The principal narrative for how we will grow food in the future is that it will be technology-driven. Endorsed as our only opportunity to create a “cleaner and greener future” and “produce sufficient food to meet projected demands”, it’s becoming entrenched as the principal scenario.
But there is a more realistic alternative.
It’s where we will go by necessity. The costs and risks of relying on land with little inbuilt resilience in a changing and increasingly turbulent climate, combined with emerging resource constraints, global supply chain issues, and greenhouse gas emissions, will make this industrial-styled food production untenable.
Whether growing in a backyard in Wales, a community garden in Boston, a smallholding in India, a commercial orchard in Brazil, or running cattle in outback Australia…, our food growers will rely on Nature’s free ecological services. They’ll create resilient growing conditions by getting the ecosystems in their farms and gardens functioning again.
How we will Grow Food
Imagine looking out across a landscape… It doesn’t particularly matter where. Because in virtually all places, we see biodiversity materialised within our farms and gardens. No longer reliant on monocultures, farmers and food gardeners grow diverse crops and recruit plants, livestock, birds, insects, and other living organisms to deliver ecological services.
Plants are used to reduce soil compaction, feed beneficial insects, and supply nitrogen to crops. Grazing, browsing and foraging livestock of all shapes and sizes are employed to help get the wealth of plant materials recycled in our soil. This ‘functional’ biodiversity reduces production costs and builds connections making farms and gardens better able to weather the storms of climate change.
Growers optimise solar energy capture by growing abundant vegetation and creating multi-layered production systems. Utilising the vertical space to diversify their crops, provide ecological services, and physical protection from drought, sunburn, and extreme temperatures, trees weave an extra layer of fruits, fertiliser, fodder, and forage across their fields.
Underneath the decaying leaves and other plant and animal waste materials, the soil is dark brown, crumbly with aggregated minerals and organic matter. These are the unmistakable signs of well-fed soil organisms and, consequently, healthy soil ecosystems.
Plants get silver service catering directly from the soil ecosystem rather than via intermittent and often inadequate fertiliser, compost, and other organic and biological inputs. Water readily infiltrates, is stored, and the excess drains down through the soil, reducing the impacts of droughts and flooding rains.
Farmers and gardeners grow healthy, pest-resistant crops with fewer costs and frustrations. Yields have improved by expanding production vertically and replacing herbicides and soil cultivation with livestock in arable cropping systems.
Having re-created vibrant, living landscapes across our rural and urban spaces, insects, birds, and small mammals that used to be common are commonplace once again. Our support for the recovery of endangered species with specialist habitat requirements has become, in effect, the icing on the cake. As we have the cake – the functioning ecosystems on which to spread the icing!
How did this change happen?
Slowly at first. We didn’t realise what we were missing.
We thought our soils were in reasonable condition if they didn’t show the customary signs of degradation – erosion and compaction. But we struggled to grow healthy, pest and disease-resistant plants and nutrient-dense food. In our impoverished landscapes, we couldn’t rely on natural pest control from insects and birds, even for minor infestations. And had trouble growing anything when the weather turned bad.
While we readily accepted the goal of restoring ecosystems in nature reserves and other protected areas, in our farms and gardens, we barely acknowledged that they existed, and used practices that reduced these natural processes.
As a result, we had to substitute for these free ecological services by cultivating soil and applying pest controls, fertilisers and other inputs. Virtually everybody did it! It was the accepted way to grow food, whether we applied chemical or organic inputs.
We limited our efforts to improve our growing conditions to restoring remnants of native vegetation, wetlands, and waterways, to planting natives in the corners of our fields and bottoms of our gardens.
Industrial agriculture briefly stepped into the spotlight
Proponents claimed it was “the only viable way to feed the world’s growing population”. That the latest technologies provided the answer to “a cleaner and greener future”. Farmers would improve their yields using fewer agrochemicals and fossil fuels. Human ingenuity and trademarked products drove innovation.
But away from the public eye…, a few growers and forward-thinking organisations were switching to regenerative practices, realising that the land they were managing ‘sustainably’ was in poor condition and could give them more support with growing food.
Often ridiculed by their neighbours, held back by the lack of research funding and information in the farming mass media, they sourced their inspiration and practical ideas elsewhere. Stories were shared on YouTube, social media, and between like-minded growers at fringe conferences and field days. They didn’t turn their backs on sustainable practices and ‘agri-tech.’ But envisaged a fundamentally different pathway for the future of farming.
In the early 2020s, more growers began to join them. They were experiencing firsthand the challenges of climate change and damage from extreme weather events. The time-tested recipes for crop protection and plant nutrition were no longer reliable, and the risks associated with relying on land with little inbuilt resilience were becoming a liability. It was also becoming impossible to ignore food safety, nutritional, and environmental issues.
On top of that, fuel, freight, fertiliser and other costs were escalating. The only people who seemed to be making a decent income were the companies supplying the products and services!
Growers felt compelled to change. But they were also encouraged by seeing how leading regenerative farmers benefited, particularly those reducing their dependence on inputs by relying on Nature’s free ecological services.
These growers combined their ingenuity with billions of years of innovative research and development by improving the functioning of their ecosystems. They used the architecture and dynamics of the natural ecosystems in their regions as their models of best practice understanding that the commonly cited goals of regenerative agriculture (biodiversity, organic matter, soil carbon, water infiltration and storage in their soil, etc.) are the products and services of functioning ecosystems. We need functioning ecosystems for these to improve. The production systems we use to grow food are no different in principle to those that manufacture big-screen TVs and make espresso coffee. Except that they require ecological parts to function!
It was difficult to disregard these farmers. They were broadacre commercial growers with soil tests to back up their claims and science to validate why their practices worked. Colin Seis, in Australia, had reduced his annual input costs by over $120,000 Australian dollars, while his soil tests showed his major and micro soil nutrients increasing. Gabe Brown in the United States had stopped applying fertilisers, yet his yields were 20% higher than the “county average”, and Dave Brandt learned that he could use “almost no commercial fertilisers …. and still produce a great crop of corn and beans.”
These and other leading growers around the world became the agents of change. They understood what they needed to regenerate and how to apply the eco-logical principles to develop place-based practical solutions suitable for their growing conditions and the food they grew.
With the know-how to trial different techniques, learn, share their experiences, and respond to newly emerging issues and threats, it was incredible how quickly growers repaired the functioning of their ecosystems. So much so, that it has become virtually impossible to find growers still using the old ‘conventional’ approaches, and many time-honoured practices used by Indigenous growers are back in fashion!
What began as change driven by a sense of urgency, was soon appreciated as an opportunity to realise the economic and environmental benefits of learning from Nature.
 Wendy Seabrook, 2021, What is Regenerative Farming and Gardening? Learning from Nature
 Wendy Seabrook, 2021, How to Build Healthy Soil – Eco-logically Learning from Nature
Colin Seis interviewed by Soils for Life – Winona, Gulgong NSW 2020
 Gabe Brown, 2018, Dirt to Soil. Chelsea Green Publ.
 Natural Resource Conservation Services, Ohio, Soil Health Profile, David Brandt
Sheep photo by Stefan Widua