Surging costs of inputs such as fertiliser and the growing threat of climate change are driving a return to pre-industrial methods.
From little wild orchids to the sound of warblers, nothing much gets past Jake Fiennes as he surveys a strip of wild flowers that borders a field of spring barley on the 25,000-acre Holkham estate in the east of England, where he is conservation manager.
Creating such buffer zones, known as "hay meadows", around a field reduces its acreage, but boosts its biodiversity and improves the quality of the underlying soil. A smaller field might mean less crop, but with fewer input costs and a small uptick in yields, it also means more profits, he says.
The system of land management practised by Fiennes, and a number of like-minded farmers, is about "bringing farming and nature closer" he says. His methods fall under the wider umbrella of the regenerative agriculture movement, which aims to restore natural ecosystems that have been depleted by traditional farming methods — and, ultimately, to produce food in a more sustainable way. "Food that's produced working with nature rather than working against it," as Fiennes puts it.
From restoring wetlands to bringing back endangered bird species, wild flowers and insect populations, the practices aim to make agriculture a solution to the environmental crisis rather than a leading contributor.
Regenerative agriculture's highest priority is to protect the soil as a habitat for a rich ecosystem of microorganisms and a storage sink for carbon. Its aim is to make soil more productive but also more resilient to climate shocks, such as high temperatures, drought and flooding, which are recurring with rising severity and frequency. To achieve that end, the movement promotes practices such as reducing soil degradation caused by tillage, improving the water cycle and rotating crops.
Having long been relegated to the margins of discussions about farming, Fiennes and his fellow evangelists have found a growing mainstream audience in recent years. The surging cost of agricultural inputs such as fertiliser and pesticides due to the war in Ukraine, as well as the growing threat posed by climate change, has put pressure on farmers to look for alternatives to conventional farming methods.
There is also renewed interest from consumers. The Covid-19 pandemic not only highlighted the weaknesses in global food supply chains but also raised awareness about the health and environmental impacts of food. Some leading agritech investors and venture capitalists see an investment opportunity, while food companies including General Mills and Danone have embraced a more regenerative way of farming — albeit amid accusations of greenwashing from critics.
Yet moving away from industrialised farming is not straightforward. Over the decades the global acceptance of intensive methods of production, which chase efficiency and yield using powerful machines over vast areas of land with the help of plenty of synthetic fertiliser and pesticide, has allowed countries such as the US, Brazil and Russia to become food-exporting powerhouses. This kind of farming has long been regarded as the backbone of globalised food supply chains and seen as a necessity to reduce world hunger and support growing populations.
And despite the rising enthusiasm for more nature-led approaches to farming, Sri Lanka's botched attempt to become the world's first entirely "organic" country in 2021 has underlined the risks of sudden shifts in practices without adequate preparation, while highlighting the importance of training and knowledge among growers.
Still, Fiennes emphasises that he is not trying to reinvent the wheel. The 52-year-old is instead in the business of offering advice to policymakers, farming leaders and environmental organisations. "In the past 50 years we've been driven by production and productivity and cheap commodities," he says. "What we had and what we lost is the device and knowledge exchange in this rush to be productive."
Farming using minimum disturbance to the soil has been around since long before the advent of the modern plough led to increased harvests that became a symbol of food security around the world.
Conventional tillage, where farmers plough the soil to dislodge and destroy weeds and release its nutrients, works well to enhance yields in the short term, but over longer periods it breaks down the structure of soil, and depletes it of the microorganisms that are essential to support plant life. Ploughing also diminishes a soil's ability to hold nutrients and water, leading to increased chemical run-offs, erosion and the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
"Tillage is to agriculture like fracking is to petroleum," says Dwayne Beck, a no-till pioneer who, as the recently retired head of Dakota Lakes Research Farm in South Dakota, has spent the past 30 years studying the effects of ploughing and the potential benefits of crop rotation. "What we're doing with tillage is to break the soil apart to extract from it."
The "dust bowl" era of the 1930s, when excessive cultivation of soils in the US — coupled with severe droughts — caused degraded top soils to blow away from the land in storms that could block out the sun, prompted a questioning of the conventional wisdom that tillage was the best way of growing crops. But it took until the 1970s for "no-till" principles to gain traction among American farmers. Interest has grown over the past few years as the relationship between soil and the carbon it harbours has become clearer.
The arguments for action are becoming harder to ignore. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, one-third of the world's soil has already been degraded.
In central South Dakota, Beck says, no-till methods have been shown to lead to a dramatic jump in production of some crops from previously depleted soils, with corn production rising fivefold and soyabeans 13 times between 1990 and 2017.
Likening the momentum for change to a slow-moving cargo ship, Beck feels that the transition is not happening nearly fast enough. "Can we turn it in time?" he asks, noting that when he started no-till practices in the 1990s, he thought changes would happen quickly. "It took 30 years for the whole community to change," he says, referring to the farming regions running through the central part of the South Dakota state. "If that's the case, then, then it's going to be a long time in Europe and in places like France and Germany where they're still using an immense amount of tillage," he says.
And although growth in global adoption of regenerative methods has been rapid, less than 15 per cent of the world's cropland is cultivated along those principles, according to research by Amir Kassam, visiting professor at the UK's University of Reading, and his colleagues. In the decade to 2009, that area almost doubled to 205mn hectares. But uptake remains low in Europe, Russia, Asia and Africa.
