Sustainable agroecosystems: Cropping using regenerative agricultural principles

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Richard Teague, from Rangeland, Wildlife and Fisheries Management, Texas A&M University, provides more insight into sustainable agroecosystems, focussing on cropping using regenerative agricultural principles

Over the last century, intensive farming practices have had significant negative consequences for the soil and surrounding ecosystems. By disrupting the natural function of these habitats, the valuable ecosystem services they provide are compromised and are the source of the multitude of environmental issues we face as a society. Natural systems make up a complex web of interconnecting functions, with nothing operating at full health if parts of the system are damaged. Thus, we must consider these systems as a whole, examining not only how each component functions, but how they all fit together and interact in the bigger picture.

Agricultural production practices need to be guided by policies that ensure regenerative cropping and grazing management protocols to ensure long-term sustainability and ecological resilience of agroecosystems. It is not sufficient to aim at sustainability alone as we have substantially degraded our agroecosystems with negative consequences over substantial areas of the world. We need to regenerate the soil and ecosystem function. Changing current high-input agricultural practices to low-input regenerative practices enhance soil and ecosystem function and resilience, improving long-term sustainability and social resilience.

Soil health

Most current cropping practices directly damage the soil and ecosystem functions on which they rely by using tillage, inorganic fertilisers, and pesticides, damaging soil and ecosystem function, over time, reducing yields, and prompting even more intensive farming. This unsustainable vicious circle may ultimately lead to land that is damaged beyond repair and no longer suitable for agriculture. The soil degradation of these commonly used practices includes elevated soil erosion, soil organic carbon (SOC) loss, nutrient imbalance, soil sealing, acidification, salinisation, contamination, waterlogging, compaction and loss of soil biodiversity.

To initiate our research on the hypothesised benefits of regenerative agricultural management, we consulted with the NRCS scientists who have conducted nationwide soil mapping and soil testing laboratories to determine the farms that had the highest soil organic carbon in the nation. Without exception, these were farmers who have developed a regenerative model of farm production that promotes soil health and biodiversity, while producing nutrient-dense farm products profitably, using regenerative farming practices for up to three decades. Among these farmers, we determined which had achieved higher profits by regenerating soil and ecological function. This is of prime importance as we depend on farmers maintaining a high level of income that encourages them to adopt better environmental and health goals to benefit their businesses and essential ecosystem services.

Lower input costs, higher profits

Regenerative farmers have substantially lower input costs than conventional farmers because not only are fertiliser and fuel costs extremely low, but pests are more abundant in input-intensive cropping farms than on regenerative insecticide-free farms. In one U.S. study on commercial farms, fields with designed regenerative pest-resilient food systems outperformed those where pesticides were applied to control pests. The regenerative fields had 29% lower grain production, but 78% higher profits over traditional corn production systems, and profits were positively correlated with soil organic matter, not yield.

The metrics needed to fulfil regenerative goals includes (1) production of adequate amounts of high-quality food, (2) enhancement of the natural resource base and the environment, (3) financial viability, and (4) contribute to the well-being of farmers and their communities. Most academics deny that regenerative grazing and cropping management works at all, or is a viable option, and yet there is a large network of people around the world who increased their profits compared to when they started, simultaneously increasing soil health and ecological function. They have done so by explicitly improving soil health and soil organic carbon by managing to achieve the following:


Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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