What is Regenerative Agriculture and How Does It Work?

Bee and flowers
Photo by Jenna Lee on Unsplash

In the midst of the climate crisis, reducing the impact of food production has never been so important. Agriculture is a major driver of climate change, with food systems accounting for 34 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Animal agriculture is at the core of the issue, causing 60 percent of all food-related emissions, as well as many other negative ecological impacts, such as reduced soil health and water pollution. Deforestation for livestock farming is also a huge issue, which reduces the planet’s ability to lock away carbon, preventing it from entering our atmosphere and further contributing to climate breakdown.

One of the most effective ways we can fight climate change is to go vegan, and support regenerative agriculture practices that prioritize plant foods, and work with nature instead of against it.

What Is Regenerative Agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture is a philosophy and approach to farming that encompasses holistic approaches that integrate nature into the agriculture process, rather than only taking away from nature. It promotes a more integrated network of people and nature, designed to enhance, exchange, distribute, and consume goods and services, rather than focus on linear supply chains. It achieves this through focussing on plant-products over the inefficient, intensive animal farming that is the cause of so many of the ecological problems in agriculture.

There is no strict rule book when it comes to regenerative agriculture, yet its principles are designed to restore soil and ecosystem health, address inequities in agriculture, and leave land, water, and climate in a better shape for future generations.

Regenerative agriculture is not a new idea. Indigenous communities have used practices and principles like this for thousands of years, we have just strayed far from this in pursuit of profit over people, animals, and the planet.

Arohi Sharma of the Natural Resources Defense Council puts it best:

“The regenerative agriculture movement is the dawning realization among more people that an Indigenous approach to agriculture can help restore ecologies, fight climate change, rebuild relationships, spark economic development, and bring joy”

How Does Regenerative Agriculture Work?

Regenerative agriculture encompasses a wide set of agricultural practices that prioritize growing more sustainable plant-based foods, planting more forests, natural composting, ending pesticide use, and more. It also follows a set of basic farming principles that are natural and sustainable. These are designed to promote soil health for future generations, make communities more climate-resilient and fight climate breakdown by locking carbon in our crops and soils.

Soil health is absolutely key to an environmentally sustainable future, as it ensures we can grow enough food to feed our populations. Soil is also the world’s largest carbon sink making it invaluable in protecting our planet. Bad agricultural practices, like monocropping of crops such as soy and corn to feed to farmed animals, or the pollution of chemicals into soil from animal waste, pesticides, and herbicides, all contribute to soil degradation. Year on year this reduces soil health, which damages its ability to hold carbon and destroys the services soil provides for us, animals, and the planet.

What Are Regenerative Agriculture Practices?

Regenerative agriculture practices are as follows:

Agroforestry

Agroforestry is the simple concept of incorporating trees into agricultural land, instead of relying on just forestry or agriculture monocultures (growing only one crop on agricultural land). Doing this provides tree products, such as fruit, whilst also providing a wealth of ecological benefits. Research over the past 20 years has shown that prioritizing agroforestry is more biologically productive, more sustainable, and more profitable than conventional monocultures.

Composting

Composting simply means redirecting organic waste to be used as fertilizer, and that can include household food waste. When compost is mixed with soil or used on agricultural fields, it provides a range of nutrients, creating healthier soils by providing the necessary microbes.

Composting reduces the reliance on chemical fertilizers, which are likely to degrade soil health over time, while also being a significant polluter of waterways

Conservation Buffers Like Hedgerows And Riparian Buffers

Conservation buffers are strips of natural plants and vegetation, intentionally lined around agricultural fields. Using buffers is a great example of a simple regenerative practice that can help reduce any harmful water runoff from agricultural fields, as well as provide natural habitats for insect and animal species.

Cover Cropping

Similar to conservation buffers, cover cropping utilizes natural plants and vegetation amongst agricultural crops to provide additional beneficial services to agricultural land. Cover cropping is used to naturally manage pests, reduce soil erosion, provide natural fertilizers, and promote biodiversity and wildlife.

Several studies have shown that cover cropping can vastly improve agricultural yields, whilst reducing reliance on chemical fertilizer.

Holistically Managed Grazing

Although veganic regenerative farming seeks to end the exploitation of farmed animals , compassionate and holistically managed grazing can, in some cases, still incorporate animals into the farming process. It’s often forgotten that many farmed animals descend from natural, ancient species that once roamed freely, and there are many wild animals who can live and thrive on productive farmland.

Wild horses for example, eat grass without killing it, allowing it to regrow, whilst their manure returns the seeds to the ground, contributing to the natural checks and balances the ecosystem relies on to survive. Other important grazers and browsers include deer, rabbits, boar, and bison. Conventional farmers, however, see themselves in competition with other species, and all too often shoot, poison, or trap them. Others, like wild horses, may be corralled and sent to slaughter. There is no need for such inhumanity. If we move away from farming animals, there will be plenty of land and resources for us all.

