The What and Why of Regenerative Agriculture

The short version

  • Photosynthesis moves carbon from the atmosphere back into the soil. This is what the principles of regenerative agriculture are based upon (Qvale and Sletsjøe 2022). The carbon provides food and energy to the micro-organisms in the soil, which in turn convert nutrients in the soil into forms the plants can take up.
  • Regenerative agriculture is therefore about building the micro-life in the soil while recognizing that “the majority of microbes involved in nutrient uptake are plant-dependent” (Jones 2013). It is therefore important to optimize the natural exchange between plants and microbes:

        Soil ecologist Dr. Christine Jones coined the term “liquid carbon pathway” to describe how plants transform water, air, and sun              into soluble carbohydrates (liquid carbon) that are exchanged for nutrients with the underground players in the soil-plant food                web.” (Mays 2020:17 [emphasise added])

         Regenerative agriculture avoids, as far as possible, soil disturbances similar to those found in ‘conventional                       agriculture’.Tillage destroys soil structure. It is constantly tearing apart the ‘house’ that nature builds to protect the living                     organisms in the soil that create natural fertility” (Cox 2023:11). Tillage also results in large amounts of carbon being released into             the atmosphere. Fossil chemical agents (fertilisers, herbicides etc.) also negatively affect the barter trade between plants and soil                   organisms.

 

  • Compared to conventional agriculture, the regenerative approach can be extremely profitable. Take the Singing Frogs Farm, North-California, USA:

          “[which] produces (..) vegetables for 100,000 dollars per acre (per 4 da). By comparison, the average farm in America gets 1,700               dollars per acre, while the average in crop-rich California is 14,000.” (Lønning 2017:171)

 

  • With its focus on increasing carbon storage in the soil, regenerative agriculture has enormous potential as an effective carbon sequestration measure: “To get back to our pre-fossil-fuel level of 280 ppm, we need to increase the organic matter of our planet s agricultural soils by an average of less than three percent.” (Mays 2020:218).

          But, as Jones argues:

          “It is not so much a matter of how much carbon can be sequestered by any particular method in any particular place, but rather                how much soil is sequestering carbon. If all agricultural, garden, and public lands were a net sink for carbon, we could easily                    reduce enough CO2 to counter emissions from the burning of fossil fuels”

                                                                                      Dr. Christine Jones (October 2017) Soil Restoration: 5 Core Principles

          Compared to ‘CCS’(the high-tech, capital-intensive carbon capture technology for storage in reservoirs), soil carbon storage is ‘low-              capital & low-tech’:

          “The really exciting thing about this is that we’re not talking about ‘expert knowledge’. It’s not about expensive and advanced                       technology either. Basically. this is knowledge we can all obtain, and measures we can all practice. On a larger or smaller scale.”

                                                                                  (Lønning 2019:220)

Sources: 

Trond Ivar Qvale, Regenerativt Norge, Medforfatter: Marianne Sletsjøe, NLR Østafjells (3. mai 2022): Regenerativt landbruk – hva er det?

Daniel Mays (2020): The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm

Dag Jørund Lønning (2019): Jordboka II

Christine Jones, Phd (2013): From light to life: restoring farmland soils

Dr. Christine Jones (2017) Soil Restoration: 5 Core Principles

Dorn Cox with Courtney White (2023): The Great Regeneration

 
 

More on the Rational for Regenerative Agriculture

Imagine there was a process that could:

  • Remove CO2 from the atmosphere
  • Regenerate topsoil
  • Provide healthier food
  • Restore water balance
  • Increase the profitability of agriculture

Fortunately, there is. It’s called photosynthesis.* You just have to allow it to realize its potential.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  ”

Christine Jones, PhD (2018): Light Farming: Restoring carbon, organic nitrogen and biodiversity to agricultural soils, [emphasize and text in brackets added]

   * “In the miracle of photosynthesis, a process that takes place in the chloroplasts of green leaves, carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and water (H2O) from the soil, are combined to capture light energy [from the sun] and transform it to biochemical energy in the form of simple sugars [carbon compounds].”    (Jones, ibid. [emphasize and text in brackets added]

Our crisis of excess atmospheric carbon dioxide is real and urgent (..) But by focusing our efforts as we have been on the atmospheric component—trying to cap the lid on what we’ve been spewing into the air—we’re only seeing half the picture. The other part of the story is that much of the legacy carbon hovering in the atmosphere is supposed to be down in the soil.

