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Farm & Food 4.0
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19. November 2019

Regenerative farming – the next agricultural revolution?

Old knowledge and new technology are not mutually exclusive

By Laura von Ketteler

There is a wind blowing from the United States to Europe, a wind that smells like fresh soil and the thirst for action. Starting in the 1970s, the farmer Robert Rodale already shaped the term “regenerative organic agriculture” in order to differentiate from merely “sustainable agriculture”. Since then, pioneers such as Gabe Brown, Joel Salatin and Dr. Elaine Ingham have shaped the movement significantly. Today, the principles of regenerative farming in the United States have moved from the agricultural sector into mainstream.

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Big companies such as Patagonia, Dr. Bronner’s and Danone, as well as several investors including Farmland LP or Delta Institute have jumped on the bandwagon. In the US alone, there are some 70 investment strategies with assets under management of over $47.5 billion that are being invested into regenerative agriculture-related projects. In Germany, on the other hand, the topic remains grass root movement for the industry and the finance sector.

Regenerative agriculture is in Germany and worldwide just at its start. Australian regenerative farmer and author Charles Massy actually defines its origin with Rudolf Steiner and his general thoughts on agriculture” says Jan-Gisbert Schultze, co-founder of the Soil Alliance, association for regenerative agriculture. “However so far regenerative approaches can only be found on small areas. All the more it is important to enable the applicability on large grounds” he adds.

There is no such thing as one kind of regenerative farming

Regenerative agriculture cannot be defined in one sentence. In general, it requires the regeneration and improvement of nature and therefore goes “beyond sustainability”. In Europe, too, the five principles of regenerative management according to Gabe Brown are widely used as a basis for many farmers:

  • As little mechanical, physical and chemical disturbance of the soil as possible
  • Permanent, year-round land cover
  • Encouragement of biodiversity of living beings and plants
  • Long preservation of living roots
  • Integration of animals into the farm

There is no silver bullet how to implement regenerative agriculture. Each location is different and needs its own adjusted methods, its’ followers agree. Over the years various forms of regenerative agriculture have been established: Agroforestry, permaculture, holistic grazing, keyline-design and crop grazing, to name the most common concepts only. All these approaches promise improved soils, increased biodiversity, water retention, reduced erosion risk and avoid dependence on chemicals.

Dietmar Näser, co-founder of Grüne Brücke and one of the German advocates of regenerative agriculture focuses his expertise on microbiome and the necessity to generate humus. “Regenerative agricultural systems have the potential to build 3,5 % humus in only 4,5 years. A high proportion of humus ensures strong yield, even under adverse conditions and can store high amounts of CO2” he claims in one of his lectures.

The big question: How?

“It only works if we start small, experiment and develop step by step, in order to be able to scale later on. Unfortunately, in Germany it is difficult to cover these methods of multifunctional land use through our traditional agricultural funds; there is still a lot of convincing to be done. Every farmer has to trial what works on his/her farm” says Benedikt Bösel. He owns an organic farm one hour east of Berlin and is one of the German pioneers in regenerative farming models. “On our farm we have particularly difficult conditions, including sandy soils and extremely low precipitation in spring and early summer. We quickly realized that soil and soil biology are our best protection against changing weather phenomena. Our location is particular interesting for us: if we proved that these multifunctional land use concepts offer ecological, economic and social advantages, they could basically be applied everywhere” he says.

Farm & Food Beirat: Benedict Bösel

Benedikt Bösel

On his farm he combines various principles of regenerative farming: agroforestry, holistic grazing after Gabe Brown and Allan Savory, permaculture and syntropic farming after the Swiss Ernst Götsch. The aim is to cooperate with research institutions, universities, startups and cooperatives such as Dr. Bronner’s, as well as international pioneers to trial the systems and make them scalable. “In doing so it is particularly important to adjust the different methods to our site conditions” Bösel stresses.

The interest and the will of German farmers to change their methods in land use rises, increasing EU chemical regulations is one of the reasons. Anyhow, many farmers see a high risk in conversion: “I’m currently trying to switch to regenerative models, but for me that also means a high financial risk in the conversion period. Under the new regulations, politicians have failed to set up a program to help farmers and promote alternatives to chemical” says a farmer located in Wendland. He is committed to consumer inclusion and has implemented the concept of sponsorship by leasing flowered verges to consumers. “It has to be clear that the farmer does not have the sole responsibility and that we need the support of the consumers and possibly the economy” he says.

