Regenerative Farming is a powerful movement happening in the farming industry today. Farmers are reconnecting with their roots to fight climate change, preserve forests, and build back the soil biodiversity. Let’s understand what regenerative agriculture means and how hemp is a promising solution for its achievement.
What is Regenerative Farming?
Regenerative Farming encompasses a set of farming and grazing practices that help restore degraded soil biodiversity and rebuild soil organic matter. It refers to a wide set of food production methods with two outcomes:
- Production of high-quality food
- Improvement of the surrounding natural ecosystem.
Restoring soil health helps bring down the increased levels of carbon in soils and plant biomass. Not only are healthier soils more resilient to the impacts of climate change but can also increase yields and improve farmers’ livelihoods.
Improving the organic matter content in our soils can reduce (and eventually) stop soil erosion and improve water infiltration and retention, aggregate stability, plant health, nutrient cycling, crop yields, biodiversity, crop resilience, and more. More organic matter in the soil also means moving carbon from the atmosphere to the soil, where it can be a net positive for the planet instead of a net negative as a greenhouse gas.
How does it work?
Regenerative farming places great emphasis on looking at the agro-ecosystem holistically. Some key techniques enabling this include:
- Conservation tillage: Plowing and tillage erode the soil, releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. These processes may also result in bare or compacted soil that creates a hostile environment for important soil microbes. Adopting low- or no-till practices, however, allow farmers to minimize the physical disturbance of the soil and increase the levels of soil organic matter, creating healthier and resilient environments for plants to grow and keeping more and more carbon into the soil.
- Diversity: Different plants release different types of carbohydrates through their roots. Various microbes feed on these carbs, returning all kinds of different nutrients back to the plant and the soil. Increasing plant diversity in the fields can help farmers create a rich, varied, and nutrient-dense soil that leads to more productive yields.
- Rotation and cover crops: Leaving the soil bare leads to erosion and causes the nutrients (necessary for healthy plant growth) to dry out or wash away. Moreover, planting the same plants in the same location can cause a build-up of some nutrients and a lack of others. The strategic rotation of different crops can help infuse the soil with abundant organic matter while avoiding disease and pest problems naturally.
- Reducing Pesticides: Pesticides are like antibodies—they are against some form of life. Using a pesticide kills not only the plant but also the other living particles in the soil, which are in fact key to many complex functions below the ground. Reducing the use of all forms of pesticides helps maintain the health and biodiversity of the soil which is essential for healthy plant growth.
What is the Climate Angle?
Soil health plays an important role in food production. And this is something currently being threatened by the climate crisis. The rising temperatures are not only changing where and how things can be grown but are also altering the water cycle around the world.
The resulting shift in precipitation patterns and increased evaporation causes more frequent powerful rainfall events and more severe droughts—a classic case of feast or famine.
Extreme rainfall causes polluted runoff and erosion because of the ground’s lost ability to absorb the precipitation at the rate it’s falling. At some points, this can lead to the drowning of plants. Reversely, less stable precipitation coupled with increased heat can cause more and more drought and near-desertification in extreme circumstances—leading to a complete loss of farm production in certain areas.
The practice of regenerative farming allows farmers to mitigate the effects of climate change by constantly building soil organic matter. More organic matter means more water retention and more carbon sequestration.
Is Climate Change the only reason to switch to Regenerative Farming?
The care and creativity of regenerative farming yields ecological, economic, physical, and community benefits.
- Improvement in soil health and fertility leads to healthier crops, better yields, improved soil test results, and rich microbial communities.
- Reduced soil erosion
- Biodiversity on land, in the air, and in the water (including richer plant, bird, and insect populations respectively)
- Improved water retention in the soil
- Reduced water pollution (because of fewer chemical inputs)
- Cost savings from the reduced cost of pesticides.
- Better financial security from diversified revenue streams.
- Promotion of rural economic development with local employment and healthier food choices.
- Health of farmers, farmworkers, and downstream communities benefit from the decreased use of and exposure to harmful chemicals.
- Strong network of growers who learn from one another and build an inclusive community.
- On-farm visits and networks of farmers’ markets that allow farmers to strengthen the relationship between consumers and their food.
Where is Hemp in the picture?
Moving past the negative connotations associated with it for decades, the proponents of regenerative farming are looking towards hemp as a promising resort owing to some of the following ecological benefits of the plant:
1. Less dependence on pesticides
Almost all varieties of hemp are naturally resistant to pests and predators. Farming hemp naturally eliminates the soil’s need for pesticides thus providing economic and ecological benefits. Industrial hemp is naturally competitive in nature. It grows densely and literally chokes out the competing plants i.e., weeds and pests.
Moreover, a 2021 study shows that cannabis Sativa plants can themselves be used as an efficient pesticide owing to the synergistic effects of the variety of compounds it contains.
2. Soil improvement
Hemp is an annual crop whose roots reach deep down into the soil helping in 1) holding the soil together, 2) reducing erosion, and 3) loosening the soil which allows for more delicate plants to grow later. In addition, hemp produces high quantities of biomass which returns to the soil and feeds nutrients back into the ground.
