By Joe Stanley, Head of Farming, Training & Partnerships, GWCT Allerton Project
‘Regenerative’ agriculture is seen by some as perhaps only the latest buzzword in a long line of farming systems: organic; conventional; conservation; sustainable intensification; agroecological. And while it is correct that it is neither officially defined nor significantly distinct from much of what has gone before, it does to me seem to draw upon those previous systems to create something quite homogenous, based around the five key principles:
- Biological diversity (both within the rotation and the wider farmed landscape)
- Keeping the soil covered (whether with a growing crop or crop residue – or both)
- Keeping living roots in the soil for as much of the year as possible
- Reducing both mechanical and chemical soil disturbance as much as possible
- Integrating organic manures, ideally as grazed livestock
Some farmers push back that such concepts are nothing new, and in fact merely describe the traditional mixed farming which many already practice across the UK. This is true, to a point. However, this can also be a misleading assertion, one which I used to hold on my 320ha mixed family farm.
The mere fact of having both livestock and arable/horticulture on a single holding does not ‘regenerative’ make you, if those livestock are kept solely on the permanent pasture with the arable stripped for bedding straw, the subsequent manure returned to only a small acreage.
‘Regenerative’ farming is more of systemic approach, with rotations planned years in advance and livestock and cover crops being seen as a valuable commodity to be rotated across the farmed area as part of a diverse and healthy rotation; it’s hard to be regenerative growing wheat, rape, wheat while using N-Max as a target, not an undesirable ceiling.
This conversion can be difficult, both practically and perhaps more importantly, mentally. And it can take time to produce results. However – and speaking as someone from a very conventional farming background who loves the smell of oxidising soil carbon in the morning – it is a journey which we must take as an industry.
Since the mid-twentieth century we have been living on the credit of our soils, withdrawing decades of ever-increasing yields via a combination the fruits of the Green Revolution, but also from the decline of soil organic matter, turned to crop biomass (and carbon dioxide behind the plough).
It is worth noting, however, that this is not a phenomenon purely of the past half century; humanity has over-tilled and degraded its soils since the dawn of agriculture, exhausting the fecundity of a region before abandoning it and moving on to the next. The difference in recent decades is merely the unprecedented power afforded us by the use of fossil fuels and the combustion engine to plough ever deeper and steeper, more regularly.
Practical Implementation on the Ground
What does regenerative agriculture look like in practical terms on the ground? At its heart is harnessing the power of the sun via photosynthesis to transform carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates, sugars which create both plant biomass and carbon-rich exudates which seep from plant root systems into the soil. It’s this organic matter which is the basis of all life on earth, and sits at the base of the food web.
There is no bare soil in nature; exposed earth is rapidly baked and washed away. And so it should be to the greatest extent in a regenerative farming system; crop should immediately follow crop, whether that be consecutive cash crops or a non-cash cover or catch crop to protect the soil and its rich nutrients. At the least, utilise crop residues to protect the soil, and watch as soil life – in particular earthworms – drag it down into the soil profile over time to add to soil carbon stocks.
Of course, nothing in life comes for free; this may mean forgoing the value of that straw on the open market, or of paying to establish that green cover, but in the long term it is one of many incremental gains which can be made in any farming system to help build more resilience into the soil, our principal resource.
No-one can doubt that our weather is becoming more extreme: building greater levels of soil organic matter is the key tool we have at our disposal to increase their hardiness in the face of hotter, drier summers and wetter winters. A 1% increase can mean an additional 200t of water stored per hectare for the dry times; it can mean more flows into the soil in a wet time than over (and away with) it.
GWCT Research Findings
Research carried out by the GWCT can demonstrate that farms enacting ‘regenerative’ practices have higher levels of biodiversity, with two particularly key groups being earthworms and pollinators, which both contribute vital services to agricultural production. This is valuable in and of itself; there is also a moral imperative for us to act in the long-term interests of the planet and – by extension – ourselves. But of course, what is also vital is that farmers and growers see a financial benefit to more sustainable farming practices.
Some of these will come from productivity gains – for example, improving nitrogen use efficiency or livestock performance. Others must be paid for by the market, or taxpayers where the market refuses to reflect the true costs of food production.
We are beginning to see this marketplace evolving with ELM/SFI and some nascent initiatives from the supply chain, but much more must be done to galvanise the rapid transition to a more sustainable food system that we need to see if we are to remain within planetary boundaries.
This fact perhaps underlines quite why the Greener Farms Commitment announcement by Red Tractor was quite so anger-provoking to the farming community. The burden and benefits of this transition must be shared fairly, rather than delivered by farmers (for free) on a plate.
The Future of Agriculture: Traditional Practices Meets Modern Science
We can call the move toward more sustainable farming practices ‘regenerative’ or we can call it something else, but ultimately I believe that it is an exciting new horizon for agriculture, with traditional farming practices meeting modern science and technology to move our sector within reach of genuinely climate and environmentally friendly food.
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