Can regenerative agriculture (RA) produce an adequate amount of nutritious food for the growing and increasingly affluent world population while also reducing and offsetting some anthropogenic emissions? The question may be reframed: how can RA be adapted to produce enough food, be a negative emission technology, and advance Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations (2015)? System-based RA reconciles the need of producing adequate and nutritious food with the necessity of restoring the environment, making farming a solution to environmental issues. It encompasses a wide range of farming and grazing practices aimed at restoration and sustainable management of soil health through sequestration of soil organic carbon (C). There is no one-size-fits-all practice for diverse soils and ecoregions. RA comprises system-based conservation agriculture (CA), which includes no-till farming in conjunction with residue mulching, cover cropping, integrated nutrient and pest management, complex rotations, and integration of crops with trees and livestock (figure 1) (Lal 2015). RA is all inclusive, and its site-specific package(s) must be fine-tuned in the context of biophysical factors and the human dimensions. RA is soil-centric rather than seed-centric and is based on the premise that “health of soil, plants, animals, and humans is one and indivisible” (Howard 1943; Howard and Howard 1945).
In the present context of climate change and environmental issues, it is appropriate to extend the concept by stating that the health
of soil, plants, animals, people, and environment is one and indivisible. The expanded concept, based on the realization of the living
soil (Balfour 1943), is specifically pertient in the era of COVID-19 (Lal 2020). The goal is to enhance soil organic matter (SOM) content and strengthen coupled biogeochemical cycling of C with water, nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), sulfur (S), and other elements (Lal 2010), along with strengthening disease resistance capacity of soil (Howard 1921). The soil-centric approach is focused on obtaining an optimum yield sustained on a long-term
basis and with minimal dependence on agrochemicals. It contrasts with the conventional approach of obtaining high yields on a shortterm basis with heavy and indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, tillage,
and other energy-based inputs. Therefore, an appropriate question is not whether RA works or not, but how to make it work under
site-specific conditions, including biophysical, social, economic, and the human dimensions. Recent advances in system-based approaches to adapting CA have improved application, enhanced global adoption, and increased the rate of adoption (Kassam et al. 2019).
BASIC PRINCIPLES OF REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE
Whereas scientific debate is essential to ensuring quality and credibility, understanding the basic issues being deliberated is critical to maintaining objectivity. Global agriculture is already producing enough food to feed 10
billion people. However, about 30% of all food produced is wasted. It is thus important to break the vicious circle of produce, waste, degrade, pollute, and produce more. Therefore, the goal of RA is to apply the
concept of more from less (McAfee 2019) to agriculture and produce more from less (Lal 2013): less land area, less input of chemicals, less use of water, less emission of greenhouse gases, less risk of soil degradation, and less use of energy-based inputs (table 1). The strategy is to spare land and resources for nature. Wasting food and polluting the environment
are crimes against nature.
Therefore, RA is based on the premise of
- Managing soil fertility by enhancing SOM content, biological N fixation, and recycling of nutrients rather than by indiscriminate inputs of chemical fertilizers.
- Improving soil structure by increasing activity and species diversity of biota (e.g., earthworms and microorganisms) and prolific plant roots rather than by plowing.
3.Increasing availability of green water by conserving precipitation, reducing losses by runoff and evaporation, moderating
soil temperature, and encouraging deep root systems
- Controlling water and wind erosion through preventative measures of maintaining a continuous groundcover, cover cropping, and CA rather than by curative land forming and engineering structures
- Managing soil acidification and elemental imbalance by biofertilizers (e.g., compost, manure, mycorrhiza) rather than by indiscriminate dumping of chemicals.
- Enhancing water infiltration rate by reducing crusting, compaction,
hard-setting, and desiccation through retention of residue mulch, cover cropping, and creation of bio-pores through bioturbation of the rhizosphere
GREEN REVOLUTION OF THE 21ST CENTURY
The Green Revolution of the 21st century based on the concepts of RA must be
- Soil-based, through enhancement and sustainable management of soil
health by managing SOM content and strengthening mechanisms of elemental/nutrient recycling and increasing soil resilience to climate change.
2.Ecosystem-based, through enhancement of eco-efficiency that minimizes
losses, enhances use efficiency of inherent and applied resources and minimizes dependence on external inputs
3.Knowledge-based by using modern science and managerial skills, which
restore soil health and strengthen ecosystem services for humans and nature.
4.Based on the Law of Return (Howard 1943), which states, replace what is
removed, respond wisely to what is altered, predict what alterations may
occur through anthropogenic/natural perturbations, and adopt practices that restore and enhance soil health
- Focused on creating a positive soil and ecosystem C budget so that the
terrestrial C pool is increasing over time until the sink capacity is filled, its permanence assured, risks of leakage minimized, and the terrestrial biosphere recarbonized.
TRANSLATING SCIENCE INTO ACTION
Identification and formulation of policy are critical to translating science into action. Implementation of a “Soil Quality Act” (Lal 2019) is essential to complementing the existing Air Quality Act and Water Quality Act,
and harnessing benefits of the soil-water-air nexus. The Soil Quality Act, aimed at making agriculture a solution to environmental issues, will also incentivize farmers through payments for ecosystem services such as
sequestering of C in soil and vegetation (terrestrial biosphere), improving quality and renewability of water resources, strengthening biodiversity, and making agriculture nutrition-sensitive. Payments for ecosystem
services must be transparent, just, fair, and based on the societal value of C, water, biodiversity, and other natural resources.
- © 2020 by the Soil and Water Conservation Society