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In the age of supermarkets and global supply chains, many of us are several steps removed from the original source of the food on our plates. But how our food is grown matters, both to the quality of the food itself and to the wider environment.
According to the IPCC’s 2019 Special Report on Climate Change and Land, agriculture is directly responsible for around 8.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Once researchers factor in the impact of changing land use, such as clearing forests to create more space for growing crops, that figure comes closer to 23%.
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Some of those emissions are down to methane from meat farming. But arable farming is not blameless either. Intensive mechanised farming relies heavily on synthetic fertilisers, which create nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.
Along with dangerous pesticides and herbicides, these fertilisers can pollute our air, land, and waterways, disrupting ecosystems with devastating consequences.
If that wasn’t enough, intensive agriculture leans heavily towards monocultures that reduce biodiversity and leave crops vulnerable to pests and diseases. And it depletes the soil, the precious resource that we rely upon to grow healthy and nutritious food.
Why Should We Care for Our Soil?
Soil degradation is a global issue. It affects the ability of soil to grow healthy, nutrient-rich plants. That means the quality of the food we and other animals rely on diminishes, as does the amount we can grow.
As well as affecting the soil quality, soil degradation leaves land vulnerable to desertification and erosion. Eroded soils may then pollute waterways. And the degraded soil is less able to hold water, leading to more severe flooding.
With extreme weather events becoming more common, soil erosion only adds to the destructive impact of storms and hurricanes.
Finally, the soil is a vital ally in the battle against climate change. A carbon sink, soil contains approximately 3 times more carbon than is found in the atmosphere. Only the ocean has a larger carbon pool. But when the soil degrades, so too does its ability to sequester carbon.
According to an IPBES report released in 2018, land degradation has already reached critical levels, affecting 75% of the Earth’s land surface. The report’s authors warn that this represents a serious danger to human wellbeing. And the main cause is the unsustainable management of crop and grazing land.
All this paints a pretty grim picture of the impact of modern agriculture. But there is hope. Around the world, concerned farmers and growers are creating innovative responses to the challenge of feeding our growing population while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and repairing damage to the soil.
This movement is known as regenerative agriculture. And it is a vital tool in creating food resilience in the face of a changing climate.
What Is Regenerative Agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture is an umbrella term for a range of approaches to farming and growing food that aim to restore the health of our soils.
Water management, biodiversity, and reduced reliance on synthetic chemicals are also vital components. In short, regenerative agriculture is farming to improve the environment, instead of depleting it.
It is a holistic approach to farming that aims to mimic natural processes and work in harmony with the wider ecosystem.
There’s no hard and fast set of rules for what regenerative agriculture looks like. But, according to Groundswell, a regenerative agriculture festival, some of the most widely-used principles include:
Minimal Soil Disturbance
Conventional agriculture tills fields in between crop cycles. This reduces weed growth. But it also contributes to soil degradation by increasing erosion and disturbing the bugs and microbes that live within the soil and help to enrich it.
Regenerative agriculture sees the soil as a complex ecosystem in its own right, and aims to disturb it as little as possible, maintaining its structure and natural balance.
Reduced Use of Chemicals
The overuse of synthetic fertilisers affects the soil and contributes to global warming. Regenerative agriculture avoids heavy doses of synthetic fertilisers. Many regenerative farmers take a fully organic approach.
Constant Ground Cover
Bare soil is vulnerable to erosion. Keeping fields covered with plants all year round also maximises the amount of organic matter being put back into the soil. This helps to improve the fertility of the soil, keep its structure, and increase its ability to hold water.
In between their main crops, many regenerative farmers will plant fields with cover crops to maintain the ground cover year-round.
Diverse Range of Crops
Another big issue with conventional agriculture is its focus on monocultures – large areas of land planted with just one crop. This leaves crops vulnerable to disease and pests since plants of the same species can easily infect one another. It also reduces biodiversity and contributes to soil degradation.
Regenerative agriculture avoids monocultures in favour of a diverse range of crops. As well as crop rotation, farmers use companion planting to increase the biodiversity of their fields.
Embracing these principles has many benefits for both the land and the people, animals, and other organisms who rely upon it. Here are some examples of how regenerative agriculture works with natural systems to create food resilience.
Cutting Down on Chemicals
Regenerative farmers say their approach reduces the need for chemical fertilisers. By working with natural processes to protect the health of the soil, they can achieve decent yields without the need to spray their crops.
Fertilisers aren’t the only chemicals regenerative farms try to avoid. At Wakelyns Farm in Suffolk, an agroforestry approach has shown how more plant diversity can naturally reduce the impact of pests and disease on the growing crops, meaning there is less need to use harmful pesticides.
The farm was bought by Martin and Ann Wolfe in 1992. Martin Wolfe’s earlier career had been in agricultural science, and he’d already recorded how growing three different cereal crops together restricted the spread of disease and stabilised crop yield.
