What is regenerative agriculture?

Updated: May 25

Like me, you may have asked this question and struggled to find the answer.

This is because there is no simple answer. Regenerative systems are not simple and no two are the same. It is the opposite of reductionist rules that dictate how specific agricultural procedures should be done. But it's more than a way of farming, it's a way of learning.

I became interested in regenerative agriculture about 15 years ago and have maintained that interest while studying veterinary science, farm and stock management, farm finances, managing people, managing my own relationships, and learning about and assisting farmer learning. Through all of that, I still find myself asking the same question - what actually is this 'regenerative agriculture' and where are the details, the proof and the science. It seems so unstructured and difficult to slot into discussion group activities. Somewhat mysterious and for the brave-hearted, or those with enough spare resources to experiment for themselves. I always thought it was a way of farming, a set of rules about how you manage the land, plant crops, rotate stock etc. But more recently I have come to realise it is about mindset and learning. It is a way of farming, but more importantly, it is a way of thinking. Nicole Masters talks about the 4 Ms, the first and most important of which being mindset. It is not my intention here to describe all the features of regenerative agriculture, all the scientific details and ins and outs. But I am planning on developing some courses on the topic. Regenerative agriculture has a name but that is only by necessity. It's not organics, or permaculture, or biodynamics. All of those are governed by rules and regulations. The worst thing that could happen to regenerative agriculture would be certification or regulation. This would then bring in rules, structures, set ways and auditing processes. It would foster a fixed mindset which goes against the principles. The best thing is fostering opportunities for farmers to engage in collective learning from each other and from scientists and anyone else with an open mind, creative ideas and a passion for striving for healthy soil, plants, animals, people and communities. Yes, we can use it as a marketing opportunity built on trust and evidence. Yes, we can use it to improve the local environment and do our bit to help meet our GHG commitments as a country. In regenerative agriculture, we should be collecting information and evidence from all fields of agriculture and applying all the tools that are going to work on that property. That means, if you need to use a herbicide, do it, but in a safe way.

In medicine, we should apply the principle : First, do no harm. This does not mean don't give antibiotics when needed, or don't treat parasite infections with insecticides. But it means for every decision, weigh up to costs and the benefits to the whole system. The soil, the plants, the animals and the people. Is there a better solution that will have fewer adverse side effects? I think if we applied this to regenerative agriculture we would go a long way towards decisions that enhance the outcomes for all.

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