What is Regenerative Organic Agriculture?
by Amandine Paniagua
Over the past 80 years, the industrialisation of agriculture, while dramatically improving productivity has come at a high cost to both humans and the environment. In 20 years, over-use of synthetic pesticides and land conversion has resulted in the impoverishment of soil, biodiversity, disappearance of ecosystems, erosion, loss of humans and crucial bacteria. The backbone of small-scale farming has been displaced by big agriculture, encouraging increased mechanisation and subsequently industrial capitalism. Field workers continue suffering severe health effects, while pest resistance increases. During the 60s, there was a move back towards traditional organic agriculture, defined by “farming methods based on living processes”. Organics bans the use of synthetic toxins on the land, a win for the environment and workers; viewed by the public as a safer, healthier approach.
A resilient agricultural model for rebuilding ecosystems and feeding people...
In parallel to the organic movement, alternative processes were developed to produce food and repair ecological damage done to the land. Based on permaculture design principles and thoughtful land planning, regenerative agriculture is inspired by nature’s adaptive and resilient mechanisms and methods. Sometimes called holistic management, regenerative agriculture combines concepts of healing before producing, considering the long-term consequences of farming activities on the soil. Embodied by low-cost practices, regenerative agriculture aims to improve resource use, biological diversity and perennial crops. It also prefers closed nutrient loops and internal resources dependence, while improving watershed. In practice, regenerative organic agriculture approaches include crop rotation, conservation, un-tillage, cover crops, residue retention (mulching), use of compost, etc.
Regenerative agriculture begins with soil restoration. In nature, soil holds life, the organisms, microbes and insects, that when fed by the plants, return nutrients to the plants. Favouring this microbial life strengthens soil health, nourishes crops and manages pests and disease with the support of plant diversity and beneficial organisms such as birds or pollinators. In conventional agriculture, pesticides kill these beneficial organisms, disrupting soil and plants cycles, decreasing over time crop productivity. In contrast, regenerative agriculture achieves productivity as the soil recovers and rebuilds, producing more with less input. In continuity, this enables biodiversity to return, thus increasing ecosystem stability, while providing increased resilience towards potential environmental changes, without reducing agricultural yields. Comparative field studies have shown increased biodiversity generate higher crop yields than intensive management. Think of it as a closed loop system, far from the logic using synthetic chemical inputs.
Attitudes towards regenerative organic agriculture are slowly changing. Large organic monoculture farms pushed to increase demand on unpopular crops, such as broccoli or lentils, crops more suited for rotation - a regenerative method consisting in planting different crops each year in the same plot to rebuild soil. Ideally, farmers would shift from the compulsory 3-year rotation for organic certification to a yearly rotation, better-enhancing soils and productivity, limiting fungal pathogens and replenishing soils. In Canada Jean-Martin Fortier, alongside his wife Maude-Hélène, developed “Les Jardins de la Grelinette” a micro-farm recognised for its high productivity and profitability. An old pasture, the farm is not mechanised and operates annually with very little fossil fuel. The couple yet managed to generate a six-figure yearly income, 60% margins, on 6000 m2 of land (1½ acres). With soil condition improving, fertility, water holding capacity and biodiversity increase in parallel to productivity, resilience and profitability. It’s a simple win-win for the people and ecosystems. As Daniel Zetah from New Story Farm in Tasmania stated, “only regenerative agriculture has any hope at feeding a growing population into the future since it is becoming more productive as it matures.” Regenerative agriculture provides a viable solution to feed the nearly 10 billion people on the planet over the next century without further damaging ecosystems.
… and mitigating climate change impacts, an inclusive sustainable approach.
Endorsed by various scientific bodies, the latest report from the IPCC released in 2018 clearly states carbon sequestration is one of the major actions required to keep global temperature under 1.5 degrees Celsius. In every scenario, carbon emissions are to be drastically reduced by 45% by 2030, coming down to zero by 2050. The cost of doing nothing would obviously be much higher. Modern technologies that suck carbon gas exist, but they are unrealistic. Regardless, managing forests, grasslands or farms to remove carbon from the air is more efficient, something we already know to do, but must do better.
Beyond growing food and rebuilding ecosystems, regenerative farming systems are capable of capturing and sequestering greenhouse gases into the soil and above ground biomass. How does this work?
All plants feed on carbon dioxide (CO2). Through their leaves, plants suck carbon from the air, and via photosynthesis convert the CO2 and water into oxygen (02) and sugar glucose (carbohydrates). Half the sugar produced is sent to the plant roots feeding microbes and fungi that in return, transform minerals into plants nourishing nutrients. This microbiome also stabilises humus trapping carbon in the soil for centuries. Understanding this, we come to realise why chemical pesticides and fertilisers disrupting natural processes are counterproductive.
Land under regenerative agricultural management continues providing spectacular data and encouraging results from all over the world. In Auckland, New Zealand, we have the regenerative agriculture experiment Organic Market Garden - an initiative led by the collaborative group For the Love of Bees. Beyond their social and urban goals is the potential for carbon sequestration on a small scale, 600 m2 (0.06 hectares) urban environment garden. According to Daniel Schuurman, C.E.O. of Biologix, speaker at the last Climate Change Ready Urban Farming talk, Organic Market Garden is a “carbon sequestering machine”. In less than 12 months, the garden went from storing 29 tonnes of carbon to 44.8 tonnes, almost 50% increase, while a conventional farm with chemical inputs with similar land use would be losing 10 tonnes of carbon over the same period; “Arguably, farmers are capable of single-handedly saving the planet” summarised then mister Schuurman.
Beyond sustainability, regenerative organic agriculture is a cluster of strategies bringing another possible outcome for reducing carbon levels in our atmosphere. Moreover, this agricultural approach remains nothing less than an ancient system, true approach, backed by today’s science. And while regenerative organic agriculture operates somewhat in the background, it has always been part of the fringe food culture movement. If there is to be any potential for a sustainable organic food system, addressing both food security and climate change issues, regenerative organic agriculture must become the mainstream. As Andrew Pittz, heir of a long North-American farmer’s lineage pointed out “it is critical we continue the positive momentum; the more brands, the more farms, the more consumers supporting the regenerative agricultural movement, the better. Now is the time to double down our efforts and create a resilient, regenerative agriculture and food movement that can transform the land base and positively impact the health of farmers, consumers and the environment.”
It seems common sense that national and local governance adopt a proactive approach, seeking guidance from permaculture ambassadors, shifting subsidies from polluting conventional farming to regenerative organic agriculture. It is time to find and support those for whom sustainability is not a marketing buzzword. Organic is more than a certification; it is a way of thinking and doing - regenerative organic agriculture represents an opportunity to address food security and climate change issues adequately. It is time to challenge the status quo in New Zealand. What are we waiting for?