Future farming: agriculture cannot simply sustain, it must regenerate

How innovative farming solutions and an overall mindset shift can support climate goals, sustainable development and a global transition to regenerative agriculture

Conventional agriculture is like a snake eating its own tail to survive; if the snake doesn’t find an alternative solution, it will eventually swallow itself whole. While the post-WWII “green revolution” provided food security for billions of people through large-scale technological and chemical agricultural advances, these same farming processes are now threatening the life-giving ecosystems that all living things depend on. Unless we see a paradigm shift in the way land is cultivated, agriculture, like the snake, will end up driving its own demise.

Transforming agriculture to overcome challenges and meet global goals

The global food system is now a leading cause of biodiversity loss, water scarcity and soil degradation, and significantly contributes to planet warming greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), emissions from the agrifood sector account for almost one-third (31 per cent) of all global GHGs.

Despite fears of being unable to feed a rapidly growing population – which surpassed 8bn people in November 2022 – as much as 40 per cent of food produced for human consumption is wasted, while up to 40 per cent is subject to losses caused by pests and diseases.

There is no question: the farming sector needs a radical transformation to meet global sustainability and climate goals. “We can’t continue making slight adjustments to the current model,” says Ivo Degn, co-founder of Climate Farmers. “It’s not a gradual improvement. It’s a fundamental and systemic change that we’re looking at.”

To complement this urgent mindset shift, thoughtful and tailored approaches are necessary to ensure solutions meet the needs of different farmers. “2030 might as well be tomorrow,” says Alexandra Brand, Chair of the Board at CropLife Europe and Regional Director at Syngenta Crop Protection. “Genuine transformation takes time in agriculture. [However], we must move quickly to transform agriculture by employing a suite of practices known as regenerative agriculture,” she says.

Accelerating the regenerative revolution

Regenerative agriculture involves solutions that improve crop productivity while repairing decades of damage from intensive farming. It is an holistic, systems-wide cultivation approach that minimises (or eliminates) waste, complements natural systems and has been practised by Indigenous farming communities for centuries. “Regenerative agriculture means sustainable innovation,” says Brand. “It focuses on literal regeneration of the soil and of the planet’s ecosystems.”

According to Brand, digital and precision agriculture and integrated pest management (IPM) using smart pesticide applications and biopesticides can help farmers adopt and scale regenerative agriculture practices. “Growers will need step-by-step digital record-keeping and improvement of data-rich decision support tools,” she says. “Without being able to use the new tools that our sector is producing, farmers will not be able to meet sustainability, climate or production goals.”

Degn agrees that we need a host of solutions to accelerate a widespread shift to regenerative agriculture, and that there is a place for certain chemical fertilisers and pesticides in the short-term transition, but he is hesitant to lean too heavily on technology or new forms of crop protection. “Promoting technological fixes can create a dependency, and anything that creates dependency is a disservice to farmers,” he says.

Instead, Degn believes in the power of building farmer communities around regenerative agriculture in order to help bridge knowledge gaps, and supports widespread adoption. “We need more than technology. We need a mindset shift in the way we approach ecosystems and the way we approach farming,” he says. “We find that some of the biggest barriers for farmers to adopt new practices are connection and community. What we need is a system of knowledge-sharing.”

Supporting regenerative agriculture through policy and finance

In the EU, proposals and policies such as the Farm to Fork strategy and the new common agricultural policy (CAP) aim to support sustainable agriculture and a shift to regenerative practices. These policies are ultimately dictated by the overarching goals of the European Green Deal, which include tight emissions reductions and biodiversity targets for 2030 and 2050. “There are a lot of incredibly committed people within the policy spaces who understand that we need a mindset shift,” says Degn. “But many are still trapped in silos and creating disconnected policy around interconnected challenges.”

Brand agrees that there are policy blind spots when it comes to enabling a more sustainable agriculture sector. “At the moment, some of the legislative proposals that we’ve seen don’t appear to strike the right balance between food self-sufficiency, affordability and ecological regeneration,” she says.

Financing is, of course, one major barrier to adopting regenerative agriculture farming systems, particularly for smallholder farmers who produce the majority of the world’s crops. “We see that farmers are keen to adopt new technologies, but lack the financial support from governments, or lack the knowledge to adopt them,” says Brand. “We need to see a real policy push to incentivise farmers to use digital and precision agricultural tools and technologies.”

The evolving carbon farming credit market is one way farmers could get paid for adopting regenerative techniques that improve soil’s carbon-storing capacity. However, questions remain around how value is created, the tools needed to validate climate benefits, and who truly reaps the rewards from farm-based carbon credits.

This article was first published on FT.com