Regenerative Agriculture: A Radical, Revolutionary, Indigenous Concept

Uncategorized Dec 23, 2020

Regenerative Agriculture

Antonious Petro1, Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquín 2

1Régénération Canada, Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue

2Regenerative Agriculture Alliance

Concept and definition

Regenerative agriculture as a concept comes from the ancestral and long held principles practiced by Native communities around the world and backed up by modern science. It is an indigenous way of thinking, one that reflects an understanding that the earth is a fully functioning ecosystem, that it is because of its capacity to regenerate, evolve and find a biological, physical and chemical balance, that life was able to emerge and thrive. At the center of this regeneration is a continuous process of energy transformation which over billions of years has given birth to millions of energy expressions that are reflected in the organisms that inhabit the planet, both known and unknown. Regenerative agriculture from an indigenous perspective is a way of seeing and working with the ecosystems on which life and its continued evolution depends, one where us humans are but one of those life forms. Regenerative agriculture in modern days has to be understood at the higher level first if we are to keep it from being reduced to a set of practices or focused primarily on soil health, which negates the origin and full potential of the concept of regeneration.

A regenerative agriculture system delivers soil health, carbon sequestration, improved water cycles and an endless list of other ecological regeneration benefits . (Rhodes, 2017) It also incorporates a vast array of practices, such as cover crops, no-till, reduced tillage, agroforestry, etc. When implemented and adapted to the needs of the ecosystem, these practices lead to outcomes that support ecological, social, economic, and spiritual regeneration. Soil regeneration practices may or may not include organic practices and go beyond the reduction of negative impacts, to rather ensure that agriculture has positive environmental impacts (Burgess et al., 2019). But fundamentally, regenerative agriculture engineering starts by questioning the very need for planting crops that need those practices in the first place, it starts by evaluating the original ecological blueprint of a region and then designing a process by which food, fiber, and other outputs can be generated while restoring the original ecology of a region.

Because of the large scope of activities and practices that regenerative agriculture implies, there are somewhat different definitions for it (Elevitch, Mazaroli and Ragone, 2018; Newton et al., 2020; Schreefel et al., 2020). For example, Terra Genesis (2017) proposes that it is a process of regeneration of the health, vitality, and evolutionary capability of whole living systems and that it is multi-layered: functional, integrative, systemic, and evolutionary. According to (Jones, 2003), regenerative practices utilise natural ecological services to replenish and reactivate the resource base. When agriculture is regenerative, soils, water, vegetation and productivity continually improve rather than staying the same or slowly getting worse. Other authors and organizations, such as Hawken. P (2017), Toensmeier. E (2016) and The Carbon Underground (2017), have focused on farming practices that lead to regenerative outcomes.

Principles and practices  

Because Regenerative Agriculture goes beyond on farm practices, the following principles are important to integrate before moving to the engineered specific practices:

Fair: The system is structured to balance the distribution of benefits and burdens and incorporates ecological, social, economic, and spiritual factors central to the development of criteria, indicators, and verifiers of how fairly the system works for everyone involved. It should adopt holistic management that considers the inter-relatedness of all parts of a farming system, including the farmer (Francis et al, 1986)

Resilient: The system is structured to reduce risks and safeguard the geo-evolutionary genetic integrity of the plants and animals, the integrity of the ecology, the foundation of healthy social relations, and the economic commons-based appreciation of the system resources so that the system can effectively respond to social, economic and ecological shock.

Sustainable: The system is structured to perennially sustain the ecology, economy, and social fabric on which it depends.

Healthy: The system results in a healthy working environment, a healthy economy for everyone involved, healthy ecology and nutritious foods that support the health and wellbeing of consumers.

Transparent: The system is structured to be socially, ecologically, and economically accountable to all involved.

Examples of practices that lead to incremental regenerative outcomes

Goals

Practices

Systemic outcomes

Reference

Perennial and annual
soil cover and
minimal soil disturbance

No-till

  • Microbial diversity conservation
  • Improved soil structure
  • Increased soil organic matter (SOM)
  • Decreased soil erosion
  • Soil carbon sequestration
  • Increased aboveground and root biomass
  • Improved water percolation

(Zuber and Villamil, 2016)

Conservation Tillage

(Thomas et al., 2019)

Strip tilling

(Li et al., 2019)

Direct seeding

(Poeplau and Don, 2015)

Cover crops and green manure

(Blanco-Canqui et al., 2015)

(Lal, 2004)

Perennial cropping

(Ferchaud, Vitte and Mary, 2016)

Agroforestry

(Fortier et al., 2015)

