Regenerative agriculture has become the darling of many policymakers, food companies and farmers. Advocates claim a triple win: climate change mitigation, increased profit for farmers and greater resilience to a changing climate. It is not so clear: the practices grouped as regenerative agriculture can improve soil health and yield some valuable environmental benefits, but are unlikely to achieve large-scale emissions reductions. This is the main message of a report of the World Research Institute (WRI).
Although regenerative agriculture has no universal definition, the term is often used to describe practices aimed at promoting soil health by restoring soil’s organic carbon. The world’s soils store several times the amount carbon as the atmosphere, acting as a natural “carbon sink.” But globally, soil carbon stocks have been declining as a result of factors such as the conversion of native landscapes to croplands and overgrazing. One goal of regenerative practices is to use some of the carbon that plants have absorbed from the atmosphere to help restore soil carbon.
There is broad agreement that most regenerative agriculture practices are good for soil health and have other environmental benefits. No-till reduces soil erosion and encourages water to infiltrate soils (although it can require greater use of herbicides). Cover crops do the same, and can also reduce water pollution. Diverse crop rotations can lower pesticide use. And good grazing practices — such as moving cattle around frequently, adding legumes or fertilizers, and avoiding overgrazing — can increase vegetation and protect water sources.
A scientific report from the World Research Institute analysing mitigation options in the food and land sector concluded that the practical potential was at best modest due to several challenges. Thus, it indicates several solutions organized into a five-course menu:
(1) reduce growth in demand for food and other agricultural products;
(2) increase food production without expanding agricultural land;
(3) protect and restore natural ecosystems;
(4) sustainably increase fish supply;
(5) reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production (with a limited role for soil carbon sequestration and a much larger role for reducing emissions from cattle, manure, fertilizers, rice cultivation and energy use).
Many of these solutions are ready for scaling and come with co-benefits for farmers, consumers, food security and the environment. As governments seek to build back economies and food companies chart ambitious climate strategies, we recommend decision-makers select from the above five thematics to close the agricultural emissions gap and contribute to a sustainable food future.