The couple started planting rows of trees amongst their cereal crops. 25 years later, Wakelyns is a thriving example of what can be achieved when we work with nature’s systems instead of against them. The Wolfes demonstrated that even simple mixing of crops can protect against pests and disease, without the need for harmful chemicals.
A 2020 paper published by Science Advances confirmed what the Wolfes already knew – encouraging biodiversity can protect crops from pests.
The study analysed the results from two long-running grassland biodiversity experiments. Researchers found that increasing plant diversity encouraged more predator insects. They in turn preyed on the herbivore insect species which eat crops, keeping their populations under control without the need for further human intervention.
Put simply, higher diversity = fewer pests = higher yields. All without the need for polluting fertilisers or harmful pesticides.
The global nature of our food supply has many unintended consequences. One of these is the loss of diversity in the types of crops that are grown around the world.
Once upon a time, every region had its own distinct crops. Now, however, soybeans, wheat, rice, and corn dominate almost 50% of the world’s agricultural land, according to a 2019 study by the University of Toronto.
Even within these species, genetic diversity is limited. For example, the researchers found that six individual genotypes account for around 50% of all the corn grown in North America.
As we’ve seen, reducing diversity leaves crops more susceptible to pests and disease. And it also affects our food sovereignty. As our regional foods are displaced by these global strains, it becomes harder for communities to access food that is significant to their culture.
When just four companies control over 60% of the agricultural seed sales, it leaves farmers and food systems alike even more vulnerable to the whims of market forces and global supply chains.
Regenerative agriculture aims to tackle this issue head-on. As well as planting plenty of different crops on their farms, regenerative farmers work to rediscover and cultivate a more diverse range of vegetable and cereal varieties.
Enter the Seed Sovereignty project, run by the Gaia Foundation. As well as teaching growers and small-scale farmers to save seeds, reducing their reliance on commercial suppliers, the project works across the UK and Ireland to support communities in conserving diverse varieties of vegetable seeds, oats, and grains.
By paying attention to the varieties they cultivate, saving seeds, and creating sharing networks, regenerative farmers help to build food resilience and ensure that a wide range of varieties remains available in the future.
As far back as 1997, research published in the British Food Journal showed that the amount of mineral nutrients in 20 fruits and 20 vegetables had significantly declined between the 1930s and the 1980s.
In short, our food has fewer nutrients now than it did even less than 100 years ago.
Heirloom strains are usually thought to be more nutritious than modern varieties. Of course, this rule of thumb doesn’t always apply.
One study published in the Journal of Plant Nutrition compared modern hybrid cabbages and heirloom varieties under different soil conditions. They found no significant difference in mineral nutrient composition between the modern and heritage cabbages.
But there are some important cases where modern varieties really are less nutritious than the heritage species they replaced.
Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire is home to the longest-running continuous agricultural experiments in the world. And researchers there confirm that the mineral content of wheat has decreased 20-30% since the 1960s.
They put this decline down to the increasing cultivation of modern wheat varieties that are bred for higher yields over mineral density. The increased starch in these grains reduces the levels of other nutrients, such as iron or zinc.
Since wheat is a staple food in many countries, including here in the UK, any reduction in nutritional value has a widely felt effect on health.
Fortunately, there are projects aiming to increase the availability of more nutritious wheat varieties. In Scotland, for example, a project called Scotland the Bread is bringing together small-scale farmers and concerned bakers to create flours made from heritage wheat, grown in Scottish soil.
When tested and compared with reference values, the flour from these heritage grains came out higher in eight out of nine minerals.
Restoring the Soil
Of course, the nutrients available in the soil have a vital role to play in the nutritional value of the final crop too.
According to Christine Jones, writing in Eco Farming Daily, even modern, high-yield crop varieties have a more complete nutritional profile when they are grown in healthy, bioactive soils.
By focusing on restoring soil health, farmers can increase the nutrients available to plants. In their turn, those plants then increase the nutritional value of our own diets.
It all starts with the soil.
Regenerative agriculture understands this. Soil health is the basis for everything, so farmers act to improve soils and replace the vital nutrients that have been lost through years of intensive farming.
Some of this comes directly from the way they plant and harvest crops. And some comes from what they put back into the soil.
Gardeners, commercial growers, and farmers alike have plenty of experience of using compost to improve soils. But many of those composts are based on peat from peatlands, which are themselves a vital carbon sink and an ancient ecosystem that provides a home for a wide range of species.
Fortunately, there are alternatives to peat-based composts for replenishing agricultural soils. Biochar is one – this carbon-rich substance is made from burning organic materials, such as wood, in the absence of oxygen.
Biochar helps to improve soils by adding nutrients, introducing air, and improving water retention. It also sequesters carbon in the soil, helping to reduce greenhouse gas levels.
Some farms have already started small-scale production of biochar, using waste wood and other organic matter as the raw material. And the government has recognised the potential of this carbon-rich soil improver too.
