What is regenerative agriculture?

What is regenerative agriculture?
What is regenerative agriculture?
What is regenerative agriculture?
longread

What is regenerative agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture has the potential to create a food system that is healing for human beings, animals and the planet.

As soon as we embrace this life restoring method, we start contributing to a healthier climate, fertile soils, biodiversity and the overall wellbeing of people and planet.

The most important shift? Working with nature, instead of against it.

Author Nadine Maarhuis Photographer Gabriela Hengeveld & others Published 27 May 2024 Read time 12 minutes

Imagine farms as places full of life. Insects, birds, worms, microbes and other species balance each other out, simply by eating one another. This makes pesticides and chemical fertilisers obsolete. Instead, the farmer focuses on feeding all living beings, including the soil, enabling it to capture more carbon, water and nutrients every single year.

This may sound utopian, but it is already happening. Everywhere around the world, regenerative farmers prove that we can generate ecological, social and economic profit whilst producing food. These farms are no longer part of the climate, soil, biodiversity, water and health crises, but actively contribute to solutions. Because whilst they sow, grow and harvest, they ensure that their landscapes, communities and local economies become increasingly healthy and resilient.

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Regenerative farmers are not part of the ecological crises, but actively contribute to solutions

Indigenous principles

However new or revolutionary this seems, it is not. In fact, regenerative farming goes back to the basics and places indigenous principles – such as the idea that all life is interconnected – at the heart of food production. And just like indigenous communities, regenerative farmers look beyond the short-term and desire to pass on their land in a better state than they found it. 

Regenerative farmers are also informed, inspired and nourished by agricultural movements that have existed for many years, like organic, biodynamic, permaculture, agroecology and many others. These movements all work towards a food system that is just and humane for all living beings, including farmers themselves. 

Of course, there are differences amongst these movements, but mostly, there is overlap. For instance, just like organic farmers, regenerative farmers don’t use pesticides or chemical fertilisers. And many permaculture principles, such as actively promoting biodiversity and closing loops, can be found on regenerative farms as well. Many regenerative farmers are in fact also organic or biodynamic certified, although not all of them choose to pursue these types of certifications. Due to the associated costs or simply because their customers visit the farm regularly and therefore know that the methods used are ecologically sound.

The essence of regenerative agriculture

Which specific regenerative farming practice someone chooses to use, depends on the local context, such as native biodiversity, climate conditions, soil type and the market. Yet, all regenerative farmers use nature as their example. For everything they do. 

This essence is reflected in the core principles of regenerative agriculture that we at We Are The ReGeneration have created together with farmers, scientists, indigenous leaders, ecological experts and other change makers. Below, you find the most important ones.

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Regenerative farmers put nature back at the heart of agriculture

Regenerative farmers choose diversity (and don’t use pesticides)

In nature, different plants, flowers, herbs, nuts and fruits grow side by side in the same ecosystem. Whilst they grow, they add and remove different nutrients from the soil, thus keeping it balanced. At the same time, a wide variety of insects and other animals are attracted by the biodiversity, keeping each other in check and making sure that no species can ever become a pest. This ensures that all life can flourish and that the ecosystem, as time passes, becomes more and more resilient.

The current industrial agricultural system has completely forgotten about these lessons that mother nature teaches us. Instead of collaborating with diversity, it chooses monocultures and uses pesticides to ensure that no other species but the crop that is being grown can survive. This causes a tremendous loss of life, both above and below the ground, but also leaves the soil so depleted that we need to overload it with chemical fertilisers in order to keep it productive. Globally, this approach leads to the loss of 30 football fields of fertile soil every single minute. That is over 15.5 million football fields per year… 

By putting nature back at the heart of agriculture, regenerative farmers turn the tide. They opt for crop diversity and attract natural enemies every time a species becomes too dominant. With balanced edible ecosystems in which pesticides are completely eliminated as a result.

Regenerative farmers increase soil health (and stay away from chemical fertilisers)

Another key characteristic of regenerative farmers is that they disturb the soil as little as possible. Many work with a technique called ‘no dig’, which means no ploughing the land, or even digging into it, but instead allowing valuable fungal networks (known as ‘mycelium’) to develop, which are crucial for healthy and resilient crops. In addition, this approach of treading lightly improves the fertility and productivity of the land, making chemical fertilisers obsolete whilst also boosting our own health. Because the richer the soil is in nutrients, the more nutritious the crops we eat can become. 

Want to learn more about ‘no-dig’? Anne van Leeuwen, Ricardo Cano, Daan Houwers and Roos Burger teach special no-dig courses at their farm ‘t Gagel in the Netherlands.

