In celebration of World Soil Day on December 5, Earth.Org is republishing this piece from September 28. Earth.Org sat with Glyn Mitchell, a carbon farmer and soil food web consultant for Jersey Hemp in Jersey, Channel Islands, to talk about how vital regenerative farming strategies are the future of sustainable food production, and are a key tool in mitigating the climate crisis.
Regenerative farming, or regenerative agriculture, is a general term for practices that improve soil conditions on cropland. Although not exhaustive, some examples of regenerative practices include reduced use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, less frequent tilling, and cover cropping. The Regenerative Agriculture movement has seen a boom in recent years, as consumers become more conscious of their own health and the impact food production has on the environment. By generating compost from food waste, and using knowledge of the soil’s specific makeup, Mitchell hopes to work with the environment, instead of against it, to produce nutritious, sustainably-grown food and fibre on the island. He talks us through the details of how this works.
Earth.Org: What is Regenerative Agriculture? In what ways is it different to conventional farming?
Glyn Mitchell: In simple terms, Regenerative Farming (often abbreviated to Regen) seeks to improve the health of soil that has been depleted of nutrients over many years of exploitative farming, and could benefit from a reboot of its microbiological make-up. As farmers transition to regenerative practices, they will steer away from chemical-based stimulants in favour of bio-stimulants (produced using organic composting techniques) that will reintroduce life into the soil.
Regen farming also differs from conventional agriculture in the techniques it utilises: Regen farmers may opt to reduce the frequency of field tillage (‘reduced-till’) or eliminate tilling altogether (‘no-till’). In addition, cover crops may be planted to suppress weeds and enhance carbon capture.
EO: You work as a Soil Health Consultant for businesses and farmers. How do you go about regenerating the soil?
GM: We advocate soil sampling to determine the microbiological and chemical make-up of the soil. After the analysis, we will recommend a bespoke compost to be applied to the soil over a certain period to bring the soil microbiome back up to a healthy and sustainable level. This may take a few months, but in very depleted soils may take up to several years and many compost applications.
There are no silver bullets. Regenerative farming is not about simply exchanging one input for another and essentially doing the same things and expecting different results. If you continue to overgraze, apply high rates of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, then no amount of biological stimulants will make a profitable difference in your system.
EO: Is regenerative farming the answer to food security in a growing global population?
GM: My understanding is that a very high proportion of human food around the world is produced by small farms. They produce enough food to feed approximately 10 billion people, yet many still go to bed hungry. I believe that food shortages are more to do with failed distribution networks than shortages. More interestingly, many chemically-enhanced foods lack the nutritional value of food grown in organic soil with a healthy microbial content. Food intolerances are becoming more common, which manifests itself as a growing number of people unable to eat staple foods, such as dairy, wheat and eggs.
I personally believe that growing food using chemicals has long-term detrimental effects to both the soil, and ultimately, to the quality of the food chain. Even retailers are starting to look at food provenance, including its nutritional value, due to increased consumer awareness and demand for high quality produce.
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EO: What potential does regenerative farming have to be rolled out on a global scale? What are the main barriers to the adoption of regenerative farming, and what solutions would you suggest?
GM: Regenerative farming is not easy. Chemical farmers typically produce consistent crops in the short-term, but with longer-term detrimental effects to food and soil quality. Regenerative farming takes time and can involve experimentation with compost and cover crops that may threaten the short-term commerciality of their business models. To be adopted on a global scale, farmers will require encouragement, patience and possibly financial insurance or incentives to give them the time and security to learn and practise regenerative techniques. Higher education will also need to evolve to include soil regenerative practices in curriculums, with endorsement from policy-makers, to ensure future generations are educated in sustainable agriculture.
EO: What will it cost and how long will it take to transition from degenerative farming to regenerative, organic farming practices? How profitable is regenerative farming?
GM: The costs of transitioning may be better described in terms of the time it takes to regenerate the soil back to health. If crop production is disrupted while soil regeneration and crop experimentation take place, it may cause financial hardship for farmers. However, if farmers have the patience, determination and can be financially incentivised to survive this period of uncertainty (possibly several years), then farming profits should be dramatically increased with little to no chemicals or big machinery to purchase.
In my opinion, we should all understand the less recognisable benefits of producing food in organic, healthy soil. Arguably, better nutritional content in our food will help make the world’s population healthier. What is the cost of providing healthier food options? Put another way, what is the cost if we do not?