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 regaining traction and attention, 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 not desirable as they are leading to environmental and social collapse. 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 planet, not one that is simply sustaining itself. 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 generally regenerating biodiversity and local ecosystems. This requires repeated measuring of soil and crop health so that ecological data can be collected, and the impacts of farming practices are understood and evaluated. Outcomes can define successes, and evaluating impacts can therefore promote continual improvement. In other words, results prove the regeneration of land baseline health, rather than blindly continuing without an understanding of farming impacts. It is important to note 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, seasonal availability, etc. 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. This is part of society’s apparent pursuit to reestablish an operational, cultural and spiritual connection to nature.

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 the 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, as well as climate change, 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, integrated grazing, use of composts (organic materials and manure) and little to no use of agrochemicals. These practices build resilience to drought through increasing water retention and minimising soil erosion, while also naturally increasing agricultural productivity. What’s more, regenerative agriculture utilises the symbiotic relationship between plants and the soil, where plants use photosynthesis to draw carbon from the atmosphere, depositing it back into the soil – a process called carbon sequestration. As figure 1 below shows, carbon sequestration is a natural process of increasing soil carbon. Therefore, farmers and growers of plants and grasses play a critical part in utilising the 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 textiles network through supporting farmers, processors, mills and retailers. Where a large portion of farmland is grassland, 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, kept for leather and wool, can be hugely beneficial to farmers for their manure, managing grass/cover crops and providing a source of income from land that might not be suitable for growing crops. Wool also has the wonderful advantage of being incredibly useful, even at the end of its life – such as being used as insulation on a farm, and it can be composted, going back into the soil where the cycle started. This way of thinking is integral to regenerative fibres. 

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

As regenerative agriculture requires crop rotation, integrating bast fibres such as hemp or flax (linen) can advance current farming systems through adding physical benefits to the soil, through the long taproots of the plant, which will improve the soil structure through bioremediation, increasing carbon and redistributing nutrients. These plants can be dual purpose commodity crops as different parts of the whole plant can be utilised in different ways – benefitting not just the land, but the farmer also. 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. 

As mentioned, regenerative agriculture relies on empirical data from measuring the indicators of ecosystem health and functionality. Through measuring, data can have huge potential to not only verify improvements but can also be used for transparency and the marketing of eco-beneficial products. This is where certifications and verification schemes come in.

Regenerative agriculture certifications
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 romanticised and used in marketing, 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. 

Having said that, 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 a huge 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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