   
The no-dig vegetable garden at Roggebotstaete. Photo: Gabriela Hengeveld

Regenerative farmers are guardians of the land

The fact that regenerative farmers leave the land in a better state than they found it, can be illustrated by looking at ‘food forests’, another regenerative farming practice. A food forest is an agroforestry system in which farmers transform pastures into edible ecosystems full of biodiversity. These too are modelled after nature. Because just like natural forests, food forests consist of several layers, constructed in such a way from north to south that everything gets sufficient sun exposure. And just like a natural forest, a food forest too improves soil fertility, water retention, carbon sequestration and biodiversity. Which is why – in addition to nut and fruit trees, berry bushes and all sorts of edible plants – these farm ecosystems are also full of bees, butterflies, hares, squirrels and dozens of bird species. 

Want to know more? Read our interview with Wouter van Eck, whose food forest in the Netherlands contains more biodiversity than a nearby nature reserve. Or read our story featuring food forest experts Frank Gorter and Marieke Karssen.

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The food forest of Wouter van Eck. Photo: Gabriela Hengeveld

Regenerative farmers create life and improve quality of life 

By prioritising biodiversity and soil health, regenerative farmers create more life, both above and below the ground. At the same time, they improve the quality of life of all the beings that live on or near the farm. For example, by choosing a technique called holistic grazing, regenerative farmers enable their chickens and cows to display their natural behaviour. And by providing for their communities, they ensure local people have access to healthy and fresh produce as well as reconnecting them to the source of their food. 

Want to know more about holistic grazing? Farmers Joost van Schie and Sanne Beld know all about it.

   
The cows of Sanne Beld. Photographer: Gabriela Hengeveld

Regenerative farmers generate ecological, social and economic profit

Regenerative agriculture is only truly regenerative if it enables the farmer to make a decent living. Therefore, any regenerative farm must generate ecological, social and economic profit in order to be successful in the long run.

To create a healthy business model, many regenerative farms sell their produce directly to consumers, therefore cutting out the middleman, or even opt for a membership model where people can become members of the farm for the duration of a harvest season, called Community Supported Agriculture. This way, the farmer is guaranteed a fair income, no matter what happens. Other agricultural models even enable citizens to become farm co-owners, such as Herenboeren and Stichting Lenteland in the Netherlands. 

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Regenerative agriculture can feed the world. But only if we focus on creating many small-scale farms that feed their communities

From exception to mainstream

To make regenerative agriculture the norm, we need to overcome a number of barriers, starting with the idea that regenerative agriculture cannot feed the world’s population. According to professor Pablo Tittonell and these researchers from the WUR, it absolutely can. But only if we focus on creating many small-scale regenerative farms that feed their communities. In addition, we need a clear goal for each country, province and municipality, so that farmers, scientists and citizens can join forces and work towards that goal, within their own specific context.

Last but not least, we need to share the story of the potential of regenerative agriculture far and wide. So that we don’t become distracted or misled by the greenwashing of large agro-multinationals, who try to make us believe that you can regenerate nature whilst using monocultures and pesticides… Regenerative agriculture is a movement built upon thousands of years of indigenous wisdom, combined with the principles and practices from organic, biodynamic, permaculture and agro-ecological farming. This is why it has the potential to solve so many incredible ecological and social crises.

How you can contribute

As a citizen

With the way we eat, we can directly contribute to a local and pesticide-free food system that benefits soil health, biodiversity, the climate and ourselves. So buy your groceries directly from a regenerative farmer, become a member of a CSA or even the co-owner of a farm. In the Netherlands, the latter can be done through Herenboeren and Lenteland. Furthermore, support initiatives that accelerate the transition towards regenerative agriculture by freeing up farmland from the economy, such as Land van Ons and Aardpeer.

As a farmer

A growing number of organisations are helping farmers transition towards regenerative agriculture. For help and advice, in the Netherlands you can turn to Soil Heroes, Schevichoven, Wij.land, De Plaatsen and Food Forest Factory. A foundation called ‘In Goede Aarde’ helps farmers to reduce the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides in a relatively short period without any loss of productivity, by smartly using compost and leaf fertilisation. 

The team of 'In Goede Aarde'. Photographer: Gabriela Hengeveld

As a business

Are you a business owner and do you use crops or raw materials that are grown by farmers? Get them from a regenerative farm. Soil Heroes can help you find the perfect match for your business needs (like they did for Jack Bean and Dr Bronner’s). Furthermore, partnering with a local regenerative farmer to provide your employees with a daily regenerative lunch is a great way to make an impact. And don’t forget to put life at the centre of every business decision you make. 

As a policy maker or politician

Almost every regenerative farmer struggles with policies and regulations. Therefore, one of the most powerful things you can do as a policy maker or politician is to facilitate. Visit rural areas and talk to farmers who want to transition towards regenerative. Speak to farmers who already work regeneratively. And ask them: what do you need? Then, try and arrange it for them. So that they can get back to creating a future-proof food system.

Want to find out more about regenerative agriculture?

Read the stories of our pioneers and dive into our longreads!