While the phrase “regenerative agriculture” is new, the concepts behind it are not. Indigenous Peoples across the world have nurtured land for thousands of years in such a way that future generations would be able to use it to the same extent. In a more recent context, the introduction of biodynamic farming in 1924 and the green revolution in 1969 led to early ideas forming in the 1980s about regenerative agriculture. The concept was coined by the Rodale Institute to question the usage of the term “sustainable” in agriculture, because agriculture can be sustainable without improving the soil. It has since evolved into an ecological definition of sustainability, combining the features of agriculture with its interaction and impact on society (Edwards et al. 1990).
Regenerative Agriculture or Regen Ag has many different definitions, Schreefel et al. (2020) defines it as “a system of principles and practices that generates agricultural products, sequesters carbon, and enhances biodiversity at the farm scale”. Simply put it’s a practice that uses soil as a starting point to regenerate. There are three key areas that are often involved in defining regenerative agriculture (Burgess et al. 2019). It is a set of practices, which may or may not involve fertiliser and pesticides, and it focuses on agriculture having a positive environmental impact. Within this there are five practices often spoken about:
- Abandoning tillage (to reduce the oxidation of soil carbon)
- Eliminating bare soil (to reduce soil erosion through cover crops)
- Fostering plant diversity (increasing dry matter production)
- Encouraging water percolation into the soil
- Integrating livestock and cropping operations (to minimise synthetic inputs; e.g., manure for soil nutrient)
Regenerative agriculture is a diverse solution, with every farm who practices regenerative agriculture working slightly differently. This is why a definition is so hard to pin down and may be why many are still sceptical about the whole process.
Current Australian Trends
Given Australia’s diverse environment, regenerative agriculture principles and practises are well suited to our country and, as a result, are starting to permeate farmland and rural communities (Sustainable Food Trust 2019). Though more people are aware of the concept, implementation of such farming practises is still “very slow” (Future Directions International 2020). Although no definite study has been conducted to determine how many farms have begun to use the approaches, all Australian farmers have adopted certain regenerative agricultural practises to some extent. Minimal till, for example, is helpful for crops while also contributing to soil fertility.
The majority of studies focus on Western Australia and initiatives to reduce reliance on inorganic fertilisers and chemicals. Under most climate circumstances, farms in WA are also more significantly impacted by climate change than in other regions. This is due largely to the more significant declines in winter rainfall and higher summer temperatures, and the resulting impacts on crops (DAWE 2021). As a result, there is a lot of effort being put in to encourage the use of regenerative farming techniques, including assistance from the Western Australian Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) and the formation of RegenWA. The DPIRD supports efforts in several ways, including research and development, industry support with information, education and training, and legislative responsibilities (DPIRD 2021). RegenWA is a “network of Western Australian farmers and industry stakeholders who are identifying, implementing and sharing innovative land management practices that other farmers can adopt” (RegenWA 2021). Other states have similar programs, such as North Central CMA (North Central CMA 2021) in Victoria, and Landscape in South Australia. However, from a whole country perspective Australia is certainly lagging behind. This may be due to a lack of formalised programs or governmental input.
A recent study by Gosnell et. al (2019) that focused on Australian farmers that had transitioned to regenerative agriculture showed that the decision to change to regenerative farming came with complex factors that are non-material and very subjective. It involves a personal, political and practical focuses which asks every question from ‘How do I feel about this’ to ‘What will others think if I do this’. It was also interesting to note that, this study showed that farmers are more likely to change if in they see their situations as crisis situations.
Sustainable Agriculture vs Regenerative Agriculture
Sustainable agriculture by definition focuses on maintaining the same practices, just reducing the environmental impact of these. This could be switching to solar power, nothing in the practice has changed, just the energy being used is now renewable. However, regenerative agriculture is not just about sustaining but regenerating and restoring ecosystems. This means that regenerative practices recognise the natural systems and applies management techniques to restore the system to improved productivity (Savory 2018).
Unlike organic farming, certification for regenerative agriculture is not required. Many suggest this may be why regenerative agriculture is seen as so ambiguous, because it doesn’t have set requirements or certification guidelines. However, Regenerative Organic (2021) has begun a pilot certification program in September 2020. This aims to “meet the highest standards in the world for soil health, animal welfare, and farmworker fairness” (Regenerative Organic 2021).
Great South Coast Stories
Carlie Barry, a local farmer in Camperdown who began her journey towards regenerative farming 16 years ago says “You’re really starting from the ground up. Healthy ground, equals healthy plants, equals healthy cows, equals healthy us.”
“If you’ve got the soil working properly, it means that your cows are generally healthier, which means you’re preventing issues down the tracks so you don’t need to use as many antibiotics because your cows don’t get as sick.
“That’s part of the whole system, it’s more about preventative, rather than reactive which is more conventional farming.”
Carlie and her husband say their farm has undergone what they like to describe as “sending your ground to rehab. We need to break that addiction to fertilisers. It’s a process and it can be slow, but it’s definitely rewarding in a way. It only really takes 12 months and you start seeing such a massive difference in your ground and in your animals, it’s pretty amazing actually.”
Another farmer Cath Jenkins and her husband Adam have just begun making the shift to regenerative. They still use pesticides and herbicides, and Cath defines regenerative as “trying to improve the place by increasing soil carbon and soil microbial activity.”
Cath describes the changes as trying to “do the best thing by the environment and the natural assets. By thinking of the longer term, we have tried to have a bit of a holistic view and think about how the different parts of the natural system fit together.