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Can regenerative agriculture replace conventional farming?

25 August 2020

As the Earth’s population rises and the need for sustainable food production continues to grow, farmers and policymakers are taking an increasing interest in regenerative agriculture as a positive, adaptable approach to sustainable farming. 

Given the damage already inflicted on the natural environment, merely “sustaining” our ecosystems may not be enough to offset climate change and ensure long-term productivity of farmland. With this in mind regenerative farmers work to actively change the way they farm by increasing biodiversity, enriching soils, improving watersheds, and enhancing the health of livestock and wildlife. Thinking more holistically, they increase the resilience of their farms to extreme weather events and climate change, boosting the sustainability and vitality of their rural communities in the process.

With policymakers and food industry leaders looking for innovations that will secure sustainable food supplies (1), organisations in countries including the US, Brazil and India, are planning to have millions of acres turned over to regenerative methods (2,3,4). The campaigning Rodale Institute has partnered with companies including Patagonia to launch Regenerative Organic Certified, a certification scheme for food, fibre and personal care products (5). And global corporations including EIT Food partner Danone (6) and General Mills (7) have invested multi-million-dollar budgets in regenerative suppliers.

Regenerative organic agriculture certification, an introduction to the topic and an explanation of the importance of regenerative agriculture by Patagonia.

 

5 principles of regenerative agriculture

Regenerative agriculture has five main principles:

  1. Minimising soil disturbance
  2. Minimising the use of chemical inputs
  3. Maximising biodiversity, both animals and plants
  4. Keeping the soil covered with crops as long as possible
  5. Adapting to the local environment

These are put into practice under a general, guiding principle of integrating all the farm’s operations as far as possible. In today’s conventional farming approach, crops and livestock production are typically kept separate. Regenerative agriculture combines them in circular ecosystems; essentially, the animals feed the plants, and the plants feed the animals. The regulated grazing of sheep or cows, for example, encourages plant growth, and distributes natural nutrients back over the land in the form of dung. Poultry also fertilises land, as well as eating unwelcome bugs and weeds.

Some regenerative farmers also look to build stronger links with workers and local communities, adding a social dimension to their vision (8).

 

Do restorative methods reduce yields?

In the latter half of the 20th century, global crop yields increased on an unprecedented scale. The world’s average cereal yield, for example, has increased by 175 per cent since 1961 (9). In 1950, one hectare of apple trees in the Netherlands yielded six tonnes of apples, yet by 2015 that yield was 44 tonnes (10). However, those gains have mainly been achieved using fossil-fuel-based inputs that are not sustainable in the long term (11), and via methods that can lead to soil degradation and erosion (12). Since the 1990s some crop yields have plateaued (13, 14), and while this is largely as a consequence of policy changes, climate change has also been found to be a contributing factor (15, 16).

One challenge – perhaps the greatest one – facing farming in the 21st century is to maintain production levels that will ensure affordable food for the world, while keeping methods and inputs sustainable. Research shows that while regenerative methods, which minimise or avoid tilling and chemical inputs entirely, can lower yields, this varies greatly depending on the crop and local conditions (17). In some cases regenerative and organic methods can lead to similar yields, and even yield increases (18).

"The Rodale Institute has been running side-by-side field studies for the last 30 years, comparing organic and conventional agriculture. Results show that after a 1 to 2 year transition period, when yields tend to decline, there is no difference between conventional and regenerative farming in terms of yields. In stressful conditions, particularly during droughts, the regenerative fields perform better because they are more resilient – the soil can absorb more water because it contains more biomass. And certainly farmers we work with say the yields are the same, while their input costs go down."

Philip Fernandez, Agriculture Project Manager at EIT Food

Crucially, even where yields are lower, the price premium on regenerative and organic food can make the crops more profitable than their conventionally-grown counterparts. 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 (19). The picture can be complex, and there are differences when it comes to input costs (20): regenerative and organic farming tend to have higher labour inputs, while conventional use more pesticide and fertiliser.

