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Regenerative Agriculture (Ra), the Prospects, and the Nexus with Agricultural Technology (Agtech)

by Agritech Digest
Regenerative Agriculture - Agritech Digest

Regenerative agriculture (RA) can also be called nature-centred farming. It is an incorporation of several agricultural systems, including agroforestry, organic farming, biochar, perennial cropping, and other practices that aim at restoring the vitality to farmlands that have been nutrient-eroded over a period of intensive farming and prolonged use of inorganic chemicals.

By Oyewole Okewole

About 30 years ago, then a young child, I visited one of my grand-uncles during the holiday, who at the time was in his eighties. He owned about one-sixth of an acre of available land in his residence with which he planted all sorts of vegetables, herbs, and fruits, while also raising layers and broiler birds, snails, and rabbits. 

The way he kept this farmland seemed very unusual (at least to me). He used his livestock faeces to fertilise the crops and never used inorganic fertiliser. He also never used synthesised medications or treatments for both his plants and animals, to either prevent or treat any form of disease. His farming operation could best be described as a closed circular system. He instead, had all manner of organic mixtures to treat and cure all sorts of diseases. The garden was also structured in a way that there was a carefully crafted space just under the mango and neem trees which served as a shed. This provided a naturally cool spot covered by the canopy of the trees. 

I had no clue about the basis of his practice; we ate everything fresh out of his garden, which he often referred to as his second home.  He also had a special way of cultivating the land to plant arable crops, ensuring that there was little to no waste produced. Every waste product was recycled and reused. His meals, too, never tasted like the ones I was used to. No form of artificial seasoning was ever used during meal preparation – all natural and organic. He was a physically strong man and managed his garden like a child. As I got exposed to agriculture, I realised he practised a form of agricultural system that is being promoted today — regenerative agriculture.

Regenerative Agriculture

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Regenerative agriculture (RA) can also be called nature-centred farming. It is an incorporation of several agricultural systems, including agroforestry, organic farming, biochar, perennial cropping, and other practices that aim at restoring the vitality to farmlands that have been nutrient-eroded over a period of intensive farming and prolonged use of inorganic chemicals. This also applies to livestock production, where animals are taken off and/or raised free of inorganic feeds, medications, and vaccines. 

Regenerative agriculture has the potential to reduce greenhouse emissions produced during agricultural processes and transform farmlands and pastures. These farmlands and pastures cover approximately 40% of Earth’s ice-free land and can be converted into carbon sinks as a result of regenerative agriculture.

Essentially, regenerative agriculture promises to use natural, organic ways for food production. The system completely frowns at the use of inorganic materials for food production, and the exploitation of natural resources for food production.  

(Read also: Will Nanotechnology Change the Narrative for Agriculture and Food Systems?)

Regenerative agriculture is a way of farming that principally focuses on soil health. This practice adopts techniques that promote the efficient use of natural resources while focusing on building soil health, increasing biodiversity, and reducing carbon emissions. Regenerative agriculture helps restore the soil, water, and biodiversity of a land, and increasingly makes farmlands more resilient to climate change.

There are six key principles that dominate regenerative farming. There were five principles until recently when the sixth was added. According to Daisy Wood, the sixth principle is Context – which highlights the importance of site-specificity and individuality.

Six Core Principles of RA

The six core principles of regenerative agriculture as captured by AgriCaptureCO2 include:

1. Context: This explains the need to understand the uniqueness of the farm in terms of climates, soil types, crop/livestock types, availability of funds to run the farm, operating skills, and required farm goals that will ultimately influence the operations and its regenerative outputs. 

2. Minimise Soil Disturbance: This involves minimising disturbances in physical, chemical, and biological ways. Physical disturbances include tillage or grazing, which lessens the integrity of the soil ecosystem. This can be brought down through the reduction or complete elimination of tillage practices, a reduction in machinery compaction, and minimising overgrazing.

