In its 6th assessment report published in 2023, the IPCC estimates that global warming will reach 1.5°C by the early 2030s. Yet, a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are caused by conventional farming. So we need to urgently rethink our production methods. Regenerative agriculture provides interesting solutions. This cultivation model is based on a wide variety of agronomic practices inspired by organic farming, agroecology and permaculture. It aims to guarantee long-term resilience and stability in the ecosystem - by producing net-positive impacts.
There is no static, unanimous definition for regenerative agriculture. Before anything else, it is still looking at restoring the quality of agricultural soil - at the very moment that a third of soils are already degraded. By introducing more life and biodiversity in soils, it encourages the development of organic matter, allowing the soil to be richer, more fertile while naturally increasing carbon sequestration. Healthy soil will also have an impact on water and air quality... and a whole ecosystem becomes more stable in the long term and resilient to climatic hazards.
1. Agriculture breathes new life into the living world
1/ An inbuilt capacity to regenerate
Regeneration means “bringing the earth back to life”. Regenerative agriculture is based on the philosophical principle that a system has the inbuilt capacity to regenerate. Its aim is to produce net positive impacts through practices that promote soil health, but also of people, animals and the environment. The goal involves improving - rather than simply maintaining - soil quality and farm health. These agricultural and pasturage practices help guarantee long-term resilience and balance in the ecosystem while maintaining and improving economic viability.
2/ Practices that stand out from conventional or sustainable agriculture
Conventional farming - the dominant model massively developed after World War 1 - has progressively degraded and exhausted natural resources. Its too regular tillage, too intense use of inputs, monocultures and lack of soil cover prevent CO2 from remaining in the soil and biodiversity from developing. The responsibility of conventional farming in terms of global warming is now irrefutable.
Regenerative agriculture also eclipses the ambitions of sustainable farming. It doesn’t only seek to minimize the impacts of production to simply make it more sustainable but rather optimize it by targeting a net positive impact through soil restoration.
2. An approach guided by fundamental principles
Farmers, foresters and businesses committed to regenerative agriculture are looking to improve ecosystems by combining indigenous knowledge, adaptive management, science and state-of-the-art technologies. They embrace a holistic vision and management approach insofar as decisions are made according to what seems best for the whole system: instead of concentrating on yield or productivity, they always search for efficiency. Farming practices must consider all their implications - whether environmental, financial or social.
With this in mind, all regenerative agricultural practices are guided by a series of principles:
Soil stability and health as the baseline. Regenerating soils means seeking to improve their organic content by protecting the habitats of micro and macro-organisms thereby improving fertility. It also leads to better water infiltration in the soil and improved resistance to erosion.
Holistic vision and management. Seeking to improve ecosystems through a holistic vision and management approach in harmony with nature: decisions are made according to what seems best for the whole system: instead of concentrating on yield or productivity and making negative compromises. Always looking for efficiency, farming and regenerative agriculture practices consider all their implications, whether environmental, financial or social.
An experimentation-based approach. Regenerative agriculture promotes experimentation which achieves constant learning processes (by trial and error) that integrate new ways of cultivating according to each environment.
An approach that promotes impact. Also called impact farming, regenerative agriculture values experimentation insofar as it is based on “results” objectives, which must be measured to check the regenerative effect on the social, economic and environmental ecosystem.
Context-specific practices: For example, the practices used - which are very diverse - depend on the economic, community, ecological, climatic and bioregional context in order to meet their full potential, and to ensure and develop fair and reciprocal relationships between all stakeholders.
The desire to maintain economic viability: Economic viability is central to the regenerative approach to continue producing raw materials in a production process that makes sure that capital does not deteriorate over time.
3. Agriculture that generates multiple ecosystemic services
Regenerative agriculture provides economic, ecological and social benefits to humans and nature through the numerous ecosystemic services that it generates.
1/ Soil stability and water quality improvement: regenerative agricultural practices improve soil health and increase their fertility and water-holding capacity, thus reducing soil erosion and degradation. At the same time, regenerative agricultural practices help reduce water pollution by preventing nutrients and chemical products from leaking into waterways.
2/ Preserving biodiversity: not only does regenerative agriculture contribute to preserving biodiversity by limiting chemical inputs, it also promotes its development. Its farming practices, which rely on the introduction of trees and new plant species, provide more resilient habitats for fauna and flora.
3/ Carbon storage: Agricultural soil can be a carbon sink. Carbon is a nutrient required for the well-being of soil and proper fertilization. Soil rich in carbon will better adapt to the effects of global warming. Regenerative agriculture methods help increase sequestration and carbon storage in soils and maintain it to reinforce the production of organic matter and, by extension, to fight against GHG emissions from conventional farming practices.
4/ Local socio-economic benefits: Regenerative farming methods support the health of farmers and guarantee them a decent income, bring local investment via carbon credits and contribute to food security.
4. Practices adapted to each context
Taking into account the type of operation, the environmental issues that are associated with it and the required impact - carbon sequestration or biodiversity sequestration, for example, potential farming practices are varied:
1. Crop management: intermediate crops (temporary crops for fast-growing plants between harvesting a main crop and sowing the next one); diversified crops (which involve having several different crops in the same field); intercropping (associated crops planted between rows of the main crop); grass strips (multifunctional plant cover along waterways or planted across slopes).
2. Soil management: do not leave soil bare (e.g.: plant perennial cover crops); minimal or no tillage (labor-free techniques especially to preserve CO2 release and to not compress the soil); use natural fertilizers (compost, manure, green manure, biochar, natural treatments) and eliminate synthetic chemical inputs; till with consideration for slopes so that water follows the contour lines (terraced crops for example) to prevent soil erosion.
3. Agroforestry practices: integrate trees into crops with specific approaches depending on the context such as intra-plot approaches, windbreaks or buffers; develop hedges around plots of crops; promote polyculture useful to biodiversity (polyculture, silvopasture, pollinator strips, for example).
At Reforest’Action, we firmly believe in the virtues of regenerative agriculture. On the one hand, it helps generate a series of environmental and social benefits by adopting customized approaches that are adapted to each context. On the other hand, economic viability is central to the regenerative approach to continue producing raw materials in a production process so that capital does not deteriorate over time.
We therefore support deploying regenerative agriculture within the value chain of businesses. Reducing their footprint, sustaining their production and preserving resources are just some of the many expected benefits. By offering companies a customized project design, we aim to optimize their impact so that it is consistent with the project context and each organization's objectives. Combining traditional and indigenous knowledge to simple, low-tech and high tech techniques, our projects are always based on impact indicators defined during the project’s initial design phase. They are specific to each project according to the context, project typology and objectives and encompass four pillars, which are climate, biodiversity, soil/water and social aspects.
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Brown, K., Schirmer, J., Upton, P., “Can regenerative agriculture support successful adaptation to climate change and improved landscape health through building farmer self-efficacy and wellbeing?”, Current Research in Environmental Sustainability, Volume 4, 2022.
Hawken, P., Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation, Penguin Publishing Group, 2021.
Ikerd, J., “The economic pamphleteer: realities of regenerative agriculture”, J. Agric. Food Syst. Community Dev. 10 (2), 2021, pp. 7-10.
Leu A. F., “Maximizing Photosynthesis and Root Exudates through Regenerative Agriculture to Increase Soil Organic Carbon to Mitigate Climate Change”, SCIREA Journal of Agriculture, Volume 8, Issue 1, February 2023, February 3, 2023, http://www.scirea.org/journal/Agriculture
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International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Regenerative Agriculture: An opportunity for businesses and society to restore degraded land in Africa, 2021.
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