 

The focus of regenerative farming is most commonly to be the quality and performance of the soil, and for good reason. In 2017 the United Nations Global Land Outlook report found that a third of the planet’s land was severely degraded through erosion, salinization, compaction, acidification, and chemical pollution (21), and fertile soil was being lost at the rate of 24bn tonnes a year. This confirmed the risk alluded to two years earlier in 2015 by UN  Director-General José Graziano da Silva when he warned at the time that “Further loss of productive soils would severely damage food production and food security, amplify food-price volatility, and potentially plunge millions of people into hunger and poverty.” (22)

Growing crops can also remove and add nutrients, and regenerative farmers use growing practices that improve the health of their land. The more common regenerative farming methods include:

  • No-till systems, which heavily reduce the digging and ploughing that can lead to loosened topsoil being blown away by wind or carried away by water
  • Cover crops, which are grown in the soil when the main commercial crop has been harvested, and can be grazed by livestock or harvested themselves
  • Increasing biodiversity, which increases the variety of nutrients going into the soil through roots and natural decomposition and, if well-managed, attracts insects which are the natural predators of pests
  • Rotating crops, so that what is being taken out and put into soil naturally by plants is balanced
  • Integrating livestock, so as to combine animals and plants in a single ecosystem
  • Minimising chemical inputs, to minimise negative impact on biodiversity and pollution of waterways due to runoff.

There is now evidence that this approach can enrich soil and improve watersheds, which reduces topsoil runoff (23).

Infographic about Regenerative agriculture

The regenerative farmer advantage

Soil nutrients

Important to the success of regenerative agriculture will be the ability of farmers to charge a premium for their produce, as they often can for organic food.

Organic producers can use various certification schemes that confirm to consumers that the producer followed agreed rules and procedures, but other than the as-yet small scale Regenerative Organic Certified scheme, there is nothing comparable for regenerative food producers. Philip Fernandez, EIT Food’s’ Agriculture Project Manager, thinks that regenerative certification might not be entirely beneficial, however.

“There are arguments for and against it,” he says. “One problem is that it could potentially confuse people, as the average consumer doesn’t yet know what regenerative agriculture is. Also, it would entail many rules, and until now an advantage of regenerative has been its flexibility. The case for certification is that regenerative agriculture is after all a different approach to farming - so why not recognise it appropriately?”

One alternative would be to hope that technology enables greater communication and information exchange between producers and consumers. At a simple level, the internet already allows farmers and producers to explain their principles to potential customers. Uri Rosenzweig, Head of Product at the EIT Food-supported tech startup Trellis, foresees farmers and food manufacturers sharing more data with the public online, and people taking that information into account when buying food.

“Remember that organic was a bottom-up movement, with consumers creating the demand as they found out more about food. Technology now allows us to have more traceability and visibility of how much energy is used to produce food, and how much waste has been involved, for example. I would hope the sort of consumers who pushed for organic would care about such issues.”

Climate change

In the 21st century conventional agriculture incurs other indirect costs that cannot be ignored. The long-term threat of climate change to the natural environment is well established, and agriculture bears much of the responsibility for this. In its latest report on climate change, the IPCC states that 23% of the total global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are directly related to “agriculture, forestry and other types of land use” (24). Conversely, regenerative agriculture seeks to increase the organic matter in soil, which makes it better able to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, meaning it has the potential to reduce climate change instead of contributing to it.

The soil scientist Dr Rattan Lal, winner of the 2020 World Food Prize  (25), claims that increasing the carbon content of the world’s soil by just two per cent would entirely return greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to safe levels. 

Some regenerative farmers argue that their grazing techniques can play a significant role in reducing the carbon intensity of agriculture, and while some of these claims have been credibly disputed, some scientists endorse the findings (26, 27).

Infiltration and biodiversity

Regenerative farming has other demonstrable benefits besides improving soil health and helping to fight climate change. Improving the soil not only increases fertility in a sustainable way, but also tends to improve water infiltration. Better infiltration means less runoff, and also less erosion and pollution from soil being carried away in the runoff water. In some areas, water springs that dried up several years ago have begun to flow again due to new regenerative farming approaches (28).

