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What is Regenerative Agriculture?


Hi there! Welcome to Series 2 Part 1, of Tend’s blog series on learning about the food system. In Series 1, we covered the key problems in our current industrialised food system – including topics such as animal welfare, environmental damage, and health implications.  Now, it’s time to shift our attention towards solutions. Each part of Series 2 will look at each of the viable alternatives in greater detail, so this article is just a quick-stop summary of those approaches.  

Regenerative Agriculture 101

When it comes to a ‘sustainable food system’, we like to think of regenerative agriculture. This method of farming aims to build – rather than destroy; whether its ecosystem resilience, relationships with farmers, living standards for animals, regenerative agriculture is an attempt at growing foods to help nurture and tend to the needs of everyone. It’s not just about ‘doing no harm’; it’s about making things better through the act of farming. In fact, the climate reality project defines regenerative agriculture as: 

A system of farming principles and practices that seeks to rehabilitate and enhance the entire ecosystem of the farm by placing a heavy premium on soil health with attention also paid to water management, fertiliser use, and more. [i]

It’s clear that this approach can help us regenerate and revitalise farming ecosystems. Some specific areas of focus include improving the soil quality, managing biodiversity on farms, treating farms as part of the bigger landscape rather than as isolated operations, and making use of waste. In all of these examples, the key idea is that we should work with nature, not against it.   

Rather than dumping chemicals onto soil, why not look after them better to begin with? Instead of using indiscriminate pesticides and killing numerous populations of insects, why not work in concert with those that pollinate our crops? And most importantly, rather than purchase cheap, low-quality, unethically produced food from supermarkets, why not invest in your health and the health of our planet by buying directly from small farmers who farm with holistic principles? 

Each of the small farms that we work with, are incredibly unique when it comes to their approach for sustainable farming.  

Approaches to Regenerative Agriculture

Permaculture and crop rotation systems

In principle, permaculture and regenerative agriculture both aim to achieve the same thing - farming in harmony with nature. The slight difference lies in the fact that regenerative agriculture is the process (eg. organic/no-till farming) of sustainable farming, whereas permaculture is the principles that underlie these farming designs. [ii]

One example of a system that is based on permaculture principles is crop rotation. Rather than plotting and growing the same crop in the same place for years, the idea is to change what crops are grown. This is effective for naturally preventing crop-specific pests and disease problems. [iii]

Biodynamic farming and regenerative grazing 

Biodynamic farming aims to bridge the gap between animals, plants and soil when it comes to farming. For example, the use of manures and composts to improve soil fertility and recycle nutrients for plant growth. In the context of the current food system, this could reduce reliance on chemical-based fertilisers, as well as provide a way to make use of manure rather than leaving it to leach into water systems. Ultimately, it is based on the principle that livestock, land, and crops should be treated as a single system. [iv] 

Regenerative grazing, like biodynamic farming, is also an approach at integrating animals into the process of growing food. It refers more specifically to managing livestock on perennial forages and rotating them around different patches of land. [v]  

Agroforestry and food forests 

Agroforestry, as the word suggests, is about combining agriculture with forestry. It involves growing trees and crops together on the same piece of land, in order to regulate runoff and soil erosion, improve soil properties, efficiently utilise solar energy, moderate microclimates and so much more. [vi]  

Food forests are slightly different, in that it is an attempt to learn from the self-sustaining nature of forests and apply it to agriculture. The basic approach to this, is to create multiple layers (like those of a forest) out of trees that grow fruits and nuts so that we can essentially create a forest that produces food! [vii] 

Soil management 

There are various ways we can improve the condition of our soils. For example, no-till/reduced till approaches can help minimise soil disturbance (whilst also retaining carbon dioxide), planting cover crops can reduce the impacts of rain on soil erosion, and better irrigation practices can prevent water-logging. [viii] Managing healthy, fertile soil is the foundation of a resilient, efficient and sustainable food system.  

Distribution systems 

Although distribution systems don’t directly fall under the umbrella of regenerative agriculture, since it’s not directly related to farming, we believe that it is still a critical component of food systems that has to be redesigned. If our aim is to tend to the needs of everyone, we have to shift towards using local abattoirs and local food markets and reduce the need for long-distance industrial transportation. These processes not only impact the welfare of animals, but also release large volumes of greenhouse gases.  

Conclusion

Understanding regenerative agriculture can feel daunting because it involves a lot of terminology that you might not be familiar with. But hopefully, through our blog posts, you can learn about its benefits so that you can see exactly how you’re contributing by purchasing from small farmers that practice these principles.


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