The term “regenerative agriculture” is gaining prominence in climate-related conversations. It dates back to the 1980s when Robert Rodale coined the term, “regenerative organic agriculture” as way to express that organic should be more than simply avoiding chemical inputs. The term has been defined and re-defined by many different authors, sometimes describing very different concepts from each other. Some recurring themes have been soil, closing matter and energy cycles, and net-positive contributions to the environment.
A recent study screened 28 peer-reviewed articles on this topic and proposes a unified definition of regenerative agriculture as:
“…an approach to farming that uses soil conservation as the entry point to regenerate and contribute to multiple provisioning, regulating and supporting ecosystem services, with the objective that this will enhance not only the environmental, but also the social and economic dimensions of sustainable food production.”
The authors of the study found that the main convergent environmental objectives of regenerative agriculture in literature are (1) resource management, (2) water quality and availability and (3) alleviation of climate change with a strong focus on improving soil quality. It also promotes certain practices to reach those objectives, such as minimizing external inputs, mixed farming, minimizing tillage, etc. However, beyond that, regenerative agriculture remains a rather diversely defined concept.
What then is the role of regenerative agriculture to combat climate change?
During a recent TEDCountdown event for mitigating climate change, Climate Impact Scholar Johan Rockström expressed concern about the fast deterioration of the health of our planet: Today, 9 out of the 15 climate-regulating biophysical systems show signs of decline and are potentially approaching tipping points. While this was expected, it is happening faster than projected. Agriculture uses 30-40% of the Earth’s land surface with a disproportionate effect on biodiversity, climate, and water cycles. According to FAO, 52% of global agricultural land is degraded which in turn makes farmers and their land more vulnerable to climate change. Agricultural practices are major drivers of reduction of biodiversity, the sharp rise in the atmospheric concentration of nitrous oxide, and conversion of forests to arable lands. Although not all agricultural systems are degenerative, it is crucial that global agricultural practices are designed to go beyond sustainability and enhance the restoration of natural ecosystems by adding elements of a circular economy that emphasise efficient water, carbon, and nutrient cycles. And this is exactly what regenerative agriculture is set out to achieve.
Now, the big question is, whether regenerative agriculture can deliver against that objective. Or put differently: Do the practices associated with regenerative agriculture help mitigate climate change? For now, the answer remains subject to scientific debate. For example, the carbon-sequestering benefits of no-till and cover cropping, which are among the core tenets of regenerative agriculture, were long uncontested. Recent research though, calls into question whether that is as universally true as previously assumed.
While the scientific benefits of regenerative agriculture continue to evolve, it’s contribution may turn out to be two-fold. Firstly, it puts us in the right frame of mind. It reminds us that food and agricultural systems must go beyond not degrading; they must build and enhance ecosystems. Secondly, it prompts us to critically evaluate apparent solutions and to keep fine-tuning our understanding and management of agricultural carbon, water and nutrient cycles. Aiming for the right goalpost and constantly refining our practices and tools to get there will be the basis for any climate action, call it regenerative agriculture or something else.