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Regenerative agriculture is a solution to soil depletion and nutrient fertility

23 June 2022 Alan Bullion

The Ukraine-Russia conflict has again demonstrated the fragility and vulnerability of both global and European food supply chains, and with growing environmental pressures, farmers are looking at alternative methods of land management.

Both carbon and regenerative farming sit within the broader agenda of improving sustainability within agriculture. The COP26 summit in Scotland last November gave this an enhanced focus.

Essentially this involves more targeted use of agricultural inputs - specifically crop protection, seeds and fertilizers, deploying digital and precision as well as traditional sowing methods, thereby enhancing soil and water quality. This places a specific emphasis on payment systems and credits to reward best farmer practices, as with the UK Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), scheduled to be announced shortly.

Regenerative agriculture describes farming and grazing practices that: restore degraded soil; improve biodiversity; and increase carbon capture incentives - to create long-lasting environmental benefits, such as positively protecting crops against climate change.

Carbon farming focuses on the schemes applied to implement this. Payments for ecosystems (PES) and land management schemes (LMS) operate in many parts of the world, particularly in Latin America and the United States. These have set the groundwork for both carbon and regenerative farming practices.

Major crop science companies are leading the way by promoting various schemes, some utilising new seeds and technology. Others are using crop production systems like Conservation Agriculture (no-till), as in Brazil.

Soil health is crucial

Soils play a key role in absorbing carbon and filtering water. Soil destruction creates a vicious cycle, in which less carbon is stored, the world gets hotter, and farmland is further degraded.

Unless new approaches are adopted, the global amount of arable and productive land per person in 2050 will be only a quarter of that available in 1960.

It took 12,000 years to develop the topsoil in the world, and over the past 100 years half of that has been lost through intensive agriculture and deforestation. If this soil degradation carries many areas will only have 60 years of production left, United Nations data shows.

95% of all living organisms live in the soil. Top-soil accounts for twice the amount of carbon contained in the entire atmosphere.

This organic carbon content varies between 0.5% and 10%, depending on the soil type and land use, with grassland higher than arable. Soil organic carbon is the driving force behind plant growth, so increasing soil organic matter will benefit food production, plus pulling carbon out of the atmosphere with sequestration methods, which can be rewarded by credit payments.

For example, if Europe's soils increased their carbon content by only 0.1%, this would be the same as a reduction in the annual emissions of 100 million cars.

Direct drilling and soil cover

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) methods both biological and conventional can boost useful insects and natural pollinators. Less use and more targeted adoption of sprays and fertilizers is also beneficial, although yields should be carefully monitored.

Moving away from monocultures can also increase rural biodiversity. Longer crop rotations to include cover crops, grass leys, wildflowers, and preserving hedgerows are all recommended and should be rewarded through government policies.

Conclusions

Future farming systems that intensify production, improve human nutrition, protect and enhance biodiversity, reduce environmental and carbon footprints, and make nutrient flows more holistic and effective are vital.

Opportunities exist to increase use of data-driven digital solutions to support farmer decisions, and to accelerate innovation using adaptive management techniques. Choices between nutrient sources need to include more circular and climate-smart attributes, including recycling, and right rate, time, and place of application need to become more precise and dynamic.

If you are interested in more details of our reports on Regenerative Agriculture and Carbon Farming, please contact Crop Science special reports publisher Dr Alan Bullion at alan.bullion@s&pglobal.com or 07766 968820. Go here to download a sample report.

Posted 23 June 2022 by Alan Bullion, Director of Special Reports & Projects, Agribusiness, S&P Global Commodity Insights



This article was published by S&P Global Commodity Insights and not by S&P Global Ratings, which is a separately managed division of S&P Global.

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