Regenerative Agriculture part 1 | Resources Must Be Replenished

Woody Harrelson and Kiss the Ground may have brought the approach to a wider audience, but regenerative agriculture is nothing new. In the first installment of a three-part series, Peter Dunne explains what regenerative agriculture is, and why we should extract with the knowledge and intent to replenish. Full series will be available to download as a pdf.

Regenerative Agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services. It aims to capture carbon in soil and aboveground biomass, reversing current global trends of atmospheric accumulation. At the same time, it offers increased yields, resilience to climate instability, and higher health and vitality for farming and ranching communities. The system draws from decades of scientific and applied research by the global communities of organic farming, agroecology, Holistic Management, and agroforestry.

Modern agriculture is immensely damaging

The current paradigm of agriculture, epitomised by the Green Revolution of the mid-Twentieth Century, has undoubtedly contributed to improved nutritional outcomes and reduced hunger, albeit that the absolute numbers of malnourished people today have increased and continue to do so.

Nevertheless, modern agriculture is immensely damaging to ecosystems, and often in ways that are silent to people as framed by their daily lived experience. Modern agriculture is also capital and energy intensive, highly reliant on synthetic inputs and on the modification of environments to foster and harness simplification, specialisation, standardisation, centralisation, and consolidation, i.e. the core tenets of industrial capitalism. Collectively and individually, they are all anathema to the natural systems upon which agriculture must ultimately rely.

Modern agriculture is also unavoidably reliant on depleting geochemical resources, including fossil-derived legacy hydrocarbons, as fuel for traction, and feedstock and energy for fertiliser and chemical manufacture, as well as mined geochemical components such as phosphates and potash.

Integrating livestock into crop and forestry systems is a core tenet of regenerative agriculture.

An operable alternative

Thankfully, there is an emerging operable alternative, deployable at varying scales and within varying pedoclimatic contexts; it is more adaptive and harmonious within a mosaic of natural systems and landscapes. It is not dissonant, as is typical of mainstream, standardised, capital and energy-intensive conventional agriculture, which too often still remains oblivious to negative externalities, especially when viewed through the lens of true cost accounting.

In contrast, ‘regenerative agriculture’ implicitly recognises the indispensable nature of soil as the fulcrum of a systemic, cyclical framework, where nutrients embodied in mass and energy, and their fluxes, are merely temporarily but cyclically appropriated – or tapped into – by the intervention of human agency in the interests of ongoing human welfare, i.e. to provide food, fuel and fibre. The underlying objective is to extract, but with the knowledge and intent to replenish. It is always about wholly regenerating that most fundamental, critical, vital resource, the soils beneath our feet.

With techniques such as agroforestry and silvo-pasture, combinations of trees, plants and shrubs, root crops and perennial grasses and legumes can be used to multiply the quantity of biomass in a given area and to introduce system resilience.

Resources must be replenished

Resources must be replenished, both in time and space, when depleted by extraction. Such is the logical and cyclical nature of regenerative agriculture. Agriculture was once implicitly regenerative so perhaps what is now being observed in contemporary settings is merely a resurgence, albeit one set within to the backdrop of a much-expanded global population, a population that we have grown by consuming resources but which we must now feed using regenerative agricultural systems.

Such a view necessarily connotes a more localised cycling and distribution of mass and energy, in contrast to the current paradigm, i.e. shorter supply chains commensurate with re-localisation in appropriate contexts. Critical will be the re-localisation of farmed animals to the land that feeds them.

It must also integrate a focus on ecosystem services, biodiversity restoration and effective, minimal seepage nutrient cycling with the broader economic, social, and nutritional needs of human welfare.

Cultivating pollinators is another core tenet of regenerative agriculture. Pollinators are only the tip of the iceberg of beneficial microfauna.

Seven core principles of Regenerative Farming Ireland

Regenerative Farming Ireland has advocated Seven Core Principles of Regenerative Agriculture. The images below represent the seven core principles of regenerative agriculture, as espoused by Regenerative Farming Ireland (hover over the image to learn more):

This is an extract from the paper ‘The Rise of Regenerative Agriculture? Or Merely a Resurgence?’ by Peter Dunne. Look out for part 2 in this series next week, when Peter Dunne will delve deeper into the topic, take us through the costs of the green revolution, and argue that regenerative agriculture is a cause for hope.

More on Regenerative Agriculture

Comparing Organic, Agroecological and Regenerative Farming part 1 – Organic

Comparing Organic, Agroecological and Regenerative Farming part 2 – Agroecology

Comparing Organic, Agroecological and Regenerative Farming part 3 – Regenerative

If Not Meat Then What? Climate Change, Regenerative Ag and Viable Rural Areas

The Missing Funds for Agroecology: What’s Europe’s Role?

Livestock Will Save Us – A Regenerative Perspective. #LivestockDebate

Organic Outflanked? Conventional, Biological and Regenerative Challenge(r)s

New IAASTD+10 Book – Transforming Our Food Systems

More on Soil Matters

#SoilMatters | Part 1: Andrea Beste on humus, soil structures & the limits of no-till

#SoilMatters part 2 | Mario Catizzone and Sustainable Soil Management

#SoilMatters Part 3 | Soil, Carbon and Policy – where now for 4p1000?

#SoilMatters part 4 | What do we really lose, when we change how land is used?

#SoilMatters Part 5 | Stuart Meikle on Soil, Ruminants & Sustainable Food

#SoilMatters part 6 | What do we want of our soil? And how do we get it?

#SoilMatters part 7 | Soil, Farming and Society: support mechanisms for the necessary transition

Peter Dunne
About Peter Dunne 4 Articles
Peter Dunne hails from a small farming and fishing background in Clogherhead, Co. Louth and is a graduate of University College Dublin (specializing in Meat Science), Peter has significant experience in public and private sector research and third level teaching and training. He lectures on the Masters of Agricultural Biotechnology at Dundalk IT and has held posts at Technological University Dublin, University College Dublin, Teagasc and AHDB.