[We need the carbon down in the soil because:]  Carbon is the currency for most transactions within and between living things. Nowhere is this more evident than in the soil. Carbon is what lends fertility to soil and sustains plant and microbial life. Soil that’s rich in carbon holds water, like a sponge.

Christine Jones, quoted in Judith D. Schwartz (2013:11-12): Cows Save The Planet and Other Improbable ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth [emphasize and text in brackets added]

[Schwarts 2013 follows up:]

How do you build carbon in the soil? By reversing the processes that released carbon into the air. Oil, coal, and gas represent one source of emissions, but over time the greater culprit has been agriculture. Since about 1850, twice as much atmospheric carbon dioxide has derived from farming practices as from the burning of fossil fuels (the roles crossed around 1970). In the past 150 years, between 50 and 80 percent of organic carbon in the topsoil has gone airborne. The antidote to this rapid oxidation is regenerative agriculture: working the land with the goal of building topsoil, encouraging the growth of deep-rooted plants, and increasing biodiversity.

This turns the conventional approach to farming upside down: Rather than focusing on growing crops, the intention is to grow the soil. But “carbon farmers” like Donovan and Collins contend that as you build carbon levels, the rest—land productivity, plant diversity and resilience amid changing conditions—will follow. [But note that Jones 2018 qualifies this statement saying that “the majority of microbes involved in nutrient acquisition are plant-dependent”.  So even with a focus on life below ground, it is with a strong sideways glance at the way plants can optimize the ‘soil-plant nutrient network’].

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        “

Judith D. Schwartz (2013:12-13): Cows Save The Planet and Other Improbable ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth [emphasise and text in brackets added]

Regeneration of topsoil is critical to reversing the loss of cultivated land and the negative impact on human and animal health. According to Jones 2018:

  • Soil degradation has intensified in recent decades, with around 30% of the world’s cropland abandoned in the last 40 years due to soil decline. With the global population predicted to peak close to 10 billion by 2050, the need for soil restoration has never been more pressing.
  • Over the last seventy years, the level of every nutrient in almost every kind of food has fallen between 10 and 100%. An individual today would need to consume twice as much meat, three times as much fruit and four to five times as many vegetables to obtain the same amount of minerals and trace elements as available in those same foods in 1940.

[It is not because minerals and trace elements are absent from the soil, Jones argues:]

Only in rare instances are minerals and trace elements [micronutrients] completely absent from soil. Most of the ‘deficiencies’ observed in today’s plants, animals and people are due to soil conditions not being conducive to nutrient uptake. The minerals are present, but simply not plant available. Adding inorganic elements to correct these so-called deficiencies is an inefficient practice. Rather, we need to address the biological causes of dysfunction. The soil’s ability to support nutrient dense, high vitality crops, pastures, fruit and vegetables requires the presence of a diverse array of soil microbes from a range of functional groups. [*]

[*] [Montgomery explains the importance of micronutrients for soil health, -and for human health:]

[“Micronutrients—like copper, magnesium, iron, and zinc—are among the elements essential for building phytochemicals, enzymes, and proteins in plants central to their health and the health of all who eat them. Micronutrient malnutrition is like a hidden hunger and now affects far more people than caloric malnutrition. Mineral deficiencies are estimated to afflict a third to half of humanity, causing major health problems in both developed and developing countries.

Conventional agriculture either directly or indirectly alters the microbial communities that deliver or influence the movement of micronutrients from soil to plants.

Low iron and zinc are among the most common nutritional deficiencies in people despite levels high enough to support mineral-dense crops in most soils. In many cases, iron, zinc, and other micronutrients readily combine with other elements, like oxygen, to form relatively insoluble compounds. Though close by in the soil, they remain locked up and unavailable to plants. Certain microbes can help pry these elements loose. And this poses an overlooked question for modern agriculture. “]

Montgomery, David R. and Biklé, A. (2016:231, 233-234: The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health. [Emphasize added])

The majority of microbes involved in nutrient acquisition are plant-dependent. # That is, they respond to carbon compounds exuded by the roots of actively growing green plants. Most plant-dependent microbes are negatively impacted by the use of ‘cides’ – herbicides, pesticides, insecticides and fungicides.

The use of these chemicals reduces nutrient uptake, compromising the plant’s immune response and often requiring even further use of chemicals. In short, the functioning of the soil ecosystem is determined by the presence, diversity and photosynthetic rate of actively growing green plants – as well as the presence or absence of chemical toxins.

