Regenerative agriculture is an opportunity to create positive environmental outcomes through agriculture while supporting farmers’ livelihoods and achieving truly sustainable financial returns. A shift to regenerative agriculture is the way forward, and it requires a fundamental transformation of our agriculture system, from one focused exclusively on maximizing yield and efficiency to one that pursues economic, environmental and social outcomes.
Conventional farming is one of the world’s greatest drivers of climate change and biodiversity loss, and we’re running out of time to reverse its adverse effects. But there is good news too: the largest study ever done on sustainable farming supports the idea that regenerative agriculture could be the answer to turning it all around. The study found that enhancing biodiversity on farms does not compromise yields, contrary to the longstanding belief held by many across the agricultural industry.
This finding has huge implications for agriculture as we know it. Over the course of the 20th century, we’ve witnessed dramatic increases in agricultural output. While this so-called “green revolution” lived up to its promise to enhance food security and production in some parts of the world, it has also taken a huge toll on our planet. With agriculture claiming half of the world's habitable land, around one million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction. Conventional farming methods like the over-application of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides and relentless tilling have set off another chain of negative effects, including extreme water and soil pollution (an estimated 25% of arable soils worldwide are degraded). As if that weren't enough, agriculture also accounts for 24% of all human-made greenhouse emissions.
The bottom line is our farming system urgently needs an overhaul. But what if our global farming system, when reimagined, could not just reduce harm to the health of the Earth but also improve it, all while feeding a growing population and creating better livelihoods for farmers along the way?
Enter regenerative agriculture: a conservation and rehabilitation approach to food production. It uses specific agricultural practices like increasing plant diversity and integrated pest and weed management to improve crop quality and output as well as the land and ecosystems where the crops are grown. A farmer moving to regenerative practices might start by planting specific types of trees or shrubs alongside or in-between crops. This agroforestry technique can increase carbon sequestration while conserving biodiversity and increasing soil fertility and health. This leads to crops that are more resistant to pests and diseases, which promotes stronger yields and eventually decreases the need for external inputs like pesticides.
This is hardly a novel concept. Traditional farmers and Indigenous peoples have been developing and practicing forms of cultivation similar to regenerative agriculture for eons. Take the farming model of the Aztecs called “chinampas”, for example, which has been used to sustainably grow food with high production rates through a system of floating islands.
Today, more and more farmers are reaping the benefits of regenerative agriculture. In Costa Rica, the 1,000-hectare Aquiares coffee estate undertook a sustainability transformation with the Rainforest Alliance 17 years ago, transitioning from a full-sun monoculture approach to cultivating shade-grown coffee. Now the farm is home to more than 50,000 native trees, 140 bird species, and has connected two important wildlife corridors. In line with the findings from November's study, Aquiares confirms that yields haven't been affected. Meanwhile, the quality of the estate’s coffee has improved, which allows them to command higher prices.
Still, for many farmers, especially smallholders (who account for 30-40% of global food production), the transition to regenerative practices can seem like a steep hurdle. Volatile crop prices and the ever-increasing impacts of climate change mean that farmers are often already struggling to make ends meet and need to have full confidence that an investment in regenerative agriculture will actually benefit them. This is where robust data, knowledge, and skills can help them make the leap.
Scaling regenerative agriculture should not fall on farmers’ shoulders alone—it will take a joint effort from actors across the supply chain. Food companies and retailers need to work towards more equitable power dynamics within their supply chain by investing in regenerative agriculture and rewarding farmers who embrace regenerative practices with a higher price. Governments and intergovernmental organizations must rethink how to shape future policy, stimulus packages, and rural development plans so that they incentivize regenerative agriculture. Also key is educating consumers to make more conscious food choices which will grow demand for products produced through regenerative agriculture. While the role of financial institutions and investors is often overlooked, they stand to serve as a real catalyst for the transition by making investment decisions that bolster regenerative food systems. This includes providing long-term loans to farmers looking to transform their farms into regenerative ones. Lastly, civil society has an important role to play by driving funding, research, and field programs with technical training and by linking smallholder farmers to markets.
With regenerative agriculture, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to turn one of the greatest threats to the climate and biodiversity into one of the greatest solutions. One where food production is secure and farmers and nature thrive. What are we waiting for?
First published on Thomson Reuters Foundation