Top Practices and Systems in Regenerative Agriculture

In our recent blog on ‘Regenerative Agriculture and Climate Change,’ we explored the prospects of regenerative agriculture in combating climate change. Its benefits are continuously evolving and still core to controversial scientific debates. However, we concluded that regenerative agriculture is an approach that puts us in the right frame of mind. It means thinking beyond minimising or halting our negative impacts – it advocates that food and agricultural systems must build and enhance ecosystems. This is crucial, giving the fact that agriculture is a major driver of biodiversity loss, conversion of forests to arable lands and the sharp rise in the atmospheric concentration of nitrous oxide. Regenerative agriculture also prompts us to constantly evaluate our understanding of agricultural cycles and refine our practices and tools based on the latest climate science.

As a sequel, this blog takes stock of the common approaches and practices in regenerative agriculture. We reviewed articles promoting regenerative agriculture from organisations including the Climate Reality Project, FAO, Rodale Institute and Regeneration International, Rainforest Alliance and EIT Food, as well as three scientific papers by Giller et al. (2021), Schreefel et al. (2020) and Newton et al. (2020) that screened over 250 academic publications on regenerative agriculture.

From these we extracted the five most mentioned practices and the three most mentioned whole systems approaches of regenerative agriculture.

EIT-Food

Top 5 practices

1. Minimised external inputs

Most regenerative agriculture systems try to cycle nutrients, carbon and water within the farming system as much as possible and minimise the need to add external inputs like fertilisers and pesticides (especially synthetic ones) by harnessing natural cycles and control systems. As a consequence, this also minimises negative impacts on biodiversity and pollution of waterways due to runoff.

2. Livestock integration/mixed farming

Consequently, regenerative agriculture usually integrates crop and livestock farming to maximise the use and efficiency of crop residues as animal feed and bedding, and that of manure to return nutrients to pastures and fields.

3. Conservation tillage, minimised tillage and no-till

As the Climate Reality Project describes it, the aim of reducing or avoiding tillage is to ‘mess with it [the soil] less’. This leaves the soil’s layers undisturbed and can protect vulnerable soil from erosion and compaction. It can also save fuel and allow farmers to use lighter machinery. While the agronomic and environmental pros and cons of conservation tillage, minimum tillage, no-till and co. may be the subject of never-ending debates among both scientists and farmers, these practices seem a staple of regenerative farming.

4. Crop rotation, including cover crops

For many farmers, diversified crop rotation has become an imperative for conventional and alternative farming systems alike. Crop rotation is appealing when chemical weed management options become fewer and less effective in monocrop systems and because diversity brings ecological functions. Never leaving the soil bare is often emphasised in regenerative agriculture, making cover crops an essential part of regenerative agriculture rotations.

5. Use of mulch, compost, green manure or crop residues

In a similar vein, adding mulch, compost or green manure – crops that are grown for the sole purpose to be incorporated in the soil – keeps the ground covered, adds and preserves organic matter and nutrients in the soil.

Other practices

The following practices are less mentioned but give a flavour of the rich variety of other regenerative agriculture practices.

  1. Use of conservation buffers: As defined by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), conservation buffers are small areas or strips of land strategically placed in the agricultural landscape to stop the movement of sediment, nutrients and chemical run-off within fields and from the farm to neighbouring ecosystems.
  2. Pasture cropping: Pasture farming Includes a variety of practices where annual crops such as grains are planted into a living perennial pasture thereby promoting agro-biodiversity.
  3. Planting native species and natural ecosystem restoration: The goal of this practice is to restore wildlife habitat thereby improving biodiversity. Promoting native species and restoring ecosystems undoubtedly improve biodiversity (both soil and above-ground) while often reducing the need for chemical inputs.
  4. Contour farming: Contours are usually made to protect vulnerable soils from water erosion and help reduce sediment and nutrient runoff, similar to buffer strips and increase water infiltration.
  5. Rotational grazing: Rotational grazing includes the movement of dense herds of livestock across pastures, mimicking the effect of large herds of hooved animals roaming natural grasslands.

Regenerative agriculture is a systemic approach and individual practices, like those listed above, are only some of the tools in the box that help farmers build, maintain and perfect that system. Some regenerative agriculture farmers are fierce individualists, who hew their own path through the thicket of farming possibilities, while others follow more or less clearly defined whole system approaches.

Top 3 whole systems approach

Whole system approaches are entire ecosystem perspectives of regenerative farming systems.

