Regenerative Agriculture

by Ian Perkin* 

Regenerative Agriculture is a system of holistic land management practices that leverage the power of photosynthesis in plants to close the carbon cycle, and build soil health, crop resilience and nutrient density. It can be defined as a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds and enhances ecosystem services.(International 2018)

“Regenerative Agriculture” describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.(Massy 2017)

Regenerative agriculture is firmly based on principles described by Massy, Yeomans, Andrews, Savory, Tudge, Berry, Ikerd and many others.

Charles Massy describes regenerative agriculture as more than just sustaining something, but rather an active rebuilding or regeneration of existing systems towards full health. (Massy 2017) The term regenerative agriculture began to be used in the late 1980’s to describe agricultural systems that go beyond sustainability towards regeneration (Massy 2017) and is a term that covers a broad spectrum of agricultural and land management activities.  Charles Eisenstein, taking a bigger picture view describes regenerative agriculture as more than a shift of practices.  It is a shift in paradigm and in our basic relationship to nature. Regenerative agriculture seeks to mimic and participate in nature, not dominate it. (Eisenstein 2018) Eisenstein believes we have become separated from nature and from each other and it is this separation that we need to address. (Eisenstein 2013) The re establishment and strengthening of the relationship between people and nature is a cornerstone of regenerative agriculture

The principles of regenerative agriculture form the basis of a number of other developing agricultural systems across the globe. Colin Tudge describes Enlightened Agriculture as an Agrarian Renaissance bringing new types of farms – polycultural, low-input, skills intensive with appropriate markets and culture. He describes present day agriculture as being above all – industrialised, and a system that is failing to produce good food or to care for the land. (Tudge 2016, Tudge 2019)  Jules Pretty talks about a phase of ecolution and the need to recognize the tightly coupled nature of ecological and social systems, pointing out that our condition is linked to that of the planet. (Pretty 2007) He talks about ecoagriculture and suggests that agricultural systems with high levels of social and human assets will be more able to innovate in the face of uncertainty. (Pretty 2002) Simon Fairlie makes a good case for an ongoing involvement of livestock in agricultural systems and argues for moving towards a permaculture livestock economy. (Fairlie 2010) Judith Schwartz discusses the absolute importance of soil and presents an argument for the role of livestock in building soil, reversing desertification and mitigating climate change. (Schwartz 2013)

Ecological Agriculture is another term for a new ecological approach to agriculture. The Australian Institute of Ecological Agriculture believes that ecology is the foundation stone of all agriculture. The AIEA believes farming ecologically is the most appropriate road to producing healthy food and environment in a world beset with falling carbon reserves coupled with the dangers of climate change (AIEA 2018).

Disillusionment with the industrialised model of farming has resulted in the development of a wide range of alternative approaches to the production of food, fibre and any other products of farming systems. Impacts attributed to the industrialised farming system on human health, biodiversity, ecological sustainability, animal welfare and climate change are now widely described and have lead to considerable discussion among farmers, researchers, activists and consumers. These discussions have spawned the above descriptions and movements among many others.

Organic Agriculture has developed along with this movement, as an important principle of Regenerative Agriculture is reduction of artificial and non-renewable inputs. Organic agriculture has become a rapidly growing agricultural sector world wide.

The 2017 edition of FiBL and IFOAM’s statistical yearbook The World of Organic Agriculture, based on data from the end of 2015, shows that the organic market worldwide has grown to more than US$80 billion, with strong growth expected to continue in coming years. Consumer demand for organic products is increasing, as evidenced by double-digit growth in most major markets, including the largest organic market on the planet, the United States (Willer 2017).

The global market for organic food reached US$81.6 billion (AU$103.4b) in 2015, with most major organic markets demonstrating double-digit annual growth. The US led the pack at AU$53.4 billion; Germany ranked second at AU$12.8 billion. France came in third at AU$8.2 billion, with China hot on its heels at AUD$7 billion (but likely to grow faster than any other market).

More primary producers worldwide are farming organically and more land is now ‘certified organic’. By the end of 2015, reports the FiBL-IFOAM study, a total of 50.9 million hectares were managed according to organic principles – that’s 6.5 million more hectares farmed organically than were reported in 2014. This is the largest annual growth in organic farm and rangeland ever recorded. Australia continued to claim the largest organic acreage at 27.1 million hectares, up significantly from 17.5m hectares a year earlier. Most of Australia’s organic agricultural acreage is extensive grazing land used to raise ‘free-range’ grass-fed beef cattle (Willer 2017).

