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What is regenerative agriculture, and how do regenerative fibres have potential to benefit UK farmers?

By Rebekah Smith

Regenerative agriculture is a farming process that is rapidly finding traction, as it offers a solution to globally degraded soils, through the cultivation of land and livestock in a way that works with, rather than against, nature. With the IPCC target of maintaining the global temperature increase below 1.5°C 1, there is a great opportunity for the industry to work towards a lower carbon future by implementing practices that are productive while also nourishing our ecosystems and natural environment. 

As discussed in this previous post, there is a clear difference between regenerative practices and ‘sustainability.’ In short, ‘to be sustainable’ is to be able to operate in the same way for an infinite period of time. Yet many of our existing practices are leading to environmental and social collapse – hardly a situation we want to sustain. In these cases, being ‘sustainable’ is not enough. Instead, regenerative systems look to reverse environmental and social damage by continually improving current systems and ultimately working towards a thriving, flourishing biosphere, not one that is simply sustaining itself in its current state. Regenerative agriculture plays a key part in this change.

What is regenerative agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture is an approach to farming that aims to restore and rebuild the biosphere through replenishing soil carbon, soil nutrients, root systems, and ultimately, biodiversity and local ecosystems.

Important to note is that regenerative agriculture is not a new practice; rather it has its roots in the traditional ecological knowledge of many indigenous cultures worldwide – cultures so connected to their local landscapes, on which they depend for their subsistence, that the smallest changes in biodiversity, productivity or seasonal availability would be observed very carefully. With the rise in concern for the longevity of global arable and grassland soils, regenerative agriculture is now increasing in recognition and implementation as an alternative to contemporary conventional agriculture. Perhaps this is in part a desire to reestablish a connection to nature that is cultural and spiritual as well as productive.

Fields of sainfoin and linseed with wild flower margins at SWEF member Lower Hampen, a mixed farm in the Cotswolds

At the core of regenerative agriculture is the shift from viewing the soil as a commodity to be exploited to viewing it as a living, breathing entity whose health should be actively looked after. Healthy soils are proven to boost farm output, increase food nutrition, increase biodiversity and increase resilience to pests, diseases and climate instability 2. Additionally, building soil health can decrease soil erosion, compaction and runoff, all of which have an impact on local environments and the longevity of service of the soil 3. And as we are in urgent need of finding global solutions to soil loss and desertification, one of the key causes of loss of carbon to the atmosphere, finding ways of putting carbon back is a crucial part of the solution.

Regenerative agriculture utilises practices such as, but not exclusive to: minimal tillage; use of diverse cover crops; integrating livestock with arable; mob grazing; use of composts and mulches and little to no use of agrochemicals. These practices can decrease carbon loss through minimising soil erosion and instead build soil and maintain healthy rootstocks below the soil surface – facilitating quick recovery time for grassland and increased agricultural productivity. What’s more, regenerative agriculture respects and utilises the symbiotic relationship between plants and the soil, where plants use photosynthesis to draw carbon from the atmosphere, ultimately releasing it back into the soil through decay – a process called carbon sequestration. See Figure 1 below. Therefore, farmers and growers can play a critical role in managing their land to maximise carbon sequestration rather than deplete soil as a carbon sink, whilst decreasing the atmospheric carbon count to help reverse climate change.

Figure 1: The Carbon Cycle by the Slow Factory Foundation for Fibershed

Rodale Institute has written this report stating that arable soil has the ability and capacity to sequester the global annual production of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is an ambitious statement. But even if arable soils can hold the capacity to sequester just a percentage of global emissions of carbon, this is radical. In fact, it might be our best hope for moving the needle on climate change. 

Regenerative fibres
In the UK there is a necessity, and growing interest, in building a stronger fibre network through supporting farmers, processors, mills and brands. Where a large portion of farmland is arable, regenerative agriculture holds financial and partnership opportunities for UK farmers to integrate grazing livestock without the need to convert additional land. Grazing animals such as sheep and cows, whether kept primarily for meat, or for fibre, can be beneficial to farmers for their manure and offer a valuable input to an existing arable and cover crop rotations

Shepherds and graziers can also adopt a regenerative approach by shifting grazing practices towards ‘mob grazing’ or those that mimic the natural behaviour of herd animals. This helps to avoid overgrazing any one area, in turn ensuring that roots systems remain healthy underground – thereby facilitating improved recovery time for their pasture while also maintaining soil structure and water filtration capacity. Grazing in this way also has proven health advantages for the livestock, who benefit from grazing an increased diversity of grasses and herbs, while being on the move keeps them on clean pasture – helping to reduce infection by worms and other parasites.

Devon Longwool labs in meadow at mixed farm Lower Hampen in the Cotswolds

As regenerative agriculture requires crop rotation, another opportunity for the UK natural fibre system is to integrate bast fibre crops such as hemp or flax into arable rotations. These plants can be dual purpose commodity crops as different parts of the whole plant can be utilised in different ways – seed for oil, and stalk for fibre, while also helping to improve soil structure and water filtration. The inclusion of textile fibres into existing agriculture systems also has the potential to strengthen the relationship between UK agriculture and the rapidly developing sustainable fashion industry. 

Regenerative agriculture certifications

Using measurable indicators of soil and crop health we can understand how these farming practices are having an impact on the health of our environment, and create a plan for continual improvement – there is no ‘end point.’ Ecological data gathered while monitoring the impact of regenerative practices can also be used for increased transparency and marketing of eco-beneficial products.This is where certifications and verification schemes come in.

At present, much like the term ‘sustainable’, ‘regenerative agriculture’ can be used without certification or regulation of evidence to show how a product, service or practice is actually regenerative. We have to be wary of how the term is being used as greenwash, without having the backup of solid, provable results in soil health and carbon sequestration. Use of the term in vague ways will only devalue farmers’ genuine attempt at implementing these practices and processes as best they can. 

However, there are some existing and developing organisations with regenerative certification policies, such as:

  • RegenAg in the UK
  • Regenagri A UK based regenerative agriculture initiative and network
  • Savory Institute Savory Institute’s Land to Market verification (Ecological Outcome Verification, EOV) tests the soil for health markers, helping define success for farmers and to verify regeneration.
  • Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC), which is the biggest regenerative agriculture certification in the US 

Through collaboration between farming groups, certification bodies, organisations and retailers, there is great opportunity to build resilience in the supply chain whilst benefiting the land and people. In the South West, as we discuss what the Fibreshed logo claims to signify, we are also having to think about how our producers can make claims about, monitor and measure the regenerative ability or potential of their farming practices. This includes whether regenerative must also mean organic – coming up in a future post!

In the meantime, we look forward to seeing how the regenerative baseline is established, so that farmers, brands, policymakers, educators, researchers and individuals can join together to promote a system that empowers people whilst respecting the biosphere. 

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