Riparian buffers

(Vidon et al., 2010)

Alley cropping

(Shi et al., 2018)

Integration
of livestock

Silvopasture

  • Increased SOM
  • Improved water infiltration
  • Improved plant growth

(Howlett et al., 2011)

Holistic planned grazing

(Savory, 1983)

(Teague and Barnes, 2017)

Optimisation
of inputs

Compost and other organic amendments 

  • Increased SOM
  • Reduced
    dependency on synthetic inputs
  • Enhanced microbial diversity 

(Diacono and Montemurro, 2010)

Green manure

(Talgre et al., 2012)

Micro-organisms inoculation 

Minimizing synthetic fertilizers and pesticides usage 

Increase
biodiversity

Crop rotation

  • Enhanced soil fertility
  • Increased soil organic carbon

(Venter, Jacobs and Hawkins, 2016)

Polyculture

(Cong et al., 2015)

Intercropping

(Finney and Kaye, 2017)

Context of application  

While principles of regenerative agriculture stay the same for different regions and climatic zones of the world, practices are often subject to adaptation (Lal, 2020). As demonstrated in the table above, different practices result in different ecological services (LaCanne and Lundgren, 2018; Luján Soto, Cuéllar Padilla and de Vente, 2020; Newton et al., 2020) and thus, a profound assessment of the farm and regional needs is imperative before implementation. Furthermore, the soil type, the local ancestral knowledge and the availability of resources are some of the important factors to take in consideration (Schreefel et al., 2020). Regenerative land management often implies the establishment of several regenerative practices at the same time to achieve the desired goal. Soil regeneration is a complex process (Luján Soto, Cuéllar Padilla and de Vente, 2020) and an estimated period of 3-5 years of transition is usually expected, depending on the original state of soil. For most Native communities, regenerative agriculture means restoring ancient management systems such as salmon routes, forests, wild animals and traditions and relates very little to the production of commodities (corn, cocoa, coffee, soybeans, beef, chicken, etc.) yet it is precisely these factors that dominate the market-driven discussion which tends to focus on brands and corporate positioning, on securing some sort of differentiation and competitive advantage and gaining a leg-up in the already confused marketplace filled with labels, claims and certification schemes.

There are many similarities between regenerative agriculture and other ecological farming movements or practices, such as permaculture, agroecology, or climate smart agriculture (Burgess et al., 2019; Gosnell, Gill and Voyer, 2019; Newton et al., 2020). It is not surprising to notice that many regenerative agriculture practices are applied under different names or different movements. Permaculture and regenerative agriculture share a holistic approach that goes beyond farming practices and looks at the agricultural system as a complex ecosystem that should include environmental, economic, social, and especially spiritual components(Rhodes, 2017; Schreefel et al., 2020).

Regenerative agriculture is a process of continued improvement where practices have a wide spectrum for application with one goal: to regenerate the agricultural ecosystem. Therefore, similarly to climate-smart agriculture and carbon farming, regenerative agriculture helps mitigate climate change and sequester carbon in soils (Lal, 2020)  As does permaculture, it sustains a just and healthy food system. Moreover, in the same way agroecology does, regenerative agriculture adopts an ecosystems approach that lead to multiple ecological outcomes. Regeneration is our last opportunity to truly change the systems and structures that are degenerating the planet - it is a transformative and revolutionary approach but it only delivers the desired results if applied with integrity.

Potential barriers for adoption of soil regenerative practices

 

Barrier

YES/NO

Explanation (short, referenced)

Biophysical

Yes

  • Short growing seasons add extra challenges for the application of certain practices  (Carlisle, 2016) such as cover cropping or intercropping.
  • Physical compatibility (land shape, topography) and land availability can be challenging (Ranjan et al., 2019).

Cultural

Yes

  • Cultural norms and emotional barriers (Gosnell, Charnley and Stanley, 2020; Gosnell, Gill and Voyer, 2019; Jennifer O’Connor, 2020) cause resistance to change therefore sustaining the classic conventional system (Rodriguez et al., 2009).
  • Integrating regenerative practices might result in yield reduction particularly during the first years.  It is therefore imperative to shift the focus from yield to profit to take into consideration the reduction of external inputs such as machinery, fuel and fertilizers (Gosnell, Charnley and Stanley, 2020).

Social

Yes

  • Peer, family and social pressure and social isolation  (Gosnell, Charnley and Stanley, 2020) : many regenerative farmers report that they feel isolated and go under a great social pressure from family members or from their peers because they farm “differently”.
  • Many farmers also report a fear of the unknown (Jennifer O’Connor, 2020). 

