The term ‘regenerative agriculture’ is a simplification, like all terms. Reality is complex. No definitions are perfect. But we need shorthand terms, so we can communicate concisely.
At Soils for Life we generally use the term ‘regenerative agriculture’ to describe any system of principles, practices and decision-making processes that effectively rebuild soil and landscape diversity and function through agriculture. A ‘regenerative’ approach to agriculture aims to rehabilitate, enhance and work with – rather than against – ecosystem processes, placing a premium on soil health.
Let’s break that down…
The goal – Regeneration
We find the term ‘regenerative agriculture’ useful because it describes the goal. ‘Regeneration’ means ‘the act of improving a place or system’. Farmers adopting regenerative approaches to agriculture are trying to go further than reducing the environmental impact of their enterprise. They are trying to use that enterprise to improve the environment, to improve the function of the natural soil and landscape ecosystems they manage.
Many would argue that environmental regeneration is not enough, and we agree. Most of our case study farmers are thinking holistically about their goals, in ways that include financial outcomes, personal wellbeing, family and community connections, and often broader issues of food system fairness. However, we recognise that each person is different and on a journey, and a common thread for all of our case studies is at a minimum a focus on ecological regeneration. Functioning natural systems are needed to support all of our aspirations for life on earth. Without functional ecosystems, there would be no life here at all.
Soils for Life case study farm Gunningrah
The how – Working with nature
Nature doesn’t do recipes. Soil scientists often say that the answer to every question about the soil is ‘it depends’! And the same goes for every aspect of a natural system.
This is because the planet is a complex system. There are no two trees alike, no two soils alike, no two farms alike, no two paddocks alike, and of course no two farmers alike. If our goal is to regenerate ecosystem function, how we do that will need to differ depending on the context: the soil, the climate, the management history, the vegetation types, the farm enterprise, the culture and needs of the people who are managing the land and many many other things.
Soil is one of the most complex ecosystems on the planet
Many people have proposed lists of practices that could fit the definition of ‘regenerative’, but the reality is that a practice may work to take one patch of land in the direction of improvement, but the same practice may take a different patch of land backwards. Alternatively, a practice may work for a period of time, but then the conditions might change and different practices are needed. Others have proposed a ‘principles-based’ approach, which acknowledges that management approaches need to be determined based on each specific situation. For this reason, farmers who have been successful in regenerating their land have generally invested in their soil and landscape literacy – deepening their ability to understand the natural processes taking place, diagnose issues, adjust management systems, monitor the outcomes and adapt accordingly.
Monitoring root systems
Natural systems do tend towards increasing diversity. Rarely in nature are monocultures to be found, or animals not present. Diversity of living things – both plants and animals – is the foundation of landscape resilience, because the more living things there are in a system, the more likely it will be that some of them will thrive, no matter what conditions are thrown at them.
So build diversity! Beyond that… do what works! Yes, generally this means keeping the soil covered with living plants, minimising disturbance to the soil like ploughing, minimising the use of synthetic fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides and fungicides etc etc. But not always, not in all contexts, not at all times. Regenerating soils and landscapes requires people to be observant and respond to the specific conditions that present themselves.
Does it work?
You know the answer… it depends! We’re talking about agro-ecological systems, not factories. Farmers are managing complex natural systems – not fully controlled environments – that we’re only just beginning to understand.
That said, Soils for Life has produced more than 50 case studies of how a regenerative approach has worked for a range of different farmers in different situations around the country. Generally, they report much improved biodiversity, increased vegetation, carbon, and resilience to extreme weather, droughts, fires and floods (especially through better capacity of the soils to hold water), improved profitability and economic resilience, and improved personal wellbeing. Of course, there are usually mistakes and mis-steps made along the way – which are valuable learning opportunities.
Careful monitoring and observation will tell you if the practices you’re implementing in your own unique situation are moving you towards your goals. There’s a lot you can do yourself, and beyond that, many service providers who can help you track your progress. If something’s not working, it might not be the right practice for your situation or for you, at that time, or perhaps it’s the right practice but needs something else as well.
Things do get trickier when markets get involved. If someone’s buying produce labelled ‘regenerative’, or if a bank or a government agency is offering incentives for producers who use ‘regenerative’ methods, standards are important to avoid greenwashing and ensure that what they’re paying for is something different and valuable. There are a number of organisations working on certification, verification and other schemes in Australia and internationally.
We’re all in this together
We often hear people say we should stop using the term ‘regenerative’ because some people don’t connect with that word, or feel excluded by it. We believe that any meaningful term could run into the same problem. It’s about how the words are used, not which words are used.
At Soils for Life, we are careful to be inclusive about how we communicate. We recognise that everyone is on a different journey. The last thing we want is for someone who’s decided to give something new a go, to be criticised for not having gone further.
Are you aiming for more than just increasing efficiency and reducing environmental impact? Do your goals include continually improving the soil and landscape functionality? Are you trying to mimic nature and build plant and animal diversity? If so, as far as we’re concerned, you’re on the road to practising regenerative agriculture! At Soils for Life, we keep the focus on what information, support, resources and connections you need to keep going down that road.
Find out more about the support we provide to help farmers on this journey.