The debate is complicated by subtle but important differences among advocates of regenerative farming. Many blame wrong incentives from governments and agribusiness for entrenching the belief that soils need chemical nutrients. But critics of the movement (in particular proponents of organic farming, which bans all use of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides) retort that regenerative farming still uses herbicides to kill weeds.
Farmers who rely on steady yield targets may also be wary of regenerative farming's reliance on experimentation and a medium to long-term ability to withstand the risk of poor harvests.
In 2021, an experiment on a national scale in Sri Lanka showed not only the speed at which a radical overhaul of a country's farming methods can be achieved but also the danger of embarking on such a project without adequate preparation. The government's abrupt decision to ban imports of all chemical fertilisers and pesticides caused paddy yields to fall 40 to 50 per cent across the country, says Mafaz Ishaq, a landowner who cultivates rice paddy in the east of the island.
Although, while campaigning for president in 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had promised a "revolution" in the use of fertilisers due to negative impacts on health and the environment, his announcement once in office to ban imports of farm inputs caught even sympathisers by surprise.
The move, which lasted only six months before it was reversed by the former president, triggered a cascade of economic and agricultural problems that critics say led Sri Lanka into one of the worst economic crises in its history. In the end, the government's U-turn was too late, with chemical fertilisers also in short supply due to the lack of dollars to import them. While the country had previously been self-sufficient in staples such as rice, imports have now surged. Aid agencies warn that hunger on the island has soared, with Sri Lanka applying to a regional food bank for emergency rice supplies.
"This is one of the nails in the coffin" for Sri Lanka's economy, says Ishaq. "A large percentage of the population were involved in agriculture . . . and part of the backlash on the government and their popularity has been [over] this as well."
Rather than pushing for the implementation of such sweeping policy shifts, many in the regenerative movement advocate efforts to change farmers' incentives and approaches from the ground up.
Regenerative farming was the attraction for Dutch fund manager Van Lanschot Kempen, which manages over €100 billion ($173.7 billion), when it invested in the Liverpool Plains, an agricultural area north of Sydney. More than 16,000ha of land, previously owned by a Chinese coal mining company, was auctioned for A$120 million ($136 million) to a joint venture between Kempen and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, a green bank owned by the Australian federal government, as well as 12 local farming families.
The aim is to "buy degraded soil and bring it back to life", says Richard Jacobs, co-lead manager of Kempen's sustainable farmland fund. The fund's focus on regeneration meant it was more interested in the less fertile "red soils" parts of the land, which it wants to restore to fertility, building biodiversity and increasing its value.
Agritech investors also see opportunities to overlay new technology on to regenerative practices. Sanjeev Krishnan, chief investment officer at agritech venture capital firm S2G, says the company has about US$200 million ($356 million) invested in regenerative agriculture-related start-ups, a sum that has grown steadily over the past few years. "Regenerative to me is taking an extractive process and making it a renewable process," he says, adding that in terms of agritechnology, "It's still early days."
For Justin Bruch, a fifth-generation farmer and founder of Clear Frontier, an agriculture management company focused on farmland acquisitions and organic crop production in the US corn belt, biological products, equipment and software programmes to help manage weeds and soil fertility will be essential if regenerative farmers want to keep production up on a level with conventional agriculture.
Bruch, who co-founded AgFunder, an agritech crowd funding business, is open-eyed about the inherent limits of regenerative agriculture. "I don't know anybody who ever said, 'Hey, we're going to feed the world by going back to producing the way we did 40 or 50 years ago'. I don't think that's realistic. But I do think it's one building block or one important piece of that process. We try to do it much as we can, where we can," he says.
Ronald Vargas, secretary of the FAO's global soil partnership, concedes it is extremely difficult to reconcile the conflicting desires of the many different parties staking their claims on the future of agriculture and food production.
"There are many interests," he says. "Farmers want to increase yields and the private sector has its own objectives. Some of them want to produce, produce and produce, without taking care of the environment."
To counter this, the FAO is promoting practices to restore soil health in developing countries through "soil doctors" — a farmer championing soil health, raising awareness and providing training for other growers in the community. Vargas notes that the programme has been successful in Thailand, Burkina Faso and Bangladesh. The programme "is starting to work very nicely. Farmers trust farmers," he adds.
Showing that such practices work is exactly what Fiennes and his fellow enthusiasts are doing in the UK, where farmers are still waiting for details of the government's new post-Brexit strategy to replace the EU's payments under its Common Agricultural Policy. The government has said it is reviewing its schemes, including one where farmers and landowners will be paid to enhance nature.
One difficulty is that there is no "one size fits all" solution to the nature-led approach, he says. Every soil is different, with its own environmental factors, microclimate and native flora and fauna. "That's why we can't have prescriptions that are generic across the country. It doesn't work."
Like most who are experimenting with regenerative methods, Fiennes has sometimes experienced negative results due to the changes he made: "it's a learning process". The timing of planting and applying inputs and the vagaries of the weather are all crucial.
Nevertheless, an increasing number of farmers are receptive to his message — especially once they can see that his farm makes profits. His second year of production at Holkham led to lower input costs as he allowed inefficient parts of the farm to revert to their natural state and increased biodiversity while productivity increased. "We're in year three so we'll have more data," he says.
Some of his conversations with growers through his speaking engagements around the country and visits by farming groups to Holkham have been difficult. But many are persuaded after he demonstrates what can be achieved with changes in farming methods.
"It's amazing how enthused they are," he says. "The next food crisis, if we can have resilience through biodiversity and healthy soils, that will protect us from whatever comes next."
Written by: Emiko Terazono, Benjamin Parkin and Nic Fildes
© Financial Times