The way humanity eats today is undermining our very ability to continue feeding ourselves tomorrow.
Our food systems are the leading driver of terrestrial biodiversity loss, a key driver of land degradation, and the origin of up to one-third of greenhouse gas emissions. And yet, demand for food could double between 2005 and 2050.
So, how can we continue to meet this most basic of human needs in the decades to come?
Enter regenerative agriculture – a term that’s increasingly popping up in policy debates and corporate commitments, but whose precise meaning remains blurry. So, what exactly does it entail? How can it benefit us, and what will it take to put it into practice on a significant scale?
Here are five things you need to know about regenerative agriculture, why it matters, and how it can revolutionise the future of food.
What is regenerative agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture is a broad set of methods that aim to improve the health of soil that has been degraded by intensive farming.
There is no single set of internationally agreed principles for regenerative agriculture. Some definitions focus on processes – for instance, the use of cover crops and integration of livestock – while others emphasise outcomes, such as restoring the carbon content of the soil, or promoting biodiversity and ecosystem services.
However, the Africa Regenerative Agriculture Study Group, which is steered by partners like CIFOR-ICRAF and the UN Economic Commission for Africa, came up with a working definition ahead of COP26 in 2021.
Broadly, they see regenerative agriculture as encompassing both sustainable agroforestry techniques and conservation agriculture. This can include crop diversification, shade tree planting and reduced tillage to minimise physical, chemical and biological disturbances to the soil.
“These techniques really improve crop yields for farmers through increased soil nutrients and organic content, which reduces the need for fertilisers, and they reduce soil erosion, improve water retention and have biodiversity benefits as well,” says Cassandra Austen, a sustainable finance expert and coauthor of the Group’s 2021 report.
Conservation agriculture is based on soil management practices such as mulching and manuring, along with crop management practices like improved fallow and crop rotation and diversification. For example, regenerative farms may plant various species of cover crops together, vary crop rotations and maintain permanent vegetation in some areas to benefit pollinators and wildlife.
Meanwhile, agroforestry techniques leverage the ability of trees to store carbon, draw water and nutrients from soil, build soil organic matter and shelter biodiversity, according to CIFOR-ICRAF. Agroforestry can be crop-based, with practices such as alley cropping and fencing, or livestock-based, integrating trees and grazing operations – an approach known as silvopasture.
Agroforestry encompasses farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR) practices, whereby farmers use pollarding and coppicing to regenerate native species and enhance farm vegetation cover. Niger is one of the first countries in the world to have decreed FMNR as a low-cost practice to increase the productivity and resilience of crop fields and pasturelands.
“In the challenging growing conditions of Africa’s Sahel, a region bordering the southern Sahara Desert, it is a technology that has proven amongst the most transformative of all,” say members of the Regreening Africa initiative, an FMNR program co-financed and co-implemented by CIFOR-ICRAF.
Why is regenerative agriculture important?
Regenerative agriculture aims to boost efficiency and crop yields by restoring soil health and enhancing the biodiversity that underpins ecosystem services such as pollination.
At the same time, it also reduces the need for inputs like artificial fertilisers and pesticides. This helps build climate resilience and offers communities with additional sources of income.
In other words, regenerative agriculture is about using fewer planetary resources to produce more food – harnessing nature’s ability to revitalise, rather than deplete, agricultural landscapes so they can continue sustaining humanity in the long term.
How can regenerative agriculture benefit us?
Regenerative agriculture can benefit workers across entire supply chains, as well as consumers and the environment.
Farmers, for example, can enjoy higher yields and lower costs by using alternative sources of livestock feed. This also reduces their dependence on costly inputs such as synthetic pesticides, fertilisers, irrigation and even antibiotics.
In East Africa, farmers adopting agroforestry practices have seen their yields double, and in the Sahel, FMNR led to increases in crop production ranging from 35% to 170%, according to the Africa Regenerative Agriculture Study Group.
The same report finds that the increased uptake of regenerative agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa could support nearly 5 million jobs and add more than $70 billion in gross value added per year by 2040. It would also bolster food security and help smallholders earn more money through diversified revenue streams.
In the future, financial instruments such as carbon credits could even be designed to reward changes in agricultural practices to sequester more carbon.
Higher incomes may protect farmers against external shocks, raise their standard of living, and be reinvested to shift from subsistence farming to commercial agriculture.
In turn, larger harvests can stimulate off-farm employment as more people are required to transport, process and sell products, and consumers may enjoy greater food security through lower prices and access to more abundant and varied foodstuffs.
Finally, food processors can enjoy a higher, more stable supply from lands and communities that have built resilience to pests, floods and droughts – more potential growth at lower risk.
How can regenerative agriculture help solve climate change?
About one-third of the world’s carbon is stored in the soil beneath our feet. That makes it the second-largest carbon storage on Earth, after the ocean.
Regenerative practices can sequester vast amounts of carbon dioxide by increasing soil organic carbon, reducing emissions from agricultural inputs and increasing plant, shrub and tree coverage. For instance, agroforestry systems can sequester 10 to 20% more soil carbon than lands without trees, according to Oxfam.
Likewise, techniques such as shade tree planting, mulching and reduced tillage can increase soil organic carbon content by an average of 20% and nitrogen content by 24%.
Regenerative practices can also make farming systems more resilient to the effects of the climate crisis, such as more frequent and intense droughts, floods and pest outbreaks.
For example, they can improve soil water holding capacity, facilitate infiltration by 60%, and enhance topsoil retention and overall soil health, curbing runoff and reducing erosion by up to 30%, according to the Africa Regenerative Agriculture Study Group.
They also increase biodiversity, including that of plants, microorganisms and insects, which is essential for climate and water regulation and to keep pests and diseases under control. In intercropping systems, the root systems of trees can transfer deeper resources to the surface, helping crops cope with drought.
Is regenerative agriculture profitable?
Despite the benefits, regenerative agriculture does incur start-up costs that farmers, agribusinesses and policymakers must factor in.
After initial investments to introduce new crops and techniques, farmers may have to wait for up to five years to see increases in yields, as noted by a report from the International Resource Panel. This could occur with soil improvement practices such as fallow and cover cropping, or when tree products take time to reach harvest volumes. Soil management practices may also be particularly labor-intensive.
However, programmes to halt and reverse land degradation could generate some $1.4 trillion per year in economic benefits – far exceeding the costs of continuing with business as usual.
So, if there is a clear business and environment for regenerative agriculture, what will it take to implement it on a large scale? Access to training, investment incentives and appropriate policies – all grounded in an understanding that it’s all about preserving our food systems for future generations to enjoy.
Gloria Pallares is a journalist reporting on global development and the environment from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Her work has appeared in a range of publications, including El Pais, CNN and Forbes. As part of her scientific background, Gloria conducted research on agroforestry and land use in Kenya in collaboration with CGIAR.