Whilst Rewilding allows nature to lead the way in its own restoration, Regenerative Agriculture works with nature to produce food for us. Dr Sam Rose visits Groundswell.
As promised, a slightly different R-Word this time, with the R standing for regenerative agriculture, not rewilding. Why? I hear you ask… well, rewilding is a spectrum of approaches for improving biodiversity and ecosystem services (such as water quality, carbon capture etc) and is based on nature taking the lead. It is not an agricultural production system, although almost all rewilding sites do produce a small quantity of very high-quality meat, and many places, including Knepp, consider that they are undertaking ‘wild’ farming. The problem is that many of the UK’s rewilding areas are surrounded by intensively farmed land, with significant use of agrochemicals, so the rewilded nature that is thriving in these areas has nowhere to go and the rewilding site becomes an island.
So what has regenerative agriculture (generally referred to as ‘regen’) got to do with this, and what is it anyway? Well, I knew a little, but to find out more, back in June I went to the two-day Groundswell festival, kind of a Glasto for regen farmers, but mainly with tractors and talks, although there was a big music tent, and a surprise DJ set by Andy Cato, he of Groove Armada fame, himself a regen farmer. It was quite something to see hundreds of young farmers and land agents jumping up and down to dance music in gilets and green wellies with their hands in their air!
I digress. Regenerative Agriculture is simple. Groundswell say that “it is any form of farming, ie the production of food or fibre, which at the same time improves the environment. This primarily means regenerating the soil. It’s a direction of travel, not an absolute”. To dissect this a little, regen is about farming that actually improves the environment which it uses, rather than depleting and destroying it. It is a system of farming principles and practices that enriches soils, increases biodiversity, improves watersheds and enhances ecosystem services, all of which are degraded by intensive, industrial farming techniques.
I should probably add in here, this is not a vilification of farmers. Since the 1950s ‘the system’ has encouraged and supported them to work in a certain way, through subsidies, promises of high yields through synthetic agrochemicals, and supermarket pressures. They have worked to this system because it was encouraged, but it is only more recently that we are realising the damage that our quest for cheap food has had on nature, and in particular the soil. When we hear stories of ‘only 50 harvests left’ that may not be so far fetched as it stands under industrial approaches.
And talking of harvests, it all comes down to the soil. Regen farmers are obsessed with soil, and rightly so, because it is only with healthy soil that good crops can grow and nature can thrive. Groundswell say: “A healthy soil is a fabulously complex ecosystem, comprising countless billions of microscopic organisms all working away in their own little niches, feasting on each other and sugars exuded from the roots of growing plants. The whole system is ultimately fuelled by growing plants, whilst at the same time the system helps the plants grow.” I know a regen organic dairy farmer from Dorset who can talk for hours about his soil quality measurements and how they have improved through their mob grazing techniques. But not only is the quality improved in terms of fertility, but also in terms of soil carbon, so regenerative farming is a massively important tool in tackling climate change.
But what does regen involve? People tend to stick to these 5 principles:
- Don’t disturb the soil—regen adopts a ‘no-till’ approach, so no ploughing please, instead you can ‘direct drill’ seeds into the soil.
- Keep the soil surface covered—growing cover crops or leaving stubble protects the soil from damage from harsh rain or intense sun
- Keep living roots in the soil—to feed the bacteria and mycelium (not like in Star Trek, sorry) that keep the soil fertile. The fungal (mycorrhizal) network that is critical to soil fertility is broken up every time soil is ploughed
- Grow a diverse range of crops—ideally at the same time. Crops often help each other and nature thrives on variety
- Bring grazing animals back to the land—for the organic matter and other benefits they can bring—which is a link back to the role of herbivores in rewilding.
Adopting these approaches, along with a reduction and eventual removal of synthetic fertilisers, fungicides and pesticides, provide a fabulous place for nature to thrive alongside significant food production. But don’t take my word for it, and please don’t think this is a hippy fad, this is serious business, and it works and it is starting to be adopted widely in the UK and globally. One local landowner recently told me that regen will ‘be’ farming in the future, we need to accept it and adopt it. Early adopters like Ken Hill in Norfolk (of Springwatch fame) have been through the change and can’t imagine ever returning to more intensive approaches.
What’s so important about regen is that, like rewilding, it works with nature as opposed to fighting against nature. It draws on our knowledge of the ‘older ways’ of farming, restoring and working with the natural ecological balance of the land; something that many indigenous communities around the world still practice, from whom we could learn a lot.
So regen is the flip side of rewilding. Whilst Rewilding allows nature to lead the way in its own restoration, Regenerative Agriculture works with nature to produce food for us. Moreover, wildlife and biodiversity from rewilding areas or other natural spaces are able to spread and increase more easily if adjacent land is farmed regeneratively rather than intensively. As ever, there is nuance and there will be counter arguments, but for now, and for me, the ‘R-word’ relates to the two concepts, both of which, I believe, are essential for our future.
For more about Dr Sam Rose visit: whatifyoujustleaveit.info