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The 5 key principles of regenerative agriculture

In this step, we explore the 5 key principles of regenerative agriculture.
A farmer will soil on his hand
© EIT Food

In the previous steps, we’ve explained that regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that enriches soils, increases biodiversity, improves watersheds and enhances ecosystem services.

In this step, we’ll explore the principles of regenerative agriculture.

1 Figure 1: EIT Food´s 5 Principles of Regenerative Agriculture

Minimising soil disturbance

The most important aspect of regenerative agriculture is soil health, because soil is ultimately the most valuable asset on the farm. Some of the key techniques being used in regenerative agriculture to increase soil health are no tillage, cover crops, rotation cropping, reduced use of chemical inputs and the integration of plants and animals.

Minimising the use of chemical inputs

Chemicals damage the soil organic matter and fertility, reduce biodiversity, increase CO2 emissions, and much more. Regenerative agriculture works according to a whole ecosystem approach, meaning aiming to work with nature instead of against it. When taking farm management decisions the whole farming ecosystem is considered.

“Some see regenerative agriculture as farming more like the way it used to be before the shift to greater mechanisation and chemical use in the 1950s and 1960s encouraged monocultures* and ever larger farms. But it’s about future-facing innovation – learning how to farm more effectively based on science and the nature of your farm.”

Philip Fernandez, Agriculture Project Manager at EIT Food

*Monoculture: the cultivation of a single crop in a given area.

Maximising biodiversity, both animal and plants

These are put into practice under a general, guiding principle of integrating all the farm’s operations as far as possible. In today’s conventional farming approach, crops and livestock production are typically kept separate. Regenerative agriculture combines them in circular ecosystems; essentially, the animals feed the plants, and the plants feed the animals. The regulated grazing of sheep or cows, for example, encourages plant growth, and distributes natural nutrients back over the land in the form of dung. Poultry also fertilises land, as well as eating unwelcome bugs and weeds.

The role of animals in agroecosystems will be explored in week 2

Keeping the soil covered with crops as long as possible

The focus of regenerative farming is most commonly on the quality and performance of the soil, and for good reason. In 2017, the United Nations Global Land Outlook report found that a third of the planet’s land was severely degraded through erosion, salinisation, compaction, acidification, and chemical pollution, and fertile soil was being lost at the rate of 24bn tonnes a year. This confirmed the risk alluded to two years earlier in 2015 by UN Director-General José Graziano da Silva when he warned at the time that “Further loss of productive soils would severely damage food production and food security, amplify food-price volatility, and potentially plunge millions of people into hunger and poverty.”[1]

Growing crops can also remove and add nutrients, and regenerative farmers use growing practices that improve the health of their land. The more common regenerative farming methods include:

  • No-till systems, which heavily reduce the digging and ploughing that can lead to loosened top soil being blown soil whenaway by wind or carried away by water.
  • Cover crops, which are grown in the the main commercial crop has been harvested, and can be grazed by livestock or harvested themselves.
  • Increasing biodiversity, which increases the variety of nutrients going into the soil through roots and natural decomposition and, if well-managed, attracts insects which are the natural predators of pests.
  • Rotating crops, so that what is being taken out and put into soil naturally by plants is balanced.
  • Integrating livestock, so as to combine animals and plants in a single ecosystem.
  • Minimising chemical inputs, to minimise negative impact on biodiversity and pollution of waterways due to runoff.

Adapting to the local environment

All of the involved stakeholders are also taken into consideration and mutually beneficial relationships are established between them.

The farm is a dynamic environment and continuous improvement and growth is pursued to realise the full potential of the farm, community and individuals. Some regenerative farmers look to build stronger links with workers and local communities, adding a social dimension to their vision.[2]

One challenge – perhaps the greatest one – facing farming in the 21st century is to maintain production levels that will ensure affordable food for the world, while keeping methods and inputs sustainable.

© EIT Food
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The Regenerative Agriculture Revolution

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