Regenerative agriculture: how it works on the ground
“The soil is the great connector of our lives, the source and destination of us all” — Wendell Berry
History’s brightest minds are not always our modern day heroes, and as decades pass, the consequences of ingenious discoveries unfold. This is especially true in the history of agriculture.
Take Fritz Haber for example: a German chemist awarded the Nobel prize for his invention of a process that converts atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, used to make the fertilisers that now feed half the world. Haber’s invention transformed farming, enabled a six-fold increase in human and livestock population. The downside of course is the contribution this has made to our hot and crowded planet.
What about Norman Borlaug, another Nobel peace prize winner? Borlaug introduced high yield, resilient crops to India, Pakistan, Mexico and many other previously famine-prone regions of the world. Due to his work, countless lives were saved and millions of smallholder farmers no longer had to struggle to survive. On the other hand, the consequences of the ‘industrialised’, chemical-intense and monoculture approach that Borlaug advocated have unfolded over the years. It is now clear that the Green Revolution has large unfactored costs to health, ecosystems, climate, and society.
The interventions of Haber and Borlaug are just two of hundreds that make up the architecture of our modern, industrialised food production system. The list might also include deep sea trawlers, aerial crop sprayers, centre pivot irrigation systems, concentrated animal feed, and numerous other ‘efficiency machines’. Together, these inventions have allowed for intensification and yield increases on a vast scale, leading to improvements in food security and affordability that can appear miraculous.
However, as time has passed it has become clear that this uber-abundance, evidenced by supermarket shelves that are permanently full and all-you-can-eat restaurant deals, could actually be a mirage. Behind the veil of a prosperous, abundant food system lies a deeper malaise. The list of uncosted negative impacts includes vast areas of abandoned arable land, billions of tons of lost topsoil, dangerous atmospheric pollution, choking waterways, a looming antibiotic crisis, tens of thousands of deaths from pesticide exposure and a quarter of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions.
Taken together, our economy as a whole pays the price. The wasteful and degrading way we produce food leads to costs that are projected to reach about $6 trillion by 2050.
Treating the farm like a machine
How did we get here? Most industrial agriculture relies on add-ons that focus on improving the efficiency of one specific part of the system: yield, size, durability, growth rate, trawling area, harvesting speed and so on. Whereas this approach may be a viable way to optimise something mechanical and predictable, like an engine, the same approach does not apply to a complex, natural system like a farm. The system of a farm sits within and relies on interactions with the larger natural system. For example, the crops need insects to pollinate, surface and groundwater to irrigate, microbes to cycle nutrients, and soil to provide a strong and fertile growth medium.
Continuing to treat the farm like an isolated, industrial machine will lead to deeper negative impacts. Finite resource inputs should be one concern, but current practices actually degrade the larger system that food production relies on. By pursuing a one-way, extractive approach to modern agriculture, vast amounts of soil reaches the point at which it degraded and no longer productive. According the Nature Conservancy, an area of arable land greater than the size of England is abandoned every year, which means more rainforests or savannah need to be ploughed up to take its place.
It goes without saying that we need a food system that provides enough healthy, accessible food for everyone. But there is another path to get there. It’s one that recognises the complexity and resilience of our planet’s ‘natural technology’; the mechanisms and processes that have produced our rich and fertile rainforests, forests and grasslands. Such a path could not only feed our growing human population with diverse and high quality food, but it could do so in a way that rebuilds, rather than degrades ecosystems, and has the significant potential to reverse catastrophic climate change. This approach is called ‘regenerative agriculture’.
Regenerative agriculture describes a broad set of methods of food production with two clear and complementary outcomes: the production of high quality food alongside the improvement of the surrounding natural ecosystem. Some label it a radically different form of agriculture. More accurately, it borrows from an older pre-industrial form of cultivation, updated and improved based on a better scientific understanding of soil, water and the relationships that exist in natural ecosystems. Regenerative agriculture recognises that farms are part of a larger ecosystem, and that agricultural activities must not just make withdrawals from this larger system, but also pay into it. The overall ambition shifts from extractive, linear thinking that prioritises high yields above all else, to establishing cycles of regeneration.
