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Innovazione

A food system that’s kinder to the planet

Regenerative agriculture
Regenerative agriculture

Regenerative agriculture is moving from the fringes to the mainstream – bringing promises of improved soil health, better-quality produce and lower emissions

Although as a concept it dates back to the 1980s, recent technological developments are enhancing farmers’ and food companies’ capabilities to deploy regenerative techniques. The result is boosted soil health and better-quality food

In agriculture, our history of taking land and water supply for granted is beginning to take its toll. Farmers are calling for healthier soils to grow successful crops and consumers are calling for better-quality produce. Meanwhile, the world has one eye on the water supply.

Regenerative agriculture is the answer. And now, at a critical point in natural history, it is moving from the fringes to the mainstream – bringing promises of improved soil health, better-quality produce and lower emissions.

Regenerative agriculture focuses on soil rehabilitation through many different methods. Although as a concept it dates back to the 1980s, recent technological developments are enhancing farmers’ and food companies’ capabilities to deploy regenerative techniques. The result is boosted soil health and produce of a higher quality. 

On-the-ground change: organic farming

Boosted by consumer demand, organic farming is moving into the mainstream. Organic farming practices are taking off and demonstrating a compound annual growth rate of 5.5% (2020-26).

On the ground, farmers are using methods that minimise soil disturbance. One of these, “no-till” farming, uses a direct drill to plant crops rather than disturbing the soil. No-till farming will account for the regeneration of 204 million hectares of land globally by 2026.

Farmers are also using cover crops: sowing fast-growing plants such as rye or buckwheat to encourage nutrients into the soil before the intended food crop is planted.

Another organic method for restoring soil health is a crop-livestock system, planting a crop that feeds the soil while livestock graze on it. This neat bit of circular thinking effectively solves two problems at once. 

Technology-aided agriculture: regenerative agriculture

As well as manual changes, technological developments are supporting regenerative agriculture as it enters the mainstream.

Like most other industries, AI has the potential to impact agriculture. It is already being used to analyse data produced by small sensors in crops and provide insights that can help farmers in real time.

Sensor/AI use cases include crop maturity tracking as well as “intelligent spraying” of fertilisers and pesticides, automatic weeding, and produce grading for food companies.

Sensors are also able to track changes in the weather, measure pollution and detect the presence of pests, reducing the need for blanket use of chemicals that could erode soil health. AI is used in the operation of unmanned agricultural machinery such as tractors, drones and robots, driving efficiency and sustainability.

Digital technology is also active in the key areas of soil and crop mapping, water stress detection, monitoring moisture levels, pest infestations, and microbiome and carbon levels. Two examples of success in this area are EarthOptic’s GroundOwl, a soil density measurement tool that combines compaction sensors with machine learning, and Agricolus’s Easy, a cloud platform for precision farming applications.

Regulatory environment: Green Deal and more

The regulatory environment is shifting globally to support the growth of regenerative farming. In Europe, the Green Deal is expected to shift the food value chain into sustainable practices. The EU’s Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy aims to transform 25% of the EU’s agricultural land into organic farms by 2030.

The UK’s Sustainable Farming Incentive is set up to reward farmers for projects that deliver environmental benefits, such as planting crops on barren lands during wintertime. The rewards will be rolled out in phases and are expected to encourage landowners to save wildlife, regenerate soil and capture CO2.

In the US, the 2018 Farm Bill includes measures to promote conservation and organic agriculture as well as boost local and regional food. 

Meanwhile, India’s Bharatiya Prakritik Krishi Paddhati Programme – part of the centrally sponsored Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana scheme – promotes natural farming practices by using on-farm biomass recycling.

In China, the National Sustainable Agriculture Plan focuses on curbing agrochemical use, ensuring food security, increasing the adoption of organic farming and providing farmers with financial incentives to reduce their carbon footprint.

Across the world, regenerative agriculture offers a complete shift in the way our food is produced, promising a healthier future while creating a wealth of new opportunities in the food system.

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