At COP27 in November 2022, the food sector was recognised in all its complexity: a formidable producer of emissions, which is uniquely vulnerable to the extreme weather events caused by climate change. As global weather patterns become increasingly erratic, and population rises steadily, our current agri-food system is proving unviable world-over. There is a growing consensus that we cannot continue with farming practices that degrade soil while not sequestering carbon at scale.
Industrial farming techniques, which have largely prioritised yield over resilience, and the climate change impacts they contribute towards, have already left around a third of the world’s soils degraded
. This puts our global food supply at serious risk. A recent FAO report
found that up to 828 million people already face chronic hunger globally. With hunger comes malnutrition, and a host of dangerous deficiencies and health impacts. For the food system to provide nutrition and food security in a warming world with a ten billion-plus human population, agricultural transformation through regenerative and sustainable approaches is crucial.
Two terms stand out as foundational pillars of this future food system: “regenerative agriculture” and “sustainable nutrition”. Both take an equitable approach that supports environmental and human wellbeing simultaneously.
Regenerative agriculture refers to farming outcomes that improve water and air quality, enhance ecosystem biodiversity, store carbon, and produce nutritious food. Sustainable nutrition encompasses accessible, affordable, safe, and equitable diets, which support the earth and its resources.
With the overlapping challenges we face, a large-scale transition to regenerative agriculture is our best chance at securing sustainable nutrition, and socio-economic stability, for the planet.
Industrial farming methods have compromised the nutrient density of our food. Studies have shown
that crops grown today contain reduced levels of nutrients such as calcium, iron and vitamin C, and less protein, compared to historic levels. The pursuit of maximum yield has ensured that farmers are paid for mass of crops above all else and, consequently, the existing nutrients in soil are stretched across too many crops. Livestock feed on these nutritionally “diluted” crops, so the nutritional quality of plants and meat alike has been compromised.
Regenerative farming practices conserve and rebuild nutrient stores in the soil, which should then filter into food crops. A University of Washington study
has produced preliminary results which confirm this in practice. Tracking eight pairs of regenerative and conventional farms across the US over five years, the study found that crops from regenerative farms had 34% more vitamin K, and 15% more vitamin E, B1 and B2, than conventional farms. The regeneratively-grown crops also had 11% more calcium, 16% more phosphorus and 27% more copper. These nutrients are central to a healthy human diet.
Crop – and genetic – diversity
People and planet can benefit from an agricultural system that incorporates a wide variety of crops. In contrast to the diversity of plants and crops growing in natural ecosystems, the industrial farming system that has developed over the past 50-or-so years
relies on the sowing of single crops into fields, for maximum yield and convenience. This has caused a dangerous global reliance on very few crops. And within these, diversity of species has also been dramatically lowered as we have relied increasingly on genetically identical seeds.
These factors have left crops vulnerable to pests and diseases, such as Panama disease
, which poses a threat to multiple banana varieties, including the most widely eaten Cavendish banana. On the other hand, species diversity boosts the overall resilience of food systems.
And while genetic diversity can enhance food security, crop diversity can provide a more varied and sustainable diet. One opportunity that comes with adopting largescale regenerative agriculture is trading monocultures for “heirloom” crops
, which have naturally adapted to grow in specific climates, over thousands of years.
Co-cropping, or planting a variety of crops in the same field, is actually inherent to regenerative farming. A common form is intercropping, when two cash crops are grown simultaneously. This can increase soil nutrients such as nitrogen, while also suppressing weeds and pests. As farmers grow and sell multiple crops from the same land, they are also able to diversify income. This is crucial in providing greater financial security against unpredictable variables such as market price volatility, pests, and diseases impacting specific crops. Financial benefits of this sort bolster the short-term economic case for regenerative agriculture, at farm-level.
On a wider scale, increasing crop diversity enhances and protects biodiversity, by supporting a whole ecosystem. For instance, intercropping a pea crop with barley can support bee populations, which then boost the ecosystem around them through pollination. This contributes to a healthier and more varied environment for crops to grow in.
Climate change mitigation
To protect our food systems from the disastrous implications of a planet warming more than 1.5C or even 2C, we must mitigate greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible. Regenerative agriculture can cut food sector emissions – which currently make up one-third of all GHGs
– and simultaneously, sequester carbon. The Rodale Institute
estimates, based on recent data from farming systems and pasture trials around the globe, that we could sequester more than 100% of current annual carbon dioxide emissions with a switch to the practices constituting regenerative agriculture.
The conventional farming system is a net producer of greenhouse gas emissions. These are produced directly when farming practices deplete soil carbon stocks, and also emit nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Deforestation for agricultural land releases further carbon.
In contrast, regenerative practices, such as using innovative fertilisers, compost, mulch and biochar (a high-carbon form of charcoal), can increase carbon sequestration in soil. As can reducing ploughing and tillage.
Ploughing leads to soil erosion and degradation, and removes topsoil, releasing carbon into the atmosphere. Tillage is used in organic farming
to clear the soil for planting, in lieu of the use of any pesticides or herbicides. By scrapping the practice
altogether, farmers can cultivate healthier soil and keep carbon locked in. Mitigating present and future emissions through a regenerative approach allows farmers to protect their food crops, and our food system, from the impacts of climate change.
Already, approximately half of the world’s habitable land
is used for agriculture. This cannot continue to increase
, if we are to avoid further deforestation and stay within global carbon budgets. However, agricultural output must still contend with a rising global population. This presents the challenge of increasing food production without expanding agricultural land.
No-tillage and preserving crop residues, building up organic matter, also increases water retention and fertiliser responsiveness, enhancing productivity.
One experiment from 1968 to 2008 on clay soil in Australia
found higher soil organic carbon, and higher average grain yield when crop residues were retained. A similar study on silty soil in China
found that wheat yield rose by 16% under no-tillage with straw cover, compared to conventional tillage with straw removed.
By improving soil health through methods such as no-till, cover-cropping and biochar, farmers can improve land use by restoring degraded land. Perennial cropping systems – which incorporate crops that automatically grow back after harvest – could also help to place a large amount of degraded or abandoned agricultural land back to use
, whilst providing additional ecosystem services. Restoring degraded croplands in this way will enhance future food security and promote sustainable nutrition.
Cover crops can protect soil from rain, sun and frost; sown in between cash crops, they act as a blanket for the ground soil. There is substantial evidence to suggest that they will also be able to stabilise yields and improve moisture levels as weather becomes more volatile. One 30-year study
found that crops farmed using regenerative techniques outperformed conventionally-farmed crops in the same area. Through climate shocks and periods of extreme weather, regenerative agriculture helps farmers to do their job, even in more challenging conditions.
Ultimately, sustainable nutrition relies on food security. As temperatures and weather patterns become more extreme, we need farming systems which can withstand climate change impacts and maintain crop yields.
The 2nd Sustainable Development Goal
on zero hunger states an aim to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”. With climate change and geopolitical challenges exerting more pressure than ever on each piece of this puzzle, it is crucial that we act now to protect our food systems.
Whilst it is by no means an exact science, and much innovation is going to be required, it is clear that regenerative agriculture will be a big part of the solution.
This briefing is part one of a two-part series, exploring the role of regenerative agriculture in enabling sustainable nutrition and food security. Part two will investigate how it can work at scale for farmers and businesses.
Innovation Forum works with various companies on their regenerative agriculture commitments and launches. We also recently co-hosted a global dialogue with Nestlé on the right to food covering some of the issues mentioned in this article. Get in touch for more information.