PHILOSOPHICAL UNDERPINNINGS

The movement towards organic, regenerative and ecological agriculture has solid philosophical underpinnings and for many advocates the agricultural and land management practices that the movement employs form an integral part of an holistic approach to life. Awareness of the perils of moving away from nature have been documented since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s Wordsworth wrote, “Getting and spending we have laid waste our powers, little we see in nature that is ours” and Hopkins bemoaned, “… and nor can foot feel being shod”.  John Clare wrote with feeling and an accuracy born of experience of the impacts of the enclosure of the commons and the nascent development of industrial agriculture (Clare 1964).

Thoreau and Thomas Berry describe the awakening sense of the need for appreciation of grandeur in the natural world for human development to continue and the importance of understanding where we, humans, fit in the universe (Thoreau 1960, Berry 1999). Thomas Berry makes a compelling case for change based on awareness of the crisis and an appreciation of the place of humans in the broader cosmos.

The transformation required is a transformation from an anthropocentric norm of reality and value to a biocentric or geocentric norm.  This will affect every aspect of our human thought and action. “

“Each particular being in the universe is needed by the entire universe.  With this understanding of our profound kinship with all life, we can establish the basis for a flourishing earth community” (Berry 2006).

Wendell Berry, the American farmer poet describes in detail the removal of people from the landscape, the loss of knowledge, skill and stewardship and the resultant decline in the health of people and land (Berry 1981, Berry 2018).

Alan Savory, who has worked and taught extensively throughout Africa, the Americas and Australia describes the situation in graphic detail  “poor land leads to poor people, social upheaval and political unrest” (Savory 1988).

Timothy Morton, the Philosopher Prophet of the Anthropocene talks about the trauma humans suffer as a result of severing the connection with non-human beings (Morton 2018). He talks about coexisting in a non violent manner with non-human beings and transitioning to caring about non-humans in a more conscious way (Morton 2018) Charles Eisenstein says “Human intervention is necessary to restore ecosystems to a state of health.  The question is not whether to participate, but how.” (Eisenstein 2018)

It is apparent from reading and talking to practitioners that regenerative agriculture, ecological agriculture and enlightened agriculture entail much more that a series of agricultural practices and ways of interacting with the landscape. These approaches, in fact involve a belief system, an entire philosophy and way of life and have common threads across the planet. The philosophical beliefs underpinning regenerative agriculture are shared across the world and are shared by urban and rural people, city and country dwellers.

AUSTRALIA

Australia has a long and valuable history of innovation in agricultural practices and modern, researchers, writers and farmers such as Charles Massy, Christine Jones, David Holmgren, Peter Andrews, Bruce Maynard and Col Seis are in the forefront of the movement towards a regenerative agriculture. Two hundred years of attempting to introduce European crops, animals and management systems to a profoundly differently environment have taken their toll and the time is right for change.

In Australia we are fortunate to have the experience of thousands of years of land management on which to draw and publications by Stephen Muecke, Bill Gammage and Bruce Pascoe have shed light on the incredibly complex land management systems employed by Indigenous Australians. (Muecke 1996, Gammage 2012, Pascoe 2014) Indigenous Australians lived with a unique understanding of the Australian environment, which encompassed cultural, spiritual and practical aspects of living. As with western poets and philosophers from Wordsworth to Morton, Indigenous Australians talk of the connections between humans and the non-human world.  Big Bill Neidjie (Neidjie 1989) says –

Listen carefully this, you can hear me.

I’m telling you because earth just like mother

and father or brother of you.

that tree same thing

Deborah Bird Rose talks of indigenous understanding of the connection between ecological and human rights and the requirement of recognizing that link if we are going to be able to truly care for country (Rose 1996). David Tacey has written eloquently on the importance of spiritual connection to land and the potential for indigenous knowledge and our ancient landscape to facilitate a true connection to country and a spiritual revival (Tacey 1995). The opportunity for that potential to be realized is growing in Australia as indigenous communities and people own and manage considerable areas of the country and recognition is growing of the sophistication and complexity of indigenous relationships to land. The ongoing process of reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians is absolutely fundamental to the future of survival in this country.

