Cultivate life in the soil
February 8, 2024

Soil and organic matter at the centre of regenerative agriculture

For some years now, there has been a lot of talk about regenerative agriculture, thanks to the fact that it has been linked to some major brands in the food sector. However, this is a production tendency the origin of which dates back to several decades ago, and is geographically located in the United States.

The consultation of the most recent scientific publications on the subject, reveals the lack of an unequivocal definition of regenerative agriculture, as well as the fact that existing ones are sometimes based on process and sometimes on results. In other words, there are those who define it by focusing more on the techniques to be adopted (while ‘prohibitions’ is the unlikely focus) and those who instead focus on the results to be obtained. The lack of a universally shared definition leads the scientific world to define regenerative agriculture more as a ‘movement‘ than as a real production method.

This does not mean that regenerative agriculture is not based on solid foundations. We will try to frame the topic below.

 

How was regenerative agriculture born?

Regenerative agriculture is the result of a growing awareness of environmental challenges and the need for a more sustainable approach to food production. The history of this movement spans a period that began in the 20th century and continues to this day.

Back in the 1930s the agricultural world already began to notice the negative effects of conventional practices, such as intensive plowing and the indiscriminate use of chemistry. One of the forerunners of regenerative agriculture was Sir Albert Howard, a British agronomist who promoted the importance of “organic” agriculture in the 1940s.

In the 60s and 70s, the Green Revolution brought significant changes to the world of agriculture. The introduction of new varieties of high-yield crops and the intensive use of chemical inputs improved food production, but also had negative consequences. Soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, and chemical contamination became growing concerns.

In the 80s and 90s, interest in organic agriculture began to take hold globally. The proof is that in 1991 the European Union issued the first Regulation in this regard. However, there was already something important happening overseas in the 80s. In 1983 Robert Rodale — son of J.I. Rodale, founder of the Rodale Institute, with headquarters in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, still a reference point for experimentation in regenerative agriculture, began to talk about Regenerative Agriculture, defining it as farming that, with increasing levels of productivity, increases soil biological fertility, has a high level of economic stability, has little or no impact on the environment beyond the boundaries of the farm and targets a transition of less dependability on non-renewable resources.

Agronomist Richard Harwood was the director of the Rodale Research Center when, in 1986, he published a famous international review on regenerative agriculture, with the aim of contextualizing it in relation to the historical evolution of the various schools of organic and biodynamic agriculture. Harwood thereby emphasized, as suggested by Robert Rodale, the fact that Regenerative Agriculture went beyond organic agriculture, both by virtue of its intent to regenerate resources and ecosystems, and because of the importance it attaches to social values.

In the 2000s, the popularity of the definition “regenerative agriculture” grew. Agronomists, farmers and environmental activists began to promote the idea that agriculture should not only be limited to “supporting” the soil, but should actually contribute to its regeneration, going beyond traditional organic agriculture and embracing the idea of creating and maintaining healthy and self-sufficient agricultural ecosystems.

In November 2023, the European Alliance for Regenerative Agriculture was founded in Germany, which currently involves the participation of a few dozen European agricultural entrepreneurs.

 

So what is regenerative agriculture?

It is an innovative and sustainable approach to cultivation, aimed at improving soil health, preserving biodiversity and mitigating climate change. It goes beyond simple food production, focusing on the regeneration of agricultural ecosystems and the promotion of agricultural practices that bring long-term benefits. The basic principles are:

Minimal soil disturbance, limiting to the bare minimum plowing and the use of equipment that may compromise the structure of the soil, while maintaining the ground coverage (cover crops), to prevent erosion and improve its physical characteristics.

Crop rotation, aimed at improving soil fertility and preventing the onset of specific parasites.

Encouraging biodiversity, essential for the balance of agricultural ecosystems. Regenerative agriculture encourages the presence of a wide range of species, both plant and animal, to promote resistance to diseases and improve ecosystem resilience.

Integrated crop and livestock management system: the integration of crops and livestock creates a virtuous cycle in which animal waste fertilizes the soil, while crops provide food for livestock.

It is important to emphasize that in fact regenerative agriculture does not contemplate the total elimination of external inputs to support production, but rather the objective of their reduction and above all of a rationalization of their use.

 

What benefits are expected from the application of regenerative agriculture?

The main benefits expected to derive from the application of regenerative agriculture are:

  • increase in carbon sequestered in the soil, with a reduction in greenhouse gases and positive effects in the fight against climate change;
  • reduction in the use of chemical inputs, with the consequent preservation of water and soil;
  • conservation and increase of biodiversity, with a consequent increase in the resilience of ecosystems;
  • improvement of long-term yields, even with the need for a period of transition, which could see them decrease temporarily;
  • reduction of production costs, thanks to the rationalization of the use of external inputs.

 

The importance of organic fertilization in regenerative agriculture

By virtue of the above reflections, regenerative agriculture prefers organic fertilization, which performs the triple function of:

  • providing nutrients for crops;
  • improving the physical properties of the soil;
  • promoting the development of useful microorganisms, capable of improving the nutritional and phytosanitary status of crops.

 

The importance of a shared definition

In conclusion, let’s once again emphasize the need to arrive at the formulation of a shared definition of regenerative agriculture. As the research world points out, any type of definition (based on the process or results) has “political” implications, that is, it has consequences on the way in which this form of food production is perceived by a series of stakeholders, including policy makers and consumers. In the absence of such a globally shared definition, the research suggests contextualizing the specific production reality referred to every time we talk about regenerative agriculture.

 


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