A land use that enriches the soil, increases biodiversity, protects watersheds, and thus improves ecosystem services is regenerative agriculture
The current agricultural production is a major contributor to climate change, accounting for over 20% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Current farming practices lead to loss of fertile soil and biodiversity. According to the FAO, the world could run out of topsoil in about 60 years if soil degradation is continued at its current rate. Biodiversity is the key to sustainable food production. Fertile soils form the basis for products that maintain and promote human and animal health. Therefore, soil degradation immensely affects the earth’s ability to produce food, filter water and sequester carbon, and will lead to a reduction in the quality of the food supply and a shortage of available arable land (EIT Food; Friedrich Wenz). In times of increasing price decline for conventional agricultural products and increasing environmental problems, a solution must be found that not only serves the planet, but also economic viability.
A form of land use that seeks to enrich the soil, increase biodiversity, protect watersheds, and thereby improve ecosystem services is regenerative agriculture. The 50 years old concept that originates in the USA is based on agricultural practices which primary objective is to regenerate soils by protecting the habitats of micro and macro-organisms (Livelihoods Funds). According to current estimates, today, about 50,000 hectares in Germany are farmed according to the principles of regenerative agriculture – both organically and conventionally – with organic farmers already using 1,6 million hectares, about 10% of the total area. Regenerative agriculture serves as a holistic, principles-based approach to farming and ranching that seeks to strengthen ecosystems and community resilience (General Mills). It involves enriching the soil with organically bound carbon – the humus – through a year-round greening of the field via under sowing in main crops such as cereals, corn or rapeseed. By building up humus, regenerative agriculture can store about 8 to 15 t/ha of CO2 a year (agrarheute).
The equation is relatively simple: healthy, organic topsoil retains water, recycles nutrients and stores carbon, which results in more nutrient-rich food, more resilient plants and less water wasted (EIT Food). Permanent greening and low tillage intensity are inevitable for this farming practice for soil organisms to develop without disturbance: When earthworms, bacteria, fungi and other soil organisms digest organic matter, they not only make nutrients available to plants, but they also build up humus in the process. Instead of pesticides and fertilizers as well as herbicides, plant enzymes are used, a fermented decoction of field and garden herbs as well as the shoot tips of various shrubs, and so-called compost tea, obtained from compost material. This serves as an economic advantage of the concept of regenerative agriculture: costs for plant protection and fertilization are reduced and high and stable yields through fertile soils are generated – even with increasing weather extremes. Additionally, the process is intended to counteract weeds: if the framework conditions are created for the soil to regulate itself, soil life is brought into balance and weeds find it more difficult to spread (agrarheute).
An example for regenerative agriculture is the organic certified hemp farm Margent, located in Cambridgeshire, England. The farm cultivates 53 acres of arable fields surrounded by margin, which acts as a protection zone and natural habitat for wildlife. Hemp in particular, is a great ‘carbon-capturer’: the plant captures carbon as it grows, absorbing it from the atmosphere and converting it into biomass. Margent uses that locked-in carbon for product prototypes, hoping to inspire a low impact circular economy. Furthermore, the Margent farmhouse itself is made primarily of hempcrete processed from their own crops, remains off-grid and is powered by solar, wind and a bio-mass boiler. The building’s walls are clad with Margent’s corrugated hemp fiber rain sheets which sequester carbon, locking it in and stopping it releasing back into the atmosphere, resulting in a very low-carbon product and a natural alternative to corrugated steel, PVC, bitumen and cement.
Yes, regenerative agriculture implies a complete revisiting of the farming system, a change of practices and benchmarks acquired through conventional agriculture. It requires reducing tillage and continuously nourishing the soil with permanent plant cover. Yet, that is exactly what helps the agricultural ecosystem to produce a maximum amount of biomass that increases the organic matter of the soil and favours its fertilizing properties. It is an evolving process that must be adapted to local conditions but has already proven itself in agricultural practice in a wide variety of climates (Livelihoods Funds; Grüne Brücke).
by Marie Klimczak