Of course, the specifics vary. Or as geologist David Montgomery puts it: “What works for temperate grasslands may not work for so well in tropical forests. We need to tailor practices to the land and be mindful of the geographical and social context.” The following practices give a specific illustrations of what a regenerative agriculture system could look like in different locations and at different scales.
Rotational (‘holistic’) grazing
Livestock farming gets bad press due to the environmental impacts associated with certain types of meat and dairy production. The list of negative impacts is long: large land use requirements for growing feed, overuse of antibiotics for fattening operations, poor manure management leading to air and water pollution, and 50% of total agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. These headline facts hide a more nuanced story. While it is undeniable that battery or feedlot operations are environmentally disastrous, other livestock operations can have a beneficial impact on the fertility and health of soils.
In the 1960s, while thinking of ways to combat desertification, Allan Savory observed that the artificial removal of grazing herds such as cattle led to an increase in desert area. Savory found that the activities of these animals — their eating, movement, and bodily waste — are vital for the health of grasslands and other wild areas. He theorised that if livestock is managed to behave in the same way, such an approach could lead to stronger, more fertile soils. Savory’s philosophy, which he called ‘holistic management’, integrates livestock into arable farming. It has since been applied across many scales and species.
‘Rotational grazing’ is one application of Savory’s research. In this method, livestock and poultry are managed in a way so that animals are key to the overall health of the farm. In this model, the farm shifts away from a single crop or output, instead producing multiple enterprises that support and complement each other, whilst creating more revenue streams.
For example, in Gabe Brown’s ranch in Northern Dakota, the farmer integrates livestock grazing with many different species of saleable crops. Pigs and chickens help to cycle nutrients, so the ranch thrives without any synthetic inputs, allowing organic soil content to increase from 1 to 14%. This feeds microbes and improves soil structure, so it now stores over 3x more water than previously, thus providing insurance against years with droughts or lower rainfall. The 5000-acre farm, which was heavily degraded 20 years ago, is now profitable without the need for government subsidies.
Agro-ecology — multi-species integrated
Vuon — Ao — Chuong (VAC) are the Vietnamese words for garden, fishpond and pig or poultry shed. The trio of words refer to a small scale system of intense and highly productive domestic agriculture. VAC integrates different types of plant and animal cultivation into a compact space, linking the different growing enterprises to create an interconnecting flow of materials, powered by gravity. VAC is an example of farming in a way that brings natural ecological processes into the agricultural production system, also called ‘agroecology’. In areas where VAC is practised, farmer revenue can be 3–5 times, even 10 times, more than growing two crops of rice per year.
The development of a typical VAC farm starts with the digging of a pond. The excavated material can be used in the foundations of a house or animal sheds, as well as for a raised vegetable garden. The pond naturally fills due to rainfall and the water table, creating a growing area for vegetables, fish and livestock. Plants are grown in terraces to make optimum use of sunlight, with farmers practicing intercropping; growing different varieties that work together and all bring benefits to the ecosystem.
A variety of fish species are selected to make use of resources at all water depths. Aquatic vegetable plants are cultivated in the pond as well as trellised above the water surface. Pig and poultry are bred near to the pond and fed various garden by-products, and their manure is used for fish feed. During the dry season the pond bed is used to fertilise the vegetable garden. The whole system is operated according to a monthly schedule by the farmer’s family, who eat the products and contribute their own waste to the system.
The VAC model was originally developed for the Red River in Northern Vietnam, but has since been modified to suit the climates of Vietnam’s coasts, river deltas, and mountains. In each of these different zones, the mix of species differ but the principles remain the same. It’s about enhancing diversity and strengthening relationships between species.
