For the past decade the focus on food and farming has been on sustainable systems.
To be sustainable means to meet production needs without compromising the future, particularly our future natural resources. To farm sustainably is to ‘do no further harm’ or to maintain the current balance and to accept a level of accountability for practices that are measurable and auditable. This differs from a regenerative system, which is focused on increasing the interaction within the ecology of all available resources.
To put it simply, to sustain may be interpreted as to endure without further damage but does not address the harm done, although it sets a baseline for some recovery. Regenerative practices appreciate that damage may have occurred and wish to encompass healing and nurture increased biodiversity in soil, water, and air while strengthening ecological links without sacrificing production. A huge part of regeneration is increased carbon sequestration in complement with soil fungi and bacteria. It is a model that is based on building resilience.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations defines resilience as “the ability of people, communities or ‘systems’ to withstand change and recover.” This suggests that when crisis happens, a community or a system built on the model of regeneration, which promotes diversity, is more likely to be resilient. A sustainable future then differs from a resilient ecologically balanced one.
A mowed space that features shade trees and has walkable pathways is sustainable. It will remain in its enjoyable current state until the old trees die or it is challenged by climate. However, it lacks the biodiversity needed to withstand drought, excessive rain or to replace the trees.
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A living example of this can be found in Australia where the cropping is done around the protected gum trees. Those big individual trees survive for many years but when they are lost, the diversity that they once represented is forever gone. They are victims of a sustainable system.
However, a public walkway through a meadow kept in a way that allows for encroachment, retains a natural state and does not interrupt the natural water flow is regenerative, as it is biologically balanced. That environment allows for an interaction both seen and unseen above and below the surface. It also ‘lends’ its properties to the mowed space as birds, insects, seeds, water entrapment and erosion control contribute to ‘sustaining’ the open lawn. Both will sequester carbon but only one will build biodiversity, and that is the meadow.
In dry years, many farmers have cropped the area that was once a slough. Leaving it alone and patience for the wet years would have revealed a naturally regenerated area because it was inherently resilient.
Tired and contaminated land can be revived. In a vineyard I visited, a portion of the total area was allowed to revert back to a natural state. The result was better soil with a synergy of bacteria and fungi, increased carbon sequestration, increased harvest and a higher-quality grape on the regenerated side. The ‘life’ in the natural vineyard also contributed to the health of the conventional vines nearby.
There is no separation between farming, environment and food. Taking a systems view which appreciates that every farmer is a food producer and has influence on environment is a good start. The questions are: What do you, as a farmer, want that system to look like in the future? What needs to change? How can that be done and what is it that your consumer is asking of you as the provider of their food?
Perhaps the first step is to stop looking at how far we have come.
On the Prairies, many conversations in sustainable cropping still revert back to the implementation of the no-till drill and precision agriculture as the technologies that support sustainable production. Certainly these are contributors, but what is needed next? There is more to both sustainable and regenerative farming than technology offers.
The value in this conversation and in fostering a futuristic narrative on where we need to go is that it opens the door to curiosity and the possible.
There is substantive evidence that regenerative farming is the future, as the current system will only ‘sustain’ for a short period of historical time, specifically because of future water challenges and the global push for proof of carbon sequestration. Long-lasting solutions will certainly grow from the ground up.
In the meantime there is still the overarching need of food for all and to meet the demands of a growing middle class of consumers who are now driving economic activity.
The intersection between current food systems and demand, climate, water, soil and health is where we are. Future food production, food’s nutritional profile and consumer acceptance will be reflected by the direction farmers and a host of other stakeholders take from this point forward. Creating resilient systems by building healthy, fertile and flexible soil that sequesters carbon, retains water and increases plant, animal and insect life through a regenerative approach is of benefit to us all.