Growing recognition of the need to move from the ecocidal, industrial method of farming to a regenerative approach — endorsed now by representatives of establishment institutions such as universities and government spokespeople as well as practitioners — could bring about a showdown between the prevailing cultural and economic paradigm, based on extraction, separation and destruction, and an emerging culture based on reciprocity, compassion and restoration.
The benefits of regenerative agriculture are many, and well documented.
Instead of polluting waterways and oceans, damaging the soil and nearby ecology, and producing large amounts of greenhouse gases, as does industrial agriculture, regenerative agriculture tips ecosystems the other way. If well-practised it can increase soil fertility, improve the nutritional content of the foods produced, boost local biodiversity and fix carbon from the atmosphere into the soil, thereby mitigating against climate change. It also requires its practitioners to form an authentic, hands-on, loving relationship with the land and all its inhabitants.
Making a transition to this approach is such a no-brainer that conversations among its proponents have moved from confirming the need for such a shift to considering how to make it happen; and these inevitably shine an unforgiving light on the impediments to change.
A new report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES), which is co-chaired by former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food Olivier De Schutter, summarises the case for the transition and sets out the beginnings of a road map for doing so.
It also names the barriers to action. As with the climate crisis, these are traced back to our economic system and its demand for profits and growth at the expense of the living biosphere. The benefits of withdrawing food production from that system would be enjoyed by nearly everyone, with the exception of the transnational corporations and financiers, not least since most food is produced by small scale farmers in the developing world whose economic and food security are adversely affected by having to compete on the global commodity market.
The authors of the report confirm that while today’s food and farming systems supply large volumes of foods to global markets, they also generate negative outcomes on multiple fronts: widespread degradation of land, water and ecosystems, high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity losses, and persistent hunger and micro-nutrient deficiencies, alongside the rapid rise of obesity and diet-related diseases. They link these outcomes to the reliance on chemical fertilisers, pesticides and preventative use of antibiotics and observe how the systems have become locked in place by existing economic and political structures.
For long term solutions, reform will not be enough, they say, but instead a “fundamentally different model of agriculture based on diversifying farms and farming landscapes, replacing chemical inputs, optimising biodiversity and … holistic strategies to build long term fertility and … secure livelihoods” is required.
Their investigations show that such systems can compete with industrial agriculture in terms of total outputs, performing particularly strongly under environmental stress, and delivering production increases in those places where additional food is desperately needed.
In conclusion, the panel says that political incentives must be shifted for the alternative agricultural approach “to emerge beyond the margins” — a call presaged by green campaigners and the organic and permaculture communities for many years, emphasised in a high-profile campaign by recently formed group Regeneration International, and echoed even in recommendations to the UK government from its own parliamentary group on agroecology.
With so many establishment people waking up to the actual requirements for sustainability, and adding their voices to the wisdom of traditional and indigenous communities, the signs suggest the writing is on the wall for the extractive, industrial agricultural model. Its demise will have a profound impact. The shift to local, low-input, low-finance, high-health, high-care ways of food growing will affect the daily intake and expenditure of the entire population and cause shock waves through global markets and investments. It can also be expected to alter the focus and structure of our communities (and their connection with the land) and to have beneficial effects on the emotional, psychological and physical health of their members.
Changing how we farm and how we obtain our food could thus be one of the catalysts to a global transformation to a restorative culture. The big question is what it will take to trigger this change peacefully and quickly.
This article is the first of several yet to come on this particular subject; subsequent coverage will investigate more deeply where the pressure points are for change and how best to use them.
Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl/Bread for the World