Whether beef, apple tree or bee colony, the concept of sponsorship is slowly gaining ground in Germany. Farmers are thus creating a way of bringing consumers closer to agriculture and invest in small-scale regenerative projects. However, the change to a large-scale conversion in soil cultivation presumably cannot be supported by these sponsorships.

Franz Rösl, co-founder of the association Interessengemeinschaft gesunder Boden considers the discussion of financing as obsolete. “If you understand the concept, then you start to realize that with the conversion no additional costs arise, but the costs are shifting. What I spend, for example, on advanced soil and plant analyses, I save on expenses on fertilizers, as more targeted and efficient fertilization can be implemented” he says.

The association Interessengemeinschaft gesunder Boden, based in Regensburg, brings together professionals from various disciplines who impart their knowledge through lectures and seminars to farmers. The focus is clearly on understanding one’s own soil with the aim of increasing plant health as the basis of humans and animal health.  “I think that if we manage to implement a functioning management system with practitioners in every region, then the idea will spread by itself” says Rösl.

Peace farming- Old knowledge and technology are not mutually exclusive

Skeptics are of the opinion that methods of regenerative agriculture cannot be implemented on large areas and require too much manual labor. Ernst Götsch, however, proved that it can work. On large degraded farmland in Brazil, he has managed to make the soil fertile again through what he calls syntropic agriculture.

Under the motto “peace farming”, he works with a layer system in harmony with nature in order to address the causes of the problem, not to combat their effects. At Gut & Bösel he implements the pioneering project for Germany. Every 10 meters long rows of trees are laid out on a 3.5-hectare field, while pioneering and fast- growing tree species are being planted between shrubs and trees. The fast-growing trees are being trimmed every year and the shredded material is placed on the ground. Thus, the soil is protected from dehydration and supplied with nutrients. The fruit-bearing shrubs, including plum, pear, cornelian cherry and sea buckthorn serve for food production.

“Technology and regenerative farming are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, technology and digitalization can be helpful additions to the system” says Bösel. In order to master large areas, Ernst Götsch for example, works on machines that adapt to his cultivation system and can be used in a multifunctional manner. He has already built one of these machines with the swiss engineering duo from rhenus TEK. It combines a milling machine and subsoiler and promises the lowest possible surface treatment of soil. For the use of the machine the use of a small tractor, 70 hp at least, is sufficient.

But how do you measure the improvements of the soil and the ecosystem? The American initiative Regen Network tries to give an answer and captures ecological data by digitalization, thus making it visible for everyone. Blockchain technology tracks, reviews and honors positive developments in the ecosystem. Consequently, ecologically data is collected and evaluated by satellites and sensors. Governments, institutions and entrepreneurs thus have the opportunity to access verified ecological data.

From climate sinner to climate protector

The Thünen Institute and soil expert Dr. Alex Don worked out the potential of agricultural land as for CO2 storage in a detailed study in 2018. How much CO2 the soil contains depends on the humus content, which in turn affects the soil carbon. Especially grassland, in particular pastures, have an enormous storage potential according to the study.

Since the recognition of soil as carbon storage, a concept has evolved- from the farmer as climate sinner to the climate protector. Farmers have the opportunity to sell CO2 certificates to emitters from the industry and craft sector. With an intermediary certificate dealer such as CarboCert, the farmer concludes an agreement with the dealer on the development of the humus on his ground. The development is measured by a GPS-accurate sampling in a laboratory and the growth of humus forms the basis for the payment of the success fee. “The CO2 certification is a great way to reward the regeneration of the soil, resulting in a win-win situation. Of course, the certificate trade should not build focus of the operating income” says Friedrich Wenz, Grüne Brücke.

However not everyone is in favor of this concept, at least not yet. Rösl believes that organic carbon is not the right parameter to measure humus. “In order to get a realistic picture, various criteria have to be included in the calculation, for example the development of infiltration performance, tilth, root depth and soil life,” he says. Other farmers also criticize the high margins for the certification dealers.

With regenerative farming, we are at a beginning, which offers room for further development and reinterpretation. The term stands for a revolution in agriculture, a rethinking, a new thinking, which requires courage, creativity and strong partnerships. It becomes clear that it has great potential to become the agriculture of the future, but farmers should not have to tackle this challenge alone.

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