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Discovering regenerative agriculture… (I)

Introduction

What is regenerative agriculture? Until now, we heard a lot about different types of agriculture: conventional, organic, soil conservation agriculture, and some of us are even familiar with permaculture. All these practices are fundamentally different in their respective farming methods, which allows to label each farmer’s way of producing food. Organic agriculture stands out since it is certified on a global scale, and then further defined by a specific framework within the European Union.

What is regenerative agriculture? 

In the case of regenerative agriculture (RA), there are no specific guidelines which would make you say “Ta-dah! I belong to the regenerative farmers group!”

At the moment, and as opposed to organic agriculture, there aren’t any particular norms in place that would define this type of agriculture. – the certificate “Regenorganic” is however already underway and planned to be available in the course of 2020. Despite the (yet) missing certification, there is a very clear philosophy: To regenerate, which doesn’t only involve avoiding any damage to the environment, but also to actively generate a positive impact.   

RA is a system of principles and practices that:

Increases biodiversity
Improves the quality of the soil (organic matter) 
Reduces the inputs necessary for farming (fuel, fertilizers and pesticides)
Increases ecosystem services

The objective of these actions is to improve the agricultural systems and their involved and surrounding communities through:

Maximizing the capture of carbon in the atmosphere and reducing the effect of climate change while maintaining productive farming systems.

On the socio-economic aspect, RA looks to:
– Improve agricultural yields
– Increase the resistance to climate and market variation
– Revive agricultural communities

Illustration of the elements integrated in the concept of regenerative agriculture

But… How can soil store carbon?

Soils contain carbon, some more than others. A very important part of soil is the organic matter, formed by big carbon molecules, similar to those in CO2 which contribute to global warming.

Organic matter is always present in a healthy soil (i.e. in the form of humus), as its role is to regulate the pH balance, retain water, facilitate the access to nutrients, and a long list of beneficial effects.

The more organic matter is present in the soil, the healthier and more alive it is, as the organic matter is the food, product and habitat of many organisms. A long time ago, the surface of the the earth was entirely covered with permanent vegetation and soils had on average much more organic matter than today.  Many times, our use of the earth for construction or some types of agriculture destroys the soil structure and this results in the depletion of organic matter.

The global objective of RA is to mitigate climate change and to create healthy and sustainable agro-ecosystems. Systems that, in the long run, could work with the existing water and nutrient resources, through the maximum regeneration of soils and ecosystems. 

In short: Recovering the health of soils and biodiversity, returning as much as possible to the agriculture of the past.

The principles of regenerative agriculture

As you can see, RA isn’t defined by a label, but by the objective that it pursues. To reach an objective, there isn’t only one path but many. For this reason, many principles are established which may or may not be applied to a different degree. The main ones are: 

1 – To minimize or eliminate tillage/ploughing: less soil perturbation.

By not breaking the top layer of the soil, we seek to maintain more humidity in the ground and keep it from  “breathing carbon” (when the soil is ploughed, its carbon fixation is reduced, thus releasing CO2 into the atmosphere)   

2 – To protect the soil (Cover crops): We seek the best protection of the soil. 

Maintaining the soil protected in order to eliminate erosion is fundamental, this way we facilitate the accumulation of organic matter. If it rains on a “naked” soil, the rain will wash away a layer of the topsoil.  But if the soil is covered with plants and held together by roots, water cannot run on its surface carrying part of the soil.

3 – Increase biodiversity and cultivate perennial species. 

An ecosystem formed by numerous species generates a high biomass and a better circulation of nutrients, and is also more stable when perturbations arise.

Perennial species have a longer life, during which they have time to develop more roots and explore deeper parts of the soil, stimulating the soil’s life and improving its structure on a deeper level. Furthermore, they can benefit from resources present in deeper soil layers which aren’t normally exploited. 

4 – Integrate livestock: through integral grazing which improves crops diversity and nutrient recycling (https://regenerationinternational.org/2017/02/24/what-is-regenerative-agriculture/).

Ruminants are magnificent beings and possess a unique skill: they know how to absorb This is something us humans aren’t able to do. This is something we don’t have the ability to do. They also add manure to the fields, which is full of nutrients and provides food and shelter for many insects. Furthermore, they decorate the countryside in a very pretty way adding value to landscapes and tourism.

The basic concepts of regenerative agriculture

We can say that regenerative agriculture is a combination of already known elements: it combines conservation agriculture, holistic grazing, an increased biodiversity, and often organic agriculture. 


Note: this article has a second part where we show different excursions that we have made to farms with regenerative farming practices.

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