[Jones refers to ‘NMSU’- an American research team in highlighting the importance of crop density:]

The NMSU researchers discovered that plant growth is highly correlated with how much life—and what kind of life—is in the soil (..) The NMSU research team found that as cover crop density increased, the effect became quadratic, due to the synergies between living plants and soil microbial communities. That is, 1 + 1 = 4.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  “

                                                                                               (Jones 2018, ibid. [emphasize, bullets and text in brackets added] )

# This can be linked to Jones’ earlier argument that cutting out artificial fertilizers alone is not sufficient to improve soil health:

“Unless biology-friendly fertilisers are used in combination with diverse year-round living cover the essential microbes won’t be there to be supported.”

                      Christine Jones, Phd (2013): From light to life: restoring farmland soils  [emphasize added]

 

Definitions that illuminate various elements of regenerative agriculture

” Robert Rodale (..) coined the term “regenerative organic” to distinguish a kind of farming that goes beyond sustainable. Regenerative organic agriculture not only maintains resources but improves them. With only about 60 years of topsoil remaining at current practices, nothing less will do (..) [It’s] a holistic approach to farming that encourages continuous innovation and improvement of environmental, social, and economic measures.” https://rodaleinstitute.org/why-organic/organic-basics/regenerative-organic-agriculture/  [emphasize and text in brackets added]

 

” (..) Regenerative agriculture is characterized by ecological tendencies towards closed nutrient loops, greater diversity in the biological community, fewer annuals and more perennials, and greater dependence on internal rather than external resources. Regenerative organic agriculture is associated with forms agroecology (..) Regenerative organic agriculture for soil-carbon sequestration is tried and true (..) What is new is the scientific verification of regenerative agricultural practices.” Rodale Institute (2014): Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming

 

“The concept of regenerative agriculture (..), what does it really mean? From the word generate, in the sense of creating, we can translate regenerative agriculture with regenerative or vitalizing agriculture. An agriculture that promotes biological life and activity in the soil.

The principles of regenerative agriculture are based on photosynthesis moving carbon from the atmosphere back into the soil. Carbon is food for life in the soil and is necessary to rebuild the content of organic matter. The term is “related to” sustainable agriculture, but it is not the same. Sustainable agricultural systems can continue to produce at the same level for the foreseeable future without deteriorating. (ref, Brundtland Commission 1987). If the starting point is a depleted soil with low production capacity – a sustainable agricultural system will not improve it.” Trond Ivar Qvale, Regenerativt Norge, Medforfatter: Marianne Sletsjøe, NLR Østafjells (3. mai 2022): Regenerativt landbruk – hva er det?  [own translation, emphasis added, order of text changed]

 

Many of what are termed ‘sustainable’ agricultural practices represent only small improvements in current methodology. At best, they impart a fleeting tinge of green to a deteriorating landscape. ‘Regenerative’ practices embody fundamental redesign (Hill 1998). They utilise natural ecological services to replenish and reactivate the resource base. When agriculture is regenerative, soils, water, vegetation and productivity continually improve rather than staying the same or slowly getting worse. Christine Jones (14. February 2003): Recognise, Relate, Innovate  [emphasis added])

 

“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.”  (https://regenerationinternational.org/why-regenerative-agriculture/ [emphasis added])

 

According to Qvale 2023, in regenerative agriculture you must first: [own translation, emphasise added, text in brackets taken from other sources]:

  1. “Know your context, the context in which you operate. The easiest way to rebuild a fertile and living soil is to imitate nature’s own methods in the place where you are, helping to stimulate the greatest possible biodiversity.” [“The more varied the biology in the soil, the more nutrients are released to the plants. An overarching goal in organic farming is therefore to make it possible to build up this life.” Dag Jørund Lønning (2019: 75) Jordboka II. Nærare naturen. Inn i det kompostmoderne. (own translation, emphasis added)]

          [‘Polyculture‘ is often encouraged; growing different plants side by side and also ‘agroforestry; ‘Having trees on the fields provides a better                      ecosystem, stabilizes the soil and binds carbon’  (Vassnes 2017, own translation).

          [“Grasses, forbs, legumes, and shrubs all live and thrive in harmony with each other. Some have shallow roots, some deep. Some are high-                     carbon, some are low-carbon, some are nitrogen-fixing. Each of them plays a role in maintaining soil health.

         A healthy, func­tioning ecosystem on a farm or ranch must provide a home and habitat not only for farm animals but also                 for pollinators, predatory insects, earthworms, and other organisms that drive ecosystem function.”  (Cox 2023:11), (emphasis           added)].