The adaptation and extension of VAC from its traditional northern base suggests that smallholder farmers around the world could discover a combination of symbiotic plant and animal species to suit their local climate, social, and environmental context. The expansion of integrated duck-rice farming from Japan across many countries in Southeast Asia as well as the use of Mulberry-Fish pond model in Southern China are good illustrations of this.
Zero budget-natural farming
There are about 500 million smallholder farmers around the world, feeding 70% of the world’s population using only 30% of the resources. Clearly this group plays an important role in feeding the world, but at the same time they are exposed to some of the planet’s worst climatic conditions. For example, smallholder farmers are at the front end of droughts, torrential rains and other extreme aspects of climate change. Meanwhile, half of the people that suffer from chronic hunger globally are from smallholder farming households. In the 1990s, agriculturist Subhash Palekar set about to improve the lives of his fellow farmers in Southern India. He developed a set of farming methods now known as Zero Budget Natural Farming. Subash’s aim was to simultaneously address two issues: improving food security and preventing crippling debt cycles associated with loans for farm inputs.
To do this, the ZBNF movement seeks to reduce the risk of debt for smallholder farmers. For many, the high costs of seeds, fertilisers and other inputs mean that just one poor harvest caused by late rains or a powerful monsoon, could tip the balance to desperation, sadly evidenced by more than a quarter a million of farmer suicides in the last few decades. ZBNF tackles the debt issue by reducing the requirement for costly inputs, but it has also proved to be more effective than ‘conventional’ farming, producing higher yields, more nutritious food, and increasing resilience against extreme weather events.
ZBNF has four pillars, which seek to create soil that contains beneficial microbes, prevent crop disease through natural seed coatings, protect and enhance topsoil through mulching, and make better use of water. Applying these principles has led to increased profits, as costs are reduced and yield can be typically 40% or more. ZBNF also prevents exposure to harmful chemicals that causes illness and medical costs.
In 2017, a powerful hailstorm passed over the Indian district of West Godavari. One farmer, Satya, saw many of his neighbours’ farms destroyed, while his six-acre banana plantation escaped mostly unscathed. He explained that it was “because my plants were much stronger”, as a result of the application of ZBNF techniques. The government of Andhra Pradesh clearly sees the benefits in farms like Satya. Currently there are about 160, 000 farmers in the state practicing ZBNF, by 2024 they plan to scale up to 6 million.
Can agroecology work at scale? This is a question that Doug Tompkins asked himself as he gazed out onto his 7000 acre farm in Argentina. Tompkins, an intrepid adventurer and successful businessman, had retired from commerce and turned his attention to wildlife conservation. As he contemplated how to revitalise the degraded and highly eroded area of land before him, foremost in his mind was how to deal with the ‘biodiversity crisis’. Global wildlife populations have fallen by half in the last 40 years due to human activities, and the number one culprit is agriculture.
For Tompkins’ farm, the first priority was to stabilise, preventing erosion control, through contouring, terracing and planting. Second was to revitalise tired soils by restoring fertility and soil structure. The third step was to implement a diverse and organic production regime, with a focus on building agricultural and natural biodiversity.
Tompkins knew that the interplay between the farm and the surrounding natural environment would be key. So he deliberately retained large blocks of ‘wild’, either natural savannah forests or lowland marshes, to provide ecosystem services that would be valuable to his farm. These wild areas would be habitats for insect pollinators, wind breaks or flood management.
As for the crops, Tompkins’ planting plan is characterised by high diversity. In the winter ‘fine grains’ are grown — rapeseed, wheat, barley, rye, oats, and flax; while in the summer thick grains are preferred — soya, sorghum, quinoa, as well as six other varieties. Low maintenance cover crops such as peas and radish provide further insurance against soil erosion, as well as suppressing weed and acting as ‘green manure’ to help build soil fertility. Once high organic matter is built up in the topsoil, yields are every bit as high as ‘chemical’ farms.