An increase in biodiversity also tends to make ecosystems more sustainable and resilient. Dan Kittredge, the US-based organic farmer and executive director of the Bionutrient Food Association, has observed that regenerative agriculture focuses more attention on the quality of life and growth on a farm, contrasting this with organic farming which, he says, can focus on policing inputs (29). However, there are some arguments that disadvantages of regenerative agriculture do indeed exist. 

The disadvantages of regenerative agriculture

In integrating different elements on the farm, the regenerative farmer seeks to revive the classic mixed-farm model, which is an important consideration in a post-COVID food industry. By producing a greater diversity of foodstuffs on one site, a farm can reduce external inputs and outputs, and thus reduce the risk of contamination (30).

However, to practice regenerative agriculture effectively, many farmers will need to acquire new knowledge and skills, particularly in respect of soil management. And managing farmers’ expectations of results might be difficult, as critics have accused exponents of over-claiming on yield and benefits. By not tilling the soil, farmers can save between 30 and 40 percent of time, and can decrease the amount of soil erosion in certain terrains, but the disadvantages of regenerative agriculture are, in many cases, that more unwelcome plants grow on the land, and some farmers compensate for this by increasing their use of herbicide (31).

And it is possible that the extent of soil degradation is exaggerated too. The degradation of soils is difficult to measure, and there are huge variations between estimates by different bodies (32).

Regenerative Agriculture Infographic 2, talking about the approach, environmental impact, yield and costs of industrial vs. regenerative agriculture

Is regenerative farming the solution?

Regenerative farming clearly has some way to go yet before it can offer an alternative to current conventional, large-scale agriculture.  However, it’s equally clear that it is a source of important ideas and influence. For farmers, a regenerative approach can offer new profitable and nature-friendly economic models. For policymakers, it offers alternative ways of thinking about sustainability. And for changemakers looking to reduce the negative impacts of farming,  it represents small actions and changes that are closely linked to a large-scale vision.

Crucially, restorative agriculture implies a general approach that allows for different farms to develop new, adaptive cycles and systems. These, in turn, can support and develop a unique and resilient farm ecosystem. “Nature” isn’t fixed; it’s something that humans can work with in what writer, Raymond Cole, has called “co-evolutionary, partnered relationships between human and natural systems.” (33).

 

This flexibility will be important as we continue to search for new, innovative ways of producing more and/or different foods to feed the growing global population.

Listen Now:

How is EIT Food participating in the regenerative transition?

If Europe is to meet targets for climate change, improve food security, and protect farmland and build a healthier food system, it is likely that regenerative agriculture will have an important role to play. A 2019 report on the global food system by the UN Committee on World Food Security argued that global food production would benefit from “agroecology”, a broad approach that applies “ecological principles to agriculture and [ensures] a regenerative use of natural resources and ecosystem services.” This echoed the FAO’s 2015 Status of The World’s Soil Resources report, which assured that “Food production systems will need to change to create multifunctional agro-ecosystems capable of maintaining a balance between yields, soil functions and biological diversity. (33)

It has to be recognised that many of the farming practices with potential to improve sustainability have been used by artisan farmers across Europe for many years; the question is, how can those practices be shared, scaled and combined with advances in contemporary scientific knowledge?

With the mission to make food in Europe healthier and more sustainable, EIT Food is looking to investigate and help scale up regenerative initiatives. The EIT Food network connects artisan farmers with the biggest agrifood companies in the world, and makes the learnings of both scalable and accessible.

"For the last century farmers have stressed the top line, and prioritised increasing production. Regenerative agriculture addresses cost, and regards profit as more important than production; to put it simply, if you can produce the same output with half the input, you make more money. That saving is the immediate effect seen by farmers who switch.

People come to regenerative from many different backgrounds and perspectives, and some see it as farming more like the way it used to be, before the shift to greater mechanisation and chemical use in the 1950s and 1960s [the Green Revolution] encouraged monocultures and ever-larger farms."

