The History of Regenerative Agriculture
Published on: March 10, 2021
What does ‘regenerative’ mean?
Before we get into how regenerative agriculture came to be, I think its important to first understand what we mean by regenerative. Regeneration describes the notion of replenishing what has been exploited and repairing what has been damaged. In many cases, we work with plots of land that have been degraded after years of monoculture, input-intensive agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is a way to completely transform the land, while replacing vital nutrients and restoring biodiversity.
What is the difference between regenerative and sustainable agriculture?
Sustainable by definition means that something is able to be maintained at a certain rate or level. Which is all fine and well until you consider the world we currently live in. About 38% of global agricultural land is already affected by degradation. So “sustainable” isn’t going to cut it anymore, we need to regenerate. ‘Sustainability is a bridge – regeneration is the destination’ describes well how we at reNature think of ‘regenerative’ versus ‘sustainable’ in relation to land and agriculture.
Regenerative agricultural practices or techniques are similar to that of sustainable agriculture, but the tools and techniques are customized to the specific agroecosystem in which it takes place and is soil-based rather than seed based. Attention is given to increasing the amount of nutrients cycling through soil by improving soil organic matter while also increasing the soil’s potential for storing carbon. All in all, regenerative agriculture aims at regenerating, renewing and further improving the soil functions and capabilities for ecosystem services in an always-improving process. We focus on regenerative because we do not want to simply sustain the current state of the world’s soil. That would be almost like going to the doctor for a sickness and he said he could make it so you couldn’t get any sicker, you just wouldn’t ever be better. The same thing is happening now, our soil is sick and we need to heal it with regenerative practices.
The 7 Tendencies of Regenerative Agriculture
Robert Rodale describes the 7 tendencies towards regeneration in agriculture. These seven P’s describe how a system moves to being regenerative.
As shown in the infographic above, there are seven tendencies that define a regenerative system. The first is Pluralism, which essentially means diversity in plant species. Second, Protection refers to the need for cover crops to end erosion and increase microbial populations near the surface of the soil. Purity describes the intentional lack of pesticides and fertilizers in production. The fourth tendency, Permanence calls for more perennials and plants with vigorous roots. Peace refers to the harmony with nature, growing with it rather than fighting against it. Potential describes the readily available nutrients that make their way up to the surface of the soil to be used by plants. The final tendency, Progress, encompasses the ever-improving soil quality in terms of structure and water retention capacity.
It is helpful to understand these seven tendencies as it helps to conceptualize the necessary elements needed to move towards a regenerative agricultural system. What is interesting about this is that Robert also applies these tendencies to regeneration in both communities and personal spirit. Regeneration doesn’t exist in a silo, and the benefit for society and the individual shouldn’t be neglected. Here you can find information on Rodale’s seven tendencies.
The 5 Lineages of Regenerative Agriculture
It is important for us to understand that there are various different interpretations of regenerative agriculture. Ethan Soloviev, EVP of Research at HowGood has found that there are 5 primary intellectual and practical lineages of the term “Regenerative Agriculture”. Each lineage has a different definition, farming philosophy, and approach relating to that community. It is important to recognize the ethno-centric bias to these lineages as they primarily represent the Anglo-North american perspective. Let’s note that for tens of thousands of years, most indigenous peoples on this planet have existed, and some still do, in what might be referred to as a “regenerative” relationship with the natural systems they co-exist with. This list has been adapted from Christian Shearer in his article, “Lineages of Regenerative Agriculture: An Overview”.
1. Rodale Organic
Remember that guy who gave us those 7 Tendencies towards Regeneration? He has been promoting organic farming since the 70s and has just recently rebranded as regenerative. Their main focus is the soil. This lineage claims that “regeneration” is a mix of methods from 40-year-tested conservation farming, including cover-cropping, crop rotation, compost, low or no-till. These are great erosion and input reduction practices, while increasing soil carbon.
This lineage of Regenerative Agriculture, along with a heavy emphasis on small-scale design and claims about reversing climate change, tends toward principles from the human potential movement, focusing on how to establish “thriving” and “abundance” for everyone. A lot of successful regenerative farm designs have come out of this lineage, often they effectively integrate agroforestry, comprehensive water-planning, soil-building, and holistic livestock management while building farmer capacity and economic viability.