Authors and practitioners who have had a major influence on regenerative agriculture throughout Australia include PA Yeomans, Peter Andrews, Bill Mollison, David Holmgren, Allan Savoury and Charles Massy. (Yeomans 1981, Savory 1988, Mollison 1990, Andrews 2001, Massy 2017, Holmgren 2019)

Regenerative agriculture in Australia has developed its own unique approaches and has naturally tended to concentrate on issues which are of particular concern in the Australian environment. (Perkins 2008) These include extensive livestock management, management of water flows and water conservation in the landscape, fire management, soil health, salinity management and prevention and cropping and food production in an environment of unpredictable and highly variable rainfall. Areas of focus include –

  • grazing land management through holistic resource management theories, including such practical applications as time control grazing and self herding
  • water management based on Keyline and Natural Sequence Farming ideas
  • pasture cropping and conservation tillage using the techniques pioneered by Colin Seiss
  • the use of edible trees and shrubs in grazing situations
  • soil health, Australian soils are generally considered poor from an agricultural perspective and appropriate soil management is a key component of regenerative agriculture
  • carbon sequestration using a range of measurable techniques including savannah burning (Langton 1998, O’Brien 2012)

Livestock form an integral part of many regenerative agriculture systems and livestock are seen as an indispensible element of an integrated semi-natural environment, providing benefits such as carbon sequestration, soil disturbance, nutrient distribution and weed control. (Savory 1988, Harvey 2002, Pollan 2006, Fairlie 2010) Using a grazing system that ensures greater than 50% of the available green leaf remains after a grazing period results in more forage production, greater carbon sequestration and improved water retention (Jones 2018). Intensive grazing followed by rest, the value of animal impact and the use of natural herding behaviour are principles of grazing management which are now implemented widely across the extensive pasture lands of Australia. Flexible fencing and watering systems and self herding strategies are utilized to practice a variety of rotational grazing methods and a majority of Australia’s grazing animals are now managed under a type of rotational grazing system. The impacts of this change in management on soil health, biodiversity and animal production are widely recognized.

In a dry continent with unpredictable rainfall, water management and alternative approaches to movement, storage and water flows are an important component of regenerative agricultural systems in Australia and are described by practical land managers such as PA Yeomans and Peter Andrews. (Yeomans 1981, Andrews 2001) Holding water in the landscape, encouraging water infiltration and storage in the soil are critical components of regenerative agriculture in this country and the implementation of these principles is providing results across a diversity of situations throughout Australia (Mulloon 2019).

The pasture cropping revolution introduced by Colin Seis and Daryl Cluff in 1993 and conservation tillage have enabled Australian farmers to expand cropping to more arid areas and are being used to deal with salinity problems which have affected much of Australia’s cropping land. Conservation tillage, while extensively practiced across Australia’s cropping lands enabling moisture to be stored in the soil and the restoration of soil structure is heavily reliant on chemical use and does not fit into the category of regenerative agriculture. Pasture cropping however, reduces cultivation and works with nature to improve ground cover, water infiltration and use, soil structure and carbon storage in soil and is a technique being utilized widely across Australia’s cropping and grazing lands (Perkins 2008, Seis 2018)

Australian soils are generally considered to be low in nutrients, frequently highly erodible and fragile. Soil health has seen a resurgence in interest and understanding in Australia as in many parts of the world and this includes an appreciation of the life within the soil. Regenerative agriculture is a movement beginning in the soil. Elaine Ingham, Christine Jones and others in Australia have focused on soil health, soil microbiology and promotion of management techniques to enhance the life in the soil (Jones 2018, Ingham 2019) while David Montgomery has written extensively on “dirt” from a more global perspective. “Extending the life of our civilization will require reshaping agriculture to respect the soil not as an input to an industrial process, but as the living foundation for material wealth – as something other than dirt” (Montgomery 2008). This focus on soil, while not uniquely Australian is critical to regenerative agriculture in this country.

Organic agriculture is rapidly growing in Australia as it is in many parts of the world. Australia has the world’s largest area of land under organic certification, 27.1 million hectares (Willer 2018). This represents 53% of the world’s organic farmland (Monk 2017).  The area involved is largely a reflection of the extensive scale of beef production in central and northern Australia where significant numbers of cattle are run on large areas under relatively natural systems. The number of certified organic operations is growing in Australia and the organic market is expected to surpass a value of $2 billion in 2018. (Monk 2017)

The annual growth of this market is estimated at 6.5% in the period 2015-2020. Large supermarkets stocking organic produce have increased the convenience of purchasing organic products by the general public. It is estimated that over 60% of all organic food sales are attributable to supermarkets. Meat & Livestock Australia, the peak meat industry body, have estimated that organic beef sales increased by 127% from 2011 to 2014. Despite such high growth, certified organic beef producer numbers remained relatively low, with an estimated 195 producers across Australia in 2013. (Wills 2015)

