Using regenerative practices to improve the conditions in which our food is grown makes sense. But how do we decide what practices to use? Does having “What practices should I use?” as our leading question yield the best outcomes for the time and money we spent?
Currently, the emphasis in the regenerative movement is on using this practice-based approach. In deciding what to do, we look at the different practices available and choose the ones we think will best help us solve the natural resource issues holding us back. Our choice is often influenced by seeing practices demonstrated at field days, working for our neighbours, or just because everyone is currently talking about them.
We can get some improvements to our growing conditions, but do we get the best outcomes using this approach? Practices get treated as one-size-fits-all solutions, having to be adapted for our specific use, and they don’t always work.
For example, in temperate and other high latitude climates, standard practices in Conservation Agriculture, diverse cover crops and crop rotations, combined with zero-till and mob grazing, work to reduce fertiliser inputs. However, in warmer and wetter climates, this recipe doesn’t work as well.[i] In the Philipines, because the support for farmers has been practice-based, the response has been to add another practice and rename the program – “Conservation Agriculture with Trees.” [ii]
How can we choose Practices Effectively?
Rather than having “what practices shall we use?” as our leading question and the framework for the support provided to farmers, a more targeted approach would be to understand:
1. the underlying causes for the natural resource issues holding us back, and
2. the fundamentals of how to solve these issues
We can then apply these fundamentals as principles to find effective practices for our circumstances.
By understanding what we need to regenerate and the principles of how to do it, we gain the skills to develop practices that work well for our production systems and growing conditions. We build our capacity to trial techniques, learn and share our experiences, and respond constructively to emerging issues and threats.
How do we use this Principles-Based Approach?
We need two things – clarity on what to regenerate and principles that are straightforward to apply.
There is a shared appreciation that we use regenerative practices to improve our growing conditions by prioritising what’s holding us back. We thereby realise our land’s potential to give us more support with growing food.[iii]
Listed goals usually include increasing biodiversity, improving organic matter and soil carbon levels, water infiltration and storage in soil, and imprecise statements like keeping soil covered, water in our landscapes, and improving soil health. While these measurable goals are helpful to track our progress, they are all products of functioning ecosystems. We need ecosystems that work for these to improve.[iv] Poor ecological function is the underlying cause of our natural resource issues.
Rather than focusing on products, we need to repair the ecological functions that drive most of the action in our farms and gardens – nutrient cycles, water cycles, the capture of solar energy by photosynthesis, and to build connections to make better use of these resources. [v] [vi]
Let’s look at an example demonstrating why focusing on repairing ecological functions is more helpful than focusing on the products of functioning ecosystems.
If our goal is to increase the product, soil carbon, we tend to rely on standard practices like applying mulch and compost. But as only a small proportion of the carbon in organic materials from above-ground sources gets stored long-term in our soil, we get trapped in a vicious cycle, needing regular applications to maintain elevated levels.
Whereas, if our goal is to improve the functioning of our nutrient cycle, we manage our production systems to deliver a generous, diverse, and consistent supply of organic materials, roots and root exudates to feed our soil ecosystem.[vii] We replace imported inputs with organic materials produced on-site, and increase organic matter and the carbon it contains because the organic inputs supplied from plant roots are retained longer in the soil. [viii] [ix]
Similarly, if you want to improve water infiltration and storage in soil, reduce waterlogging, and improve soil structure, focus on the ecological functions that provide these benefits.
Maybe one day, with sufficient research and on-farm trials, we would get to the point where practices have been tried and tested in all the growing conditions we commonly encounter. We would have access to off-the-shelf tools with a better fit for our purpose. But do we want to continue enforcing our templates on ecosystems? Applying eco-logical principles, we improve our understanding of the ecological functions in our production systems, and develop skills to create resource-efficient and resilient ecosystems in our farms and gardens by working with the inherent wisdom, adaptive capacity, and emergent properties of complex natural systems.
At Learning from Nature, we’re developing a set of design principles supporting growers to use this eco-logical approach to regenerative farming and gardening.
They’re a work in progress, and we would appreciate your thoughts. Design principles need to guide us regardless of our circumstances, be straightforward to apply, comprehensive, unambiguous, and emphasise what’s important.
The Benefits can be Extraordinary
Poor yields and severe droughts forced farmers in the Sahel region in Africa to look deeply at what was going wrong and why it was going wrong.
They realised that the solution was straightforward – improving their nutrient and water cycles by modifying their production systems to reduce water loss from evaporation, grow more food for their soil ecosystem, as well as for human consumption and livestock.
Much of their land had been open woodlands – scattered trees and shrubs. They mimic the architecture of this vegetation by working with succession. By planting and enabling the natural regeneration of trees that thrive in their growing conditions, they supply more food to their soil ecosystem. They choose species to provide targetted ecological services like nitrogen-fixing, light shade, biomass production, and products like fruit, nuts, seeds, firewood, construction timber, pollen, and nectar for bees, and emergency stock feed. [x] [xi]
Over four years, silvoarable trial sites under a legume tree canopy (Faidherbia albida) yielded 88–190% more maize than sites outside of canopies.[xii]
Having improved pastures, vegetable and cereal production, and trees providing extra resources, farmers are better placed financially, and to cope with future droughts.
References for How do we decide what Practices to Use?
[i] Wendy Seabrook, 2019, Eco-logical Farming Handbook, Publ Learning from Nature
[ii] World Agroforestry, 2015, Conservation Agriculture with Trees in the Philippines: A Documentary (https://youtu.be/jHwZ0ok4Ngo)
[iii] Wendy Seabrook, 2021, What is Regenerative Farming and Gardening. Learning from Nature
[iv] Wendy Seabrook, 2021, What is Regenerative Farming and Gardening. Learning from Nature
[v] Oduiun, Eugine P. 1971, Fundamentals of Ecology, W.B. Saunders Company
[vi] Wendy Seabrook, 2021, How to do Regenerative Farming and Gardening. Learning from Nature
[vii] Wendy Seabrook, 2019, Eco-logical Farming Handbook, Published by Learning from Nature
[viii] Michael W. I. Schmidt, Margaret S., et al., 2011, Persistence of soil organic matter as an ecosystem property, Nature 478 (https://www.nature.com/articles/nature10386)
[ix] Daniel P. Rasse, Cornelia Rumpel & Marie-France Dignac, 2005, Is soil carbon mostly root carbon? Mechanisms for a specific stabilisation, Plant and Soil (2005) 269: pp 341–356 (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11104-004-0907-y)
[x] Polgreen, Lydia, 2007, In Niger, Trees and Crops Turn Back the Desert. New York Times Feb. 11, 2007 (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/11/world/africa/11niger.html)
[xi] Reij C, Tappan G, Smale M., 2009, Agroenvironmental transformation in the Sahel – another kind of Green Revolution. International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) Discussion Paper 00914 (https://www.ifpri.org/publication/agroenvironmental-transformation-sahel)]
[xii] Winterbottom, Robert & Reij, Chris & Garrity, Dennis & Glover, Jerry & Hellums, Debbie & Mcgahuey, Mike & Scherr, Sara. (2013). Improving land and water management. World Resources Working Paper, October 2013, Installment 4 of “Creating a Sustainable Food Future” (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259692860_IMPROVING_LAND_AND_WATER_MANAGEMENT)