Economic

Yes

  • The initial investment of time and money for learning and redesigning the whole ecosystem on their land while transitioning to regenerative agriculture is an important financial obstacle for many farmers  (Gosnell, Charnley and Stanley, 2020).
  • Costly equipment changes or modifications are still necessary (Jennifer O’Connor, 2020; Rodriguez et al., 2009).  Although shifting to regenerative practices result in reducing dependance on some machines (like tilling machines), some adjustments and modifications need to be made to other machines (like seeders and roller-crimpers).
  • Important ongoing investments include seeds, labor and management (Carlisle, 2016)

Institutional

Yes

  • There is a lack of bank and insurances programs supporting transition and trial (Rodriguez et al., 2009). Traditional programs don’t leave space for innovation or farmer-led experience in situ. 
  • There is a lack of institutional support ((Rodriguez et al., 2009) to provide education materials.
  • As there is no global certification or recognition, there is a lack of market for products issued from regenerative farming, which don’t get sufficient monetary value.
  • Lack of supportive policies to facilitate transition to regenerative agriculture (Carlisle, 2016; Lal, 2020).
  • There aren’t enough governmental programs that incentivize or promote transition to regenerative agriculture (ex: financing transition, cost-share programs, etc.)(Ranjan et al., 2019)
  • Land tenure restrictions often apply (Carlisle, 2016; Jennifer O’Connor, 2020; Ranjan et al., 2019). 

Knowledge









Yes

  • There is a need for agricultural services providers (agronomists, agriculture advisors, etc.) to get exhaustive training in soil health and regenerative practices and there is a lack of accessible knowledge transfer channels (Rodriguez et al., 2009). Other gaps are identified in knowledge of risk management on the farm.
  • There is a disconnect between the scientific community and farmer/practitioner led trials (Lunn-Rockliffe et al., 2020). Easy and accessible scientific data and materials on regenerative agriculture are crucial to  ensure a modern science based transition.

References

Blanco-Canqui, H., Shaver, T.M., Lindquist, J.L., Shapiro, C.A., Elmore, R.W., Francis, C.A. & Hergert, G.W. 2015. Cover crops and ecosystem services: Insights from studies in temperate soils. Agronomy Journal, 107(6): 2449–2474. https://doi.org/10.2134/agronj15.0086

Burgess, P., Harris, J., Graves, A. & Deeks, L. 2019. Regenerative Agriculture: Identifying the impact; enabling the potential. (Report for SYSTEMIQ): 67. https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12066/full

Carlisle, L. 2016. Factors influencing farmer adoption of soil health practices in the United States: a narrative review. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 40(6): 583–613. https://doi.org/10.1080/21683565.2016.1156596

Cong, W.F., Hoffland, E., Li, L., Six, J., Sun, J.H., Bao, X.G., Zhang, F.S. & van der Werf, W. 2015. Intercropping enhances soil carbon and nitrogen. Global Change Biology, 21(4): 1715–1726. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.12738

Diacono, M. & Montemurro, F. 2010. Long-term effects of organic amendments on soil fertility. A review. Agronomy for Sustainable Development, 30(2): 401–422. https://doi.org/10.1051/agro/2009040

Elevitch, C.R., Mazaroli, N.D. & Ragone, D. 2018. Agroforestry standards for regenerative agriculture. Sustainability (Switzerland), 10(9): 1–21. https://doi.org/10.3390/su10093337

Ferchaud, F., Vitte, G. & Mary, B. 2016. Changes in soil carbon stocks under perennial and annual bioenergy crops. GCB Bioenergy, 8(2): 290–306. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcbb.12249

Finney, D.M. & Kaye, J.P. 2017. Functional diversity in cover crop polycultures increases multifunctionality of an agricultural system. Journal of Applied Ecology, 54(2): 509–517. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.12765

Fortier, J., Truax, B., Gagnon, D. & Lambert, F. 2015. Biomass carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus stocks in hybrid poplar buffers, herbaceous buffers and natural woodlots in the riparian zone on agricultural land. Journal of Environmental Management, 154: 333–345. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2015.02.039

Francis, C.A., Harwood, R.R. & Parr, J.F. 1986. The potential for regenerative agriculture in the developing world. American Journal of Environmental Management, 1: 65-74. 

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Gosnell, H., Gill, N. & Voyer, M. 2019. Transformational adaptation on the farm: Processes of change and persistence in transitions to ‘climate-smart’ regenerative agriculture. Global Environmental Change, 59(August 2018). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2019.101965

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