Philip Fernandez, Agriculture Project Manager at EIT Food

With the likes of General Mills and Danone already adopting regenerative agricultural practices, and similar big players likely to follow, we’re looking forward to bringing food organisations of all sizes together, and helping them learn from each other.

To support regenerative agriculture, EIT Food has launched the Regenerative Agriculture Revolution (34), a programme where farmers across Southern Europe will be educated about how they can farm more sustainably. For example, they’ll learn more about how to improve soil health, foster biodiversity, produce more nutritious crops, and make their farms more profitable. These standardised tools and curriculums will be developed so that the farmer programme can continue to scale into the future.

EIT Food also works with leading agricultural startups to provide sensors and tools to help farmers track the impact of their new practices. This programme of technical support will introduce suitable tech providers to the farmers, so that they can further increase their productivity.

"Our AI systems make the food supply chain more efficient by enabling food production companies and farmers to share real-time data. This will mean they can better match each others’ needs; whereas at the moment, farming and food production seem to exist in two separate worlds, our software will integrate them and create one data stream across the food supply chain."

Uri Rosenzweig, Head of Product, Trellis

EIT Food is offering a free programme of support to help farmers transition to regenerative agriculture. This year the training sessions will be held in Spain and Italy from September through October. Discover how you can take part here.

Are you a regenerative farmer or a farmer looking to transition to regenerative farming methods? Our team is working on a regenerative video series and would love to hear from you. Send an email here.

Useful reading

Sources

  1. Mckinsey & Company: Feeding the world sustainably
  2. General Mills: Regenerative agriculture
  3. Rizoma in Brazil: Large-scale regenerative agriculture is possible – and profitable, says Rizoma
  4. Investing in regenerative agriculture and food: Satya Tripathi, raising $2.3B to transition 6m smallholder farmers beyond organic
  5. Regenerative Organic Certified: Regenerative Organic Certification: Farm like the world depends on it
  6. Danone: Regenerative agriculture
  7. General Mills: Regenerative Agriculture 2020
  8. Christopher J. Rhodes: Feeding and healing the world: through regenerative agriculture and permaculture
  9. Our World in Data: Yields vs. Land Use: How the Green Revolution enabled us to feed a growing population
  10. Statistics Netherlands (CBS): Agricultural production in the period 1950-2015
  11. Jeremy Woods, Adrian Williams, John K. Hughes, Mairi Black and Richard Murphy, 2010: Energy and the food system
  12. David R Montgomery, 8 August 2007: Soil erosion and agricultural sustainability
  13. Our World in Data: Crop Yields
  14. Nature Communications: Distinguishing between yield advances and yield plateaus in historical crop production trends
  15. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America: The fingerprint of climate trends on European crop yields
  16. Advancing Earth and Space Science: Understanding the Changes in Global Crop Yields Through Changes in Climate and Technology
  17. Science Direct: The crop yield gap between organic and conventional agriculture
  18. Christos Vasilikiotis, December 2000: Can organic farming “Feed the World” 
  19. Claire E. Lacanne and Jonathan Lundgren: Regenerative agriculture: merging farming and natural resource conservation profitably
  20.  European Commission report, November 4th 2013 brief: EU Agricultural Economic briefs
  21. United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification: Global Land Outlook first edition (2017) | Knowledge Hub
  22. Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, 2017: Third of Earth's soil is acutely degraded due to agriculture
  23. Nature Sustainability: Soil carbon science for policy and practice
  24. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): Land is a Critical Resource, IPCC report says — IPCC
  25. The World of Food Prize: The World Food Prize - Improving the Quality, Quantity and Availability of Food in the World
  26. Allan Savory, TED Talk 2017: How to green the world's deserts and reverse climate change
  27. Skeptical Science: New rebuttal to the myth 'Holistic Management can reverse Climate Change'
  28. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: Introduction to Conservation Agriculture: principles and benefits
EIT Food

About The Author: EIT Food

EIT Food is Europe’s leading food innovation initiative, working to make the food system more sustainable, healthy and trusted.

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