As well as arable fields, the farm supports a number of other complementary enterprises, such as 540 acres of orchards (with nine different types of produce, including pecans, almonds, figs, and peaches) and livestock breeding to convert grass and other inedible plants into manure. The farm aims to keep as much biomass on the farm as possible, to maintain soil fertility.
Laguna Blanca’s model of regenerative farming demonstrates that regenerative food production can be practiced at large scale. As Tompkins describes it, ”there are really multiple farms layered onto one property”. These sub-enterprises connect together in a mutually-reinforcing way, as well as with the surrounding natural ecosystem. In this way the whole system is optimised, leading to high and diverse yields, low input costs and better tasting crops.
Natural ecosystem restoration
In the take, make, waste food system, the demands of a growing population have led to agricultural expansion into such as savannah, jungle, and forests. These ecosystems are valued for biodiversity, carbon storage, and other important services.
But these areas do not need to be permanently written off. The transformation of 4 million hectares of overgrazed, dustblown land on China’s Loess Plateau during the 1990s, demonstrates that restoring degraded unproductive land is both possible and desirable. The project lifted 2.5 million people out of poverty, created food security and restored the ecological balance of a vast area considered by many to be irreparably damaged.
The Loess plateau project, though money well-spent, did require hundreds of millions of dollars of funding from central government and international institutions. In the small west African country of Burkina Faso, farmer Yacouba Sawadogo has demonstrated what a small number of farmers can do with hardly any money, basic technology and a lot of hard work. Over a period of 20 years, Sawadogo transformed 62-acres of abandoned barren scrubland into a lush and productive forestry zone.
Yacouba’s farm is in the north of the country located in the Sahel region, the borderland of the Sahara desert. His land is a semi-arid region in which poor land management and drought has led to increasing desertification. In the 1970’s Sawadogo and a friend began experimenting with two types of farmer-managed regeneration methods using traditional technologies called zai holes and cordon pierreux. Both have the same basic principles — to maximise the use of limited water and to create areas where nutrients are collected. In these fertile hotspots, plants and trees are planted. As they grow they create a positive feedback loop: more plants leads creates the ecological conditions for even more and better cultivation. The use of zai holes has also led to an increase in water table levels in the areas they are used.
Today, Sawadogo’s forest has over 60 species of trees and bushes and is one of the most biodiverse forests planted and managed in the whole region. It demonstrates how restoring soils has ripple effects, building soil fertility, conserving water and other natural resources, and providing greater food security through a diverse range crops and products.
In the early 80’s, a Swiss farming pioneer called Ernst Gotsch moved to South America and bought a farm called Fugidos da Terra Seca. The name means ‘escaped from the dry land’, as the farm was located in a drought prone area of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest that had been deforested, degraded and abandoned. Immediately he set about restoring the forest, in one year planting over 500 hectares of cocoa, bananas and other greenery. His efforts restored the ecosystem, rebuilt soil fertility and produced many high quality cash crops. He even bought back water, reviving 14 long forgotten springs, so that soon it was renamed as Olhos D’Agua, or ‘Tears in the Eyes’.
Gotsch’s approach to integrated agricultural-forest (‘agroforestry’) systems began when he was working at the Zurich-Reckenholz institute. He realised that plants need not only soil, water and fertiliser, but also the right micro-climatic conditions to thrive. So he turned his attention away from the individual plants themselves, and focused instead on the conditions around them.
In agroforestry, food and non-food plants are grown together, creating a highly biodiverse and productive system. Each species brings a different benefit: nitrogen-fixing for fertility; soil carbon to feed micro-organisms and provide structure to prevent erosion and retain water; fruits and vegetables for revenue and to attract animals that pollinate and cycle nutrients; and taller, leafy species to provide shade and dead foliage for the forest floor.
