From monoculture to healthy soil: regenerative farming

All of us humans – and nowadays, quite a few other living beings –  rely on agriculture directly or indirectly. 

Without agriculture, we would have no food, and according to the World Bank, around 27% of the world population works in agriculture. That’s roughly around 1 billion people! 

However, agriculture is also directly responsible for 14% of total greenhouse gas emissions. And that percentage is much higher if we take a broader perspective, for instance when we also take deforestation to clear land for agricultural use into account.  

And with an increasing demand for food – the impact of agriculture is only going to increase, strengthening the loop where agriculture contributes to climate change, and climate change in turn affects agriculture. 

Agriculture: The practice of cultivating the soil, growing crops, or raising livestock for human use, including the production of food, feed, fibre, fuel, or other useful products. Also known as farming. – Oxford Dictionary

Monoculture

Now when I say agriculture, you’ll probably picture something like this image below. A field, with rows and rows of some sort of crop, or potentially a meadow or grassland with some cows grazing. 

Most commercial farming is done in so-called monocultures. And this is how most of us have come to understand how agriculture, or modern-day farming, is done. 

Monoculture: an area of farm land on which only one crop is grown or one type of animal is kept – Cambridge 

So why do we do this? Monoculture clearly must have its advantages. Indeed: 

  1. It’s a simple system, fully focused on optimizing the needs and preferences of one species of plant or animal, which makes the life of the farmer easier. 
  2. It’s standardized and efficient – only one crop means one process of sowing, harvesting etc, so there are less machines involved and less diversified labour
  3. Because of this standardization, there is also little loss of yield 

Ultimately, this way of farming lowers costs and makes things more efficient and profitable for the farmer. And from a traditional and economic perspective, it thus makes a lot of sense. 

However… monocultures are not how nature works. And that means this way of operating has some serious consequences; let’s call them disadvantages. 

  1. Soil by default contains nutrients, microorganisms, insects and more. And healthy soil is the basis for any plant to grow. But having only one species of crop or animal on a piece of land also means destroying this natural state of the soil – eliminating its wealth, and health. 
  2. Because there are now no more nutrients in the soil to help the plants grow and thrive, the farmer has to replicate this with artificial products like fertilizer and insecticide (that can ultimately end up in our food).
  3. The topsoil loses its capacity to retain water, so monoculture requires a lot of water to irrigate the crops
  4. The chemicals also remain in the soil – potentially polluting groundwater and affecting more ecosystems
  5. Ultimately, unhealthy soil can’t protect itself from erosion from wind or rain, so it degrades even further, becoming dry and dusty and unusable to grow crops

And these are just the most direct consequences of farming practice. On a systemic level, this way of farming leads to loss of biodiversity; in the soil as well as the broader ecosystem. 

And last, but maybe most important, is the fact that healthy soil stores a lot of carbon (all the world’s top meters of soil contain about three times as much carbon as in our entire atmosphere!) – But current agricultural practices actually release carbon into the atmosphere. 

Fortunately, there are alternatives. And we definitely need an overhaul of our global food system, starting with the way we farm. 

Regenerative Farming

An alternative that is getting a lot of attention is regenerative farming. 

Regenerative Agriculture is a system of farming and grazing practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services.

The advantages of regenerative farming are quite spectacular: 

  • It builds and enriches healthy soil 
  • Improves water quality and water system
  • Increases biodiversity 
  • Enhances ecosystem health and ecosystem services
  • Helps reverse climate change by capturing (sequestering) carbon in the soil  

Sounds too good to be true? Well, it’s actually nothing new; and our ancestors farmed much more in this way. Essentially, (and might I say: once again), it’s about understanding and respecting how nature works and working with nature, instead of against it. 

The premise of regenerative farming is actually quite simple: instead of depleting the soil, it seeks to improve the soil. This way of farming aims to increase the number of microorganisms, which then increases the amount of nutrition, water and carbon that is held in the soil. Win-win-win all around, wouldn’t you say? 

As such, regenerative practices are quite different from traditional farming, for instance by using a system such as agroforestry, and are generally based on a few key principles: 

  • Minimizing soil disturbance; 
  • Keeping soil covered with plants; 
  • Grow diversified and multiple crops 
  • Rotate different crops in different areas
  • Combining livestock and crop farming (why did we ever separate those?)
Practices in Regenerative Agriculture

To quote the (highly recommendable!) documentary Kiss the Ground: “The solution is right under our feet”. 

A growing movement

So if this is so amazing, why isn’t everybody farming this way? Well, moving from monoculture to regenerative farming requires change. 

And as you’ve read in the beginning – there are economic and short-term advantages to monoculture, and the awareness and sense of urgency that this isn’t sustainable needs to grow. Status quo bias, change bias as well as loss aversion bias also come into play.  

Regenerative farming can bring a higher yield, and a massive cost-reduction in the overall amount of work, but processes and ways of working need to change, and on a day to day basis, it feels less efficient for the farmer. 

And many farmers will also need to acquire new skills and knowledge on soil management, as well as encounter all sorts of new challenges, things as simple as unwelcome plants growing that they would previously just spray with herbicide. 

Fortunately, the sense of urgency is increasing. 

Without protecting and regenerating the soil on our 4 billion acres of cultivated farmland, 8 billion acres of pastureland, and 10 billion acres of forest land, it will be impossible to feed the world, keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, or halt the loss of biodiversity. – Regeneration International

Although the famous claim of ‘60 harvests left’ might be a little overblown or oversimplified once we dive into the complexity of soil. But the facts are overwhelming and it is very, very clear that the way we currently use land and produce our food is simply unsustainable. 

Governments are getting involved, and agriculture and food security have also become a business risk, s0 we’re seeing several companies in the food sector, such as Illy Caffè, Danone, General Mills and Unilever take up responsibility in their value chain, and actively collaborate with farmers to adopt regenerative farming practices. 

Now there’s something we would actually like to see growing! As far as we’re concerned, regenerative is the future – not just in farming, but in business models, and well, pretty much everything that we do. 

Happy Sprinting! 

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