Regenerative Agriculture – Buzzword? Bust? Or the Future of Agriculture?
Regenerative Agriculture – Buzzword? Bust? Or the Future of Agriculture?

Regenerative Agriculture – Buzzword? Bust? Or the Future of Agriculture?

The Stronghold of a sustainable subsistence?

Regenerative agriculture has been the hottest topic in developed nation food and bioresource supply chains over the past 10 years. Multiple large players in the food supply chain, including Danone, General Mills, Nestle, Mondelez, Walmart, and PepsiCo have made commodity sourcing commitments revolving around regenerative agriculture in the past five years. Cumulatively, Cargill, Walmart, and PepsiCo have pledged to transition 67 million acres of farmland to regenerative practices by 2030, far exceeding the 5 million acres currently dedicated to organic production in the United States. The velocity with which regenerative agriculture is being adopted in the US and EU places the system on an exponentially upward trajectory for the coming decades.

Given that regenerative practices are still novel to much of production agriculture, reaching these targets may be prove difficult in some regions, right? Maybe not, as the process itself is not all that innovative or revolutionary, and some have been following the practices of regenerative agriculture for decades. Arguably, many of the principles underlying regenerative agriculture epitomized much of production prior to agricultural specialization. Furthermore, many of our modern agriculture techniques display some, but not all, of the characteristics of regenerative systems. Examples in a western Canadian context include no-till and diverse crop rotations.

The most common criticism of regenerative agriculture in academic, media, and production realms often inquires upon what exactly regenerative practices are. Often the next point is “that will never work here” when the harshness of our winter, lack of moisture and short growing season are considered. However, ‘no one size fits all’ can be applied to regenerative agriculture; rather, a series of underlying concepts, principles, and practices comprise the vast array of alternatives available to those considering regenerative agriculture. Without diminishing the importance of five of the six principles of regenerative agriculture, most critical to ensuring regenerative agriculture can work is understanding the context of your operation. This principle, along with the other five principles will be discussed in this blog, serving as the foundation of a short-form blog series detailing regenerative agriculture from producer, consumer, and policy maker viewpoints.

The 6 principles of regenerative agriculture
The Six Principles of Regenerative Agriculture (Source)


Understanding your context

Broad definitions of regenerative agriculture may be focused on outcomes or processes. Outcome based definitions focus on results, including carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and resiliency. Contrarily, process definitions focus on the practices used, including cover cropping, reducing tillage intensity, or integrating livestock. Regardless of definitive typology the overarching theme focuses on improving soil health as the foundation of the agricultural system, using crops and livestock in a cyclical manner to bolster productivity while limiting the need for inputs from outside the cycle. Considering the heterogeneity of primary agricultural production, an outcome-based definition rooted broadly in key principles, or processes, may serve as the best approach to defining the agricultural system. Hence, recent evolution in the regenerative agriculture space has achieved this by adding a sixth principle: understand your context.

A vast diversity in soil characteristics, weather, and production goals are evident between neighbouring farms, making it naïve to assume practices that work in the EU or the US will work across the globe. Hence, the most recent addition to the regenerative agriculture principles revolves around recognizing and adapting to your specific context. This principle serves as a driver for the remaining five concepts in both planning and execution by catering to the specific properties and goals of your operation. Farm properties that require consideration in relation to regenerative agriculture include annual precipitation and evapotranspiration, soil characteristics, and length of growing season. Precipitation and evapotranspiration drive soil moisture balance and determine the moisture availability to crops. While soil characteristics and length of growing season may determine the variety and number of crops that can be planted in a growing season.


Minimizing soil disturbance

Limiting disturbance to the earth has been shown to improve carbon sequestration prospects in crop production systems. Tillage remains a common production practice across much of the globe, as a manner of weed control and soil moisture management. Figure 1 displays the likelihood of conservation tillage practices across the globe based on soil and climatic characteristics. Yellow regions are those most suitable for conservation – of minimal – tillage practices. Similarly, the yellow regions could be viewed as those most appropriate for regenerative agriculture, as these regions can successfully produce crops without tillage. The Northern Great Plains region of North America stands out as a suitable candidate for the adoption of no-tillage crop production. As has been shown in peer reviewed literature, Saskatchewan has been a leader on this front, adopting no-till on 55% of arable acres, while implementing minimal till on 42% of acres. As a result, merely 3% of cropped acres were in conventional tillage as of 2019. Beyond the appropriateness for no-till, a multitude of other factors, including the diversity of crops grown in the region determine the success of regenerative agriculture.