As the area is a man-managed farm, there is some degree of human planning and management. For example, the approach follows the principles of ecological succession, using a sequence of plant species that mirrors how a natural ecosystem would re-establish itself after a forest fire or other shock event. In terms of maintenance, the most important activity is the need for constant pruning. This increases the amount of soil carbon as well as allowing more sun to penetrate to the plants in the lower stacks of the forest.
Gotsch’s intervention has transformed a barren piece of unproductive land into one of the most fertile and biodiverse parts of the Atlantic Forest. The cocoa produced in the farm is such high quality that it earns 4x more than conventional cocoa. The successful transformation has since attracted many followers and led to farmers adapting the system in different contexts across Brazil.
The Fazenda de Toca farm in Sao Paulo state demonstrates that agroforestry can compete with the economies of scale and mechanisation of industrial farming. Throughout the 2300 hectare farm, agriculture adheres to the principle of working in ‘syntropy’ with natural systems.
Farms successfully applying Gotsch’s agroforesty approach demonstrate that feeding the growing population, conserving forests and addressing climate change do not have to be separate endeavours.
Exploring new frontiers: seawater agriculture
Agriculture accounts for 70% of the planet’s freshwater demand, a massive proportion of an increasingly pressurised resource. But freshwater is only 2.5% of the overall water supply on the planet. Imagine if we could make productive use of the vast amounts of salt water that makes up the rest. Feeding the world population in 2050 will require almost 60% more food than we produce now. What if we could grow crops with seawater in areas with low economic opportunity costs such as coastal deserts or even the ocean itself? A number of pioneering farmers have proved that such a radical idea is possible.
In the late 1990s, a retired atmospheric physicist called Carl Hodges transformed a vast barren stretch of Eritrean coastal desert into a fertile and profitable oasis. Carl’s seawater farm integrated several growing enterprises on one site, so that the waste flow from one provided nutrients to the next. To begin with, seawater is pumped from the Arabian Sea into concrete-lined shrimp and prawn growing tanks. The nutrient rich effluent from these tanks then flows into the next growing area, a tilapia farm, which can both be sold directly and used as bone meal for the shrimp.
From the fish farm, water flows into a salicornia plantation and then onto a mangrove forest. Finally the water ends up in a wetland, which removes any final nutrients that could cause algal blooms in the sea. At its peak the farm generated 800 jobs and produced a ton of shellfish for the export market, earning important foreign cash revenue. There were also many local benefits in the form of protein and vegetables for local consumption, a revitalisation of the local environment that made it possible to raise livestock, produce honey and firewood; as well as extensive carbon sequestration, soil enrichment and erosion control through plant root growth.
In Connecticut, Bren Smith, an ex-fisherman disillusioned with the pillage of the oceans has taken a completely different approach. His company Greenwave has developed a model for seafood cultivation which he calls 3D ocean farming. The technique involves suspending a simple structure between the sea surface and seabed, and growing scallops, clams, oysters, seaweeds and kelps at different depths of the water column. In his 40-acre Thimble Island Ocean Farm, Smith produces 30 tonnes of highly nutritious seaweed and 250,000 shellfish every five months. The farm, which is low impact and easy to set up, also acts as a storm surge protector and mitigates aquatic dead zones by mopping up nitrogen that has run off from the land. Kelp fixes five times more carbon than land plants, and is a flexible ingredient for many edible and non-edible applications including as a soil fertiliser.
Can regenerative agriculture live up to this potential?
Probably the biggest challenge to overcome relates to yield. We must continue to feed our growing population whilst regenerating natural systems and ensuring their future productivity. On the surface, industrialised approaches of neat monoculture rows, turbo-charged by chemical inputs, can address both of these needs. What’s more industrial methods have proven high yields, and therefore lower land requirements, meaning less expansion into natural land.
As the 1960s’ Green Revolution demonstrated, this way of producing food certainly made plentiful, accessible food possible for most. However, in the long run this has proved a false economy. More and more chemicals are required to maintain these yields, while at the same time degrading the natural foundation for fertility and abundance — topsoil, biodiversity and local water systems.
