What is Regenerative Agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture or regenerative farming is a model of crop or livestock production that uses a variety of practices to restore and conserve ecosystems connected to the land. While at the same time seeks to increase productivity and mitigate environmental impacts like climate change and biodiversity loss.
Regenerative agriculture both encompasses traditional, proven practices as well as innovation in management, measurement and practice. It is an alternative way of raising crops and animals that, by working with natural systems, ensures the long-term viability and resilience of the land to continue to provide for generations to come. The focus on restoration and regeneration of nature is about ‘doing more good’ through agriculture, rather than just ‘less bad’.
The practice of Regenerative Agriculture:
Regenerative agriculture distinguishes a kind of farming that goes beyond simply sustainable as it seeks to improve ecosystem services within farming systems. Rather than a set method or simply sustainable farming, regenerative agriculture consists of a multitude of (holistic) farming practices to improve soil health and reverse climate change by expanding biodiversity, improving the water cycle, increasing organic matter in soil structure and transferring carbon from the atmosphere to the soil. For example, it can also include grazing practices that, among others, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity. Doing so, regenerative agriculture acknowledges the role that livestock plays in sequestering carbon in the soil and the relationship of this to soil health.
Why is regenerative agriculture important for the leather industry?
Leather, as a by-product of the meat-industry, begins its life as a raw material on a farm or rangeland. The future of the leather industry is therefore inextricably linked with the future of agriculture. Regenerative farming practices can contribute to a more sustainable leather industry by improving biodiversity and restoring and conserving the ecosystems that facilitate the hides as a raw material for leather production. Doing so, regenerative farming practices can be a powerful nature-based solution, driving a transition with positive environmental and social impacts in the leather supply chain.
Potential benefits of regenerative agriculture for farmers:
Farmers may benefit from regenerative agriculture by increasing the resilience of their land through improved soil health and a more (bio) diverse, stable and sustainable ecosystem that their production depends on. Regenerative agriculture can bring more stable and diversified income streams to farmers through reduced input costs, a higher productivity of the land, crop diversification and accessing growing market demand for sustainable products. In addition, farmers can potentially benefit from the generation of carbon credits. These factors make regenerative agriculture an attractive and viable approach for farmers looking to improve the productivity, profitability and sustainability of their operations.
Key practices for Regenerative Agriculture
The way regenerative agriculture is practiced may vary depending on the region, soils, type of crops or livestock. But there are some key practices that define agriculture or farming as regenerative:
- No-till cropping or No-till farming (also known as zero tillage): An agricultural technique for growing crops or pasture without disturbing the soil through tillage. No-till farming decreases the amount of soil erosion that tillage causes in certain soils, especially in sandy and dry soils on sloping terrain.
Instead of tilling the soil, farmers use specialized equipment to plant seeds directly into untilled soil, leaving the crop residues from the previous harvest on the surface. The main idea behind no-till cropping is to maintain the integrity and structure of the soil while reducing erosion, preserving moisture, and improving soil health.
- Diversification: Diversification of annual cropping systems to include legumes, perennial crops, and forages in rotations. Diversification helps improve soil health by promoting biodiversity and enhanced nutrient cycling, disrupts and reduces the risk of pest and disease outbreaks, supports natural weeds suppression, optimizes nutrient cycling and reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers. At the same time, diversification in crops can enhance the economic resilience of farmers by generating more stable and diversified income streams.
- Use of organic soil amendments, such as cover crops, manure, and biofertilizers:
Cover crops for example are planted in conjunction with row crops, either between cash crop seasons or alongside cash crops as intercropping. They can include a wide variety of plant species such as grasses and grains. Cover crops are highly beneficial for a multitude of reasons, ranging from soil health improvement by protecting against erosion, minimizing nutrient run-off and retaining soil moisture, to weed suppression, better nutrient cycling, biodiversity promotion and pest-and disease management. Cover crops especially are linked to increased carbon sequestration, as they can capture atmospheric carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and incorporate it into the soil as organic matter.
- Grazing practices: The reintegration of grazing animals back into cropping systems, through for example managed grazing. This involves carefully managing the movement of livestock across pastures to prevent overgrazing and exhaustion of land. Livestock are rotated between different paddocks or sections of pasture, allowing vegetation to recover before being grazed again. Grazing practices also include converting marginal and degraded cropland into permanent pasture and forests, and restoration of wetlands.
- Change in fertilizer use:
- Reduction of nitrogen (N)-fertilizer use, changing the type of fertilizer used (e.g., legumes, controlled-release, and nanoenhanced fertilizers), and use of nitrification inhibitors.
- Application of organic fertilizers, that feed the soil microbial systems and improve mycorrhizal functions, reducing nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) runoff and ground water losses.
- Water conservation: The harvesting of rainwater, improved irrigation techniques, and the use of cover crops to reduce evaporation, and reduce water consumption and the strain on water resources.
- Biodiversity preservation: Supporting habitat restoration and biodiversity conservation through for example planting native species, creating wildlife corridors and strips of herb-rich grassland.
Indicators to measure the impact of regenerative agricultural practices
The concept of regenerative agriculture is still fluid and subject to a myriad of studies in different systems that can provide for better understanding on the best practices for each specific region. Core principles range from keeping the soil always covered with minimal disturbance to integrating livestock into cropping rotations or forestry systems. The minimization of external inputs is also sought after.
Nevertheless, there are some commonly agreed indicators to measure the impact of regenerative agricultural practices, indicating the various elements to invest in:
|Physicochemical aspects of the soil
|Microbiology, Presence of local fauna and flora
|Availability of water, Humidity
|Carbon storage (in soil)
O’Donoghue, Tom, Budiman Minasny, and Alex McBratney. “Regenerative Agriculture and Its Potential to Improve Farmscape Function.” Sustainability 14.10 (2022): 5815.
Teague, W. Richard, et al. “The role of ruminants in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint in North America.” Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 71.2 (2016): 156-164.