We made a very proud announcement a few months ago that one of our partner suppliers was certified regenerative but we didn't really explain what that means and why it's important to us. In this article we will look into what regenerative agriculture (RA) is, why soil is so important and what methods are implemented to achieve regeneration.
What is Regenerative Agriculture (RA)
Regenerative Agriculture has gone from a fringe term amongst progressive farmers to a phrase that's entering the common parlance of the savvy food consumer but what is it?
In simple terms regenerative agriculture improves soil quality and increases biodiversity, it is an outcome rather than a practice.
To go a bit deeper the Wikipedia definition is good, it states - Regenerative agriculture is a conservation and rehabilitation approach to food and farming systems. It focuses on topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity, improving the water cycle, enhancing ecosystem services, supporting biosequestration, increasing resilience to climate change, and strengthening the health and vitality of farm soil.
RA is the new buzz word in farming and food and we have based our business on this simple principle of giving back more than we take from the land that produces food for us but as consumers start to demand produce from RA there will undoubtedly be some 'liberal' use of the term unless we nail down what it really means.
This is why we've decided to work with a certification body and not make claims that may or may not stand up to science.
Before we go too deep into the certification and measurement process we need some background, first of all, let's look at soil as this is where it all starts.
What is soil ?
Soil is basically the upper layer of earth in which plants grow, a black or dark brown material typically consisting of a mixture of organic remains, clay, and rock particles.
Whether we're growing crops or keeping animals the basis of life starts with the soil and most of the methods employed in RA seek to improve the quality of the soil.
Soil is a material composed of five ingredients — minerals, soil organic matter, living organisms, gas, and water.
The organic matter constituent is made from plant and animal detritus at various stages of decomposition, cells and tissues of soil microbes, and substances that soil microbes synthesise.
How do we measure soil quality?
Soil quality is a measure of the capacity of a soil to perform necessary
functions. Soil functions include providing nutrients and water to
plants, filtering and cleaning water, regulating temperatures, recycling
and storing nutrients, and providing habitats for organisms. Given
these various functions, there is no single measurement for soil quality.
Instead a series of physical, chemical and biological properties are
measured in combination.
What degrades soil?
Soil degradation is the loss of land’s production capacity in terms of loss of soil fertility, soil biodiversity, and degradation. Soil degradation causes include agricultural, industrial, and commercial pollution; loss of arable land due to urban expansion, overgrazing, and unsustainable agricultural practices; and long-term climatic changes. According to a recent report to the United Nations, almost one-third of the world’s farmable land has disappeared in the last four decades. It was also reported that all of the World’s topsoil could become unproductive within 60 years if current rates of loss continue.
As our soils become degraded it requires more inputs to achieve economic crop growth. Soils with a low carbon content from having too little organic matter loses its ability to hold moisture and nutrients meaning the land is more susceptible to both droughts and to flooding.
How do grazing animals improve soil and increase biodiversity?
This is the key question.
Ruminants including domestic livestock, have been accused of causing damaging impacts on the global environment and human well-being. However, with appropriate management, ruminant livestock can play a significant role in efforts to reverse environmental damages caused by human mismanagement and neglect
To achieve this farmers mimic natural systems and nature takes care of the rest.
Grasses (and other plants) evolved with ruminant animals. Ruminants have extra stomachs and sturdy mouths to break down, ferment and digest the cellulose in grasses so the nutrients in them can be absorbed and converted to meat, fat and energy for the animal. What's left is piss and poop, burps and farts.
After a grazing animal eats its leaves, the plant lets most of its root system go dormant. Later it begins growing new roots to reestablish its nutrient and immune support system underground. Here is the magic: the old roots, made of carbon and water, serve as the foundation of new topsoil.
Carbon rich soil continues to generate biological activity underground. It forms a sponge that can absorb huge amounts of water from rainfall or flooding, which it slowly releases over time: drought tolerance and flood resilience.
This process is critical to carbon sequestration. Healthy grasslands take carbon from the atmosphere and place it safely underground.
As the carbon contents of the soil build up so too does the complexity and numbers of microorganisms living in the soil. All ecosystems have interdependent layers called trophic levels, if the complexity of this basic layer increases so do layers above. A healthier soil with more microorganisms will support more insects, more earthworms more mites and beetles, this in turn support more of the things that eat these and so on up through the levels.
How is this different to any other cow in a field of grass?
In conventional agriculture just one species of grass could be planted and there is no management system to move the cattle, the cows eat grass but they are not having the correct effect on the growth cycle, this is not regenerative in the same way.
Certification and measurement
It's all very well saying that our farmers are using regenerative methods but without actual proof it means nothing. We decided to work with regenagri, a regenerative agriculture initiative from certification body Control Union, to commission an impartial external audit, which gave us some real measurements.
We chose one of our partner farmers Neil Harley to undergo the audit process for regeneration on a new site he has taken on to graze in Tisbury, Wiltshire.
Before Neil took on the land it has been in a typical arable rotation of conventional farming growing crops such as wheat, barley and oil seed rape, over time this cropping had degraded the soil so baseline measurements were taken to assess the regeneration caused by changing the use to organic beef farming.
regenagri is an initiative aimed at supporting farms and retailers to transition to regenerative agriculture. They deliver advisory services, a digital hub for self-monitoring of on farm data, certification against their regenerative agriculture standard, and verification of carbon reductions. In doing so they help to secure the health of the land and the wealth of those live on it.
The regenagri standard criteria looks holistically at the entire farming operation, considering the different management strategies and practises used, and assesses the farms regenerative impact. Regenagri helps secure the health of the land and the wealth of those live on it. The criteria are supported by practical knowledge of sustainable and regenerative farming methods gained through experience in the field as well as input from trusted advisors and industry experts, research from peer reviewed scientific papers and practical guidance from their governance group.
The outcomes are monitored through a continuous improvement model which allows farmers and their supply chain to see how implementing regenerative practises is affecting the agroecosystem of the farm over time. At the end of an audit, the farm is supplied with a scorecard which clearly shows which areas poorly against the criteria, and which are performing well. Audits are then carried out annually to build a picture of how regenerative practises are impacting the farm and its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
What is measured and how?
The process of working with regenagri was a very simple one for our farmer. It involved a single day farm visit where the auditor spent time with Neil to look over the farm and assess the checklist of criteria as well as to check his record keeping and paperwork.
We hope others in our industry will follow suit and choose to measure and certify their regeneration.