Evidence shows that regenerative approaches can both address the environmental and productivity needs. Farms that focus on soil health are experiencing year-on-year yield increase. Examples include Leontino Balbo’s Native Farm in Brazil reporting a 20% increase in sugar cane yield; thousands of Indian ZBNF farms measuring boosts in many different crops such as a 36% increase in groundnuts; Takao Furuno’s integrated duck-rice model that has led to a 20–50% rice yield increase as well as a tripling in revenue. In Indiana a farmer called Rodney Rulon spends about $100,000 on cover crop seeds on his 6200 acre arable farm, saving $57,000 on fertilisers and increasing profits by $107,000. These are just a few examples that constitute a rapidly growing dataset proving that regenerative approaches can produce sufficient food with higher profit margins. However, focusing solely on yield would be to fall into the trap of linear thinking. Taking a systemic view leads to systemic benefits: increased resilience, mitigating the health impact of industrial production, and massive reductions in carbon.
The second challenge relates to implementation. At small scales, such as the ZBNF farmers in Andhra Pradesh, the transition from conventional to regenerative can be quite short with little investment required.
However at large scale the change can take much longer, creating periods of uncertainty in an already low-margin sector. In the case of Leontino Balbo’s 16,000 hectare sugar cane farm, it took 27 years to achieve the full transformation. The reasons for this vary. They can be biological, as building soil organic matter and a healthy population of soil microbes happens over many seasons. Other obstacles are business-oriented. New equipment may need to be purchased; farm activities and schedules redesigned; staff to be retrained; and new scientific knowledge to be acquired.
Alleviating the risks associated with this transition period is where governments or the financial sector could play a role, by offering subsidies, incentives or some other kind of insurance. To enable this support, we will need new ways of monitoring progress. What constitutes a healthy soil or ecosystem? How can we easily measure it so we know that farms are on the right trajectory? US organisations such as the Nature Conservancy and the Soil Health Institution are now working with tech companies to use remote sensing and soil modeling to come up with new methods of measuring soil health over large landscapes.
With so much untapped potential, new commercial opportunities exist in developing new technology and products that make it easier for farmers to practice regenerative agriculture. For example, seed companies could offer specially designed mixes so more farmers could achieve the same benefits as Rodney Rulon does on his Indiana farm. Similarly, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s Cities and Circular Economy for Food report identified the huge potential that exists in converting food by-products from cities into regenerative soil enhancers that are comparable or even better than synthetic fertilisers. Companies like SoilFood in Finland and Lystek in Canada are proving that this is possible in reality.
A change of perspective
The work that Haber, Borlaug and others undertook in the early and mid 20th Century to protect against famine and improve the lives of farmers was incredibly important and beneficial for that time. Since then the context has changed. The global population has increased dramatically, as has our understanding of agricultural science, ecosystems, human health impacts and the complex issues around climate change.
The common characteristic of this new group of 21st Century food production pioneers described in this article is that they all have a deep appreciation of the connection between growing food, a healthy ecosystem, clean air and water, human well-being, community resilience…and just about everything else. For as John Muir observed: “when one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world”.
Investing in soil health is equal to investing in the farm. Agriculture does not have to be a zero-sum game. It is possible to produce food for everyone, make a decent profit, protect farmers and local communities from harm, and enhance the environment — all at the same time.
In January 2019, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched an ambitious multi-stakeholder initiative with the aim of shifting the global food system onto a healthier trajectory. The Cities and Circular Economy for Food initiative, co-created with over 100 companies from across the food value chain, focuses specifically on the impact that cities — the businesses, public bodies, institutions, communities and citizens located within an urban area — can have in bringing about much needed system-level change in our food system. A key ingredient of the circular vision is the need to support the expansion of regenerative food production through increasing demand, nutrient looping, food design, marketing and other urban driving mechanisms. The following article expands in more detail what is meant by this important concept.