The next agricultural revolution is about growing affordable, nutrient-dense food on regenerating soils at scale.
A growing body of evidence confirms that we can grow food at lower cost and, potentially, with greater productivity by aligning with natural processes
For years, debates about the future of food have had one underpinning assumption – a trade-off between the ecology and the economy. We have been told we can either have abundant cheap food, or we can have food grown in a nature-friendly way, but in smaller quantities and it will cost more. The need for trade-off no longer exists.
In short, we no longer need to dominate nature with the tools of industrial farming in order to grow affordable food at scale.
A 12,000-year story of ecological destruction
Little did Neolithic growers in the Levant in 9,500 BC know that they were unleashing a cycle of destruction of the soils on which we depend for our existence. In many areas of the world, rich farmland eventually turned to desert. In all others, our ability to continue growing food has depended on figuring out ways to repair the damage enough to keep the practice of extractive nutrient harvesting going. In modern times, our efforts to dominate nature have benefitted from the availability of abundant cheap energy which unleashed the full power of the industrial revolution and everything that has flowed from it. The result is a global resource-intensive and input-intensive industrial farming system. It is a game of high cost and (in theory) high yields at a relentless ecological cost.
Whilst we have broadly succeeded in producing enough food to sustain a population explosion from less than 1 billion in 1800 to nearly 8 billion today, the impact on water cycles and biodiversity have both been catastrophic. And then there is the 800 lb gorilla in the room: catastrophic global heating. Agriculture and the transport impact of food supply chains are responsible for 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the UK and up to 25% globally.
At the heart of this tragedy is that conventional farming is a process which uses up the key asset – the soil. Every seasonal cycle of ploughing, monoculture, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides leads to both loss of soil through erosion, and the degradation of what remains. In the UK, for example, Government analysis concludes that we have lost over 80% of all topsoil in less than 150 years.
International evidence of the potential for an agroecological revolution is compelling
From large scale organic sugar production in Brazil to both arable and livestock farming in the Midwest of the USA, a consistent picture has emerged:
We can produce affordable, nutrient-dense, healthy food at scale on regenerating soils.
Why is soil regeneration so important?
The legacy we have created through industrial agriculture is that much of our so-called ‘soil’ is, in reality, biologically dead dirt. It is literally lifeless. Modern soil science provides insights into how to harness nature to fix this, and indeed, why we should.
We now know healthy soil is an extraordinary web of life. It is teeming with bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, algae, protozoa, a wide variety of larger soil fauna, including springtails, mites, nematodes, earthworms, ants, other insects that spend all or part of their life underground, and larger organisms such as burrowing rodents. The power source for all this life are, of course, green growing plants. Using carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight, they create photosynthates (sugary “liquid carbons”) through photosynthesis. Typically, while 40% of these sugars are used by the plants as food above ground, the balance is translocated to the roots and half of that is exuded into the soil. The largest part of this “exudate” is consumed by microbes and fungi, in exchange for which they provide plants with access to nutrients and minerals.
The scale of life in the soil is remarkable. It is 95% of all life on land. Just a teaspoon of productive soil contains between 100 million and 1 billion individual bacteria of around ten thousand different species. An acre of healthy soil supports a billion invertebrates.
The biology of rich regenerated soil is both resilient and adaptive. It can handle droughts and torrential downpours. This is because healthy soil can absorb nine times its weight in water, while dead dirt holds, effectively, none.
Soil regeneration also leads to carbon sequestration, potentially at a net positive rate of over 13 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per hectare per year. This reverses the current dynamic, changing farming from a climate problem to a climate solution.
All of these benefits of soil regeneration come together in a transformation to a new and superior paradigm of agricultural productive capacity. Done at scale, it will create a totally different world to our biologically impoverished current reality where our dead dirt is dependent on the annual “heroin hit” of industrial fertilisers to be of any use at all for food production.
Regenerative agriculture is about ensuring that regenerating soil is an inevitable consequence of agricultural practice
Making soil the central issue is important because both creating more soil and improving its health are key to an ecologically positive and sustainable outcome. A focus on soil regeneration as the objective represents a seismic shift in our approach from process-orientation to an outcomes-focus. For example, current organic certification schemes around the world are typically process-based, prohibiting the use of synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, and growth hormones.
