Top Practices and Systems in Regenerative Agriculture
In our recent blog on ‘Regenerative Agriculture and Climate Change,’ we explored the prospects of regenerative agriculture in combating climate change. Its benefits are continuously evolving and still core to controversial scientific debates. However, we concluded that regenerative agriculture is an approach that puts us in the right frame of mind. It means thinking beyond minimising or halting our negative impacts – it advocates that food and agricultural systems must build and enhance ecosystems. This is crucial, giving the fact that agriculture is a major driver of biodiversity loss, conversion of forests to arable lands and the sharp rise in the atmospheric concentration of nitrous oxide. Regenerative agriculture also prompts us to constantly evaluate our understanding of agricultural cycles and refine our practices and tools based on the latest climate science.
As a sequel, this blog takes stock of the common approaches and practices in regenerative agriculture. We reviewed articles promoting regenerative agriculture from organisations including the Climate Reality Project, FAO, Rodale Institute and Regeneration International, Rainforest Alliance and EIT Food, as well as three scientific papers by Giller et al. (2021), Schreefel et al. (2020) and Newton et al. (2020) that screened over 250 academic publications on regenerative agriculture.
From these we extracted the five most mentioned practices and the three most mentioned whole systems approaches of regenerative agriculture.
Top 5 practices
1. Minimised external inputs
Most regenerative agriculture systems try to cycle nutrients, carbon and water within the farming system as much as possible and minimise the need to add external inputs like fertilisers and pesticides (especially synthetic ones) by harnessing natural cycles and control systems. As a consequence, this also minimises negative impacts on biodiversity and pollution of waterways due to runoff.
2. Livestock integration/mixed farming
Consequently, regenerative agriculture usually integrates crop and livestock farming to maximise the use and efficiency of crop residues as animal feed and bedding, and that of manure to return nutrients to pastures and fields.
3. Conservation tillage, minimised tillage and no-till
As the Climate Reality Project describes it, the aim of reducing or avoiding tillage is to ‘mess with it [the soil] less’. This leaves the soil’s layers undisturbed and can protect vulnerable soil from erosion and compaction. It can also save fuel and allow farmers to use lighter machinery. While the agronomic and environmental pros and cons of conservation tillage, minimum tillage, no-till and co. may be the subject of never-ending debates among both scientists and farmers, these practices seem a staple of regenerative farming.
4. Crop rotation, including cover crops
For many farmers, diversified crop rotation has become an imperative for conventional and alternative farming systems alike. Crop rotation is appealing when chemical weed management options become fewer and less effective in monocrop systems and because diversity brings ecological functions. Never leaving the soil bare is often emphasised in regenerative agriculture, making cover crops an essential part of regenerative agriculture rotations.
5. Use of mulch, compost, green manure or crop residues
In a similar vein, adding mulch, compost or green manure – crops that are grown for the sole purpose to be incorporated in the soil – keeps the ground covered, adds and preserves organic matter and nutrients in the soil.
The following practices are less mentioned but give a flavour of the rich variety of other regenerative agriculture practices.
- Use of conservation buffers: As defined by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), conservation buffers are small areas or strips of land strategically placed in the agricultural landscape to stop the movement of sediment, nutrients and chemical run-off within fields and from the farm to neighbouring ecosystems.
- Pasture cropping: Pasture farming Includes a variety of practices where annual crops such as grains are planted into a living perennial pasture thereby promoting agro-biodiversity.
- Planting native species and natural ecosystem restoration: The goal of this practice is to restore wildlife habitat thereby improving biodiversity. Promoting native species and restoring ecosystems undoubtedly improve biodiversity (both soil and above-ground) while often reducing the need for chemical inputs.
- Contour farming: Contours are usually made to protect vulnerable soils from water erosion and help reduce sediment and nutrient runoff, similar to buffer strips and increase water infiltration.
- Rotational grazing: Rotational grazing includes the movement of dense herds of livestock across pastures, mimicking the effect of large herds of hooved animals roaming natural grasslands.
Regenerative agriculture is a systemic approach and individual practices, like those listed above, are only some of the tools in the box that help farmers build, maintain and perfect that system. Some regenerative agriculture farmers are fierce individualists, who hew their own path through the thicket of farming possibilities, while others follow more or less clearly defined whole system approaches.
Top 3 whole systems approach
Whole system approaches are entire ecosystem perspectives of regenerative farming systems.
Agroforestry entails a variety of practices. If there is the integration of trees, shrubs, palms and bamboos in the agricultural landscape, it is agroforestry. The ultimate goal is to diversify and sustain production for increased social, economic and environmental benefits. Silvopasture is a form of agroforestry that involves intentionally managing livestock, trees and forage in the same productive space. The USDA Forest Service describes it as an intentional, intensive, interactive and integrated system of farming. Some common activities and themes of this approach are managed grazing and pasture cropping.
The FAO identified agroecology as a science and defined it as a management that involves applying social, economic and environmental principles to the relationship between plants, animals, humans and the environment for food security and nutrition. While agroecology was first en vogue in the 1990s, the term sees a renaissance especially in French and Spanish-speaking publications. In fact, many concepts and ideas put forward under the agroecology label are identical to what anglophones would call regenerative agriculture.
The Permaculture Research Institute describes it as the integration of landscape and people’s needs in a sustainable way, by observing and imitating well-functioning natural ecosystems. Permaculture has a philosophical aspect and in principle, it is similar to nature-based solutions and takes a holistic approach towards the design of land and agricultural systems that are first nature-centric.
Model Regenerative Agriculture in the Cool Farm Tool
The Cool Farm Tool can model the effects of many of the discussed practices and systems on greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity and water. Table 1 below summarises the top 5 regenerative agriculture practices and whole systems approach and to what extent they can be modelled with the Cool Farm Tool (CFT).