What is Regenerative Agriculture?

An ecological approach to farming that allows landscapes to renew themselves” (Massy, 2018).

There are diverse ideas about what regenerative agriculture is (Burgess et al 2019). The core idea is the improvement of ecological function. Globally, the language of agro-ecosystems and agro-ecology is favoured, whereas the language of “regenerative” farming seems to be popular in places like Australia and the United States. We use the language of agro-ecology and regenerative agriculture interchangeably. We have noticed an increasing tendency for the language of "regenerative agriculture" to be used to describe systems that do not adhere to accepted agro-ecological principles (ie there is an increasing risk of regenerative agriculture "greenwashing"). When we say "regenerative agriculture" we mean agriculture that adheres to agro-ecological principles, for example, as more fully discussed in Nicholls et al 2017. Principles will be applied differently across different land and production contexts but basically boil down to:

  • eliminating bare soil and avoiding tillage;

  • fostering plant diversity;

  • using more perennials;

  • encouraging water percolation into the soil; and

  • integrating livestock and cropping.

Effects:

Regenerative agriculture reduces/replaces requirements for external inputs by building ecological function (e.g. nutrient cycles) overtime. If these strategies are applied appropriately to the context and after a transition period, a regenerative farmer should be able to point to evidence of functional outcomes, at a minimum:

  • increased above- and below-ground species diversity;

  • increased soil organic carbon;

  • increased water infiltration or water holding capacity;

  • increased soil aggregate stability; and

  • increased microbial biomass.

Determining factors:

Ultimately, regenerative agriculture’s contribution to carbon drawdown will be determined by three factors (as explained in Jehne, 2017):

  • The area of green plant growth.

  • The time or longevity of that green plant growth (i.e year round) and its drawdown of carbon.

  • The degree to which the carbon-fixed is bio-converted into stable soil carbon rather than oxidised back into CO2 by burning or oxidative soil management (e.g tillage; bare soil).

Regenerative agriculture recognises that farms are part of a larger ecosystem, and that agricultural activities must not just make withdrawals from this larger system, but also pay into it. The overall ambition shifts from extractive, linear thinking that prioritises high yields above all else, to establishing cycles of regeneration” (Jeffries, 2019).

Application to agricultural systems:

Some people define regenerative agriculture as only applying to annual cropping systems (eg. Project Drawdown) with other names for perennial based regenerative systems. We do not see need for this distinction, although there is a very strong relationship between perenniality and ecological function. Which regenerative systems people choose to implement will depend on many factors including context, goals and skill/knowledge. This is discussed further in the later pages, particularly under the Production Systems and Measuring Complexity sections.