What is regenerative agriculture, and why does it matter?


In its race to meet ever-burgeoning human food demand, industrial agriculture has had multiple adverse environmental effects. Regenerative agriculture attempts to confront this sustainability problem while maintaining agricultural productivity.

By Diane Evers

Regenerative agriculture refers to a systems-based approach to agriculture where the intention is to maintain abundant and diverse biological activity in the soil leading to increased soil carbon, increased humates, and increased ability of the soil to absorb and hold water, acting like a sponge where the microbial activity works to feed nutrients in the soil to the plant roots. Maintaining year-round ground cover allows the plants to create a healthy environment for diverse microorganisms, while capturing carbon above and below the soil, and protecting the soil from drying out.

Regenerative agriculture, as compared to the current industrial agriculture, has considerably lower annual chemical inputs of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, with the substantial reduction of associated expenses for purchase and application. Pastured animals are a significant component of the system, turning vegetation into much-needed natural fertilisers. Interestingly, some farmers are finding in the first year of transition, even with slight declines in productivity, profitability can increase.

The role of soil health

Soil health is central to regenerative agriculture. The aim is to increase the abundance and diversity of soil biology including bacteria, mycorrhizal fungi, beneficial nematodes, and even some viruses which may play an important role in the microbiome. Maximising ground cover creates a healthy environment for soil biota, captures carbon above and below the soil, takes in nitrogen from the atmosphere and protects the soil from drying out. Crop rotation and mixed species or mixed varieties planting, including the use of legumes, is beneficial as different plants develop the diversity of the soil microbiome.

Enhancing the soil biome increases soil organic carbon and builds new soil. Humate levels increase, improving the soil’s ability to absorb and hold water, reducing the toxic effect of residual amounts of herbicides and retaining nutrients. This supports the microbial activity that provides nutrients to plant roots. Soil microbes regulate biological nitrogen fixation, residue decomposition, mineralization/immobilization turnover, nutrient cycling and denitrification1

Mycorrhizal fungi develop a mycelial network around plant roots, enhancing plant nutrient and water uptake from the soil, and even help plants adapt to different environmental stresses. Mycorrhizal fungi can stretch across large areas of the landscape and enable movement of needed nutrients from one area to another, however, synthetic fertilizer use can disrupt this association. For example, if phosphate fertiliser is used excessively, acidification can occur and mycorrhizal fungi may disappear completely. Simply adding lime may not allow the fungi to return and, if applied indiscriminately, can make the soil too alkaline.

Additional benefits

The systemic approach to regeneration assesses the whole water cycle. Inundation, salinity, collection, storage, all need to be assessed and addressed. Working with the topography of the landscape, planting trees where appropriate and channelling heavy rains are all important and will form the basis for another paper. However, even with the first steps of limiting synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, allowing continuous cover and increasing soil carbon, one of the first noticeable benefits is that water holding capacity increases and the landscape becomes more resilient to dry periods. This is easily seen in dry periods on some regeneratively farmed lands beside neighbouring industrially farmed properties.

Many regenerative farmers have found that their animals are in better health and that stocking rates can actually increase once water is better managed, rotational grazing introduced, greater variety of feed is grown and chemical applications reduced. In addition, greater demand from consumers for ethical treatment of animals, and meat and dairy free of hormones or other chemicals, should provide farmers a better return for their produce.

Regenerative farming, with the increased nutrient diversity and decreased chemical additives, is expected to produce more nutritionally dense food with considerably less risk of residual toxins. Research is needed to confirm this as consumers become more aware and willing to pay for nutritional quality. 

The process

The process of transitioning to regenerative practices is not straightforward. For instance, no-till practices may be associated with the increased use of herbicides. Farmers face a challenging journey as they learn what works on their land and may experience an initial reduction in productivity as the agro-ecological system on their farm changes.

There is no single recipe for regenerative agriculture that can be universally applied. Even the microbiome on different paddocks on the same farm might vary significantly. Since much of the innovation in regenerative agriculture is being driven from the grassroots, it is vital that governments, universities and farmers who are effectively being ‘citizen scientists’ work together to continually improve knowledge about regenerative agriculture.

Indigenous peoples around the world were able to pass on knowledge for millennia — we are faced with the difficulty of passing information from one generation to the next and even from one farmer to another.

There are hundreds of longitudinal case studies in Australia and around the world that have demonstrated environmental, social and economic benefits of regenerative agriculture (e.g. Charles Massey’s “Call of the Reed Warbler”; Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm; The Wooleen Way; the recent movie “The Biggest Little Farm”; etc.). This information has to be added to, shared and promoted to have a positive impact on addressing climate change through the drawdown of carbon, producing increasing quantities of higher quality nutrient dense food on diminishing arable landscape and to return a fair income to our food producers.