No-till Farming

No-till farming is one of the core practices of regenerative farming, designed to restore and rebuild soil health instead of degrading it. Tilling involves using machinery to ‘turn over’ the first 4-6 inches of soil before planting new crops. Doing this may be beneficial for crop growth for the coming season but when done repeatedly, over time, it leaves soil exposed to wind and water erosion, displaces and kills essential microbes and insects, and disrupts the essential structures soil needs to survive.

Tilling is part of the reason farmers have become so reliant on fertilizers for crop yields. In recent years however more people are becoming aware of the benefits of no-till approaches over those of conventional methods.

Reduced or No Fossil Fuel–based Inputs, Including Pesticides

Many pesticides are derived from oil and gas, meaning they contribute to GHG emissions and therefore climate breakdown. It also seems obvious that chemicals designed to kill are no good for soil health, and nor are they good for insects and the many species that rely on them. Regenerative agriculture offers solutions to pesticide use, in the form of crop covering and diversification, using plants as ‘pest’ control.

What Is the Difference Between Permaculture and Regenerative Agriculture?

Both permaculture and regenerative agriculture are concepts used as part of the wider movement of sustainable agriculture and they share many principles. The main difference is that regenerative agriculture is a broader term that encompasses many sustainable agricultural practices, with no real fixed rules or principles, whereas permaculture follows a fixed set of principles.

What Are Some of the Principles Of Regenerative Agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture encompasses many different principles, but these are at the core of the concept:

1. Minimizing Soil Disturbances

This refers to no-till methods, where farmers avoid disturbing soil at all, in order to maintain its natural structure and nutrient profile over time. However, there are some methods that incorporate tilling in a more sustainable way that can still be considered regenerative practices.

Soil health is at the heart of regenerative agriculture and practices like no-till farming, holistic grazing, and removing chemicals are all designed to reduce soil disturbance, allowing it to maintain its natural structure and nutrient profile.

Applying this principle allows soil to be healthy and provide benefits to humans, animals, and the planet, including increased biodiversity, increased carbon sequestration, and climate resilience.

2. Soil Coverage

Keeping the surface of soil covered and protected from the sun, rainfall, frost, and wind is key for long-term soil health. Doing this with a variety of different crops and plants is even better!

3. Increased Plant Diversity

Monocultures do not occur in nature, so it makes sense to try and mimic nature in our agriculture, rather than go against it. Regenerative practices show that more plant diversity can be both profitable and sustainable, as well as supporting wild populations.

4. Keeping Living Roots in the Soil As Much as Possible

This can be challenging when rotating crops, but roots remaining in soil is key to providing nutrient rich food to both the soil itself and all the biodiversity it supports.

Why Is Regenerative Agriculture Important?

Advocates of regenerative agriculture say it can produce a ‘triple win:’ climate change mitigation, more profit for agriculture, and a strengthened resistance to a changing climate, all of which are key to a sustainable future for agriculture.

Studies and experiences of farmers have shown the wide array of benefits regenerative agricultural practices can bring.

Community Benefits

  • Increased resilience of communities to climate change, as regenerative practices will protect food crop yields against changing climates and increase resilience to extreme weather.
  • Stronger community networks among farmers, as well as stronger connections to local consumers and markets.
  • Food for everyone. It is clear that animal agriculture is wildly inefficient for land use and cannot feed a global population. Using veganic farming to grow crops for human consumption only, would meet the calorific, protein, and nutrient needs of everyone on this planet. A 2019 report from Havard showed that if all the cropland in the United Kingdom was used to feed the human population, they could more than meet the nutritional needs of every person living there.

Ecological Benefits

  • Improved soil health and fertility. We already know how important this is!
  • Improved biodiversity on land, in water, in soil, and in the air around farmland.
  • Better water quality and quantity.

Mental and Physical Health Benefits

  • Evidence suggests that increased biodiversity is associated with improved mental health for local inhabitants.
  • The same can be said for a more diverse landscape of flowers, plants, and trees, rather than monocultures.
  • Mental health and wellbeing in the farming industry is a critical issue, with one systematic review showing that male farmers are at a higher risk of suicide than the general population. Regenerative agriculture practices aim to overcome this through achieving more sustainable economic outcomes for farmers, reaping the mental wellbeing benefits of more biodiversity and diverse landscapes, and more positive relationships with animals and the planet.
  • Farmers reported having more free time from working with nature, instead of against it.
  • Those who transitioned from industrial farming to regenerative methods reported mental health improvements from being outside again.

Personal and Regional Economic Benefits

  • Farmers can save money with reduced use of chemicals including fertilizers, pesticides, and antibiotics.
  • Reduction in debt and risk are common in regenerative agriculture as farmers do not need to have contracts with corporate agribusiness.
  • At a regional level, regenerative agriculture can drive rural economic development.
  • A plant-based economy is a thriving economy!

