Global food chains, market competition and industrial processes have significantly improved the productivity of the agricultural sector but there are still major environmental and sustainability challenges to contend with. Agriculture, in fact, contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, consuming vast amounts of water. In short, through the use of herbicides, fertilizers and pesticides, in addition to consuming vast amounts of water. Agricultural and food systems therefore need to be rethought to make them increasingly resilient and sustainable. The big question is: How? One possible answer could be regenerative agriculture, which focuses on rationalizing resources: doing better with less, in other words. Feeding plants properly while regenerating rather than impoverishing the soil, reducing emissions and impacts on biodiversity. This may seem like an impossible challenge, but it isn’t. There are many examples of regenerative agriculture successfully reversing the overall trend of our natural resources being consumed by industrial agriculture, as it combines the good practices of the past with modern scientific knowledge. So, let’s look take a good look at what regenerative agriculture actually is.
Regenerative agriculture is based on four principles:
- First and foremost, it aims to regenerate the soil, by adopting practices that will increase its fertility and curb land erosion, particularly in hilly and mountainous areas, by choosing innovative scientific practices while simultaneously enhancing the value of local specialties and cultures.
- It also aims to regenerate ecosystems and biodiversity, by reducing environmental contamination caused by the use of synthetic chemicals, adding value to farm waste in the area, by efficiently managing water and agro-sylvo-pastoral resources.
- It also puts the emphasis on regenerating the relationships between living beings, on dignity for both people and animals, by fostering working and exchange relationships based on the protection of rights and transparency.
- Last but not least, there’s the regeneration of knowledge: it is important to promote knowledge as a constantly changing and evolving collective asset, something to be acquired and passed on in a context of openness.
The techniques of organic and regenerative agriculture
Regenerative agriculture uses techniques that past generations were very familiar with indeed.
- One example is crop rotation: intensively cultivating the same type of plant species over and over again strips the soil of its properties. By returning to crop rotation, farmers can choose plant varieties that will actually enrich the land with the minerals used up by previous crops.
- Constant mechanical and chemical stressing of the land negatively impacts its fertility over time. It is far better to work the soil less, by avoiding ploughing too deeply, repeatedly driving machinery over it or eradicating spontaneously occurring plants.
- In regenerative agriculture, the ground is never left without vegetation: soil cover is pivotal. This incentivizes the use of green manuring, which involves cultivating certain types of grass species to boost the fertility of the soil.
- And of course, waste reduction is fundamental. This means trying to collect as much rainwater as possible, using excess crops to feed livestock and fertilizing with, for example, organic manure from livestock, thereby feeding into the circular economy.
But while the past can lend a helping hand, technological innovation is also giving us the possibility to hone sustainable cultivation systems. In this context, activities like using satellite images to remotely monitor the health of crops by processing indicators such as vigor, water stress and chlorophyll levels, become important. There are also forecasting models that can optimize the use of inputs – water, for instance – after processing environmental data, and which enable targeted interventions.
The benefits for soil, biodiversity and the Planet
Regenerative agriculture can help:
- reestablish the fertility of the land, by significantly increasing the organic carbon available in the soil and its nitrogen-based components;
- strengthen soil and plant root structures, thereby limiting erosion and reducing the probability of catastrophic environmental events;
- increase local biodiversity, not merely by reintroducing now-forgotten crops but also by encouraging local species to grow spontaneously and wildlife to return;
- eliminate chemical contamination of the soil, aquifers and the air by halting the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides;
- improve the quality of the varieties being cultivated, thanks to more fertile land and optimal growing conditions;
- reduce water waste and greenhouse gas emissions, which will have huge benefits for the Planet;
- create jobs at local level, by taking a positive economic stance which ensures that the whole community will benefit from agricultural activities.
Agriculture and climate change
Agriculture is very strongly linked to climate change because it both emits and absorbs greenhouse gases. According the IPCC’s 2019 Climate Change and Land Special Report, “Agriculture, the forestry sector and other types of land use account for 23% of greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activity.
At the same time, the land’s natural processes absorb the equivalent of almost a third of the amount emitted by fossil fuels and industry.”
Carbon sequestration happens because each and every plant absorbs carbon dioxide from the air and, with the help of sunlight and water, uses photosynthesis to convert it into sugars which are released into the ground. These sugars then feed microorganisms which in turn convert the carbon into more stable forms.
The importance of the “soil system”
It is estimated that 80% of all organic carbon in the world’s biosphere (excluding fossil fuels) is stored in the soil, while the remaining 20% is stored in vegetation.
In other words, the ground or soil is an enormous carbon sink which can be of great help in sequestering the carbon in emissions from fossil fuels and industry.
