Do we need to adopt a regenerative farming approach?

16th April 2024

Intensive food systems and recent farming practices are wreaking havoc on human and planetary health.  The UK has lost almost 50% of its biodiversity[1] since the Industrial Revolution, while the nation’s poor diet costs the NHS £11bn annually[2].

Yet, despite these horrendous statistics, some people would like us to think there’s no choice other than inflicting greater intensification in our food and farming systems. But that’s simply not true.

There are viable, sustainable alternatives to this Machiavellian horror show. These include a regenerative organic farming model. Organic farming is proven and is governed by stringent standards, while providing a holistic approach with a positive environmental impact, while producing sufficient, nutritious food naturally and without harmful synthetic inputs.

Over the coming months, we’ll be exploring the current farming landscape and look at how establishing regenerative organic, nature-friendly approaches to food and farming can deliver environmental, social and economic benefits.

Why does sustainability in our food systems matter?

When it comes to biodiversity loss[3], Britain has suffered greatly, losing the most flora and fauna species of all the G7 nations and more than many other countries, including China.

Species diversity in more than half of land ecosystems is critically low. A 10% drop is widely considered the threshold at which biodiversity's contribution to ecosystem services is compromised. It's estimated that over a quarter of Earth's land surface has already exceeded this safe limit[4].

We depend on biodiversity every single day, with pollinators estimated to be responsible for a third of the world’s crop production. Therefore, it’s vital for us to conserve nature, rather than wiping out insects and invertebrates with synthetic pesticides.

Hand in hand with the issue of biodiversity loss is the colossal impact caused by our wasteful diets.

The UK has the third cheapest food in the world. This has been driven by the intensification and consolidation within the farming sector and alongside the rise of ultra-processed food which in turn has precipitated the degradation of the UK’s biodiversity and soils.

Consistently aiming for higher yield through ongoing intensification is economically and environmentally unviable. We would argue that sustainable outcomes are a more important measure than sheer yield quantity.

A shift towards sufficiency, permanence, and equitable food distribution is crucial for true food security. It’s a shift that organic’s regenerative practices can help facilitate.

How can regenerative farming balance food production and nature?

"It’s totally shocking that food is the biggest economic contributor to breaching planetary boundaries[5]. A fact highlighted by a report produced by the Food System Economics Commission[6].

Current food systems are driving global greenhouse gas emissions, risking a 2.7C temperature increase by 2100. However, a wholesale shift to sustainable agricultural production could create a whopping £8tn of benefits [7] a year in terms of improving human and environmental health.

Our goal must be to abandon intensive, input-reliant monocultures that have waged war on nature and the climate for years and embrace strategies that ideally avoid, or at least minimise, fossil fuel use while enhancing nature and natural systems.

As the Professor of Economic Policy at the University of Oxford, Dieter Helm puts it; “What is unsustainable, cannot be sustained”.

This is excellent news for organic farmers who are producing food while actively restoring and improving the health of ecosystems and their balance sheets.

What’s the current agri-market outlook?

In AHDB’s annual analysis of market conditions[8], Economics & Analysis Director, David Eudall believes that something’s got to give in our current system.

He explains how society’s addiction to cheap, instant and generally highly processed food is exacerbated by retailers ferociously competing for market share and an agricultural policy that potentially gambles the loss of productive farmland versus supporting self-sufficiency.

“Ultimately, this is a picture of the demand pattern being stretched and being met with a domestic supply side under risk of erosion from unpredictable climate, higher costs and environmental schemes implemented in isolation from food production,” says Mr Eudall.

Indeed, something must give.

It’s an opinion echoed by the highly respected organic farmer, author and lecturer, Gunnar Rundgren who recently wrote that the farming sector’s problems are being caused by ‘schizophrenic policies’.[9]

“It is simply not possible to ‘save’ or ‘protect’ more nature without increasing cost or reducing production. But policy makers mostly refrain from acknowledging the underlying contradictions,” he says.

So where does regenerative farming fit in?

We’re repeatedly assured that we have the best knowledge, the best science and the best corporations, yet somehow after decades of ransacking our environment, we’re now going to produce food by managing the entire biosphere.

For a society poised on the brink of destroying its own future, this is an outrageous claim to make.[10]

Organic is the benchmark for regenerative agriculture[11]. Organic farming systems typically balance crop and livestock enterprises and are suited to land sharing (where food production and natural ecosystems work together).

Some assert that land sparing (where nature and food production are mutually exclusive) is a better approach. However, suggesting that ‘optimising food production on as small a land area as possible is the most sustainable way to feed a growing population’[11] does not stand up to scrutiny in a UK context.

Intensive systems are depleting our soils (and more), so promoting land sparing to the exclusion of all other approaches is, frankly, a short-sighted and unwise approach.

Organic is naturally regenerative and legally binding. And while we acknowledge the relevance of other farming systems, organic is evidenced to deliver transformational benefits [12].

If anything, history has repeatedly shown us that single fixes fail to resolve complex problems. Organic can and does make a valuable contribution to securing financially viable farming, a sustainable food supply and preventing environmental collapse.

Stay tuned for more blogs over the coming weeks.
We’ll be looking at:

  • Scaling sustainability in the farming sector: Lessons from regen ag and organic models
  • Defining regenerative agriculture and organic farming: Understanding the key distinctions
  • Cutting through the noise in the regen ag arena
  • What are the benefits of choosing regenerative agriculture? ⁠
  • Looking at regenerative grazing: The pros and cons
  • Soil health and carbon sequestration: Can regenerative farming deliver better outcomes
  • What is and can you trust regenerative food?
  • Are you an agroecologist? Organic farming: revealing the regenerative magic