A consortium of partners, led by sustainability company, Sofies, recently won funding from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to test the commercial viability of using biochar for farming. The project will link one of the largest forestry and sawmilling businesses in the UK with a major farming cooperative, using waste from forestry to create the biochar that will enrich the farms’ soils.
The Future of Regenerative Agriculture
So, if regenerative agriculture can boost soil health, reduce chemical usage, give us better food, and decrease greenhouse gas emissions, why is it not yet a widely adopted approach?
Well, changing from conventional agriculture to a more regenerative approach takes time and money. While there is some grant funding and support available, farmers inevitably face some setbacks and loss of revenue while they adapt to the new model.
According to the Future Farming and Environmental Evidence Compendium, two-thirds of British farms already need to run additional money-making schemes alongside growing food. The average annual profit of farms is just £37,000, while 16% of farms made a loss between April 2014 and March 2017.
With the added uncertainty around what our farming landscape will look like post-Brexit, it is no surprise that many farmers are wary of taking the risk.
However, we should note that regenerative agriculture is becoming more mainstream. Once considered the preserve of the eco-fringe, growing concern over our planet’s future is inspiring more farmers to make changes, despite the potential risks.
Groups like the Landworkers Alliance and awareness-raising campaigns, such as the Groundswell Festival, are helping to make regenerative agriculture more accessible by providing farmers and growers with the skills and knowledge they need to make changes.
There’s also the question of whether regenerative agriculture could really feed our growing population. With lower yields, it requires more land to grow the same amount of food. And land space in the UK, as well as many other places in the world, is already at a premium.
Currently, that often leads to organic produce from regenerative farms being sold at higher prices, making it inaccessible to those on a lower income. Many farms are small operations, serving just their local areas. We need many more farms practising regenerative agriculture before these issues will change.
There’s hope. In 2021, the Food, Farming, & Countryside Commission (FFCC) published a report called ‘Farming for Change’. The report confirmed that regenerative agriculture can indeed feed the UK – as long as we make some changes to our national diet.
Moving away from sugary and highly processed foods and reducing our reliance on meat would be healthier for all of us, as well as making regenerative farming a viable option.
Later the same year, the National Food Strategy published ‘the Plan’. A wide-ranging document, it considers every aspect of producing food in the UK, from our farming practices to our eating habits to our reliance on trade.
Like the earlier FFCC report, the Plan pinpoints the need to change our diets and move to a more sustainable, regenerative form of agriculture.
Change is Possible
Our current method of growing food can’t continue. Unsustainable and environmentally damaging, conventional modern agriculture has no place in a world where minimising the impacts of climate change is an urgent priority.
Small-scale regenerative farmers are showing that a different way is possible. It requires a radical overhaul of how we grow and eat our food. But with the right incentives and investment, regenerative agriculture could become the norm and not the exception.
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Sources and further reading:
Shukla, P. R., Skea, J., Calvo Buendia, E., Masson-Delmotte, V., Pörtner, H. O., Roberts, D. C., … & Malley, J. (2019). IPCC, 2019: Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems.
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), Media Release: Worsening Worldwide Land Degradation Now ‘Critical’, Undermining Well-Being of 3.2 Billion People
Nature, Soil Carbon Storage
Groundswell, 5 Principles of Regenerative Agriculture
Wakelyns Farm, Our History
Barnes, A. D., Scherber, C., Brose, U., Borer, E. T., Ebeling, A., Gauzens, B., … & Eisenhauer, N. (2020). Biodiversity enhances the multitrophic control of arthropod herbivory. Science advances, 6(45), https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abb6603
Martin, A. R., Cadotte, M. W., Isaac, M. E., Milla, R., Vile, D., & Violle, C. (2019). Regional and global shifts in crop diversity through the Anthropocene. PLoS One, 14(2), e0209788. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0209788
ETC Group, Blocking the chain
Seed Sovereignty, Who We Are
Mayer, A. M. (1997). Historical changes in the mineral content of fruits and vegetables. British Food Journal. http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/00070709710181540
Barker, A. V., Eaton, T. E., Meagy, M. J., Jahanzad, E., & Bryson, G. M. (2017). Variation of mineral nutrient contents of modern and heirloom cultivars of cabbage in different regimes of soil fertility. Journal of Plant Nutrition, 40(17), 2432-2439. https://doi.org/10.1080/01904167.2017.1346682
Scotland the Bread, Grain research
Scotland the Bread, Balcaskie Landrace wheat, crop 2019
Rothamsted Research, About the Long Term Experiments
Rothamsted Research, Fact or Fake News: Is Our Food Becoming Less Nutritious?
Eco Farming Daily, Soil Restoration: 5 Core Principles
Sofies, Sofies celebrates victory in BEIS competition enabling the start of biochar innovation project to explore greenhouse gas removal for Arla’s farmer owners
the Food, Farming, & Countryside Commission, Farming for Change
The National Food Strategy, The Plan