 

  1. “One must ensure ground cover [avoid bare soil] of preferably living, but otherwise dead plant material throughout the year.” [One recommendation is ‘use of perennial crops to give the soil time to bind carbon’ (Vassnes 2017, own translation).

 

  1. “and seek to have living roots in the soil” [“Living roots are feeding soil biology by providing its basic food source: carbon. This biology, in turn, fuels the nutrient cycle that feeds plants” (Cox 2023:11), (emphasis added)]

 

  1. “Avoid therefore physical and chemical disturbance of the soil as far as possible” [minimal plowing and milling, so-called “no-till” farming. Plowing and milling destroy life in the soil, and also release large amounts of carbon’ (Vassnes 2017, own translation).]

 

  1. If possible, integrate grazing animals into the landscape you manage” [here there are different opinions; there are also those who promote so-called ‘stockfree organic’, i.e. regenerative agriculture without animals and animal products (fertiliser). On the other hand, Vassnes 2017 mentions ‘long-term meadow with active rotational grazing. By moving animals, the grass provides optimal growth conditions’ (elaborated in  Lønning 2019). And according to Cox, given active rotational grazing, “the grazing of plants stimulates the plants to pump more carbon into the soil. This feeds biology and drives nutrient cycling.” (Cox 2023:11) ]

 [Yet, again, taking a global perspective, there are some sobering thoughts, as Monbiot 2022 reminds us about :]

[“ We face what could be the greatest predicament humankind has ever encountered: feeding the world without devouring the planet. Already, farming is the world’s greatest cause of habitat destruction, the greatest cause of the global loss of wildlife and the greatest cause of the global extinction crisis. It’s responsible for about 80% of the deforestation that’s happened this century.

 (..) Unless something changes, all this is likely to get worse – much worse. In principle, there is plenty of food, even for a rising population. But roughly half the calories farmers grow are now fed to livestock, and the demand for animal products is rising fast.

 Without a radical change in the way we eat, by 2050 the world will need to grow around 50% more grain. How could we do it without wiping out much of the rest of life on Earth? “]

George Monbiot (The Guardian, 7 May 2022): The secret world beneath our feet is mind-blowing – and the key to our planet’s future

Generally, on regenerative agriculture, Qvale concludes that:

“ The result will be soil with an increased content of living organisms, organic material and air. We get increased activity in the soil by fungi and other soil organisms, better water infiltration, fixing of carbon and faster breakdown of biological material. This will reduce the need for the supply of purchased operating resources, increase the plants’ competitiveness against unwanted plants, organisms and other pests and lead to greater nutrient density [nutrient content] in the plants.

Increased carbon storage in the soil helps to make the soil more fertile, reverse the climate threat, lower the farmer’s costs and make the products more attractive. The complexity of ecosystems makes it challenging to document regeneration of the soil. Whether or not the soil has been regenerated can still be made visible by recording indicators such as biological diversity, decomposition of organic material, water infiltration and more.”

Trond Ivar Qvale (1. mars 2023): Regenerativt landbruk og definisjonsmakten. Bonden eller næringslivet? [emphasise added]. Other sources used: [put in brackets Bjørn Vassnes (Klassekampen 14. Desember 2017): Stikk fingeren i jorda!  Dorn Cox with Courtney White (2023:): The Great Regeneration. Ecological Agriculture, Open-Source Technology, and a Radical Vision of Hope.

Lack of micronutrients also affects photosynthesis, according to John Kemph:

“ Manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, nitrogen, iron, and other minerals are directly involved in the photosynthesis process. Inadequate levels of any of these nutrients will directly bottleneck photosynthesis, and limit the quantity of carbon that is fixed and converted into sugars over each 24 hour photoperiod cycle. (..) mineral nutrition are commonly misunderstood or ignored entirely in outdoor production agriculture. Because of this misunderstanding, most crops being grown in an outdoor agricultural setting are photosynthesizing at only a fraction of their inherent genetic potential. https://johnkempf.com/blog/

 Professor Dag Jørund Lønning likes to refer to regenerative agriculture as ‘near nature-agriculture’, which, among others, shall:

  • Build local communities and involve more people in growing food
  • Build and be part of local and short value chains
  • Produce on local inputs
  • Circulate resources locally
  • Utilize the cultivation area efficiently (and not, as we increasingly see today, only produce on the areas that can be harvested with large machines, while the other areas becomes overgrown)

 

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