Regenerative agriculture to protect the earth

Like every year, the UN proposes a different theme to commemorate World Environment Day. This June 5 is focused on talking about “Land restoration, resilience to drought and desertification”, but do we know exactly what desertification is? Do we understand what is hidden behind the hashtag of this quote # GenerationRestoration? Thanks to a questionnaire on its website, the UN reminds us that desertification is the degradation of land caused by human activity (excessive urbanization or “unsustainable” agriculture). It is, says the entity, one of the most urgent problems in the world because it involves a loss of agricultural productivity and affects more than 2,000 million hectares of land (20% of farmland).

A simple spoonful of soil harbors more living organisms than the entire human population. 60% of all species on the planet live in soil, from microbial organisms to medicinal fungi. The soil also stores carbon and we produce 95% of our food in it. So it is not surprising that regenerative agriculture focuses precisely on it, the soil, as the protagonist of agricultural management and work. Not in vain, at the last Climate Summit held in Dubai it was pointed out as a good practice for adaptation to climate change, which will bring more droughts and floods, modification of the seasons, loss of biodiversity, reduction in pollination and green pastures, more pests…

Regenerative agriculture is not a classification in itself like ecological agriculture, it does not have any seal or certificate, but it does bring together a series of practices that allow creating soil, that is, maintaining and adding organic matter to the earth. It is not about going back to doing everything that was done before, but rather recovering some techniques from before and combining them with current technical advances. Thus, it is proposed a minimal tillage on the land, change chemical fertilizers for natural ones, use plant covers to protect the soil, commit to diversifying cropsThis is even done through rotation, planting, for example, legume species that fix nitrogen in the soil. The fight against pests is faced biologically and ponds and areas of plant crops such as aromatic plants are created to attract pollinators.

Aitor Lata, a farmer from the Labrecos cooperative, is the fourth generation of his family to farm in A Coruña, but unlike his parents, who lived through the so-called “green revolution”, he and his partners have decided to opt for regenerative agriculture. . «My parents realized over time that they depended on more and more inputs. Our way of working is an alternative to what is happening of soil loss also due to aridity,” he says. The cooperative has opted for direct sales and for complementing the garden with organic cow and sheep farming. Natural fertilizer allows them not to depend on third parties to fertilize their crops. They also do not buy feed because the animals go out to graze and because they partly grow cereal. «We have been doing a circular farm for ten years, so that we do not depend on international market prices as in the case of diesel or products whose distribution is interrupted by conflicts. So our cost is not affected by the world situation. We are not part of the market either because we do direct sales,” he says.

In addition, minimal labor, They control pests with a greater variety of crops: «The more varieties you have, the better you can control pests. At first we produced few things and had more, but now we don't have the usual aphids or beetles. “In addition, we do biological control by introducing other species that are natural predators.” Applying all these measures made them winners of the 2023 Sustainable by Nature award granted by the Union of Small Farmers and Ranchers (UPA).

David Erice is a UPA technician and has carried out several soil regeneration projects with farmers in various parts of the Peninsula. Among them is one of creating margins for biodiversity in three farms in Castilla y León and Madrid. In addition to the usual species on these farms, fruit trees were planted in streets and four-meter strips on the edges of herbaceous crops. The conclusion is that thanks to these green margins and trees that strengthen the presence of pollinators, “production improved. In Spain we have a significant problem of erosion and lack of organic matter, which is very low. Regenerative agriculture carries out a series of actions so that the soil has long-term sustainability. The more at risk I am of aridity, the more the soil has to be protected through plant covers. We also know that reducing tillage, that is, not breaking up the soil, helps maintain the habitat of soil microorganisms. You must also have a logical subscription plan, which involves applying only what is necessary. If you are never going to produce 6,000 kilos of cereal, it is not necessary to pay for 6,000 kilos. If you can use organic fertilizer or slurry from a nearby livestock farm, the better. “Before, a lot of animal manure was used, it can be recovered but only when you have animals nearby.”

Agriculture against drought

One of the benefits of these practices is to improve water and humidity retention. It is studied by the Life Polyfarming project, developed by the Center for Ecological Research and Forest Applications (CREAF) on the Planeses farm in Girona. In three years, the organic matter in the farm's soil has multiplied by two and The capacity to retain water has increased by 20%. Furthermore, regenerated soil stores 30 times more CO2 per year than conventional soil.

The change towards a regenerative model is not a path that will give results from today to tomorrow. David Erice states that Changes in the soil begin to be noticed in about 7-10 years. It also takes time to change “techniques that have been applied for years for others on a farm,” admits farmer Aitor Lata. On the other hand, he says, “plowing, tilling the land, is an old custom that is deeply rooted in our country. As for vegetal covers, you have to learn to manage them, because the cover does not have to compete in water with the trees if you know how to manage it, but it is a recurring fear of farmers. The sector is very old and it is difficult for it to quickly see the advantages of adopting certain changes, which is why these have to be adopted progressively. “I have to change the system and learn.”

Another important part for the development of regenerative agriculture is economic. We must encourage and attract investment. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has long favored area subsidies and has not been specific enough for each region. There are already many cooperatives that have realized that they can give more value to their production by betting on the nutritional aspect of what they grow and on the soil, but so that it extends to large areas and comes from loose farms and specific experiences, The CAP should focus not so much on subsidizing as on encouraging investment. In a few years, regenerative agriculture will be the only one possible. “There is business interest and the capacity for soil regeneration is infinite,” says Joan Cabezas, CEO and founder of Nactiva, a platform for the protection and regeneration of natural capital in the Mediterranean (made up of 18 companies that propose regeneration projects with other companies. and the Administration).

As it is not a certified technique, there is no exact data on how many farms practice this type of agriculture, but UPA gives a clue: “They are techniques that are increasingly integrated into the CAP and by having a reference, 85% of the surface has received aid that has to do with the development of some practice related to this agriculture. Above all, crop rotation and legume planting are growing.