1. Agroforestry/Silvopasture

Agroforestry entails a variety of practices. If there is the integration of trees, shrubs, palms and bamboos in the agricultural landscape, it is agroforestry. The ultimate goal is to diversify and sustain production for increased social, economic and environmental benefits. Silvopasture is a form of agroforestry that involves intentionally managing livestock, trees and forage in the same productive space. The USDA Forest Service describes it as an intentional, intensive, interactive and integrated system of farming. Some common activities and themes of this approach are managed grazing and pasture cropping.

2. Agroecology

The FAO identified agroecology as a science and defined it as a management that involves applying social, economic and environmental principles to the relationship between plants, animals, humans and the environment for food security and nutrition. While agroecology was first en vogue in the 1990s, the term sees a renaissance especially in French and Spanish-speaking publications. In fact, many concepts and ideas put forward under the agroecology label are identical to what anglophones would call regenerative agriculture.

3. Permaculture

The Permaculture Research Institute describes it as the integration of landscape and people’s needs in a sustainable way, by observing and imitating well-functioning natural ecosystems. Permaculture has a philosophical aspect and in principle, it is similar to nature-based solutions and takes a holistic approach towards the design of land and agricultural systems that are first nature-centric.

Model Regenerative Agriculture in the Cool Farm Tool

The Cool Farm Tool can model the effects of many of the discussed practices and systems on greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity and water. Table 1 below summarises the top 5 regenerative agriculture practices and whole systems approach and to what extent they can be modelled with the Cool Farm Tool (CFT).

Top 5 Regenerative Agriculture practices

s/n  Regenerative Agriculture Practice Sources Can be modelled in CFT What/how is this modelled?
1 Minimised chemical inputs (fertilisers, pesticides, etc)  Schreefel et al (2020). Masterclass (2020). NRDC (2021). Agrifarming (2020). EIT Food (2020). Newton et al. (2020).Rainforest Alliance (2021) Yes Inputs are a main source of GHG emissions. Register and monitor inputs reduction & its effect over time on the “Input” tab.
2 Livestock integration Newton et al. Schreefel et al. Agrifarming (2020). Masterclass (2020). EIT Food (2020). Yes Monitor reduced fuel used for machinery; register manure as organic input. Applying organic amendments can sequester carbon if recently started.
3 Conservation tillage, minimised tillage and no-till EIT Food. Circulate, Medium (2019). NRDC. Heliae Development (2020). Schreefel et al. (2020). Agrifarming (2020). Newton et al. (2020). Giller et al. (2021). Climate reality (2019). Yes Model tillage practices on the “Carbon” tab. This can either release or store carbon and is only relevant if permanently implemented.
4 Crop rotation Schreefel et al. Regeneration International (2017). Rodale Institute (2014). Masterclass (2020). Newton et al. (2020). Climate reality (2019). Giller et al. (2021). Yes Crops must be assessed separately; model cover crops and their effects on the “Carbon” tab and distribute it across assessments; monitor effect on soil organic matter over time.
5 Use of mulch, compost, green manure, or crop residues Regeneration International. WRI (2020). Rodale Institute. Heliae Development. Agrifarming. NRDC. Schreefel et al. Newton et al. (2020). Giller et al. (2021) Yes Modelled on the “Carbon” tab as cover crop changes (for green manure), on the “Input” tab as organic fertiliser (incl. sequestration) and on the “Crop” tab as residue management options.

Top 3 whole systems approach to regenerative agriculture.

s/n Systems approach Sources Can be modelled in CFT What/how is this modelled?
1 Agroforestry  Giller et al. (2021). Regeneration International (2017). Circulate, Medium (2019). Schreefel et al (2020). Heliae Development (2020). NRDC (2021). Rainforest Alliance (2021) Yes Agroforestry can already be indicated via  “biomass changes” in the carbon tab; an improved uptake, together with Silvopasture, is evaluated as part of the future perennials metric.
2 Agroecology    FAO (2017). Circulate, Medium (2019). Regeneration international (2017). Giller et al. (2021).  Partially Depends on practices.
3 Permaculture  Agrifarming (2020). Permaculture Research Institute  Partially Certain practices could be indicated (e.g. nutrient cycles, energy, water, waste), but not the interaction of all ecosystems including animals & human beings. The Cool Farm Biodiversity Metric can quantify effects of management systems on biodiversity and species on-farm.