Regen ag and its role in a changing farming landscape

23rd April 2024

But what exactly is “regen farming” and what are its potential benefits? We take a closer look at the principles of regenerative agriculture and explore how organic farming stands out as the highest benchmark for a regenerative approach.

Where has regen farming come from? A brief history.

The aftermath of the Second World War led to an intensification of farming practices with a focus on increasing crop yields and feeding a starving population. A widespread adoption of fossil fuel derived fertilisers and synthetic pesticides quickly followed. The resulting 70 years of industrial farming practices has meant cheap food has become abundant but at a catastrophic cost to soil health, human health, and the health of our planet.

Conventional agriculture continues to be a significant driver of both climate and ecological crises. To reverse these devasting effects, many farmers recognise that we must begin to produce food more sustainably. This means working in harmony with nature and harnessing its power to protect our soils, landscape, and wildlife for future generations.

During the 1940s, the visionaries and founders of the organic movement such as Lady Eve Balfour[1] and Albert Howard[2] believed that organic wasn’t simply a move away from chemicals – it was a move to a more sophisticated form of food production. These early pioneers recognised the important connection between soil health, and the health of people.

In 2014 the Rodale Institue[3] (a non-profit organisation focused on organic farming research) published its white paper 'Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change’[4]. This document outlined the principles of regenerative organic agriculture and emphasised its potential to address climate change through carbon sequestration in the soil.

Robert Rodale originally coined the term ‘regenerative’ specifically in relation to ‘organic’, to describe a holistic approach to farming that encourages continuous innovation and improvement of environmental, social, and economic measures.

"Regenerative organic agriculture
can sequester carbon and reverse climate change.”

What impact is changing agricultural policy having on regenerative farming?

The UK's departure from the EU has led government to design its own agricultural subsidy system to replace the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

The Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme[5] aims to reward farmers for environmentally positive land stewardship by delivering ‘public money for public goods.’

Farmers have an opportunity to introduce farming practices that capitalise on the payments offered under the new legislation. This includes enabling organic farmers to combine Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI)[6] and Countryside Stewardship (CS) payments[7] to deliver increased payments of up to 50% to organic farmers when compared to historic BPS rates. Read more in our technical leaflet.[8]

Where does regen farming fit into new environmental schemes?

Regenerative agriculture aligns well with the principles and objectives of ELMs in England through an approach that focuses on revitalising and regenerating ecosystems.

The scheme encourages farmers to engage in activities that result in positive environmental outcomes. Regenerative practices often focus on achieving specific ecological goals, making them a natural fit for the new payment system.

By encouraging natural practises, regenerative agriculture aims to improve water retention, sequester carbon in the soil, and promote resilience to climate change.

This approach potentially benefits the environment and can also enhance crop and livestock productivity. Regenerative agriculture can align with developing sustainable, nature-friendly agricultural systems that could go some way toward supporting both the planet and future generations.

Unlike conventional farming, which can degrade the land over time, regenerative agriculture seeks to rejuvenate and revitalise the environment through a simple set of guiding principles.

What are the key principles of regenerative agriculture?

In broad terms the principles of regenerative agriculture can be broken down into four pillars:
soil health, biodiversity, water management, and carbon sequestration.

1.     Soil Health: At the core of regenerative agriculture is the belief that healthy soil is the foundation for sustainable farming. Practices such as cover cropping, minimal soil disturbance, and diverse crop rotations are integral to nurturing thriving soil ecosystems.

Organic farming aligns with this principle of regenerative agriculture but also goes a step further by excluding the use synthetic fertilisers and chemicals through its legally binding standards.

By avoiding these often-toxic products, organic farmers promote not just a healthier soil but also a healthier soil ecosystem.

2.     Biodiversity: Regenerative farmers actively promote biodiversity by cultivating a variety of crops and integrating livestock. This diversity enhances ecosystem resilience, reduces the risk of pests and diseases, and fosters a balanced environment.

Organic farms again go one step further by prioritising biodiversity, by avoiding genetically modified organisms and synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. By including diverse rotations and prohibiting the routine use of antibiotics and anthelmintics (wormers), natural ecosystems are enhanced by actively supporting pollinators, beneficial insects, and wildlife.

3.     Water Management: Sustainable water practices, such as rainwater harvesting, efficient irrigation techniques, and water-conscious crop choices, are essential components of regenerative agriculture.

This approach helps mitigate the impact of water scarcity and supports long-term agricultural resilience.

The absence of synthetic chemicals in organic farming goes further in helping prevent water pollution. The focus by organic farmers on building organic matter (natural fertility) ensures that the soil’s water retention capacity increases while keeping water resources clean and viable.

4.     Carbon Sequestration: Regenerative agriculture actively seeks to fight against climate change by promoting carbon sequestration.

Healthy soils absorb and store carbon, reducing atmospheric CO2 levels and contributing to a more stable climate.

By increasing soil organic matter through the use of natural fertilisers and the avoidance of synthetic chemicals organic farming increases the carbon sequestration capacity of the soil. Organic farming also avoids using fossil fuel derived inputs, so it simultaneously avoids the use of climate and nature damaging products while offsetting CO2e emissions through the soil's increased capacity to capture and store carbon.

What's next?

In a rapidly changing agricultural landscape, regenerative agriculture represents a first step toward restorative and resilient food production, with organic representing the pinnacle of a regenerative approach in both practise and mindset. Embarking on this journey is essential if we are to address the multiple environmental and societal challenges we face.

By embracing the principles of soil health, biodiversity, water management, and carbon sequestration, organic farming emerges as a beacon of sustainable, regenerative and resilient food production. As consumers increasingly recognise the positive impacts of their choices, supporting a transformational, nature-friendly farming approach becomes a powerful catalyst for positive change in our relationship with the land and the environment.

It's important for farmers to stay updated on the evolving policy landscape, as it can significantly impact their operations and income. Consulting with advisors, industry organisations, and government agencies can provide valuable insights tailored to specific circumstances.

Considering our already breached planetary boundaries, a ‘business as usual’ approach in the agricultural sector is not going to resolve the disastrous impact that intensive farming systems continue to wreak on our planet. Here’s where more nature-friendly and a whole system approach to farming can come to the fore.

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