There is a broad range of practices that land managers may choose to adopt to achieve a habitat suitable for a healthy biome. Many farmers are already implementing some of these practices and continue to innovate on their own or through collaboration with scientists. Farmers can gradually introduce further actions across the entire farm or simply begin with the poorest performing land and look for improvement.

  • A first step is to cut out the majority of pesticides. Most regenerative farmers will stop using insecticides and fungicides and limit herbicides to significant instances where either the extent of the infestation or the type of weed requires immediate control.
  • The next most-pressing need for a healthy biome is to maintain soil moisture through residue return, cover cropping, perennial crops and inter-row planting. Soil biota cannot survive in bare soil that is left to dry out. Depending on the cover crop, the next season crop can be planted directly into it, or animals can be brought in to graze it down before planting.
  • Animals are an integral part of regenerative agriculture. For instance, a rotational grazing system (also called cell grazing) can be used in which animals graze a small area for a short time, spreading nutrients through their urine and manure, and churning up the soil to some degree to work the fertiliser into the soil. The animals are then moved on to another paddock, allowing regeneration of the former either for future grazing or for cropping.
  • Following many years of industrialised agriculture across the landscape, the soil biome is often considerably depleted. Many regenerative farmers have found it beneficial to introduce microbes, fungi and nematodes through compost, compost teas, worm juice, inoculated mineral fertilisers, or other preparations containing beneficial organisms to accelerate the process of regeneration. Further research in this area would be beneficial to ensure safety and effectiveness. 
  • Beneficial flora and fauna that provide ecosystem services such as pollination and insect or vermin control are encouraged. An area of natural bush, or shrub or tree plantings, can provide habitat for birds and mammals, as well as beneficial insects and other invertebrates that work to keep the landscape healthy. The bush or trees may provide a cash crop and also work to moderate weather effects, providing windbreaks, erosion control, and the ability to balance water movement, soaking up more rain in heavy storms and storing moisture longer through dry periods, also providing a refuge for beneficial organisms through dry periods. 
  • Revegetating on-farm at risk areas or poorer soils to protect them from further damage can create protective bush for cropping and grazing areas. Research is needed to identify suitable plants for restoration in the first instance, with productivity ‒ fruit, nuts, oil, honey, timber ‒ following as a close second. 
  • Diversity of plants provides greater diversity below the soil as well, thus building a diverse biome which provides a greater range of nutrients and other benefits to the crops and animals. For this reason, some farmers are planting mixed species or mixed varieties of the same crop. 
  • Research in the US shows that “Women farmers are more likely than men to adopt more ecologically-based practices on their farms”3 and many women farmers in WA are driving the transition to regenerative agriculture. We need to understand the role of female and male farmers in driving this change and to work together to understand how best to support them. To subscribe to a network of women in regen ag, contact Diane.Evers@mp.wa.gov.au

Further effects

Weeds can grow in poorer soils where they opportunistically rely on available nutrients and outcompete the intended plants. They spread easily as they typically produce large numbers of seeds, and thrive in disturbed environments. As soil health improves, the weeds lose their advantage. In addition, there is some evidence that a variety of plants, as long as they are not toxic to the stock, can provide a wider range of nutrients and microbes for grazing animals, and with cell grazing, the animals are more likely to consume some of the less palatable but nutritiously diverse plants. 

Depletion and compaction of our farmed land through decades of industrialised agriculture, as well as increasing acidity and salt-affected soils, diminishes landscape productivity and increases pressure to clear more land. This leads to an undesirable feedback loop, as we must maintain and even increase our forested areas to address climate change. We no longer have the option of continuing to walk away from degraded agricultural landscapes while clearing more remnant bush or forests. Through regenerative practices it is possible to recover degraded areas.

Industrial agriculture is being targeted as a major emitter of greenhouse gases. Overreliance on nitrogen fertilisers, burning fossil fuels and methane emissions from cattle are all contributors. Adoption of the practices mentioned above will decrease all of these, plus there is the significant store of carbon accumulating in the soil. A win-win situation on all counts.

Regenerative practices broaden the scope of production, often leading to a diversity of income sources and reducing the risk of relying on a monoculture. Carbon offset income should also become a reality as soil carbon increases. Research indicates that one gram of additional soil carbon can absorb up to eight grams of water, providing resilience to drought and other climate events.

