below). And third, drivers in the value chain aren’t aligned to encourage regenerative farming (see also the lesson for practice 6 below). In landscapes, we see a fourth socio-cultural barrier, as there is often a culture of ‘keeping clear fields’ and ‘not going the alternative route’ which may result in peer pressure to continue conventional farming.
Fortunately, there are emerging solutions to these barriers. This 4-year research on regenerative almond farms in Spain also showed that different practices have different effects on yield (as well as on ecological measures); while vegetation covers reduced almond productivity, compost improved its productivity. Regarding the short-term economic case for farmers, regenerative agriculture brings unique economic opportunities (see above the question ‘Is regenerative agriculture economically viable’). Regarding the knowledge gap barrier, technology can help break through this by making regenerative farming much more data-informed (see this study) and computational models can help decide which practices would work in specific contexts. Also, case studies of both smaller and larger-scale farms are piling up: see for example case studies from Australia by RegenWA here and 5 worldwide case studies here.
Finally, a solution to the value chain barrier can be to shorten value chains, for example through direct farmer-to-consumer platforms. These platforms give a stage to the personal story of farmers and allow them to sell products directly.
Key lessons from and for practice
In 2021, Commonland facilitated an online learning programme (rewatch here) to hear from our landscape partners in Spain, the Netherlands, Australia and South Africa what has been learned about regenerative agriculture over the last 6 years. These are the 6 key lessons learned that came out of this journey. To read their context and examples, check out the full story here.
- Think big, start small, and act fast.
- Regenerative agriculture is one term – not one solution.
- Regenerative Agriculture needs to be adapted to a specific landscape.
- There is a serious science–evidence gap we need to close.
- Farmer-centric networks are the way to go and soil health is the key to every farmer’s heart.
- There is a mismatch between diversified farming systems and the current market infrastructure.
Regenerative agriculture can be a valuable part of a landscape restoration initiative. Its holistic view matches well with the 4 Returns framework. The movement also has its ‘growth pains’, including unclarity about definitions, evidence gaps and challenges in the market infrastructure. However, there is a lot of energy in the movement, and significant steps are being taken to address the evidence and market barriers. Adapting to your context and learning from each other’s experiences will be essential when adopting regenerative agriculture as part of your landscape approach.
- The Regeneration Agriculture manual by EIT Food and the Regeneration Academy
- The page Regenerative Agriculture on the platform Regeneration offers a great number of resources.
- Landscape Rehydation programme of Mulloon Institute. This hub by The Mulloon Institute and RegenWA is a central point for West Australia-specific landscape rehydration resources including case studies, educational videos, and manuals. This space will encourage and support participants and communities through their regenerative journey with tailored resources.
- How to set up your own cover crop strategy? A practical guide.
- An Agroforestry Guide for Field Practitioners by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). This guide provides both proven concepts and good practices for field practitioners to integrate agroforestry into land restoration in general and sloping land management.
- The Netflix documentary Kiss the Ground features activists, scientists, farmers, and politicians, making the case for Regenerative Agriculture to balance our climate, replenish our vast water supplies, and feed the world.
- The documentary ‘The biggest Little Farm’ – The story of documentarian John Chester and his wife Molly’s work to develop a regenerative farm on 200 acres outside of Los Angeles.
- The short movie Regenerative Agriculture is part of the documentary ‘Head, Heart and Hands’ which tells the story of regenerative pioneers in the Altiplano Estepario landscape that are part of the AlVelAl movement.
- Investing in Regenerative Agriculture
- The Regenerative Agroforestry Podcast
- Farmerama Radio – the voices of regenerative farming
- The RegenNarration podcast
Do you have any insights or additional resources to share about regenerative agriculture? Please share in the comments!
This chapter was written by Roos van der Deijl in collaboration with various Commonland colleauges.