Regenerative agriculture can simultaneously increase soil quality and farmer productivity.
Our food system is facing the greatest challenge in human history. Population forecasts expect that by 2050 two billion more people will need to be fed.
And as the population grows, the availability of land systematically decreases as the urban populations expands. The world's population, between 1961 and 2016 doubled, while the number of hectares per capita symmetrically halved, from 0.45 to 0.21. Fertile soil, moreover, is not an unlimited resource, as it is threatened by the phenomenon of degradation, discussed in depth in this article.
Intensive agriculture has been accelerating natural erosion processes: according to a FAO’s research, it degrades lands 1,000 times faster than in a natural scenario. On this basis, The UN claims that 40 % of the Earth's soil is currently in a critical condition.
We are in dire need of a solution to increase agricultural production, and, at the same time, respects soils’ equilibrium and replenishes degraded land. This solution can be regenerative agriculture.
What is regenerative agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture is not something new, it was being practiced by indigenous communities centuries ago; it includes a broad set of practices. It’s possible to better understand regenerative agriculture starting with its core principles:
Tillage damages the soil’s top texture, making soil less able to absorb water and nutrients and killing the microorganisms that enrich it. A solution is no-till farming, an approach that causes less soil disruption: instead of cutting through the ground, one single whole is made and the seed is planted in the same process. Removing the tillage step can also result in farmers saving time and costs. Scientific America published a report claiming that no-till farming reduces fuel costs by 50 to 80 % and labor by 30 to 50 %.
By cultivating a field with multiple crops at the same time, a practice called intercropping, it’s possible to reduce the amount of fertilizer usage. In fact, it improves soil fertility in a natural way as plants with different foliage and roots come into contact. Also, the increased cleansing of crops results in a lower presence of fungi and weeds, while insects have a harder time adapting to the presence of different cultures, unlike in a monocultural field.
A study by the Dutch University of Wagenigen has shown that the best combinations involve strips planted with broad beans, barley, and wheat. It demonstrated how intercropping can help reduce the amount of chemicals needed and increase yields by 19-36 %, compared to a monoculture.
Cultivating fallow land with cover crops is a technique that is reknown for centuries: planting cover crops in the period between harvest and planting of commercial cultivations. Residual soil moisture is enough to ensure plant growth: this will protect the topsoil from erosion, provide an additional source of organic matter, and recycle valuable nutrients such as potassium, phosphorus and nitrogen. Planning this activity does not impact the commercial output of the land and leaves a stock of nitrogen in the soil, which will increase yield as soon as it is allocated to commercial crops.
A regenerative practice aimed at increasing biodiversity for the benefit of the entire farm ecosystem is agroforesty, ‘agriculture with trees’. Planting trees together with crops has many advantages, offering a new habitat for species of animals, trees help prevent soil erosion and increase the soil’s carbon sequestration capacity. They also provide farmers with fodder for animals or new varieties of products, such as fruits and nuts. This agricultural environment is also ideal for breeding animals, as they can graze under the trees in a natural setting.
After these considerations, the benefits of the above practices are clear: introducing regenerative practices into conventional farming can generate important returns for farmers and for the whole natural ecosystem.
Healthy soils can increase crop productivity, carbon sequestration and resilience in the face of a warming climate. Diversifying crops protects plants from disease and soil erosion, contributing to a healthier ecosystem and reducing costs connected to the purchase of pesticides.
Applying a more holistic approach to farming through techniques which pursue soil health and take into consideration the needs of the surrounding environment, there is a chance, through ‘old practices’ to inject ‘new life’ in our soils, as we face the challenges of feeding our growing global population with ever decreasing resources.