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Regenerative Agriculture

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.

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

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 ‘growth 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 from conventional to regenerative is 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 nature, 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 points of debate.

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

Ben Cole, 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 this long read).

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 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 in lesson 4 of this story. 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 such a position. For others, however, it can be a central theme of their project. This article explains more.

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 examples of different interpretations in lesson 2 of this story.

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. This story details the four years of research 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 herb-rich grasslands are more suitable 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, 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 this guidebook for farmers by 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 principles below are widely agreed upon (text adapted from this Wikifarmer article by the Regeneration Academy).

 1. Understand your context

Consider your own specific conditions of land, soil, climate, crops, location, access to machinery, financial resources, cooperatives, tradition 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

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

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 retain and infiltrate rainwater on your farm.

4. Biodiversity

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

5. 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

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 or creative spaces. Connecting with others can create meaningful connections, moments of inspiration and greater impact by enhancing resilient communities.

Lessons from practice

In 2021, Commonland facilitated an online learning programme (watch here) to hear from our landscape partners in Spain, the NetherlandsAustralia and South Africa about what has been learned about regenerative agriculture over the previous six years. The full story (here) by Willemijn de Iongh of Commonland, includes many examples 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 transforming 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. The local landscape partners work on farmer-to-farmer learning through on-farm demonstration workshops, pilots and trails, 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.

"There is a mismatch between diversified farming systems and the current market infrastructure."

Further learning

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