Chemical disturbances include the application of fertilisers and pesticides which can be detrimental to microbes within the soil. It has been discovered that minimising chemical applications can reduce soil disturbance. Biological disturbances occur as a result of a dearth of living roots within our soil. 

3. Crop Diversity: Crop diversity is enhanced in regenerative agriculture to promote a healthy and functional ecosystem, and to also help minimise pest and disease infestation. Crop diversity also plays a significant role in fighting climate change effects. Practices such as crop rotation and cover cropping help promote crop diversity.

4. Protect Soil Surface: This principle explains the need to protect the rich nutritional layer of the soil that has high organic matter. In addition to protecting the soil, there is also the need to protect the soil organisms from erosion, leaching, and damage from the weather.

5. Maintain Living Roots: This helps to retain the soil nutrients, improve microbial activities, improve soil infiltration, reduce run-offs, and maintain the soil structure.

6. Livestock Integration: This allows for livestock grazing in a responsible and less exploitative manner. This will increase soil nutrient cycling, while the faeces are recycled as manure and a source of nutrients.

(Read also: How Well Are Advancing Technologies in Agriculture Being Globally Adopted?)

Challenges to Regenerative Agriculture and Solutions Provided Through Agritech

There are problems that arise with the practice of regenerative agriculture. Most of these problems involve challenges with sustainably scaling organic operations, which limit the possibilities for more robust, commercial production in many climes. 

Scaling has been noted as one of the major challenges. The inability to scale has greatly limited the potential of regenerative agriculture. However, these limitations, as captured under the overarching principles of regenerative agriculture, can be solved by innovation and technology, to promote efficiency, productivity, and profitability. 

Agritech supports these efforts with new and existing innovative and adaptable technologies. Agritech is therefore critical for the growth of regenerative agriculture.

Solutions in improving soil health through real-time soil analysis and data information through digital technology can effectively assist in fully embracing the first principle of “context”. Adopting an optimised use of irrigation facilities and water management, biodiversity enhancement, and sequestering carbon dioxide can help minimise soil disturbance and promote biodiversity. 

Furthermore, agritech can provide actionable recommendations to maintain the integrity of the soil through data aggregation and analysis, to effectively practice regenerative agriculture. The parameters for the standard baseline indices for practising regenerative agriculture require maintaining optimum soil conditions. These parameters can be constantly checked, achieved, and replicated using applications like satellite imaging, soil metagenomics, drones, geographic information systems (GIS), soil prebiotics, the development of local arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, and several biocontrol solutions, according to Rodrigo Trejo – an agri-food market access and trade promotion specialist in his published article.

There is also the option of the integration of agricultural operations with artificial intelligence (AI), data science, and quantum computing. One of the most important areas where Agtech can function effectively is automation. For example, smart greenhouses can be operated using sensors and applications to regulate and monitor crop growing conditions. Artificial intelligence can be adopted in automatic livestock rotation for diffusing nutrients in a regulated and monitored way. More important is to leverage market information and linkage platforms to directly connect strictly organic products and products from regenerative agriculture to the end-users.

Farm management planning and recording software applications will increasingly become handy for scaling possibilities for regenerative agriculture. Agtech is being increasingly used to scale regenerative agriculture and some leading global organisations are prominent on this front.  For example, an article written by Heather Clancy– an award-winning journalist specialising in transformative technology and climate technology shows that Microsoft– a leading global technology company and Land O’Lakes– one of America’s premier agribusiness and food companies, have formed a relationship to help scale regenerative agriculture through forecasting tools and through the development of  Truterra (Truterra was a platform developed to manage regenerative agriculture programs like precision nutrient management, cover crop planting and no-till cultivation).

In addition, Force of Nature– a meat-based company has asserted to source its products with 100% grass-fed and RA-based cattle. They purchased produce from ranches and farms that depend on regenerative agriculture practices and also determined to mitigate the release of large amounts of methane from cattle.

Oyewole Okewole. Agricultural Project Development Specialist

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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