Regional communities would benefit from the increased human activity in this more natural way of farming as on-farm diversity would require more workers, and there would be greater activity at varying times of the year leading to a greater range of seasonal work opportunities and the ability to employ people for longer periods. Financially, there may be higher costs for human effort, however, there is a corresponding and greater decrease in expenses through the significant reduction in chemical input.

The history of regenerative agriculture

This form of agriculture is reminiscent of agriculture practices pre-WWII. Prior to the post-war introduction of large scale applications of chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, as part of the ‘Green Revolution’, microbial activity extracted naturally occurring nutrients from the soil. Productivity increased over time with plant breeding selecting productive varieties most suited to Australian conditions. In industrial farming practices, large-scale farming operations allows for economies of scale, targeted fertilisers increase plant growth, while mechanisation allows for more extensive operations with reduced human effort.

However, industrial agriculture with the associated soil degradation and climate impacts is not sustainable as it is. Significant, rapid transformation is required. Adopting lower input, healthier and systems-based farming methods can reduce input costs and may require more human effort leading to a regeneration of our farming communities. 

It would be wise to recognise the recent acknowledgement of Indigenous agriculture as described in Bruce Pascoe’s "Dark Emu" and, following on from Bill Gammage ‘s ‘The Biggest Estate on Earth’, and note that Indigenous agricultural knowledge plays a valuable role in understanding the soil and landscape for agricultural purposes, particularly so in the developing production of bush foods and medicines, including grain crops and pastures.

Good stories

Hundreds of longitudinal studies and initiatives here in Australia and around the world have demonstrated the economic, social and environmental benefits of regenerative farming, though it can go by many names such as holistic farming, natural intelligence farming, conservation agriculture, agro-ecological or systems based agriculture, and ‒ my personal favourite – ‘agriculture’. Industrial agriculture as developed over the past several decades may have increased yields, but at what cost to the landscape, to the climate, to biodiversity and to financial stress?

Individual stories can be found in Charles Massey’s book, “Call of the Reed Warbler”, or by contacting Perth NRM and Regen WA, or through Wide Open Agriculture who are marketing ‘Dirty Clean Food’ grown by farmers who commit to a Regenerative Agriculture Plan for Soil, Biodiversity and Water that aligns to the Soil Carbon Initiative (SCI). 

The naysayers

Backlash can be expected from pesticide and synthetic fertiliser suppliers as well as large machinery distributors, however, these corporations are also looking at opportunities in a regenerative landscape. A farmer or farming community is not obliged to support these for-profit corporations even when shares are owned by people in the community and company representatives are members of the community.

Banks may also lose some opportunities as regenerative practices can lead to the landowner being less reliant on the bank as annual investment on inputs is reduced, there is less pressure to expand to achieve ‘economies of scale’ and diverse income streams reduce financial risk. In addition, a regenerative system may use less massive equipment thus reducing the requirement for associated massive bank loans. 

The potential

There is significant potential for small local businesses under a regenerative landscape providing equipment and materials for the diverse needs of a greater variety of crops, and smaller localised opportunities and value adding for the greater range of activity on farm.

Research is beginning to assess the productivity and profitability of regenerative agriculture but broader research is needed. The current industrial system has focussed primarily on increasing production volumes and as more farmers revert to regenerative practices there is justification for research on the net financial return to the farmer rather than the gross revenue. For the grower, a financial return commensurate to the capital and effort inputs must be reasonably expected in order to keep farmers on the land and encourage new farmers. This is necessary to maintain food security and export opportunities, and to regenerate our rural communities supporting farming operations.

Universities can collaborate with farmers to undertake this research as well as assessing the nutrient value of food produced with healthier soils and fewer chemical inputs, as increasingly consumers are seeking nutrient dense food without chemical residues to promote and maintain good mental and physical health.

Regenerative agriculture is intended to make farms more resilient, producing healthy food, strengthening rural communities, providing diversity and opportunity, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while making better use of our natural resources without depleting them. It can lead to more resilient financial, social and environmental landscapes.

Diane Evers is a member of the Western Australian Legislative Council for the South West Region.

A version of this article first appeared in the Green Issue.

Image via Pexels.

1 Yadav, S.K. et al. 2018. Role of Microbes in Organic Farming for Sustainable Agro-Ecosystem. Microorganisms for Green Revolution. Volume 2. pp 241-252. Springer Nature Singapore Pty Ltd.

2Hintz, C. 2015. Soil in My Blood: Women Farmers, Transformative Learning, and Regenerative Agriculture. PhD thesis. Prescott College.

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