Regenerative agriculture: what it is and why we need it

Soil is an invaluable basis for all life on Earth. Fertile soils are a source of nutrients for plants and crops that are essential to feed people around the world. But the dirt under our feet often goes unnoticed and many still don’t fully see its real value. Overall, almost 2,000 million hectares of soils have been degraded by human activities. By practicing regenerative agriculture, farmers are now trying to reverse the already declining trajectory of soil health in a bid to avert global food insecurity.

Why is soil so important?

According to Professor Bridget Emmett from the UK Center for Ecology and Hydrology: “Soil is one of the most underestimated and least understood wonders of our fragile planet.”

Soil is a loose surface material composed of various organic and inorganic particles. The combination of the different physical and chemical properties of the soil determines the soil type and each soil type determines an agricultural production potential. Soil is a non-renewable resource on which human life depends. It takes hundreds of years to generate an inch of new soil but it may take just a year or even less to destroy it.

Soil is a vital source of food and medicineit is home to millions of living species, and it is also a large carbon sink, because it can absorb and store carbon. For these reasons, it is considered one of the most important and valuable natural resources on the planet.

Although we see it everywhere around us, the amount of arable land is in sharp decline. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 30% of the world’s soils has been degraded due to climate change, pollution, and poor land management and use, usually for agricultural, urban, or industrial purposes. The Organization also estimates that more than 90% could deteriorate by 2050 if no action is taken quickly.

The dangers of unhealthy soils

Healthy soils are crucial because they provide several benefits, including feeding the world’s population, filtering rainwater, and recycling nutrients. Unfortunately, the need to address the challenges associated with food safety often leads to the adoption of agricultural practices that do not take into account the multifunctionality of soils, thus leading to degradation. Unhealthy soils inevitably reduce their potential, leading to crop failure.

Reach food supply stability, healthy soils are essential. In effect, about 95% of the world’s per capita calorie consumption comes from foods that depend directly or indirectly on the soil. It is a clear sign of the crucial but fragile relationship between nature and human existence. Healthy soils determining physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet people’s dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

Nowadays, more than 50% of agricultural land has been degraded. Food scarcity inevitably leads to a gradual increase in food prices. These are estimated at increase by 30% by 2035. With many parts of the world already struggling to get enough nutritious food, a reduction in land productivity coupled with rising prices could have catastrophic consequences.

Agriculture plays a major role in soil depletion, especially when it comes to intensive farming techniques such as tillage, which negatively affects surface runoff, causes erosion and loss of biodiversity, and leads to a decrease in soil organic matter and overall soil fertility.

The use of chemical or inorganic fertilizers is still extremely popular among farmers. However, these fertilizers have a devastating impact on the environment and especially the soil. Leaching and groundwater pollution are just two of the most common consequences of using chemical fertilizers. Apart from this, the accumulation of acids from chemical fertilizers – such as hydrochloric and sulfuric acids – can lead to friability of the soil.

Another example of an intensive agricultural practice is the cultivation of monocultures. This method of farming is more popular in industrialized regions and involves growing a single crop on a large plot of land. However, planting a single crop deprives the soil of its nutrients and contributes to a drastic decrease in fertility by reducing the varieties of bacteria and microorganisms that are essential for maintaining processes in the soil. Crops are also more prone to pests and diseases that require increased use of pesticides or herbicides to protect the crop.

As climate change shows its devastating effects more than ever, many farmers around the world are beginning to realize the importance of taking care of the soil, not only to guarantee food security, but above all to maintain their activity. Since, according to the United Nations, the world will have a 2 billion more people to feed by 2050, this problem must be solved as soon as possible.

Is regenerative agriculture the solution we need?

Today, the issues are increasingly recognized and the pressure on farmers to rethink their agricultural practices is increasing. Regenerative agriculture offers a great opportunity to help them maintain their business while improving soil health and working towards a more sustainable world.

The main idea behind regenerative agriculture is to mimic natural processes in ecosystems and thus revitalize landscapes for generations to come. Despite a growing interest in more sustainable techniques in the agricultural sector, there is still no legal or regulatory definition of the term “regenerative agriculture”. One of the most accepted definitions views regenerative agriculture as “a system of agricultural principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services”. Regenerative agriculture represents a holistic approach to farming, designed to benefit the ecosystem.

Six practices fall into the category of regenerative agriculture:

1. Reduced tillage or no tillage

Undisturbed soil provides a higher abundance and diversity of microbes which can in turn enhance ecological benefits and also help crops become more resilient to environmental stress. Overall crop quality and quantity are also improved.

2. Cover crop

Cover the crops and therefore the soil with plants can help improve soil quality and fertility, manage erosion, promote water retention and increase natural biological diversity. It also helps in the management of weeds, pests and diseases.

3. Animal integration

Cultivate and raise livestock together brings many benefits. It improves soil health, reduces fertilizer and feed input costs, reduces labor and machinery costs, and increases carbon sequestration.

4. Agroforestry

Agroforestry represents a land use management system where trees, shrubs, palms and bamboo grow among or around crops.

Trees (shrubs and others) play a special role in bringing nutrients back to the soil, capturing rainwater and promoting water infiltration. They also provide habitat for millions of living organisms.

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5. Compost and manure

Compost and manure increase soil organic matter, improving its texture and pH which directly affect its fertility. In this way, the soil is able to retain more moisture, which means that less irrigation is needed. Using compost or manure to fertilize soils also reduces the need for harmful, often expensive and energy-intensive petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers.

6. Crop rotation

When the crop rotation done correctly, it creates great potential for reducing soil erosion, enhancing biological diversity, and improving the actual quality and fertility of soils. With the combination of certain other practices, this can have a significant impact on carbon sequestration and the overall reduction of the consequences of climate change.

Future prospects

Changing farmers’ strategy and their behavior towards the environment will be the biggest challenge for a successful transition. from conventional agriculture to regenerative agriculture. As agriculture sustains farmers, it is important that they understand the importance of switching to more sustainable practices, not only to protect the environment and ensure food security for future generations, but also to protect their own business in the years to come.

The agricultural sector has three main challenges to overcome in the years to come: increase food productivity, become more resilient and reduce its environmental impact. Regenerative agriculture can contribute significantly to overcoming these challenges.

The main objective of regenerative agriculture is to improve soil biodiversity. Biologically diverse communities are generally more resilient during times of environmental stress such as periods of drought and heavy rains. Resilient soils and crops are essential in today’s changing environment with the ever-increasing amount of weather shocks we continue to experience.

While implementing such a transformation comes with its own challenges, it is the only solution we have to protect food security and the future of agriculture. However, farmers cannot do it alone. Governments must step up their efforts by increasing investments and providing support through policies.

In a letter sent to the country’s governors in 1937, former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt said: ‘The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself’.

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