MLA are also heavily involved in the grass fed beef sector and have concluded that branded grassfed beef is a growth sector and more processors and retailers are launching programs that make guarantees to consumers about lifetime nutrition, meat eating quality, animal welfare standards, antibiotic and chemical use, and lifetime traceability. (Wills 2015)

Small scale organic and chemical free food production is increasing across Australia. Farmer’s markets with an organic or clean production focus can be found in capital cities and regional towns and cities across Australia. These markets provide opportunities for consumers to meet producers and encourage local production and consumption.  Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) models are found in many larger cities and community gardens are flourishing in many regional centres as well as large cities. Australians are per capita the world’s 16th highest spenders on organic produce buying mainly fruit and vegetables, eggs and dairy products. (Parkes 2018) There has been little government or industry support for organic agriculture in the past unlike some in European countries such as Denmark, and the organic sector remains small relative to conventional agriculture. However, this is changing and the organic market is expected to grow by 18.2% in the current year.(IBIS 2018)  Demand for organic products is driven largely by health concerns, a desire to know where food is coming from and a hunger to connect with production of food. (Perkins 2008)

As in other parts of the world organic certification is subject to interpretation and there are examples of industrial organic agriculture which do not fit the term regenerative agriculture. Small scale regional and local food production is in many cases filling gaps resulting from the industrialisation of organic agriculture.

Australia has a highly urbanised population in a very large country, most of which is lightly populated.  Much of Australian agriculture is conducted at considerable distance from population centres and in the form of medium to large scale enterprises. A large proportion of Australian agricultural output is exported. Innovative approaches aimed at facilitating regional production and consumption such as farmer’s markets, community supported agriculture and eco communities do exist but it will require innovative approaches to develop this movement beyond the current small scale. Examples of innovation that encompass governance, ownership, finance and distribution as well as production do exist in Australia as well as in other parts of the world including Food Connect in Queensland (FoodConnect 2019), The Agrarian Trust in the USA (Trust 2019) and Colin Tudge’s Campaign for Real Farming (Tudge 2019). These initiatives and many others have elements that will facilitate a shift towards sustainable regional production and consumption in this country and are facilitating change at a number of levels.

Charles Massy summarises the Australian situation well in his book, The Call of the Reed Warbler. (Massy 2017) He describes five landscape functions based on Savoury’s work –

  1. the solar energy function (focused on maximizing the capture of solar energy by fixing as many plant sugars by photosynthesis as possible),
  2. the water cycle (focused on maximizing the infiltration, storage and recycling of water in the soil),
  3. the soil mineral cycle (focused on encouraging biologically active and healthy soils that contain and recycle a rich and diverse lode of minerals and chemicals),
  4. dynamic ecosystems (focused on maximum diversity and health of integrated ecosystems at all levels) and,
  5. the human–social aspect (focused on human agency triggering landscape regeneration by working in harmony with natural systems) (Massy 2017) .

CONCLUSION

Regenerative agriculture is a term which describes old and new practices and approaches and is in itself a dynamic expression. The growth of regenerative agriculture is documented across the world and has the potential to bring about positive change to land use and management and to the essential relationship between people and nature with wide ranging results.

In a recent publication edited by Paul Hawken, titled Drawdown, in which an international coalition of scientists and practitioners researched and modelled the one hundred most substantive ways we can reverse global warming, regenerative agriculture figured prominently.  The study concluded that from an estimated 108 million acres of current adoption regenerative agriculture will increase to a total of 1 billion acres by 2050. This increase could result in a total reduction of 23.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide, from both sequestration and reduced emissions. (Hawken 2018)

A report published by the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (ibpes) in May 2019 has highlighted the plight of biodiversity across the planet and sheeted a considerable proportion of the responsibility for loss of biodiversity to agricultural practices (IBPES 2019). The importance of regenerative agriculture for the future of our planet cannot be overstated.

As in the original definition by Charles Massy, regenerative agriculture has the potential to address a range of issues caused by the industrial agricultural model while also facilitating a closer and more meaningful relationship with the non-human aspects of our world.

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*Ian grew up on a sheep farm in Western Australia; trained as a vet; and has spent 35 years in the agricultural sector as a vet, a researcher and a resource manager.  Much of his current consultancy work is with indigenous people and community land and enterprise management using the principles of regenerative agriculture. 

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