How an Agricultural Revolution Could Address Some of the Greatest Modern Problems
Words by Bella Roberts with art by Samantha Hambleton
The British countryside is swamped with regimented fields upon fields of wheat, cabbage, rapeseed, potatoes, sheep, and cattle; it doesn’t seem to trouble us that this is not how nature chose to organise its plants and animals, separated into systematic squares with almost no interaction with other life. Why then are we surprised when this practice of ‘conventional agriculture’ results in severe environmental degradation?
The aim of conventional agriculture is to generate high yields, typically by use of pesticides and fertilisers. Such methods quickly exhaust a location’s natural resources, leaving lifeless soils, declining insect populations, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing carbon sequestration, and increasing crop vulnerability to disease. This is ironic when you consider how vital a healthy ecosystem is for quality crop growth; ultimately, an agricultural practice that prioritises profit over quality product, and does not support the natural systems it relies on, can never be sustainable.
Recently, there has been a revolution of thought in agriculture, as ideas of ‘regenerative agriculture’ gain popularity. ‘Regenerative’ is seen as the new ‘sustainable’, as it advocates for the rebuilding of natural ecosystems, rather than the conservation of their current states. Regenerative agriculture works with the environment rather than against it, by combining knowledge from pre-industrial farming methods with modern scientific understanding of soil health, and ecosystem functioning. Crucially, regenerative agriculture produces better quality food, that if made affordable and accessible, holds great potential for addressing global food insecurity.
Supporting soil health is a major element of regenerative agriculture, healthy soils are essential for producing nutrient rich crops. Fungi and bacteria in soils form symbiotic relationships with plants, they supply them with ‘ready-made’ amino acids, so the plants conserve energy rather than making them itself. Soil health is developed and maintained by reducing tillage, having diverse root systems and organisms that aerate the soil instead, using cover crops that protect against erosion, and increasing crop and soil biodiversity. The benefits of healthy soils extend beyond the farm, healthy soils experience less erosion, so local waterways are not overwhelmed with material and harmful chemicals that are present in run-off from intensively farmed soil from conventional agriculture. Additionally, healthy soils can lock away huge amounts of carbon, scientists have estimated that soils could sequester a billion tonnes each year.
Regenerative agriculture also has huge social benefits; broadly, it produces healthier food meaning healthier consumers, for example, it doesn’t involve chemicals such as ‘glyphosate’, which cause havoc in our gut microbiome, with knock-on effects throughout the body. Regenerative farmers are also more aware of how their farm relates to the immediate surrounding environment. This local mindset also means they are more likely to make decisions and investments that benefit surrounding environmental and social communities. Additionally, it is beneficial if consumers feel connected to their food and know where and how it is grown.
An issue with regenerative agriculture is that it is daunting for farmers to move away from long-standing agricultural practices towards something new, especially as they rely on high yields for their livelihoods. Additionally, farmers are subsidised by governments to farm conventionally; so, to encourage a shift, regenerative agriculture needs to be made economically beneficial for farmers. While there have recently been subsidies for sustainable farming in the UK, for example, ‘The Sustainable Farming Incentive’, farmers are reluctant to take these up, as the compensation is not great enough to justify the risk of something new.
Additionally, regenerative agriculture involves many considerations on behalf of farmers that are specific to their land, such as soil type, crop combinations, natural fertilisers, and pesticides. Unlike organic farming, regenerative agriculture is not an adapted form of conventional agriculture, it is a completely different approach. Therefore, education on regenerative farming practices, and subsidies that encourage farmers, are fundamental to facilitate change. It is also important that we do not demonise farmers in discussions on the shift towards regenerative agriculture – they are farming how they have been told to – and how the government pays them to.
However, change is needed. Conventional agriculture is proving extremely damaging to ecosystems and human health. Regenerative agriculture can address these problems with reduced emissions and chemical usage, better relationships with surrounding ecosystems and people, and food that is better for human health.