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Cover photo: Señor Gomez, farmer, inspecting the ground cover in his regenerative almond grove in Ferreria, Altiplano Estepario, Spain. Photography: Tom Lovett.

Regenerative Agriculture

In this chapter

  • 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 “growing pains”, including lack of clarity 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 wider landscape restoration initiative.

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 so that it contributes to regeneration of the land 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 and with less greenhouse gas emissions. It promotes adoption of practices that promote soil health and biodiversity, conserve water and ecosystem balance, and leave 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 help transform damaged landscapes into thriving ecosystems. 

Regenerative agriculture addresses the 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. That is why it fits so neatly into the 4 Returns Framework. Regenerative agriculture, including approaches such as agroforestry and rotational grazing, are powerful tools for the combined zone. Transitioning land from conventional to regenerative farming practices can create a buffer zone where natural, economic, and cultural ecosystems can coexist.  

Regenerative agriculture is a large, rapidly developing field with lots of existing resources. This chapter will help you navigate the context and relevance of regenerative agriculture for holistic landscape restoration. We will cover its history, main principles and practices, and some key lessons learned.

"For us, advocating the benefits of regenerative agriculture and supporting regenerative farmers is our way of creating positive change."

Ben Cole, former Managing director, current Non executive director, Wide Open Agriculture

Historic concept

The principles and practices of regenerative agriculture are not new. Many of them have been used by Indigenous cultures for centuries, working in harmony with the natural world rather than against it to produce food sustainably and regeneratively (see the article Regenerative agriculture needs a reckoning).

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 to propose regenerative organic agriculture as a “beyond sustainable” approach. 

In 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. An increasing body of research demonstrates the benefits of these practices to to soil health and several ecosystem services.

Recently, the Kiss the Ground documentary, and the adoption of regenerative agriculture by large corporations, such as General Mills, PepsiCo, Nestle, and Unilever, have brought the subject to a larger audience. While this is promising for the scaling potential of regenerative agriculture, it also raises concerns about potential greenwashing and the lack of evidence. Read more about the evidence gap on the 4 Returns platform. Fortunately, efforts are being undertaken to gain understanding and agreement in the field. An example is the Regen10 network, which is bringing together a diverse range of stakeholders to build evidence and provide tools and guidance. They are developing an outcomes-based framework that is holistic, agnostic of practices, and designed with farmers for use by farmers. 

Agroecology, agroforestry, permaculture: seeing the trees through the forest

Regenerative agriculture is not the only way to prevent harm, or to restore 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 frequently differs in its political position on social issues such as rights and access to natural resources. Some regenerative agriculture projects, such as those initiated by corporate players, do not take a position. For others, however, it can be a central theme of their project. The article Regenerative agriculture — agroecology without politics? explains this in more detail. 

What binds all these approaches together is that they restore the relationship between agriculture and nature. Regenerative agriculture is different for everyone, so everyone needs to figure it out for themselves and find their own place in it. 

Principles and 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 useful to define what regenerative agriculture should look like in your context to achieve the desired outcomes of improving soil health, conserving water, and reducing emissions. See, for example, Grounded’s definition and other examples of different interpretations in the story Regenerative Agriculture: 6 biggest lessons learned.

"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, Regenerative agriculture support, 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 catalysing a movement of regenerative agriculture, soil erosion is an obvious threat. Practices include reducing erosion (such as reduced tilling and ground cover) and increasing the soil’s water-holding capacity (such as swales, ponds, and keyline design). Also, consider any local research results. The story Practical lessons on regenerative farming in a Mediterranean climate from 4 years of research details the studies into effective practices in the Altiplano Estepario. 

In the Dutch Peat Meadows where Wij.land works, soil erosion is much less visible. But this landscape has serious challenges, such as soil subsidence, a loss of soil life and an imbalance of minerals. Practices like zero tillage, groundwater table management, and growing herb-rich grasslands are more suitable here. 