The problem is that even though we may reduce the use of harmful chemicals, soils may continue to degrade, water systems decline, and biodiversity reduce.
Furthermore, if we do not make regenerating soil the focus, we risk addressing symptoms rather than the root causes. It has led many people, for example, to eating plants grown in soil-destructive, ecologically harmful processes rather than eating meat produced by animals farmed with an ecologically positive regenerative approach. From the perspective of ecological value (as distinct from the ethical question of whether you believe humans should be carnivores), we are looking at the wrong issue.
The central ecological question should not be one of a meat- or plant-based diet. It should be about whether what we eat, be it beef or tofu, was produced on regenerating soils. Planet-killing mono-crop wheat production that releases CO2 into the atmosphere and sends topsoil down the river accompanied by a cocktail of pesticides toxic to aquatic life is no less problematic than shed-fed growth-hormone-injected cattle farting their way to the abattoir, leaving behind lakes of slurry. They both need sorting out.
Peer-reviewed science confirms that a migration at scale from industrial farming to regenerative farming can deliver simultaneous economic, ecological, and social benefits
The task of regenerative agriculture is to create profitable farms which deliver ecological services and the social upliftment of agricultural communities. And profits really matter, as nothing can be sustainable if it is not economically viable. Ironically, in the UK, our current industrial agricultural systems do not generally pass the economic test. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), 42% of the 85,000 recipients of current Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) subsidies in England are dependent on subsidies to achieve profitability. Another 16% are not profitable even with subsidies. That is nearly 50,000 agricultural businesses in England alone that do not deliver a baseline of economic viability.
For sustainable food production, we need a fundamentally more profitable approach. Regenerative agriculture makes that possible. In fact, it can produce a whole series of positive benefits. Here are eight of them:
- Increasing food security by avoiding soil collapse and by making our food systems more resilient to both extreme weather events and changing weather patterns, while increasing the home-grown percentage of what we eat.
This is about proactively enhancing food sovereignty.
- Reducing flood risk by exponentially improving the ability of the landscape to absorb rainfall absorption.
This is about proactively managing for an effective water cycle.
- Restoring healthy populations of bees, other pollinators and predatory insects which will make food production even more resilient and anti-fragile.
This is about proactively increasing biodiversity.
- Making agriculture an ecologically positive investment sector. Investments in agrichemical industrial farming risk becoming “stranded assets” alongside oil, gas, and coal. Regenerative approaches not only offer profitable returns, but also the potential to build the core asset: the soil.
This is about proactively re-shaping the investment marketplace.
- Empowering a consumer-led, demand-driven revolution. Growing affordable, healthy, nutrient-dense food on regenerating soils will create conditions under which the mass market will work in favour of nature. We will be able to “change the world through our wallets” by buying high-quality food, grown regeneratively which costs the same or less than agrichemical food.
This is about proactively unleashing the potential for a new paradigm.
- Creating a new knowledge industry.Whereas industrial agriculture is input-intensive, regenerative agriculture is knowledge intensive. This means as the world moves in this direction, early adopters will have an opportunity to monetize their expertise across the world. On top of that, there are spin-offs and related technologies throughout the entire supply chain that offer opportunities for creating economic value.
This is about proactively creating sustainable jobs for the future.
- Renewing rural communities not just economically but also socially and psychologically. Today in the UK, over half of farmers are over the age of 65. Mental health is a serious issue and few young people see farming as an attractive career. Economically, rural poverty is well documented including the dynamics of young people tied to family farms earning pocket money in the anticipation of eventually inheriting the family business. Once again international research shows how regenerative agriculture can create more employment, reduce the seasonality of that employment, be more attractive for the next generation and by being more profitable, transform the stress dynamics which are endemic in the current mainstream.
This is about proactively managing for abundance.
- Unlocking land ownership.Many family farms are caught in the trap that the only way for the older generation to be able to retire is to sell the one asset they have: the farm. The scarcity premium for land in the UK relative to its general agricultural value means that its simply not viable for the next generation to buy land based on achieving a return through farming to finance the purchase. The result is that farming families are driven off the land. With regenerative agriculture we can reverse this trend and enable a new generation to afford to make careers in the countryside.
This is about creating a new platform for freedom.
If regenerative agriculture is so good, why isn’t everybody doing it?
