15th October 2021
Biodiversity and regenerative agriculture
Last week we looked at the tendency for agriculture to a) expand into virgin territory at the expense of flora and fauna biodiversity, and b) to be concentrated around a narrow number of crops and animal species. Agricultural practices are the source of further challenges.
In a drive to be more productive and more economic, many agricultural businesses have gone for the large scale – large farms, large fields, large machinery – creating landscapes that devoid of trees and hedges and instead are vast tracts of identical crops. Monoculture does not support biodiversity. Fields of rape may provide near endless quantities of flowers that are attractive to pollinators, but once they have flowered there is a dearth of food sources for those pollinators. With their demise, comes the demise of other birds and animals that rely on them as part of the food chain.
Monoculture also provides a good environment for the spread of plant diseases and the proliferation of weeds – the latter might be suppressed by a diversity of plants, some overshadowing the weeds, or by insects and larvae that might feed on them. The net result is that to sustain monoculture, crops must be sprayed with pesticides and herbicides, neither of which is good for biodiversity. For the soil this can be a particular problem. Soils rely on insects, beetles, and many micro-organisms to keep the soil rich with nutrients and to maintain a good soil structure. Soils that become damaged or depleted of nutrients become reliant on the addition of chemical fertilisers to maintain their productivity. However these can be damaging to biodiversity, especially when nitrates are washed through the soil into local water ways where they form algae blooms and damage both flora and fauna.
Whilst agriculture can be part of the biodiversity problem, it can also be part of the solution.
Whilst the term ‘regenerative agriculture’ was first used in the early 1980s as concept that aimed to make agriculture not just sustainable, but positively beneficial for the environment. However it has only more recently gained popularity.
There is as yet to fixed definition of what regenerative agriculture is, nor how it is to be practiced. Terra Genesis International working in Thailand has determined its principles as:-
- Progressively improve whole agroecosystems (soil, water and biodiversity)”
- “Create context-specific designs and make holistic decisions that express the essence of each farm”
- “Ensure and develop just and reciprocal relationships amongst all stakeholders”
- “Continually grow and evolve individuals, farms, and communities to express their innate potential”
What I think is interesting here is the inclusion of the people involved in farming and their communities.
The UK’s Regenerative Food and Farming (https://regenerativefoodandfarming.co.uk/) recommends the following farming practices:-
- No or low tillage, ie not ploughing the soil or removing the remnants of the previous before sowing, and maintaining some form of vegetative cover at all times. This helps to keep both CO2 and water in the soil, rather than it escaping into the atmosphere.
- Diversifying what is grown using mixed planting, intercropping (including sylvan agriculture which grows crops in between trees), and relay cropping. There is a focus on growing more of what is needed locally which minimises the distance food has to be transported.
- Using animals as part of crop rotation.
- Not over grazing fields.
- Stimulating micro-organisms in the soil by maintaining living roots in the soil at all times and by adding organic compost.
- Avoiding the use of chemicals on the land and minimising antibiotics given to animals – sometimes these are used to stimulate growth rather than for treating diseases.
- Adding tree, perennials and wild flowers to the landscape.
- Rewilding areas of landing and creating corridors between them.
Such agricultural practices not only benefits biodiversity, they also improved get capacity of the soil to sequester carbon, reduce the carbon emissions of the farming industry, assist with flood prevention and reduce the water needed by farms.
If you are interested in regeneratively farmed produce, google to see what’s available locally. On a larger scale companies such as Ben and Jerry, Nestle and McDonalds are seeking to source their ingredients from regenerative farmers.