3. Holistic Management
This lineage is promoted by both the Savory Institute and Holistic Management International. It focuses on a comprehensive decision-making framework designed for animal-centric ecosystem regeneration.
4. Regenerative Paradigm
Charles Krone developed the term ‘Regenerative’ over 50 years ago to describe a radically different paradigm of approaching the development of humans and systems. It has been instrumental in the construction of the Levels of Regenerative Agriculture which are; Functional, Integrative, Systemic and Evolutionary.
5. Soil Profits / No-Till / NRCS
This lineage, embodied and led by Ray Archuleta, Gabe Brown, and others, draws practices and inspiration from other lineages, but strongly appeals to traditional farmers by avoiding organic farming dogmas and concentrating on bottom line income through improved soil health.
By avoiding the stigma of organic, this approach allows farmers to continue using synthetic inputs while showing the economic arguments for decreasing inputs and improving soil through good crop rotation, no-till, and grazing practices.
The Origin of Regenerative Agriculture
The mainstream discourse around regenerative agriculture usually frames it as a “new” or “revolutionary” way of farming. However, this is not the case. For instance, Permaculture was founded on pre-modern principles from around the world, which in turn created an agricultural system that promotes indigenous farming practices.
Indigenous is used to describe groups or populations that have a long history of settlement and connection to a specific region. It is often used to describe groups that inhabited regions around the world during “pre-colonial” or “pre-Age of Discovery/Exploration” eras.
The Indigenous Relationship with the Land
Indigenous farming is not just the farming practiced by indigenous people, it’s more about their deep connection with the land. In the words of one indigenous farmer, Vena A-dae Romero, “indigenous people are as much part of the land as the land is part of us. We cultivate the land while the land cultivates us. This relationship that has supported my people since time immemorial is remembered daily when we place our fingers in the dirt, pull the weeds from our fields, or plant our seeds with water, prayer, and hope, cook the food which we grow, and ingest the world with each bite of food we eat.”
The indigenous culture to be deeply connected with their land allows for agricultural practice that works with rather than against natural systems. Their practices are highly customised to the land in which they are growing food, so there isn’t a one-size-fit-all approach to indigenous agriculture, it is more of an active learning process.
Agricultural Techniques with Indigenous Roots
There are many mainstream agricultural practices that have indigenous origins. To make a short synopsis of all indigenous farming techniques wouldn’t be doing them justice. However, a few overlapping principles do stand out:
- An understanding of the connection and interdependence of all things.
- A respect for the land and a reverence for the sustenance it provides.
- A vision that sees beyond present needs and a desire to preserve the land for future generations.
We can thank indigenous people for advancing practices that now define regenerative agriculture!
Intercropping & Polycultures
Diversifying farming systems is a very popular idea in today’s regenerative agriculture movement, but the concept is not new. Indigenous have been doing this for hundreds of years, in a process called intercropping, where multiple crops are planted together. This is based on the relationship between the plants to protect or support one another.
In the northeast of the USA, the Iroqouis are famous for the “Three Sisters”. Which is essentially planting corn, beans and squash in one system. This way, the corn stalks provide a natural support system for the beans to grow on, which in turn helps the corn grow by increasing the nitrogen in the soil. Simultaneously, the squash vines maintain soil moisture and prevent weeds from growing.
Intercropping improves productivity, crop yield and overall soil health. It also helps reduce pests, insects, weeds and disease. Polyculture, which is planting different species of plants in the same area in a way that imitates nature, yields similar benefits. Both systems have been proven to be more efficient at using nutrients, light, and water when compared to monocultures.
Sloped land is very vulnerable to soil erosion, especially during rainy seasons. This issue becomes even worse when trees and other vegetation are cleared away to make room for crops. One way to mitigate this is to carve terraces into the hillside with the precious topsoil (that would otherwise wash away) being held in with retaining walls.
Terracing was widely used by indigenous tribes across the southwest of the USA and continues to be used in parts of Central and South America to this day. Terracing has also been widely used since ancient times all across the world (e.g. Asia, Africa, Europe). This technique is especially useful in areas who receive bouts of heavy rainfall seasonally. The terraces help to slow down the drain of the water, allowing it time to soak into the flat areas with crops planted.