The result is that our dominant approach to finding solutions to the problems we face revolves around technologies which benefit the status quo. Biotech investment flows to genetic modification of monoculture crops, better weed-, insect- and fungus-killing applications, super-growth hormones for animals etc. The goal: to continue to dominate nature.
Notwithstanding these pressures, over the years some people have followed their instincts, climbed out of the rut of the established way, and thoughtfully experimented with new ways of doing things aligned with nature. We now have the proof of those instincts producing successful outcomes and have been able to understand increasingly why some succeed and others fail.
At the individual farming enterprise level, the problem is that we are talking about a complete change in thinking and approach where the real benefits flow from commitment to total change. It is like driving a car at a brick wall, where, if you hit the wall at 40 miles per hour, you can smash through. If you drive to slowly, you just damage the car. Partial solutions in the direction of a regenerative approach (such as, for example, not using pesticides while still practising tillage-based monoculture) are the agricultural equivalent of driving too slowly at a brick wall. The result is often higher costs, lower yields and a need for a price premium or a subsidy to make the financials add up.
In making the transition there are inevitable costs, and another reality is that many agricultural enterprises are asset-rich but cash-poor and lack the working capital to fund the transition.
How do we make the transition happen at the pace and at the scale needed?
Systemic change is about creating a flywheel. At first, it takes a great deal of effort for apparently little reward. As the flywheel starts to spin faster it is possible to increase the pace with less effort. A flywheel of change in agriculture can be built around delivering all of the benefits described above simultaneously. To make this happen, we need both a rock-solid framework for change at the individual enterprise level applicable to any farming enterprise irrespective of what it produces or where it is located and a systematic programme to accelerate and scale change across the entire system.
At New Foundation Farms, our analysis of global best practice has concluded that transforming all agricultural systems to a symbiotic relationship between ecology and economy requires three things:
- The latest insights from soil science which have only recently changed our understanding of soil from a functional medium for plant-growth understood and evaluated primarily through the lens of its physical and chemical properties to being understood as a complex living system.
- Agroecological tools and techniques for farming and land management. This longer list includes, for example, no-till, diverse cover crops, in-farm fertility (no external nutrients), no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers and multiple crop rotations.
- A comprehensive systematic, complexity aware design, management and measurement system which can optimise economic and ecological outcomes simultaneously and measure performance in both. The detail of such a system is a huge subject in itself and so will not be addressed in this article, however, it is often the missing link which determines the ability to combine economic and ecological results across different agricultural contexts, and optimise for both.
Combining these three elements creates the potential for a fast, viable and productive transition from resource intensive chemical-based soil mining to a knowledge-intensive industry which profitably harnesses natural processes and provides a rich habitat for a thriving biologically-diverse web of life.
And what about subsidies?
The current pilot Ecological Land Management Scheme is broadly good news for regenerative farming. This is because biodiversity, carbon sequestration and better food are not add-ons or trade-offs; they are part of the regenerative farming system which enables more profitable farming. Therefore, any support scheme which is designed to change traditional agriculture towards ecological benefit is good news.
For as long as subsidies which encourage nature-friendly farming exist, they will offer rewards for regenerative farming. However, perhaps we can look forward to a time when the subsidies are no longer needed in farming and those taxes can be reallocated to education, looking after the sick and the vulnerable and other collective priorities. In the long run, we see the situation reversing from one of subsidy, to one where you will not be allowed to farm in ways that are degenerative. After all, why would a sane society support ecologically destructive food production when it isn’t necessary?
Where does all this stand in a post-Covid-19 world?
The current pandemic contains three arenas in which there are signs which support an acceleration in the scaling of regenerative agriculture:
- Thinking the unthinkable. Doing the undoable.
Moments in history, where things happen which were previously unimaginable open the door for change throughout society. The phrase ‘we will never…’ has less of a hold and the sense of new possibilities driven by both necessity and opportunity flow into every aspect of society. There are signs that indicate that Covid-19 may have opened a window for such a time. It has created a sense that it may be possible for humanity to take a great leap forward by what human emergence expert Christopher Cooke calls “imagineering a regenerative layer”.
- Reappraising what matters.