How Does Regenerative Agriculture Affect Climate Change?

The biggest benefits of regenerative agriculture are those that mitigate climate change, the biggest issue facing humanity right now.

Boost Climate Resilience

Climate resilience is at the core of regenerative agriculture practices. Conventional agricultural methods, particularly animal agriculture, have not only been a major cause of climate breakdown, but left our communities and ecosystems vulnerable to the effects of climate change. For example, healthier soil can hold more water, protecting areas that are vulnerable to extreme weather like floods and droughts.

Get Fossil Fuels Out of Agriculture

Many of the chemicals that make up pesticides and fertilizers are from fossil fuel origins such as oil and gas. Removing these from the agricultural industry, by employing regenerative agriculture practices instead, could help reduce global agriculture-related GHG emissions.

Improve Soil Health

Soil health is beneficial to the climate in many ways, the principle one being that soil can hold huge amounts of carbon. The more we promote soil health through regenerative agriculture, the more carbon we can take from the atmosphere, slowing down climate change.

Increase Food Production and Preserve Agricultural Land

The effects of climate change are likely to slow down global food production due to extreme weather events and fundamental changes to weather systems. We must start protecting our food production systems and preserving agricultural land, through regenerative agriculture practices, safeguarding them against the effects of a changing climate.

Protect and Restore Natural Ecosystems

Around 80 percent of agricultural land is used for animal pasture and because animal agriculture is extremely land inefficient, transitioning to veganic farming and removing the exploitation of animals, would free up vast amounts of land across the planet. Huge areas, once used for ranching cattle, for example, could be returned to nature and natural ecosystems could be restored.

Once again, regenerative agriculture methods show that nature is best placed to protect and preserve itself, if we give it the space to do so.

Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Reducing GHGs is key to fighting climate change and regenerative agriculture achieves this in two ways:

  1. Reducing the number of ruminant animals on the planet. There are around a billion cows on the planet, almost all of whom exist due to industrial farming and all of whom emit harmful methane into the atmosphere. Without humans breeding them into existence for needless, cruel slaughter, this issue would not exist, and we would be able to cut over a third of all human-caused methane emissions and 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
  2. Pesticide use alone is responsible for nine percent of the greenhouse gas emissions of all arable farming. And most of these crops are fed to farmed animals. Moving away from chemical-based pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer that are made from oil and gas products, and stopping the breeding of farmed animals, would have a huge impact on agricultural emissions.

Regenerative Agriculture Statistics

Regenerative Agriculture Criticism

  • Peer-reviewed research is still lagging a little behind on regenerative agriculture practices and their benefits. A large amount of the supportive evidence for regenerative agriculture comes from collective experiences of small farms, with smaller areas of land. This does not mean the benefits are not real, it just means that the scientific community will require more peer-reviewed research before recommending regenerative agriculture at an industrial level.
  • Some scientists are skeptical of the accuracy of carbon accounting when it comes to regenerative agriculture statistics, although the consensus is still definitely positive.
  • Some critics highlight the challenge of effectively scaling regenerative practices across millions of acres of farmland.
  • Those who argue that there is still a place for farmed animals within regenerative agriculture also face a lot of justifiable criticism.

How To Support Regenerative Agriculture

  • Adopting a plant-based diet supports regenerative agriculture practices, by increasing demand for the products they produce.
  • Buy organic wherever possible as this is a planet- and wildlife-friendly way to grow foods.
  • Buy plant-based products from local farms as much as possible. Going to local farmers markets and speaking to farmers is a great way to support and connect with farmers practicing regenerative agriculture.
  • Where possible, support organizations that are funding and developing regenerative agriculture systems. The Agroecology Fund, Farmers for Stock Free Farming, and the Veganic Agriculture Network all do research, fund grants and create programs around the world to promote vegan, regenerative agriculture practices, with incredible results.
  • Learn more about regenerative practices, through reading articles and stories. This resource guide from Operation Wallacea is a great place to start!
  • If you are a keen gardener, start adopting regenerative approaches in your own garden and see the benefits first hand!
  • Share your support for regenerative agriculture with your peers, friends, and family. Remember to focus on why you are passionate about it, rather than making people feel guilty for their food choices.

Conclusion

We are at a pivotal point in human history, where everything that can be done to mitigate the effects of climate breakdown needs to be done, and regenerative agriculture’s potential for reducing carbon, improving ecology and biodiversity, and making farming more sustainable, cannot be ignored.

These practices also need to come alongside a wider global diet change away from consuming animals, to more plant-based, vegan diets. To name just a few, our exploitation and consumption of animals causes climate change, the needless suffering of millions of sentient beings, destroys ecosystems, endangers species, and is hugely detrimental to human health. By going vegan, we can combat all these issues at once.

The current shift towards veganism is showing industries that we as consumers are ready to support sustainable practices like regenerative agriculture, and get the health of our planet back on track.

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