Another process through which hemp contributes to improving and/or maintaining soil health is bioremediation. Hemp plants are able to grow in contaminated soil. It absorbs heavy metals and toxins into the plant themselves.
3. Environmental Impact
Hemp requires 1/4th the amount of water required by cotton. It grows much faster than the trees which are used to make paper. Not only does this save time but also reduces the deforestation and increases the yield of paper being produced from the same land.
Another amazing property of hemp is its ability to pull huge quantities of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Scientists estimate that for every 1 ton of hemp, 1.63 tons of carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere.
Industrial hemp presents a rather intriguing proposition for farmers to diversify their crops and increase soil health, biodiversity, and plant yield. Policymakers can motivate farmers and growers to move away from monoculture models and use hemp to benefit ecologically, physically, and financially.
Are there any Challenges?
Managing to feed the planet’s growing population while regenerating natural systems appears to be the first challenge. As the Green Revolution demonstrated, monoculture practices can result in plentiful food production, giving food access to most. However, it also proves to be a false economy in the long run. Maintaining these high-yield numbers require heavy reliance on chemicals while degrading topsoil, biodiversity, and local water systems.
However, evidence suggests regenerative approaches can address these environmental and productivity needs. Regenerative farming increased the sugarcane yield at Leontino Balbo’s Native Farm in Brazil by 20%. Thousands of Indian zero budget natural farmers (ZBNF) experienced a 36% increase in groundnuts’ yield while Takao Furuno’s integrated duck-rice model led to a 20-50% increase in rice yield and 3x revenue. At the same time, Rodney Rulon, a full-time farmer from Indiana, saves about $57,000 on fertilisers increasing profits by $107,000.
These examples, among many others, go on to prove that regenerative approaches are capable of producing sufficient food with higher profit margins. But while implementing these practices, it is important to take other factors such as increased resilience of the soil, mitigation of health impacts of industrial production, and reductions in carbon into consideration.
The second challenge relates to the implementation of these practices themselves. While the small-scale transition to regenerative farming, e.g., in the ZBNF farmers in Andhra Pradesh, can be short with little investment, there are periods of uncertainty to be accounted for when it comes to large-scale transition.
For instance, Leontino Balbo’s 16,000-hectare sugar farm took 27 years to achieve full transition to regenerative farming practices. The reasons for this can be biological and/or business-oriented.
However, reducing the risks associated with this transition presents a perfect contributing opportunity for the financial sector (government and private). They can offer subsidies, incentives, or insurance to enable farmers to adopt regenerative practices.
This transition also presents commercial opportunities for developing new technology and products that make practising regenerative agriculture easy for farmers. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s report titled Cities and Circular Economy for Food highlighted the “huge potential that exists in converting food by-products from cities into regenerative soil enhancers.” Companies such as Lystek in Canada and SoilFood in Finland are working to turn this into a reality.
How can we support the Regenerative Farming Movement?
The success of regenerative farming does not depend on any single party but on all stakeholders in the system. We as consumers can take some rudiment steps to ensure that regenerative farming becomes the norm.
1. Being a voice for the soil: refers to demanding proper stewardship of local land through regenerative agriculture. Becoming an advocate for soil health enforces a chain reaction of community benefits.
The Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in India has to date enhanced over 40,000 hectares of land in India’s rural areas which has in turn provided farmer communities with food security and increased net incomes.
2. Composting at home: composting is one of the most simple and most effective ways of practising regenerative farming. Whether you live in an apartment, a house or on a ranch, you can divert your household food waste from the landfill and close the loop of the nutrient-and-soil cycle.
Bangalore-based Daily Dump is an organisation working to make home composting a habit in India. Their localised waste management in households, communities, workplaces, and public areas saves over 50,000 kg of organic waste every day.
Waste ventures from Telangana is another organisation working in this area. The organisation operates in Hyderabad, Delhi, and Chennai providing organic waste processing services that assist consumers in carrying out on- and/or off-site composting.
3. Being a regenerative consumer: knowing how our food is sourced and choosing meat, dairy, and produce that is grown to help regenerate land is another step that consumers can take.
One way to put this into practice is by adopting and advocating the consumption of foods like millets that not only cater to our nutritional needs but also contribute positively to the country’s agrobiodiversity while fostering community empowerment.
4. Educating farmers and growers: conducting dialogues and discussions with local farmers and growers on the principles and benefits of regenerative farming with the aim of motivating and assisting them to adopt this practice is another key step.
Aranya Agricultural Alternatives is a Hyderabad-based organisation working to help the rural farming communities in India achieve food and nutrition security through natural agricultural practices that focus on forests’ self-regulating ecosystems.
reNature is a global organisation working with farmer communities across India, Mexico, Brazil, Tanzania, etc. to apply regenerative agriculture techniques to innovate industries, produce a range of crops, and address issues ranging from climate change to poverty.
The Timbaktu Collective is another organisation working to protect, manage, and restore degraded ecosystems in rural Indian village communities. It works with 172 villages in the Anantpur district and focuses primarily on the restoration of wasteland and rejuvenating soil health through organic farming practices.
5. Growing our own food: lead the change by example by turning your patch of earth into a regenerative garden.