The modern regenerative agriculture movement prioritises effective water management and climate-specific adaptations in order to do so. Most of these practices have indigenous origins. A popular one being the use of mounds to conserve moisture in the soil. Indigenous communities in more humid climates planted the Three Sisters on mounds of soil, which drains the soil of excess moisture. Today, mounds are still used as a way to preserve soil and reduce erosion.
On the contrary, when water is in short supply, the use of canals has been widely practiced in indigenous farming. In order to maintain a steady supply of water to crops, Indigenous people around the world construct canals and catchments to direct and contain water, so it can be used for irrigation as needed.
In regions with predictable flood patterns, indigenous people have figured out how to harness the sporadic water supply. One of these techniques is to carefully time the sowing and harvesting of crops in flood areas to match the flood patterns. Another method is to create large, shallow dips in the land. When the flood recedes, these dips remain filled with water, providing an irrigation source. The land in these dips also stays moist for planting long after surrounding areas are dried out.
Indigenous people, especially in America, used Agroforestry systems! In simple terms, agroforestry is defined as ‘agriculture with trees’. A more elaborate definition of agroforestry is ‘the intentional integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems to create environmental, economic, and social benefits.’
Silviculture, which is the management of tree growth and forest composition, was practiced by indigenous people to foster wildlife populations and improve hunting. Along those same lines, Native Americans also grazed animals among trees using a practice now known as silvopasture.
Permaculture is a holistic, living-in-harmony-with-nature worldview, as well as technical approach for how to do so. You guessed it, this also has indigenous origins! The core of permaculture is working with, as opposed to against, natural forces and having a deep understanding of the local environment, a common theme in indigenous agriculture!
Indigenous Technology in Practice: The Case Study of Kenya
Food security for Kenya’s rising population is becoming of increasing concern for The Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) and Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI). These organisations spend a large number of resources searching for effective and sustainable methods of producing and preserving food. Interestingly, a majority of the strategies and technologies they develop never actually make their way to the farms. Many farms rely on indigenous knowledge to shape their farming practices, an information source that is downplayed.
In general, indigenous knowledge is in danger of extinction due to modernisation and other global shifts that have weakened its value and disrupted its transmission and preservation. In this case study, Mercy Waithaka studied the role of indigenous knowledge in ensuring food security and called upon the MoA to make an effort to preserve it for future generations. This case study was done to investigate the role of indigenous knowledge in preserving maize; Kenya’s most important food crop, in Mua hill location of Eastern Kenya. Interested in knowing more? Read the case study here.
Applying the Principles of Indigenous Food Growing to Modern Agriculture
“The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”Franklin D. Roosevelt (US President, 1933–1945).
As we know, there are many differences between agricultural systems in indigenous communities and agricultural systems in contemporary communities. The first being the idea of collective resources. In an indigenous community, there are some things that cannot be commodified – land, water, air, animals, even the health of the people, all of which are considered collective resources. These resources require management from the entire community. Modern day agriculture doesn’t have the same foundation. In contemporary agriculture, there are individualized, commodified resources like land, you can buy water, inputs, labour, animals, etc.
However, when we talk about merging the two ideals of what most of us consider to be “farming/agriculture” and indigenous food growing techniques, it is important to think about these farming systems in the context of our society. Regenerative agriculture has the potential to bridge the gap between small scale, nature based systems and large scale food production with an approach that renews and corrects some of the missteps that have taken us to the point of environmental damage and degradation. The idea of mimicking natural systems is central to any indigenous outlook of food growing, after all, nature is the best teacher.
Regenerative Practices Today
It’s predicted that the world population is set to rise to 9.2 billion by 2050, creating a need for a 60 percent increase in global food production. Currently, 842 million people are undernourished, 827 million of which residing in low income countries. In low-income countries, spending on food can often consume over half of household income, leaving the poor extremely vulnerable to price fluctuations. Shifts in the system such as climate change, soil degradation, pest outbreaks, economic and political crises, and population growth are placing added pressures on the global food system.
