Going Back to Basics

There is no doubt that regenerative agriculture is gaining momentum globally with increasing awareness and adoption of smart and sustainable practices across various agricultural sectors. Key drivers of this shift include climate change mitigation efforts, the requirement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ongoing research and innovation, contributing to a better understanding of the benefits of regenerative techniques and their impact on soil health, carbon sequestration, and overall farm sustainability. However, the real game-changer, perhaps, is the resounding demand from consumers for sustainably produced food. This demand has reshaped the industry landscape, compelling food giants and retailers to seamlessly weave regenerative practices into their supply chains and marketing strategies. So, what does the future of regenerative agriculture hold, and what could this mean for food security? Here are four trends currently shaping the space…

1. Covering all bases

Embracing cover crops is imperative for farmers dedicated to sustainable agriculture. Moving forward, there will be a heightened focus on prioritising an array of options. These living plants (which include fodder radish, cereals, legumes, brassicas, and borage) play a multifaceted role, limiting erosion, enhancing water infiltration and retention, and providing natural soil fumigation against pests. They also act as a protective shield, armouring the soil against extreme heat and drought. Selecting species that contribute to effective manure production is equally critical. The mulch generated by these cover crops improves irrigation systems by minimising evaporation and conserving moisture. Additionally, cover crops encourage nutrient diversity, creating optimal conditions for thriving underground microorganisms - a fundamental element of regenerative agriculture. Simultaneously, diverse plants attract pollinators and wildlife, contributing to a robust ecosystem that supports overall crop growth.

2. Input-omics

The production and application of synthetic fertilisers constitute a significant portion of carbon footprints on farms, with overuse having adverse effects on soil and groundwater. It's essential to recognise that the shift away from complete agro-chemical reliance is a gradual process achievable only with thriving soil conditions. As such, a growing trend is the promotion of naturally enriching and maintaining soil health, leading to reduced input requirements and lowered costs for farmers. When synthetic fertilisers are unavoidable, precision application methods (using technology to apply fertilisers only where they are needed most) are also gaining traction, emphasising the delivery of smaller volumes for maximum impact and value. 

3. Moo-vin' and Groovin'

Introducing livestock is a powerful tool for increasing nutrients in the soil, while simultaneously reducing complete reliance on synthetic fertilisers. Moreover, it's a win-win, empowering local cattle farmers by providing additional feed and ultimately, bolstering business growth and profits. The process involves local cattle arriving on the farm and grazing on cover crops planted for that particular season. As a vital part of the food system, cattle produce and spread natural fertiliser, recycling nutrients such as nitrogen and carbon back into the food chain, fostering organic growth without disturbing the soil. A technique called strip grazing can also be employed to ensure an even application of manure. In this method, livestock are strategically rotated onto a fresh pasture strip for a brief period, during which their manure enriches the soil. They are then promptly shifted to a new strip, fostering both fertilisation and regrowth in the previously grazed area.

4. Driplicity

Effective water usage is a crucial aspect of any successful farm, especially considering the ongoing challenges posed by drought and inadequate infrastructure. Consequently, the regenerative agriculture principle of water efficiency is a non-negotiable for increasing production efficiency.

McCain’s Farm of the Future Africa - situated in Lichtenburg, South Africa, and focused on the research and practical implementation of regenerative agriculture for potato production -  regularly experiences hot and extreme weather conditions, and is often operating under water stress. To address this, a significant intervention (amongst others) has been the implementation of a drip irrigation system. This technology continuously monitors soil moisture, delivering the optimal amount of water precisely where it is needed. Usage of this technique has resulted in the achievement of comparable yields with significantly less water, showcasing the system’s increasing popularity and potential to be utilised across regions.

For regenerative agriculture to achieve widespread success, it is vital to have a clear business rationale for adopting these practices, supported by accurate and measurable data demonstrating key improvements. Ultimately, regenerative agriculture not only builds resilience but also helps enhance profitability and productivity by maintaining high yields or sustainably increasing yields, leading to security of supply and sustained food security. Recognising that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, continued collaboration with researchers, farmers, and commercial and financial partners is essential to formulate and share best practices.