Can Regenerative Agriculture Save the Planet?
A Talk by Jonty Brunyee, Farm Ed, for the Wild Oxfordshire Annual Lecture
Write-up by Nicola Schafer
The lecture was introduced by Wild Oxfordshire CEO Camilla Burrows. Wild Oxfordshire aims to bring people together, inspire, and advise on what people can do to help nature on their patch. A key goal for Wild Oxfordshire is to make places for nature bigger, better, and more joined up and they work strategically with partners across the county to help make that happen.
FarmEd is the centre for Farm and Food education, based in the Cotswolds. It aims to educate, inspire and connect people, to help facilitate a transition to sustainable farming practices that address the climate and ecological challenges we face as well as the need to provide food for the population. They have a demonstration farm which includes crops, a market garden, cattle, and sheep, as well as tree planting and hedges. The audience is not just farmers and landowners, it also includes a diverse audience of schools, families, researchers, policymakers, foodies, and more.
The goal of FarmEd is to help promote systems that nourish to people and regenerate the planet.
As a society, we have the challenge of feeding a growing and more consumptive population. Almost every metric, from carbon in the atmosphere to farmland bird populations are going in the wrong direction, and not only that they are speeding up.
So the question is, how do farmers tackle those challenges at the same time as producing food? There are complex public goods such as flood management and providing habitat for wildlife. As well as climate change affecting farmers (and it is getting worse), at the same time there are big policy changes.
However, there is hope. Farmers can cut emissions and sequester carbon. It might even be possible to sequester a little for others, but there’s not a lot spare.
Another challenge is the declining nutrient density in the food we grow and consume. That’s partly due to soil quality, but also seed quality and what we select for. We prioritise fast-growing crops which are disease resistant rather than selecting for nutrients or taste. This has an impact further down the line in terms of the inputs required for what supplements livestock require and for human health.
For farmers, it is getting increasingly hard to be financially viable. Farm incomes come from selling food, diversification (such as holiday cottages), agri-environment payments, and from traditional BPS farm subsidies (which are being phased out and replaced with ELMS payments). On average, farmers are just about making a profit, but diversification and subsidies are crucial. In fact, as far as livestock go, 75% of farmers are losing money on every sheep or cattle. Add to that volatility due to Ukraine, and half of the farmers could go bankrupt as the BPS system of subsidies is withdrawn. ELMs need to replace this but there is considerable uncertainty over how that will work. This all means that the situation for farmers, food producers and conservationists, can feel overwhelming. It is complex and difficult – but there is hope and a way forward.
So, as a result of all this, farming is changing, and it has to change to meet those challenges. There are a number of ways that are happening, some of which may not be the ideal answer, such as more processed proteins such as meat replacements. But it is certain that there will be different food and supply chains as part of the picture.
There will also be more “sustainable intensification”. This can be in the form of multi-storey buildings to house pigs, located close to abattoirs and markets, such as in China, or floating dairy farms such as in the Netherlands. The animals in these facilities are often fed high-quality diets and have a high standard of welfare in some ways, but they cannot move around much. These ways of farming solve some problems but they are not working with nature.
FarmEd believes that the answer is “agroecology”. This has the ecological and social elements that “sustainable intensification” lacks. It works with nature, local people and culture and is not solely about being efficient.
An important part of agroecology is regenerative agriculture. Traditional farming has been depletive, taking out hedges and leaving the soil in a worse condition. Now slowly but surely, we are moving to regenerative thinking, which can be summarised as improving, enhancing and rebuilding. It includes rebuilding biodiversity, connecting to our communities, and using circular and nature-based solutions. Farming in this way can lock in carbon, increase yields, and improve animal welfare.
There are 6 principles of regenerative agriculture:
1. Minimise soil disturbance. This means less spraying and less ploughing so that the mycorrhizal fungi can do their thing. That can be ploughing only 2 – 3 years out of 8 and only using shallow tilling. It also means moving to a perennial cropping system.
2. Diversity. This is about moving away from monoculture and implementing companion planting. An example is planting vetch and clover in with the oil seed rape, which can actually increase yield. Crop rotations can be longer and more varied.
3. Keep soil covered. This means planting more cover crops, to help keep the soil on the hills.
4. Integrate grazing livestock. Although there is some debate about this, and overall we need to eat less meat as a society, there is still a role for livestock as part of the system. As grasses and herbs grow on the farm, cattle can graze them and turn them into protein for human consumption. They put back nutrients into the soil through their manure, eliminating the need for additional fertilisers and they stimulate living soil through bacteria.
5. Seek living roots all year. This is done by not overgrazing, feeding the rooting system and through less ploughing.
6. Context and Value – Every farm is different so different crops will suit different ecosystems. There is no one way to implement regenerative farming. The important thing is to look at the farm holistically.
Done right, farming by these principles creates a healthier and more resilient soil full of life. That soil has considerable potential to capture carbon and increasingly so as soils are strengthened and deepened through these methods. The use of tall grass swards slows air flow, leaves less scorched earth, means less evaporation, and creates better habitats for wildlife. Plants grown under these conditions are healthier and contain more nutrients. As well as reducing fewer inputs being bought in for cows, a diverse diet including different herbs in the pasture provide natural parasite control.
Increased diversity can better yields and better profits. Farm income can be increased as they can be paid for providing public goods. More farm enterprises from more diverse farms including perhaps market gardens, bee hives, pasture, as well as traditional crops mean that these various enterprises can work in synergy with waste products from one being used as inputs for another. They also employ more people and are more resilient. It’s not only at the small scale of Farm Ed that are able to implement this, a number of big farmers have successfully implemented these techniques.
To see the full presentation by Jonty on youtube click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Tqs9-vBKBo
For more information on FarmEd see www.farm-ed.co.uk
For more information on Wild Oxfordshire see www.wildoxfordshire.org.uk