Regenerative Agriculture - Buzzword? Bust? Or the Future of Agriculture? 1
Figure 1. Global distribution of no-tillage likelihood (Source)


Maximizing crop diversity

Crop diversity can be achieved in two different manners, through the rotation of multiple species (crop rotation) or the integration of multiple species onto one field (polycropping). Both strategies aim to improve productivity and soil health by realizing the natural mutually beneficial effects of different plant species. Cereals and grasses, for example, require high levels of soil nitrogen to reach optimal growth and yield; contrarily, legumes pull atmospheric nitrogen into the soil for use by subsequent crops. This process – known as nitrogen fixation – serves as one rationale for maximizing crop diversity. By polycropping legumes with grasses the benefits of nitrogen fixation can be realized immediately. Similarly, including legumes, such as peas or lentils, in crop rotations can provide yield benefits for subsequent grain or oilseed crops. Additionally, the requirements for inorganic nutrients in legume crops and those that follow in rotation are lesser, lowering the greenhouse gas emissions potential of the production system.

Regenerative agriculture systems exploit the benefits of crop diversity as a means of eliminating some of the needs for external inputs. However, maintaining year-round soil cover and roots alongside integrating livestock serve as key components in completely eliminating this requirement.


Keeping the soil covered and maintaining live roots year-round

Though they comprise separate regenerative agriculture principles, maintaining soil cover and living roots year-round are fundamentally interrelated. Perennials, cover crops, and biennial crops keep living roots in the soil year-round while maximizing soil coverage. Even during periods of dormancy – such as long Saskatchewan winters – these crops maintain belowground ecosystems with a series of roots structures. During the transition from the growing season into the winter months these plants transition from growth to preservation, storing nutrients and carbohydrates in their root systems to foster growth during the spring. Additionally, root and plant structures of winter crops protect from wind soil erosion during mild winters and water erosion during spring runoff. In arid climates with short growing seasons, such as those prevalent across much of the western Canadian arable land base, are often viewed as major detriments to the feasibility of cover cropping. Many producers in this region have had success with cover cropping; however, the practice is most prevalent in areas that receive more moisture or longer growing seasons. Nonetheless, numerous producers who plant cover crops reap benefits by acting upon the next principle of regenerative agriculture: integrating livestock into crop production.


Integrating livestock into crop production

Most grain farmers would gleam at the chance at being paid to have their soils fertilized, having to only provide room and board for the fertilizing employees. Mention that those employees are bovine, “room” is a section of land, and “board” is a barley cover crop, and you may find the tone changes quickly. Anecdotally, one could say from lived experience that the phrase “that won’t work here” may be the response a cattle producer receives when mentioning this prospect to cash-cropping neighbors. Arguably, this statement does have merit across much of northern great plains in recent years; however, a more accurate rendition of the statement would opine that cover cropping won’t work in dry years. When moisture conditions are favourable, growing a crop outside of the typical harvest window becomes much easier, especially when early maturing crops are grown. In wet climates cover cropping can provide the advantage of earlier seeding in the subsequent year by using soil moisture and increasing water infiltration rates by increasing soil root loads. Despite the importance of cover cropping to re-integrating crops and livestock, other alternatives exist that may be more malleable to crop production in a western Canadian context.

Integrated crop and livestock systems do not require cover crops to be successfully implemented in crop production. By using perennial forage crops in long-term crop rotations, producers can grow forage for grazing and effectively complete the nutrient cycle for the duration of the forage crop. In a fifteen-year rotation, perennial crops may be grown for 3-5 of these years, with cash crops being grown during the remainder. During this time, forage crops would be a peak productive capacity and provide adequate grazing, soil cover, plant matter decomposition, nitrogen fixation, and root infiltration to improve a multitude of factors related to soil health all while sequestering carbon to build soil organic matter.



The cyclical nature of regenerative agriculture and the broad scope of regenerative processes underlying the six broad principles serve to make this system appealing to those looking for a two-fold solution to food security and climatic concerns. Conventional crop and livestock production systems exhibit many of the principles underlying regenerative agriculture, relying on nutrient cycles and soil health for long-term profitability. However, these systems are linear in nature when compared to regenerative systems that can operate efficiently without external inputs.

Given the growing popularity of regenerative agriculture and the lack of a clear and concise definition, the risk of greenwashing is substantial. However, advocates for regenerative agricultural ranging from producers to academics appear to have figured out that no clear and concise definition of regenerative agriculture can be garnered. This is a good thing, as regenerative agriculture – like all agriculture – is very different depending on where it is being practiced. Despite the risks, regenerative agriculture appears to be coming to the forefront of food production and where it goes in the coming years lies in the hands of consumers, producers, and policy makers. The sentiments of each of these groups will be further explored in coming blog posts.

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