Regenerative farming is more than the latest food hype

Soil health is essential

10 Jun 2024

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Today, consumers are worried about the impact our food systems have on the planet. As their knowledge on environmentally friendly cultivation and production grows, responsible sourcing becomes a more important consideration in consumer choices. According to our latest Taste Tomorrow global consumer survey, 68% of people are interested in food products coming from sustainable farming methods. How and why is regenerative farming so important to not just consumers, but our planet as a whole?

Eating foods from regenerative farming is a commitment to a sustainable and regenerative future. Most global consumers are aware of that fact: 65% think products from regenerative farming methods are better for the environment, according to our survey among 20,000 people in 50 countries. But there is one benefit of regenerative agriculture that is more widely acknowledged: 68% think products from sustainable farming methods are better for their health.

A healthy ecosystem from the soil up 

But what exactly are regenerative foods? Now that sustainability is at the forefront of consumer consciousness, regenerative food has emerged as a powerful concept that goes beyond mere environmental preservation. Regenerative food focuses on revitalizing ecosystems, improving soil health, and promoting biodiversity. 

Farmers around the world are adopting practices that enhance soil fertility, increase water retention, and reduce the need for synthetic resources. Instead of focusing solely on maximizing the output, these farmers have a holistic approach where the well-being of nature is a factor as well. Improving soil health is often the most important measure, which leads to the replacement of mono-crops grown with pesticides and fertilizers to crop rotation and minimal soil disturbance. 

Methods of regenerative agriculture

Some of the strategies regenerative farmers use to keep the soil and crops healthy are:

  • Minimal soil disturbance - tilling to aerate the soil and destroy weeds releases too many nutrients for the plant to take up, which then easily wash away with rain. This erosion of the top soil leads to a depletion of soil fertility and reduces its water holding capacity.

  • Crop diversity - using crop rotation or multiple crops makes plants less vulnerable to pests and diseases and can better adapt to extreme weather events. A diversity of plants leads to a plethora of soil life and attracts a mix of insects and animals, maximizing crop health and creating beneficial biodiversity.

  • Maintaining living roots year-round - roots feed soil microorganisms, which feed the plants.

  • Keeping the soil covered - soil erosion can be prevented by ensuring the soil isn’t left bare. This can be done by planting cover crops such as clover in-between growing seasons, but also with materials such as foliage and cardboard.

  • Biodiversity - a rich mix of microorganisms, plants and animals creates resilient natural systems. Integrating trees, flower bands and livestock all help to create a natural balance. Grazing cattle can for instance control arable weeds and convert the biomass into manure which fertilizes the soil.

Grains that give back

As consumers increasingly seek products that align with their values, the food industry is responding with innovative solutions that not only nourish the body but also contribute to the regeneration of our planet. Pacha is one of those frontrunner businesses. The company creates organic, gluten-free bread and has regenerative farming at its roots. One of their primary ingredients is buckwheat. As a cover crop, buckwheat helps to prevent erosion and is tilled back into the earth to become fertile soil. Because the plant has many flowers, it also promotes biodiversity and allows farmers to cut out pesticides. Another bonus: buckwheat requires little pesticides and fertilizers compared to other cereals.

From monoculture to diversity

The switch to so-called ‘ancient grains’ is another important move in a world where only four crops – sugarcane, rice, corn and wheat – account for more than 50% of all crops grown worldwide. In conventional agriculture, a farm plants the same crop every year and often has to rely on intensive farming methods to support growth in poor soil. With each harvest, the soil is degraded because more essential nutrients are lost. So, the farm needs to plant on more land to yield the same amount of product as time goes on. This leads to grains now being planted in giant rows that stretch on for miles and miles.  

In this monoculture farming, pests, weeds and disease can spread rapidly from one plant to the next, causing the reliance on chemical herbicides and pesticides. While this practice kills off pests and weeds, it also leads to chemical-resistant crops and destroys the living organisms in our soils. (Did you know that in any teaspoon of soil there are tens of thousands of microbial species, which are fundamental to maintaining soil health?) A healthy soil can make spraying chemicals redundant, because it helps grow healthy crops and prevent disease. 

The dramatic loss in seed natural genetic diversity over the past 60 years, ranging somewhere between 75% and 90%, inspired Snacktivist to create home-baking mixes for breads, snacks and breakfast products made from ancient, heirloom, and landrace grains. Think of proso millet, white sorghum and ivory teff.

Cultivating such ancient and heritage grains offers the advantage of regional adaptation to specific climates and soils. Think of grains that thrive without heavy irrigation. Incorporating such grains into crop rotations not only supports water conservation but also mitigates soil runoff and erosion risks. 

Additionally, the cultivation of heritage grains facilitates crop diversification, as numerous varieties can be selected to grow harmoniously with each other or in rotation with other regionally adapted crops, such as legumes. The resulting increased biodiversity acts as a safeguard against widespread crop failure and contributes to the overall well-being of the soil ecosystem.

Water waste is nuts

Nuts are another food where regenerative farming is gaining attention. Tree nuts like almonds, pistachios, walnuts, and cashews are some of the most water-intensive crops grown today. It takes roughly 16,098 liters of water to grow a single kilogram of almonds. That is 1,929 gallons per pound. The water-stressed American state of California has 1.35 Million acres of almond orchards and produces 82% of the global supply. That means up to 17% of the total agricultural water use in California and 13% of the total developed water supply goes towards almond cultivation. 

Several projects are exploring innovative approaches to make nut farming fully regenerative, as there is no clear solution on how to transform the cultivation yet. Large-scale cookie and snack producer Simple Mills launched The Almond Project, a five-year farmer-led initiative to revolutionize almond farming in California’s Central Valley by implementing and evaluating the outcomes of regenerative soil health principles. KIND Snacks, for whom almonds are the number one ingredient, is doing its own three-year, 500-acre pilot project titled the KIND Almond Acres Initiative. Their goal is to source all their almonds from regenerative farms by 2030. Both projects are testing the use of cover crops, having sheep to manage weeds and the cover crops and compost that comes from feeding almond hulls to dairy cattle.

Sourdough from regenerative agriculture for bakers

As we move towards a future where regenerative agriculture becomes the norm, the benefits extend beyond environmental sustainability to improved health and resilient food systems. To help European bakers meet the demand for locally-produced, sustainably-sourced sourdough products. That’s why Puratos launched Sapore Lavida, the first completely traceable active sourdough produced in Belgium, made exclusively with 100% wholewheat flour sourced from regenerative agriculture practices. Find out more about this bakery ingredient here.

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