The global food systems are inherently complex, due to their various processes, value chains, actors and interactions. The outcomes of the food system affect multiple stakeholders and industries in various and occasionally conflicting forms. With so many relying on their resilience, food systems must be equipped to meet their goals, even when presented with unpredictable drivers of change.
There are many movements today that are trying to reframe how we produce and consume food. These alternative approaches include agroforestry, permaculture, and others that are founded on the adoption of low external input systems. These approaches are similar in their efforts to close nutrient loops while increasing the fertility of the soil and on-farm biodiversity. However, now we know that these approaches are in fact, not new. Indigenous technology and methods can be exemplified in every single one!
The Importance of Biodiversity
Although climate change has increasingly entered the mainstream consciousness, yet another environmental disaster, the drastic depletion of agrobiodiversity, quietly threatens the global food supply. Agro-biodiversity is the various biological entities that contribute to food growing, encompassing the numerous plant varieties, animals and microorganisms which support functions of agro-ecosystems.
In the twentieth century, 75% of the global food crop variety was lost as farmers avoided local crops in favour of genetically engineered, high-yielding crops, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (2009). Since the beginning of food production there have been a large variety of food crops, however, a mere twelve crops make up 80 percent of the global plant-based dietary energy. Only four crops – wheat, rice, maize and potato – provide approximately 60 percent of plant-derived protein and calories.
Aside from depending on a limited number of crops, the food system worldwide still depends on a small genetic makeup. High-yielding and genetically standardised varieties have superseded 70% of the world’s maize from conventional varieties, in addition to 50% of the wheat in Asia, Africa, and Latin America; and 75% of rice in Asia. Diversifying production and creating a space for biodiversity in agriculture, as the indigenous have been doing for centuries, is incredibly important in the face of climate change.
Making Regenerative Agriculture Mainstream
There’s a good chance that you’ve heard about the connection between the COVID-19 Pandemic and conventional agriculture. Industrial farming systems, which have led to the destruction of natural habitats, loss of genetic diversity, and the crowding of animals into factory farms, created vulnerable ecosystems less able to cope with virus outbreaks. Now is as good a time as any to start rethinking how we produce food, before we end up in a never ending cycle of pandemics and government lockdowns. Our lives depend directly on nature, it’s as simple as that. Fortunately, there is much we can do about this.
We are losing topsoil at an alarming rate: last year, the UN warned that with the current level of topsoil depletion, we only have a shocking 60 harvests left. The good news is that we can turn this around. Regenerative Agriculture has the potential to reverse these effects. The purpose of regenerative agriculture is to rebuild soil health by restoring the carbon content in the soil, which positively impacts plant health, nutrition and farm productivity. Regenerative farmers simply work with nature rather than against it.
It all starts and ends with our soil. Healthy soil can absorb more CO2, reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, which will slow down global warming. Also, as soil health improves, its ability to drain water improves as well, allowing underground water aquifers to replenish. This means the soil will naturally protect us from floods and droughts!
In the end, regenerative methods will also have tremendous social benefits. Farmer’s livelihoods will be improved through the reduction of costs (artificial inputs/oil-powered equipment), the diverse variety of crops will diversify their offering, and overall their resilience will be increased. Our health improves when we eat produce grown in healthy soil as those plants will have a higher number of nutrients. A healthy soil biology also protects the roots and the plants itself: in that sense, practicing regenerative agriculture addresses all the usual concerns regarding weeds, pests, droughts, fertility and yield.
Moves in the Right Direction
Project Drawdown reports that regenerative agricultural systems could be practiced on up to 332 million hectares by 2050 (from 11.84 million hectares today), which would result in a reduction of up to 22.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide, and an enormous return of financial investments. Even better, converting 298 million hectares of the abandoned degraded farmland globally to regenerative farming or its native vegetation such as forests could lead to the absorption of up to 20.3 gigatons of CO2, with another massive return of financial investment and increased food production.
Sounds amazing right? We think so. Our goal is to regenerate 1 million hectares of degraded land by 2030. Essentially, we want to make regenerative agriculture mainstream so its your time to shine! Share this article with your friends, donate to our projects around the world, or even start one of your own. The possibilities are endless and we are all in this together.
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