Agriculture is a large industry with huge demand due to increasing population and food waste. It is a major source of pollution around the world with pesticides, fertilizers, burning fields, methane from livestock, etc. This pollution can runoff into marine ecosystems and leach into soil, and affect air and soil quality.
The agricultural industry is also a large consumer of the world’s freshwater, consuming excessive amounts of water, and degrading water quality.
Agriculture also contributes towards increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions being released into the atmosphere, for example, through the clearing of land to make more room for agricultural production. This practice is a major contributor of GHG emissions as trees are a carbon sink and store carbon, therefore, by clearing these trees their stored carbon is then released into the atmosphere.
All of these issues force us to rethink agriculture and consider adopting more sustainable agricultural practices. Some examples of sustainable agricultural practices include Vertical Farming, Urban Agriculture, as well as Regenerative Agriculture, which will be the focus of this article.
What is Regenerative Agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture is looking at agriculture as entities in a connected web, where each factor, soil, plants, additives (such as fertilizer or pesticide), livestock, etc. affects another in a complicated web, and is not a linear path. The idea behind it is to restore and maintain soil and ecosystem health, in order to keep our climate, land, water etc., safe and clean for our future. This kind of technique is not at all new, and has been followed by Indigenous people for generations.
This form of agriculture limits pesticide use and soil disturbance, while restoring the soil’s natural beneficial bacteria and other microbes. With these changes it is more inviting for insects and other wildlife.
Techniques in Regenerative Agriculture
With regenerative agriculture there is usually little to no tilling, in order to limit the disturbance to the soil, which includes chemical disturbance such as pesticides and fertilizers. Instead mulching and composting are used to bring back beneficial bacteria to the soil, and cover crops are also used to provide that cover to the soil. Cover crops are crops that are not sold but provide other benefits such as providing cover for the soil to prevent erosion, keeping living roots in the soil, acting as water retention, and weed suppression. The importance of keeping living roots in the soil is the fact that these roots will stabilize the soil, cycling water and nutrients so they don’t result in runoff or erosion.
Another technique is the use of buffers. These are areas of land that act as a barrier to protect or prevent specific environmental issues. Growing rows of shrubs or trees along the barrier of your land does not only provide a form of privacy but can also act as a windbreak and habitats for different organisms. Riparian buffers are those near streams that again can act as a habitat, protect water quality by filtration, and also minimize flooding.
Integrating animals such as livestock is also a technique followed in regenerative agriculture. Manure from livestock can be used as natural fertilizer, providing nutrients to the soil without the need for chemical fertilizers. Livestock can also be used as a “natural mower” by rotating them between fields to graze on long grass or weeds, but also prevents overgrazing. This technique mimics the natural way animals move in herds through grasslands.
The last one we will discuss is the limited use of pesticides. This helps in reducing pest resistance, and preventing the leaching of toxic chemicals into soil and groundwater which could negatively affect human health.
There is an advantage in cost savings as there is no need for extra additives such as fertilizer or pesticides. There is also a health benefit as workers are no longer being exposed to these chemicals in big doses and this limits the negative effects they may have on their health. Many farmers and ranchers have also reported the feeling of security, joy and connectedness to their professions, as well as the opportunity to share their knowledge and resources to encourage others.
Regenerative agriculture is also beneficial for the improvement of soil health, as well as the reduction of pollution, and the increase in biodiversity. Healthier soils result in an increase in beneficial microbes and bacteria; increase in water retention; as well as less erosion and therefore better carbon cycling and retention of carbon in soil, which in turn reduces GHG emissions. These all make the soil more resistant to extreme weather patterns such as flooding and droughts.
On the other hand, regenerative agriculture presents certain disadvantages. For example, the knowledge needed to be able to follow regenerative agricultural techniques poses a barrier for many in this sector. All this information and other options may not be easy for farmers and others to acquire or have access to, as well as the skills necessary. Fortunately, this is a problem that can be solved with an increase in availability of necessary training and resources.
The fact that regenerative agriculture involves little to no tilling also results in another disadvantage, as it increases the possibility of having more unwelcomed plants which may take more work and time to maintain or get rid of. Consequently, instead of using pesticides, farmers may lean more to using herbicides as a replacement.
Another disadvantage is the possibility of lower yields, however this is dependent on the local condition and crop. Lastly, regenerative agriculture takes time. Transitioning from industrial to regenerative agriculture can take a significant amount of time and a lot of planning, again referring back to the education and skills that need to be made available to make this as smooth a transition as possible.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation. (2022). Regenerative Agriculture. https://www.cbf.org/issues/agriculture/regenerative-agriculture.html
European Institute of Innovation and Technology. (2020). Can regenerative agriculture replace conventional farming?. https://www.eitfood.eu/blog/can-regenerative-agriculture-replace-conventional-farming
Natural Resources Defense Council. (2021). Regenerative Agriculture 101. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/regenerative-agriculture-101
World Wildlife Fund. (2022). Sustainable Agriculture. https://www.worldwildlife.org/industries/sustainable-agriculture
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