In the Dutch Peat Meadows where Wij.land works, soil erosion is much less visible. But this landscape has serious challenges, such as soil subsidence, a loss of soil life and an imbalance of minerals. Practices like zero tillage, groundwater table management, and herb-rich grasslands are more suitable here. Read more about regenerative agriculture in the story What is Regenerative Agriculture in a Dutch Context?.

"It’s not going to be uniform, and that’s a good thing. We should celebrate that."

Willemijn de Iongh, Landscape developer, Commonland

There is not a “one size fits all” solution. Various practices suit different contexts. For a good overview of practices and their benefits, see the Guidebook for Farmers by the Soil Heroes Foundation. But before choosing your practices, reflect on the principles of regenerative agriculture. Because each farm and context are unique, it is these principles that bind practitioners together. The following principles are widely agreed upon (text adapted from the Wikifarmer article by the Regeneration Academy). 

1. Understand your context

Understand your context. Consider your own specific conditions in terms of land, soil, climate, crops, location, access to machinery, financial resources, cooperatives, traditions, and market opportunities. Next to your objectives, these will influence the decisions you make.

"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. Improve soil quality and health

Improve soil quality and health. The transformation comes when you change your focus from feeding the plant to feeding the soil. Taking care of the soil will secure the base from which all other parts of the farm will flourish. Some of the basic measures are to minimise disturbance, ensure sufficient soil cover, and feed living soil appropriately. Examples of such practices are no-till, planting cover crops, using crop rotations, and integrating livestock. 

3. Improving water management

Improving water management. Water is becoming scarcer. Using and harvesting this resource efficiently is key to success. Wetlands on farms promote biodiversity hotspots. The use of key-line design, ponds, and swales can help your farm retain and absorb rainwater.

4. Biodiversity

Biodiversity. Biodiversity creates balance on 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 a 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

5. Holistic decision making

Holistic decision making. 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

Create community and social impact. Consider the localand 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 or creative spaces. Connecting with others can create meaningful relationships, moments of inspiration, and greater impact by enhancing resilient communities. 

Lessons from practice

In 2021, Commonland facilitated an online learning programme to hear from our landscape partners in Spain, the Netherlands, Australia, and South Africa on what had been learned about regenerative agriculture over the previous six years. Read the full story by Willemijn de Iongh, which includes many examples collected from practice. 

Key lessons shared by our partners:

  • Think big, start small, and act fast. When problems such as land degradation and biodiversity loss seem great, we want to do as much as possible at once. However, with regenerative agriculture there remain many unknowns. And out of enthusiasm, ambition, and a can-do mentality we sometimes outrun ourselves and overestimate the potential of a particular technique. Regenerative agriculture is one term — not one solution. It is not an end point, nor is it a silver bullet solution.
  • Regenerative agriculture takes place on a continuum guided by a set of principles and should be considered differently in each context. Regenerative agriculture needs to be adapted to a specific landscape. Ideally, the practice leaves a positive impact on the ecosystem and contributes to the regeneration of the surrounding landscape. That requires an intricate understanding of the local ecosystem. Because transitioning to regenerative agriculture means adopting a different set of principles, it is important to find out what works where.
  • There is a serious expertise, knowledge, and science gap. It is important to develop better understanding on how to implement regenerative agriculture. As the practice develops traction, there is hope that peer-reviewed research will also increase. Currently, it is difficult to find the right expertise and evidence-base to support a particular practice or approach. That results in a lot of trial and error, piloting, learning, and failing forward.
  • Farmer-centric networks are the way to go and soil health is the key to every farmer’s heart. Soil is the basis of a farmer’s business, and soil health is a wonderful way to open a conversation with a farmer. The implementation and learning process of regenerative agriculture is best facilitated through farmer-centric networks. Local landscape partners work on farmer-to-farmer learning through on-farm demonstration workshops, pilots and trials, and off-farm events with knowledgeable specialists. These actions are integral to curating a movement across a landscape. Working in a step-by-step pilot approach is an effective way to keep momentum building. In this way, people within the farmer network move from being skeptics towards curious experimentation.

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