From a consumer perspective, while it is early days, there is evidence that we are changing our relationship to food. In the UK, reports of demand growth are coming from large-scale organic home delivery schemes like Riverford and Abel & Cole, as well as individual farmers selling direct-to-consumers through home deliveries and on- and off-site farm shops. Time will tell if the explosion of vegetable gardens and our collective interest in home cooking with quality, locally sourced ingredients is sustained, but the portents are good. Participating in such activities creates a ratchet effect which leads to fundamental changes in attitudes which make it difficult for people to revert en masse to eating processed junk food. This impulse to make economic choices which create a meaning-filled life is a global trend that for many has been accelerated by the experience of Covid-19 lockdowns.
- The “benefits” of economic collapse.
A long period of economic depression may still be a post-Covid-19 reality, notwithstanding the best efforts of governments around the world to prevent it. This may make farmland more affordable and agriculture a more attractive career option. It may also mean that current best intentions to continue government financial support of farming in the UK and elsewhere may not be sustained in the face of other societal needs.
Imagine a world where all food is grown in a way that leaves the land better off than when the seed was planted
We stand at the dawn of a new era in which a positive economic, ecological, and social dynamic can supersede our current industrial agricultural system.
It will be a switch from an input-intensive and resource-intensive model, which can only produce food by dominating nature to one that is knowledge-intensive and works with nature.
Ecology and economy do not have to be trade-offs. Growing affordable, nutrient-dense food on regenerating soils at scale is literally a new foundation on which to build our societies.
We can grow affordable nutrient-dense food and high-quality fibre on regenerating soils. In fact, we may be able to grow more, not less food, and at a lower cost than conventional industrial farming systems.
In the years to come, we will look back and recognise that regenerative agriculture is a no-brainer and wonder why it took so long to become mainstream.
If it can be done by some, why not everybody?
After all, why would a sane society support ecologically destructive food production when it isn’t necessary?
New Foundation Farms
At New Foundation Farms, together with our partners, we are focussed on establishing scaled regenerative agriculture in the UK. We have started the process of identifying pilot farms which are for sale and will provide a platform for the journey to demonstrate what is possible. We are also developing information technology to support other farms on this journey as well as our own. We look forward to sharing more of our lessons in future articles. And, of course, if you would like to talk to us, don’t hesitate to get in touch.
The following are a selection of reference sources related to this article:
- Brown G. (2018) Dirt to Soil, Chelsea Green Publishing Company. For more information: https://www.chelseagreen.com/product/dirt-to-soil/
- Butterfield J, Bingham S. and Savory A. (2019) Holistic Management Handbook Third Edition: Regenerating Your Land and Growing Your Profits, Island Press. For more information: https://islandpress.org/books/holistic-management-third-edition
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2017) Achieving ‘Growth Within’. Accessed at https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/achieving-growth-within
- Food, Farming & Countryside Commission (2019) Our Future in the Land. Accessed at: https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/reports/future-land
- IPES-Food (2016) From uniformity to diversity: a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food systems. Accessed at http://www.ipes-food.org/_img/upload/files/UniformityToDiversity_ExecSummary.pdf
- Jehne, W (2019) Regenerate Earth – The practical drawdown of 20 billion tonnes of carbon back into soils annually, to rehydrate bio-systems and safely cool climates, Healthy Soils Australia. Accessed at http://www.globalcoolingearth.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Regenerate-Earth-Paper-Walter-Jehne.pdf
- Jones, C. (2017) Farming Profitably Within Environmental Limits. Accessed at http://amazingcarbon.com/JONES-FarmingProfitablyPUREADVANTAGE+REFS(21Feb18).pdf
- LaCanne and Lundgren (2018) Regenerative agriculture: merging farming and natural resource conservation profitably. PeerJ 6:e4428; DOI 10.7717/peerj.4428 https://peerj.com/articles/4428/
- National Audit Office (NAO) (2019) Early review of the new farming programme. Accessed at: https://www.nao.org.uk/report/early-review-of-the-new-farming-programme/
- Schwartz, J. (2013) Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth, Chelsea Green Publishing Company. For more information: https://www.chelseagreen.com/product/cows-save-the-planet/
- Stanley P., Rowntree J. et al (2018) Impacts of soil carbon sequestration on life cycle greenhouse gas emissions in Midwestern USA beef finishing systems. Accessed at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308521X17310338
- UK Environment Agency (2019) Report: ”The state of the environment: soil”. Accessed at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/805926/State_of_the_environment_soil_report.pdf