An important principle behind the work of Wij.land is regenerative agriculture, a term that is appearing more and more often in the media. But what does it stand for and what does it mean for Wij.land?
Regenerative agriculture is about more than making agriculture more sustainable. Almost everyone agrees that agriculture can and must become more sustainable. In recent decades, agriculture in many parts of the world has had a negative impact on the soil, groundwater and biodiversity. Sustainability solutions are often about reducing this negative impact. Regenerative agriculture not only looks at how the negative impact can be reduced, but also works on restoring and making proper use of natural processes. In other words, working with nature, not against it. Regenerative agriculture ultimately makes a positive contribution to nature, the environment, the climate, food security and social conditions.
Focus on soil
In regenerative agriculture, the soil is central. In recent decades, we have approached the soil rather one-sidedly in terms of chemistry and the use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides. This has led to high production and efficiency, but also to loss of (soil) biodiversity and a one-sided landscape. Sometimes the harmful effect is clearly visible, as in areas in Spain or Australia where Commonland works collaboratively on landscape restoration projects.
In the Dutch peat meadow area, soil degradation is much less visible. Here, we do not have eroded slopes or bare, exhausted fields. Nevertheless, the soil is often unbalanced, minerals have disappeared from the soil and soil life has greatly deteriorated. In addition, the peat soil is subsiding as a result of dewatering. With renewed insights and an appreciation of soil biology, regenerative agriculture attempts to restore this balance and make maximum use of nature’s potential.
Regenerating soil life
A healthy soil, thriving with life, ensures plant growth, regulation of carbon in the soil, good water management and the maintenance of nutrient cycles. For example, plants naturally work together with fungi and bacteria to make nutrients from the soil or air available to the plant. Soil animals such as earthworms process plant residues and build up organic material in the soil, and through their burrows contribute to good water management. Naturally, the soil also contributes to biodiversity. Some of these functions have been impaired by the deterioration of soil life. Promoting this soil life again strengthens the productivity and resilience of the soil. Every step towards soil and landscape restoration is regenerative.
Increasing organic matter and sequestering carbon
Soil naturally contains a lot of organic matter in the form of partially decomposed remains of plants and other organisms. In this way, a lot of carbon – extracted from the air by plants and converted into plant material – is fixed in the ground for a long time. Working the soil with practices like tillage reduces the amount of organic matter in the soil and releases a lot of CO2. Given global warming, this side-effect is obviously unwanted. Regenerative agriculture can reverse this process.
Minimal soil cultivation, various crop rotations and the cultivation of green manures – crops that are worked into the soil – can increase the organic matter content, thereby fixing carbon in the soil again. Dutch dairy farmers are using techniques that restore balance of soil life and minerals, create permanent grassland with more herbaceous diversity, promote extensive grazing strategies, and use natural fertilisation including the application of organic material such as compost or bokashi.
Reducing soil subsidence
In the case of the peat meadow area, the peat soil has also been oxidised by drainage, causing CO2 emissions and subsidence. An ongoing process that must be slowed down or stopped. This can be done by experimenting with wet cultivation, or improving the water balance in pastures with innovative solutions such as subsurface irrigation.
Not biological, but regenerative
Regenerative agriculture draws on decades of scientific and applied research by the global communities of organic agriculture, agroecology, holistic management, permaculture and agroforestry. There is no firm definition yet and the term is sometimes interpreted differently. Sometimes regenerative agriculture is seen as a form of organic farming, or a farming system that ‘goes further’ than organic and biodynamic. However, this is a misconception. Regenerative agriculture is a broad set of methods, where the end point is a healthy and resilient landscape. A conventional farmer can also take steps towards regenerative agriculture, without having to meet the specific requirements of organic. However, there are many points of contact, as is the case with circular agriculture: we want as few inputs as possible and as many closed cycles as possible. This also applies to nature-inclusive agriculture. You could say that nature-inclusive farming is part of regenerative agriculture.
In the TKI research project Regenerative Farming, in which we are a partner and in which four Wij.land farmers are participating, regenerative agriculture is linked to specific ecosystem services. The project examines the potential for regenerative agriculture in the Netherlands and studies twenty farmers to see how they contribute to all these ecosystem services.
Regenerative farming is also good for the farmer
The question often arises as to whether regenerative farming benefits the farmer sufficiently, since less intensive farming can also reduce production. Fortunately, this is offset by the fact that the farmer also has lower costs, since fertiliser and pesticides do not have to be purchased, or have to be purchased far less. In order to get a clear picture of the bottom line, we are trying to come up with a good methodology in the Cost-Benefit Analysis of Regenerative Agriculture project, so that we can give a definite answer once and for all. In addition, we are working in various projects on good earning models for the regenerative farmer.
A holistic approach better for everyone
The benefits do not lie solely in the various aspects such as biodiversity or the farmer’s earnings model; it is about a holistic approach in which all aspects reinforce each other. For Wij.land, regenerative agriculture is also a social movement: restoring our emotional connection with the landscape, learning together by doing, and strengthening the socio-economic position and autonomy of farmers. Farmers regain their prospects, landscapes become more attractive and people become more involved in food production. This will create a stronger connection between city and countryside and make regenerative agriculture meaningful for everyone.