The latter is, however, put at risk by climate change and overexploitation of the soil: this is why regenerative agriculture can offer a valid response.
The effects of the climate crisis on agricultural productivity
The ingredients for a good crop are the right quantity and quality of land, water, sunlight and heat. The climate crisis, together with the consequent increase in temperatures, has already impacted the length of the growing season in various parts of Europe.
While Northern Europe may benefit from the longer growing season, which together with the increase in temperatures, will allow its farmers to cultivate new products, in Southern Europe, extreme heatwaves and lack of rain and available water will have a negative effect on agricultural productivity.
We will see increasing variability in production as the years go by because of extreme weather events and other factors such as the spread of parasites and disease.
Global markets, global demand, and global heating
According to an analysis published in Nature Food magazine in 2021 that looked at the results of 57 studies published between 2000 and 2018, demand for food is likely to increase by anything from 35% to 56% between 2010 and 2050.
How will we meet growing global demand for food while still reducing the environmental impact of its production and consumption in Europe?
We simply cannot countenance reducing food production: the European Union is one of the world’s main producers and any decrease would threaten food security and contribute to increasing food prices globally.
On the other hand, we can’t increase production simply by using more nitrogen-based fertilizers because these in turn emit nitrous oxide which drives climate change.
Equally, increasing soil consumption is not the solution either as this can have consequences for the environment and climate. In Europe, the areas most suited to agriculture are already extensively cultivated: fertile land is a limited resource here in Italy right now, as is the case in the rest of the world. Not even converting wooded areas on agricultural land is a solution in itself as this creates greenhouse gas emissions. Deforestation also threatens biodiversity, further reducing nature’s ability to adapt to climate change.
Foodprint and personal responsibility
Most people think that there is very little we can do as individuals for the environment: either that or we tend to place the burden of change on the shoulders of some other, larger entity.
It is important, however, to realize how much our day-to-day choices, including those concerning the food we eat, can gradually bring about collective development, growth and wellbeing.
Foodprint calculators which calculate the footprint left on the Planet by the food we eat, can help us to understand the impact of our food choices.
EarthDay.org suggests various tools to help calculate your foodprint:
- The BBC Climate Change Food Calculator enables you to enter various food items and calculate their equivalent greenhouse gas emissions in kilometers driven, home heating, and land (measured in the equivalent number of tennis courts) and water (measured in the equivalent number of showers) consumption;
- Eat Lower Carbon compares the carbon footprint of foodstuffs in different meals and tests your knowledge of common foods.
- The Food Carbon Emissions Calculator offers a complete approach to calculating your foodprint by taking into account transportation, waste and the quantities purchased.
Regenerative agriculture: examples and projects
Around the world
- On a global level, FAO’s Global Soil Partnership aims to promote the adoption of inclusive soil policies and governance through investment in soil management, and effective education and information programs. These are designed to reduce further soil degradation to a minimum, by increasing its productivity and stabilizing global reserves of the organic material in soil.
- Big Tree Farms is a company based in Bali, Indonesia that produces and exports coconut, cacao and peanut-based organic foods. Its goal is to inspire positive change in the supply chain by creating innovative healthy food products which also benefit local economies, ecosystems and farmers, thereby mitigating climate change and promoting regenerative agriculture.
- In Europe mention should be made of an initiative by EIT (European Innovation Technology) Food: Regenerative Agriculture Revolution is a series of activities aimed at helping growers and agrifood companies to adopt more regenerative practices and to raise public awareness of the important benefits of eating more organically produced food on our health, the environment and the economy.
- In the semi-arid steppe of the Altiplano Estepario plateau in the south of Spain, water is scarce and climate conditions are extreme. In 2014, Commonland mobilized farmers, entrepreneurs and other local stakeholders to take part in an ambitious large-scale project aimed at regenerating arid areas to halt desertification and erosion, and restore prosperity through regenerative agricultural practices.
- Deafal’s AOR – Organic and Regenerative Agriculture – is a working group made up of economic, environmental, agronomic and veterinary experts and provides training and information initiatives. Deafal (the European Delegation for Family Agriculture in Asia, Africa and Latin America) is a non-profit that works in rural development, promoting environmental and biodiversity protection, human freedom and development in nations in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres.
- In Italy, Enel Green Power is testing out a new and completely natural anti-erosion solution: a mix of deep root grass seeds which are drought tolerant and highly adaptable without being invasive, in addition to sequestering up to 400% more carbon dioxide than other plants. These seeds, which are carefully selected to suit the areas where they will be sown, combat soil erosion mechanisms that impact clean and renewable energy plants.
- Thanks to its partnership with the Rodale Institute, an American regenerative agriculture non-profit, the Davines Group built the European Regenerative Organic Center, the first international training and research hub of its kind.