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Blog June 2023

Growing a Healthier Food System with Regenerative Farming

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Stacey Piggott Senior Digital Marketing Manager

By 2050 the global population is expected to reach 10 billion people. Given that current efforts to reduce world hunger have not been effective, that feeding 10 billion might be a bit of a problem.

Particularly because the amount of food we grow, and more specifically the way that we grow it, is causing damage to the planet. Intensive farming practices are stripping the topsoil of nutrients and reducing biodiversity – literally killing the earth’s ability to feed us.

So, as the farming industry looks to grow more food in the years to come, could regenerative agriculture offer a better way to feed our burgeoning population? 

Farming in Ireland

As you might expect from a country as verdant as Ireland, the farming industry is big business. As Ireland’s most important indigenous industry, it plays a vital role in the country’s economy, with agri-food exports valued at €15.4 billion in 2021.

In fact, according to Gov.ie statistics farming employs just over 7% of the total workforce in Ireland. Of the 6.9 million hectares of land in Ireland, around 64%, or 4.4 million hectares is suitable for agriculture.

That means what farmers do with the land they manage really can make a difference. Everyday choices such as which crops to grow; where to graze animals; or what fertilizer to use can significantly impact environmental outcomes.

Why current farming methods are damaging the environment

Unsurprisingly in a world constantly striving to produce more food, farming has become increasingly intensive. Over the years, agricultural practices have focused on improving yield and increasing profit, often at the expense of sustainability. In practice, this can result in overgrazing, growing a limited variety of crop plants, for example, or the overuse of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. But these aren’t the only problems. 

As farming has become more industrialized, so greenhouse gas emissions have increased. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports that 24% of the total global GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions are related to agricultural production. In part this is because mechanized farming is an energy intensive industry; one where fuel for machinery and equipment is fossil fuel heavy. 

Furthermore, with increased global demand for meat and dairy, around 60% of the world’s agricultural land is now given over to livestock grazing with the methane that these animals release proving 26 times stronger than carbon dioxide. 

Add to this the fact that chemical fertilizers can contribute to soil acidification, reducing the amount of organic matter and altering the pH balance of the soil and it seems that, despite short term gains, modern farming methods are in effect eroding our ability to produce food in the future.

How can regenerative agriculture slow climate change?

Despite its unassuming appearance, the soil beneath our feet is the secret to successful, sustainable farming. It produces 95% of our food, whether that’s the crops we eat, or the plants we feed to animals to produce meat.

Healthy topsoil is therefore essential to life, helping to retain water, recycle nutrients and even store carbon. In fact, soil stores an amazing amount of carbon: three times the amount in the atmosphere and twice the number of trees and forests. 

This is because, as plants take carbon dioxide from the air to photosynthesize, some of this carbon goes into the ground, closing the carbon cycle. Unfortunately, however, although soil can sequester carbon, when degraded, it can also release carbon, significantly adding to the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Regenerative farming aims to reverse this process, enhancing the health and fertility of the soil to promote ecosystem resilience and long-term sustainability. It’s a strategy that is generating significant interest worldwide and one that the EU (European Union) is keen to promote as part of its Farm to Fork initiative. 

With its emphasis on regenerative farming methods to reach key emissions targets by 2030, the EU hopes to promote biodiversity, increase nutrient density, and boost crop resilience – effectively building soil health ‘from the ground up’.

What does regenerative farming look like?

Regenerative farming can combat environmental damage by removing vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But what are the farming techniques that will facilitate this transformation?

Minimum soil disturbance: conservation tillage practices reduce the amount of digging and ploughing compared to intensive tilling that turns the soil over. This loosens the topsoil which can then be blown away or eroded by water run-off. In contrast, no-till or reduced-till farming helps preserve the soil structure, protecting beneficial soil organisms and improving organic content.

Cover cropping: this practice involves growing a cover crop after the primary crop is harvested or during fallow periods. Rather than sowing crops for sale, these plants are grown purely to reduce soil erosion, improve soil fertility, suppress weeds, and increase moisture retention. Cover crops also provide a habitat for vital wildlife, increasing the number of insects and pollinators.

Crop diversity: crop rotation involves growing different crops on a field over time to enhance the variety of nutrients entering the soil via roots and plant decomposition. This improves biodiversity and increases ecosystem resilience, as well as helping to break pest and disease cycles that can proliferate during monocropping.

Agroforestry: planting trees or shrubs to grow in amongst crops or livestock can improve the soil structure and prevent erosion caused by wind or rain. In addition to promoting carbon sequestration, agroforestry also provides vital habitats for wildlife, including natural predators that eat crop pests, thus reducing the need for pesticides. Not only that, but trees also offer an additional income stream if required.

Holistic grazing: managed rotational grazing sees animals moved to different pastures on a regular basis. This prevents overgrazing, promotes plant regrowth, and improves the health of grassland. As soil becomes better able to retain moisture and plant productivity increases, pasture is better able to draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as well as being more profitable for farmers.

Organic Farming: this increasingly popular methodology avoids the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that can contaminate soil, water, and other vegetation. Unlike pesticides, which can be toxic to many organisms including birds, fish, beneficial insects and non-target plants, organic farming relies on biological pest control along with organic inputs and crop rotation to minimize the environmental impact of farming.

Water conservation: water management techniques such as drip irrigation, optimized watering, mulching, and water harvesting reduce water waste, increase the efficiency of water use, and minimize soil erosion. In organic farming, it is also possible to collect run-off water, or tailwater, for irrigation because there is no excessive build-up of chemicals.

How farmers can improve sustainability

As the need for food production continues to grow, it is untenable to continue as we are. Global food demand is expected to increase by 56% as the population approaches 10 billion in 2050. If current food trends and farming techniques remain unchanged, that means we would require an additional 593 million hectares of land, which would have to be cleared and converted for crops and livestock.

Quite simply, the planet cannot take this level of soil degradation – and here’s where farmers come into their own. Rather than berating farmers for using environmentally unfriendly practices in the quest for maximum profit, it is time we highlighted their key role as stewards of the land

By shifting to a regenerative farming model, farmers can make a real difference, reversing soil degradation, locking carbon into the earth, and reducing their reliance on chemicals, as well as lowering production costs.

As Bord Bia quite rightly points out, regenerative agriculture will become key in every major agricultural society, reimagining what the land is for. With Irish farmers at the centre of that regenerative story, we ensure that they are part of the solution and with the right tools and support from government they can champion the regenerative practices that will feed us all long into the future.

AMCS Group is a global leading technology partner for waste (resources), recycling, transport, and utilities companies. Our mission is to drive sustainability in resource intensive industries through automation and digital transformation to realize an economically viable net-zero carbon future. AMCS works closely with our clients across Europe to automate the operation of facilities to convert food waste to re-generative soil nutrients across including Lindum in Finland and Valor Composting (Ortessa).

To learn more about how we can eliminate Food Waste in production and consumer read these blogs:

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