Most of us recognise the value of shifting from ‘sustainable’ to ‘regenerative’ practices to improve the conditions in which our food is grown – but do we get the best support to do this?
There are so many different schemes coming under the regenerative umbrella that it is confusing, for instance: Climate-Smart Agriculture, Conservation Agriculture, Agroecology, and Zero Budget Farming. Look for practical help, and you’ll generally find information on using different practices like cover crops, alley cropping, compost and other biological fertilisers, rather than on the principles which underpin these practices.
We have enough challenges, without having to navigate a minefield of uncertainty to find ways to move forward. Understanding what we need to regenerate and the fundamental principles of how to do it, we gain the know-how to develop practices that work well for our unique growing conditions and production systems. We can trial techniques, learn and share our experiences, and respond constructively to emerging issues and threats.
Established regenerative practices become the source and inspiration for ideas, rather than recipes to follow.
By identifying the fundamental principles underpinning regenerative practices used around the world, the message is actually quite simple – bring back Nature’s free ecological services to your farm. These are the ecological functions – nutrient cycles, water cycles, solar energy capture, and beneficial connections provided by functioning agro-ecosystems.[i]
Organic matter, soil carbon, and biodiversity are useful measures to track your progress. However, we need to get the ecosystems supporting our production systems ‘tuned up and running’ for these to improve!
Interventionist versus ‘eco-logical’ approach
While a small number of farmers around the world benefit from using traditional practices maintaining functioning agro-ecosystems, the majority of us are not so lucky. It has become the norm to substitute for these free ecological services by cultivating soil, applying synthetic and biological fertilisers, and pest controls. Virtually everybody does it!
This interventionist approach defines current ‘conventional agriculture’, whether farmers use ‘chemical’ or ‘organic’ inputs.
Understanding the benefits of getting our agro-ecosystems functioning again, we break this ‘intervention habit’. We set higher goals than making the ‘marginal improvements’ that keep us stuck on the treadmill of substituting for Nature’s ecological services with farm-made and ‘trademarked’ inputs.
Understanding the fundamental ecological principles of how to do it, we apply the ‘eco-logic’, and mimic the regenerative practices Nature uses to get ecosystems functioning again on our farms; taking advantage of three billion years of ‘research and development’ by learning from and working with Nature.
By way of example, the standard regenerative practices used in Conservation Agriculture – diverse cover crops and crop rotations, together with zero-till and mob grazing, can improve nutrient cycling in soils in temperate and other high latitude climates. Many farmers, like the well-known American regenerative farmer, Gabe Brown, get their soil ecosystems functioning and supplying nutrients to their crops. The Brown family have stopped using fertilisers without sacrificing their yields.[ii]
Not so in warmer and wetter climates.
The prescribed practices are not sufficient in the lower latitudes. Many farmers remain trapped in poverty, lacking adequate supplies of manure and compost, and the funds to increase their yields by substituting with commercial fertilisers.[iii]
Applying the Eco-logic
When farmers apply ecological principles, they realise that using prescribed practices is not what’s important. For example, to improve soil, what’s fundamental is providing a diverse, preferably constant, and generous supply of organic materials from shoots, roots and root exudates to feed our teams of nutrient recyclers and soil ‘structural engineers’. (I explain the rationale for this in the ‘Eco-logical Farming Handbook’).
Cover crops are one way to do this. But in tropical regions, they don’t produce enough organic materials. In warm and wet climates, organic materials get rapidly recycled in the soil. Plant nutrients need to be reused by plants and stored in masses of vegetation to prevent their loss from the ecosystem through leaching. It’s well know how quickly soil degrades when we clear tropical rainforests.
For this reason, silvopasture (growing trees in pastures) is ranked across Africa, Asia and South America as the most important climate-smart intervention graziers can make. Other farmers use a combination of techniques like intercropping, companion cropping, alley cropping, silvoarable, and alternative agroforestry designs, to grow more vegetation. [iv]
Farmers become the innovators
With the know-how to develop their own solutions, farmers become less reliant on extension services. They become the innovators and agents of change.
A striking example of what we can achieve in these circumstances is what farmers have accomplished in Africa, south of the Sahel desert. These pastoralists, arable farmers and home gardeners are planting and allowing the natural regeneration of trees to improve yields and drought hardiness.[v]
Understanding the ‘eco-logic’, farmers skilfully create agroforestry designs that work well for their specific conditions. Approximately 250,000 hectares of farmland is regenerated every year.[v] The change led mostly by farmers themselves. They double or triple their incomes with improved crop yields, and by ‘growing-up’ – using trees to supply additional fruit, nuts, seeds, firewood, construction timber, and honey.[vi],[vii]
It’s incredible how quickly farmers develop the skills to shift from sustainable to regenerative agriculture when they understand what they need to regenerate and can apply the fundamental principles to develop suitable practices for their growing conditions, production systems, markets and lifestyles.
Discover how to use this principles-based approach to regenerative agriculture on your farm – Eco-logical Farming Handbook
[ii] Gabe Brown,2018, Dirt to Soil. Chelsea Green Publ.
[iii] Roger R.B. Leakey, The Role of Trees in Agroecology, In ‘Routledge Handbook of Agricultural Biodiversity’ 1st Edition. Edited by Danny Hunter, Luigi Guarino, Charles Spillane, Peter C. McKeown. Routledge
iv] Bringing the Concept of Climate-Smart Agriculture to Life. Insights from CSA Country Profiles across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Sova, C. A., G et. al. 2018. “Bringing the Concept of Climate-Smart Agriculture to Life: Insights from CSA Country Profiles Across Africa, Asia, and Latin America.” World Bank, and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, Washington, DC. (https://elibrary.worldbank.org/doi/abs/10.1596/31064)
[vi] In Niger, Trees and Crops Turn Back the Desert (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/11/world/africa/11niger.html)
[vii]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.